Monday, October 26, 2015

“Our Brand Is Crisis”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new political comedy-drama, “Our Brand Is Crisis” starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.


When a woman is hired as a political consultant in a Bolivian presidential campaign, will she be able to both defeat an old competitor and prevent a nationwide revolution?


There’s good reason noted political strategist Jane Bodine (Bullock) earned the nickname “Calamity Jane” – she has a genuine knack for introducing a modicum of chaos wherever she goes.  One such incident from a while back resulted in the unintended death of an innocent person, which caused Jane’s self-imposed exile from the business.  When a management team running the campaign for a Bolivian presidential candidate implores her to return, Jane reluctantly agrees, only to learn that Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), the candidate in question, is trailing in the polls by 30 points. 

Castillo, currently a Senator, was once the nation’s president – but this is working against him more than it is working for him; his term became controversial when he privatized many businesses, causing protests and riots after citizens feared his actions would result in a loss of their control.  Once Jane begins working for Castillo, she learns her longtime foe, Pat Candy (Thornton), has been hired in a similar capacity to assist Rivera, Castillo’s opponent.  Eventually, this leads to Jane becoming motivated to exact revenge on Candy for all of the dirty tricks he’s pulled in the past.

Despite getting off to something of a rocky start, Jane finally sees an opportunity to market her candidate in a way that will make him more palatable to the voting public.  Castillo starts inching his way up in the polls while certain unscrupulous tactics by Jane simultaneously winds up with other candidates slipping in their rankings.  By the time the elections roll around, Castillo just barely ekes out a victory in a plurality win.  Shortly thereafter, word leaks out that even before he can take office, Castillo is already reneging on one of his most important campaign promises.  When the citizens threaten to revolt, will Jane cut her losses and run or can she somehow find a way to right a wrong she inadvertently caused?   


“Our Brand Is Crisis” was originally inspired by a documentary of the same name about a decade earlier.  Perhaps it would be better if you saw the documentary rather than this fictionalized version.  Aspiring to be a comedy-drama, “Our Brand Is Crisis” winds up being effective as neither – it’s not funny enough to be considered a comedy nor can it be taken seriously enough to be considered a drama.  This is one of those stories where the audience is expected to root for the heroine because she is seeking redemption by the end of the movie; the reason why we are ultimately unable to root for her redemption is that we don’t see her suffer enough for it to be deserved. 

Often, screenplays are judged by whether or not the protagonist has an arc – that is to say, do they undergo a substantial change by the end of the movie?  In “Our Brand Is Crisis”, there is such an arc for Jane, but the question becomes how plausible is that transformation?  After Jane spends a considerable amount of the film behaving just as badly as Candy, it is only in the last few minutes that she appears to regret her actions; as she states to a disillusioned Castillo supporter following the election, “the means justify the end” – there is no point where she clearly renounces either her deeds or her profession (except for a brief interview which bookends the bulk of motion picture).

The movie tries to look skeptically at the political process, making the point that no matter which country, the game is crooked and that public service is far from a noble profession.  While it may effectively make this point, it also doesn’t speak well about America, showing how we have a need to insinuate ourselves into the political process of other nations, even though we have no business doing so.  Although the intention behind “Our Brand Is Crisis” may have been to say that one person can effect change, it seems the main message is not to bother voting.   

Our Brand Is Crisis (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

“Burnt”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City premiere of the new comedy-drama “Burnt” starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller.


When a highly-regarded chef loses his job through drug abuse, he tries to regain his standing with a new restaurant – but will his bad behavior resurface before he’ll have a chance to recover his former glory?



There was a time when Chef Adam Jones (Cooper) had it all.  Considered one of the world’s best, he earned two Michelin stars at a Paris restaurant.  Unfortunately, he was doomed by his own successes as well as his own excesses; with his ego inflated, Jones suddenly felt he could do no wrong and wound up throwing his career away when he pursued a path of drug usage.  Finally emerging at the end of that dark period, Jones believed he needed to punish himself for all of the horror he inflicted on friends and co-workers, so he spent a three year period of self-exile from working as a chef. 

After serving his penance, Jones travels to London to look up Tony (Daniel Brühl), who ran the restaurant in Paris where Jones gained his notoriety.  Still harboring some bad feelings towards Jones, Tony is understandably displeased when his former star chef shows up to let him know he’s ready for a comeback – which he announces will be at Tony’s restaurant!  Although Tony suspects Jones still has something left, he insists that in order to work in his kitchen, Jones must undergo regular monitoring by a doctor (Emma Thompson) to ensure he’s staying clean. 

Now on his way back, Jones finds he must assemble a talented team of cooks to work behind him; to do so, he must recruit people from varied and unlikely sources:  one person is poached from another restaurant, one is bailed out of jail and another has to be coaxed after his own restaurant was sabotaged by Jones.  Among those is a gifted saucier named Helene (Miller), a single mother who immediately locks horns with Jones in the kitchen.  Once it seems Jones finally has it all together, will he be able to earn his third Michelin star or will he ultimately do himself in by returning to his old ways?


For food porn enthusiasts, be advised if you intend on seeing “Burnt”, it’s best to wear your raincoat – the best part of the movie is the adulatory way in which the food is photographed.  If you don’t feel hungry by the final frame, then clearly, you haven’t been paying attention.  Sad to say the look of the food – from the ingredients, to cooking to plating – is just about the only part of the film that’s praiseworthy.  The rest is rather drab and ordinary with some extremely predictable scenes that only serve to inflict further damage on a movie with an anti-climactic conclusion.

As far as the performances are concerned, the entire cast must be commended for having been trained on cooking; this apparently can be attributed to Gordon Ramsay, who taught the actors in preparation for their roles – he also got an Executive Producer credit for his efforts.  The film does not use cutaways when the cooks are chopping, stirring or plating food – it is clearly the actors themselves that are performing these tasks quite admirably.  While the character of Jones seems based on Ramsay for his notorious temper in the kitchen, the story seems closer to Anthony Bourdain in “Kitchen Confidential”. 

“Burnt” will likely not be remembered as one of Cooper’s best films or most memorable performances; he seems desperately trying to make the character appear more interesting than he really comes across as being in the motion picture.  Assessing how realistic the restaurant portions of the movie are may be better left to people who have experience in that profession; as for the remainder of “Burnt”, precious little bears much in the way of verisimilitude.  Cooper’s charming demeanor and blue eyes only take him so far in “Burnt”. 


Monday, October 19, 2015

“Rock The Kasbah”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening for the New York City premiere of the new comedy, “Rock The Kasbah”, starring Bill Murray and directed by Barry Levinson.


When a sleazy talent agent is stranded in Afghanistan, he discovers a young woman who could become a successful singer – but since public performances by women are culturally forbidden, will he risk his own life as well as that of his new discovery?



As a talent agent, there have been better days for Richie Lanz (Murray).  With his career highlights in the distant past, Lanz is forced to resort to unscrupulous methods to make a living out of his cramped Van Nuys, California office.  He’s not only conned himself into thinking there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s also managed to con his only employee (Zooey Deschanel), a receptionist who aspires to become a singer-songwriter.  When Lanz is talked into bringing his singing receptionist on a USO tour in Afghanistan to entertain the troops, things turn sour quickly when she abandons him in a fleabag Kabul hotel, stealing his money, his plane tickets home and his passport. 

After the American Embassy informs Lanz he’ll have to wait weeks until they can get him home, he decides to take the road less travelled and accept an offer from a couple of racketeers (Danny McBride and Scott Caan) to deliver munitions to a tribe trying to fend off rebels who wish to overtake their village.  Once there, Lanz meets Salima (Leem Lubany), a teenage girl with true singing talent; hearing her voice, he’s convinced he’s just found his next big act.  Sneaking Salima out of her village, Lanz pays a Kabul prostitute (Kate Hudson) to board her while arranging for her to appear on a national television show, “Afghan Star” – that country’s version of the talent contest “American Idol”.

Salima’s appearance is a big hit and she’s very popular with the viewers – except her father has now been embarrassed as such performances by a female are viewed unfavorably in their culture.  After Salima’s father spirited her back to their village, she is now in danger of being disqualified by the talent show because of her absence.  With outraged villagers looking to kill both Salima and her father – not to mention Lanz – can Lanz somehow manage to not only save their lives but also get Salima back on the show for a final performance that may help her win the contest?


Sadly, it is difficult to recall seeing the great Bill Murray work so hard for so few laughs as he does in “Rock The Kasbah”.  For something that attempts to fob itself off as a comedy, laughs in “Rock The Kasbah” are indeed few and far between.  Most of the responsibility for eliciting comic moments seem to be left up to Murray, who valiantly tries to stir up lighthearted scenes despite material that isn’t particularly willing to meet him half way.  The screenplay was written by Mitch Glazer, who has a rather impressive track record when it comes to comedy writing, so the lack of jokes is a puzzle. 

“Rock The Kasbah” pushes the limit in length, at least for a comedy – it comes in at one and three-quarter hours which is pretty much the upper limit for that genre (although they tend to fare better at an hour and a half).  The reason for this is that the script is rather plot-heavy, which is a sure-fire comedy killer; comedies should have a rather thin, simple plot, which is present for no other reason that to provide opportunities for jokes.  Instead, the story for “Rock The Kasbah” gets very involved, overcomplicating matters unnecessarily.  Also, there’s a rather serious scene late in the film that takes you out of the comedic mindset altogether. 

The germ of the idea for this movie is apparently based on real-life events – a courageous young woman who actually did sing and dance on “Afghan Star”.  Since this seems to be the inspiration for the film, it might’ve been better if the filmmakers tried to pull it off as a straight drama instead of injecting comic elements that seemed out of place.  Prior to the screening, Murray helped introduce the motion picture along with Levinson, Glazer, Hudson, Deschanel and Bruce Willis (who has a small part as a mercenary).  Murray mentioned everyone had to shoot the movie under tough conditions in a rugged terrain (it was shot in Morocco). 


Sunday, October 11, 2015

“Miles Ahead”– Movie Review



On the closing night of The New York Film Festival, I attended The World Premiere of the new biopic “Miles Ahead”, written, produced, directed by and starring Don Cheadle.


When jazz musician Miles Davis reflects on his life during an interview, can he use that opportunity to figure out how to change his life for the better?


By the late 1970’s, legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (Cheadle) had been somewhat reclusive, possibly in semi-retirement; he hasn’t recorded very much in the last few years and as a result, hasn’t had much of an income lately.  The executives at his recording label, Columbia Records, have been understandably nervous; on the one hand, they want him to record something they can release on an album, but on the other hand, they don’t want to upset their very temperamental artist.  At this point, it is believed that Davis has recorded some tracks in his home studio, but refuses to hand over the tapes to Columbia.

It is around this time that Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) reaches out to Davis, who by now refuses to leave his apartment.  Brill is a journalist who claims to be on assignment from Rolling Stone magazine to interview Davis, who is reluctant and paranoid – in part, at least, due to the various drugs (both prescription and illicit) he has been taking of late.  Instead, Davis turns the tables on Brill by manipulating him to try to get the money he believes is owed him by Columbia – and to get the drugs he needs in order to get by from day to day.  Brill also believes that if he can somehow mollify Davis, he can in turn get the interview he so desperately needs.

Brill determines that the best way he can get Davis his money – and get himself the interview – is by taking Davis’ tapes and turning them over to executives at Columbia.  He would, of course, have to do this without Davis’ knowledge because Davis’ game is to hold the tapes hostage until Columbia forks over his money.  But before Brill can execute his plan, an unscrupulous talent agent (Michael Stuhlbarg) also learns of the tapes and schemes to steal them to work out his own deal with Columbia.  When the tapes go missing, can Davis get them back before they get to Columbia? 


As a director, Don Cheadle is a terrific actor.  In his directorial debut, Don Cheadle took what was purportedly his passion project and somehow managed to transform it into a vanity production.  Miles Davis was a first class musician, no class human and he wound up with a cut-rate biographical movie.  For all the self-induced craziness in Davis’ life, maybe this is some kind of posthumous karmic retribution.  When viewing Cheadle’s muddled mess, it looks like the movie itself was on just as much cocaine as Miles himself was supposed to have been doing. 

Looking at biographies about famous people who themselves led less than admirable lives – “Raging Bull” and “Get On Up” are two that immediately come to mind – there is proof that good movies can be made about bad people.  “Miles Ahead” (could a less cheesy title have been picked?) leaves viewers wondering why they are being forced to sit through a disjointed story about a lowlife character.  Presumably, the point is that by the end of the film, Davis is triumphant in the sense that he emerges from his self-exile – but is he deserving of such redemption?  The film certainly doesn’t make it seem so.

Cheadle’s chaotic, incoherent movie does little to suggest that he has of a future as a director; there is not much in the way of evidence that he can lay out a story in an intelligible way.  One positive note is that Cheadle does remain solid as an actor – he performs a perfect imitation of Miles Davis.  Recent years of The New York Film Festival usually ended on a high note.  In 2013, they showed “Her” on their Closing Night and last year, they closed with “Birdman”; in both cases, they were films that left cinephiles walking on air considering the possibilities of what quality filmmaking was all about.  This year, however, the festival ended with a dud; sadly, “Miles Ahead” hits nothing but some very sour, off-key notes.   

Miles Ahead (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, October 10, 2015

“Carol”– Movie Review



On the closing weekend of The New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of “Carol”, a new drama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.


When a married woman begins an affair with a female department store clerk, what will be the impact on their relationship when the ensuing divorce results in a custody battle?


In the early 1950’s, Therese (Mara) is a young woman who’s still finding herself; taking a job working in a Manhattan department store for subsistence money, her true passion is photography.  But she soon learns she has other passions when one of her customers is Carol (Blanchett), a beautiful older woman Christmas shopping for her daughter.  Upon Carol’s departure, Therese notices she’s accidentally left her gloves; having Carol’s address from the delivery order for her purchase, Therese has Carol’s gloves returned.  Grateful, Carol takes the young clerk to lunch, at which point, she invites Therese to visit at her New Jersey home. 

In her pursuit of Therese, Carol shows little regard for her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), as they have been estranged for quite some time.  Harge intrudes during Therese’s visit and demands to take his daughter to Florida for the holidays.  With Carol now alone for Christmas and Therese having no nearby family, Carol invites her to spend the holidays with her and the two decide to drive to Chicago.  Before leaving, Carol meets with her divorce attorney, who warns her that Harge will insist on custody of their daughter based on her “immoral” relationship with Therese. 

Together, Carol and Therese embark on their drive; the more time they spend together, the more their mutual attraction intensifies.  Finally, on New Year’s Eve, they wind up having an inevitable tryst in their shared motel room; Carol’s delight soon turns to disdain when she finds out her husband has had a private eye tailing them and bugging their room.  Returning home, Carol remains distant from Therese while she concentrates on her custody battle.  But when things seem to get settled and Carol tries to get Therese to resume their relationship, can the two return to the way things were or is it too late?


Those familiar with director Todd Haynes’ work may regard “Carol” as his new highpoint.  A thoroughly romantic story well told, Haynes provides audiences with a deeply satisfying, perfectly shot ending.  “Carol”, like Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”, casts a highly critical eye on American suburban life in the ultra-conservative 1950’s.   Both Blanchett and Mara offer engaging, utterly believable performances that allow immense sympathy for their respective characters; Blanchett is especially brilliant, once again redefining perfection and beauty in yet another one of her movies.

At the risk of being picky, there is one issue with the screenplay:  in the second act, we learn that one character is carrying a gun; later, when that gun is used, we find out it isn’t loaded.  If you travel with a gun for protection, wouldn’t you make sure it was loaded before it was going to be fired?  Was the gun emptied in a previous scene which was cut from the film?  It’s enough to take you out of the story for a minute or two, because it’s a little confusing.  Another frustrating point is that in “Carol”, we have another feminist movie where men are portrayed as either evil or jerks; in fact, it is not the men who are the villains here, but rather, the inverted social mores of the time that provide the antagonist that must be “beaten”.   

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with Haynes, Blanchett, Mara and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy.  Haynes was grateful their producer was able to squeeze in two weeks of rehearsal time in the schedule as this supplied an opportunity for the actors to find the characters.  Nagy said her big challenge for adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price Of Salt” (which was published under a pseudonym) had to do with the novel’s ongoing internal narrative since the book is basically a road trip.  Mara mentioned that the props and costumes helped her get into character while shooting. 

Carol (2015) on IMDb

Thursday, October 08, 2015

“Brooklyn”– Movie Review



This week at the 2015 New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of “Brooklyn” , a new drama based on the novel by Colm Toibin. 


When an Irish woman moves to New York City, she falls in love and gets married – but after a family matter causes her to return home, will her new marriage survive?


For many, life in Ireland is something of a dead-end in the 1950’s; some young Irish are consider leaving, seeking a better future abroad. Many of those emigrants look to The United States of America for this future, a considerable number of them settling in New York City – specifically, Brooklyn. One such young woman was Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), who asked a priest in New York to be her sponsor; after he finds Eilis a place to live and sets her up with a job, she bids goodbye to her friends and family and sails to The Big City. Upon arrival, life is not easy; Eilis has great difficulty adjusting to the unfamiliar surroundings and different culture and becomes homesick.

Trying to acclimate herself to her new home, Eilis attends a dance in her neighborhood which caters to the local Irish community; there, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), who is not Irish but instead a young man of Italian descent. The two seem to like each other and begin to spend a considerable amount of time together; after a while, it is clear to them both that they are falling in love. Just as things are going unbelievably well for Eilis, she gets word of an unforeseen tragedy back home and must return to Ireland for a while to be with her family. Before leaving, however, she and Tony marry.

Once home, she resumes her relationship with family and friends – although after a year away, Eilis is obviously a much different person since living in America. Eilis remains secretive about her marriage to Tony, fearing disapproval. A friend of hers sets up Eilis on a double-date with Jim (Domhnall Gleeson), an attractive man from a wealthy family. During her month in Ireland, Eilis and Jim start socializing, which appears to be turning more into dates. Unaware of her true life back in America, Jim begins to get thoughts of marriage. But when Eilis becomes ambivalent about sailing back to America, will she abandon her Brooklyn husband or abandon a life of privilege in Ireland?


Having seen a number of American independent films over the past few years, it’s becoming painfully clear that maybe the Europeans are better at telling small stories like the one in “Brooklyn” than we are and the United States should just stick to making things like The Avengers and Star Wars.  As a long-time resident of Brooklyn, it’s a delight to report that the borough could not be better – or more romantically – represented than in this movie.  The story in “Brooklyn” is told with such rare grace and elegance that it is a pleasure to watch. 

Standouts in “Brooklyn” are the screenplay by Nick Hornby and the performance by Saoirse Ronan.  Although the tale is one of romance, Hornby never allows the script to become sloppy and mawkish.  Close-ups of Ronan reveal a face that is extraordinarily expressive, especially in her eyes; she plays Eilis with such forthright earnestness that it is impossible for the audience not to root for her to do the right thing so that all will work out for the best in the end.  It will be quite enjoyable indeed to see her performances in future movies.  Also, Julie Walters is a riot in every one of her scenes. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with director John Crowley, star Saoirse Ronan, novelist Colm Toibin, screenwriter Nick Hornby, producer Finola Dwyer and young actor James DiGiacomo (who steals every one of his scenes).  Crowley said that only two days of shooting were actually spent in Brooklyn; the remaining Brooklyn scenes were actually shot in Montreal over a course of three weeks.  He said that this was done primarily for financial considerations because trying to make present-day Brooklyn look like 1950’s Brooklyn would have been a prohibitively expensive proposition.  (Also, this film is partly produced by a Canadian company, so that may have contributed to the “financial considerations”, although he did not explicitly cite this as a reason). 

Brooklyn (2015) on IMDb

Monday, October 05, 2015

“Maggie’s Plan”– Movie Review



At the 2015 New York Film Festival, I attended The United States Premiere of the new romantic comedy “Maggie’s Plan” starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore. 


After a woman decides to have a baby through a sperm donor, she falls in love with another man – but when she marries him following a divorce, is she living her dream or her nightmare? 


Finding herself single and childless in her early thirties, Maggie (Gerwig) decides it’s time to take control: despite the absence of a partner, she wants to have a child, so she searches for a sperm donor. Concentrating locally, she meets Guy (Travis Fimmel), a goofy Brooklyn entrepreneur who agrees to unconditionally contribute some DNA for her noble cause. After supplying him with all of the necessary legal paperwork, they schedule the drop-off of his donation. Before he can, however, Maggie runs into John (Hawke), a handsome professor who teaches at the college where Maggie works as an administrator – which also happens to be the same college where John’s wife Georgette (Moore) is a professor.

Gradually, Maggie and John start spending increasing amounts of time together, despite protestations of her friends, Tony and Felicia (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph), who warn her that John has a reputation of being quite the lothario. Maggie comes to learn that despite John being married to Georgette for a long time and having children, he’s rather unhappy in his marriage. Georgette, it seems, is much more professionally successful than John and as such, he feels he’s become a substantially lower priority in her life. Now, he’s feeling lonely.

Guy finally delivers his contribution to Maggie – but just then, John visits; he confesses he’s in love with Maggie and wants to leave Georgette for her. Maggie succumbs and they enjoy a tryst, which results in her pregnancy; John and Georgette divorce so he can marry Maggie. Together, John and Maggie raise their daughter Lily – and sometimes, also get stuck with John’s children from his previous marriage when Georgette is out of town. Maggie realizes marriage – at least to John – is not all it’s cracked up to be, so she colludes with Georgette to get John to return to her. Initially outraged, Georgette really wants John and agrees to help lure him back. The scheme works as designed – but when John learns he’s been hoodwinked, how will this impact the two families?


“Maggie’s Plan” is a pleasant and enjoyable enough comedy, even if it is reminiscent of some of Woody Allen’s better work (which almost seems fitting since Gerwig herself is reminiscent of a young Diane Keaton).  While the plot may take some extremely clever twists and turns, it is more amusing than funny because the jokes don’t quite hit the bull's-eye with enough regularity (and for that matter, there may have been a few missed opportunities for more jokes).  The ending is somewhat satisfying, if a little contrived – it seems almost an after-thought since there was little earlier in the movie to set it up. 

Gerwig’s performance is the sweet and charming but kooky character those who admire her have come to know and love.  At times, Julianne Moore’s accent makes some of her dialog a little hard to comprehend.  Hader and Rudolph steal the movie with their bickering; perhaps a much better (and funnier) movie could have been made featuring their characters.  Hawke, on the other hand, is a bit difficult to buy as the combination intellectual and so-called “panty-melter” as Rudolph’s character describes him.  The young actress who plays Lily (the child’s first role) is absolutely adorable. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the movie’s director-writer Rebecca Miller and Gerwig.  Miller was asked what the biggest challenge was when it came to shooting in New York City; she replied the weather and the parking (especially the parking tickets).  Gerwig said the weather was particularly problematic because the picture was shot this past winter when we experienced a phenomenon known at The Polar Vortex; the first day of shooting took place in Manhattan’s Union Square Park and her face was freezing so badly from the cold, the make-up artist told her there was no make-up she could apply that would help her look any better. 

Maggie's Plan (2015) on IMDb

Sunday, October 04, 2015

“Bridge Of Spies”– Movie Review



At the 53rd annual New York Film Festival, I attended the World Premiere of Steven Spielberg’s cold war drama “Bridge Of Spies”, starring Tom Hanks.


When an insurance lawyer is sent overseas to work out a prisoner exchange with The Soviets, can he secure the Americans’ release or is he in over his head?


During the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Cold War raged between The United States and The Soviet Union. Why in the world is this relevant to an insurance lawyer like James B. Donovan (Hanks)? In this case, it’s because Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), the manager at Donovan’s law firm, has just informed him that because of his past as a criminal prosecutor, the FBI has picked him to be the defense attorney for Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet Spy stationed in New York City. Despite Donovan’s best efforts, the jury finds Abel guilty; one small victory for them is that Donovan is able to convince the judge to give Abel a long prison term instead of the death penalty, despite the fact that both the prosecution and the public are crying for his execution.

As the competition heats up between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the CIA recruits pilots from the military to go on spying missions; they will be tasked with flying over Russia in specially streamlined jets supplied with several extremely powerful cameras that will photograph the Soviet terrain from the sky. Among their instructions is that if the plane is crashing, they must destroy it before ejecting and if any of the pilots are in danger of being captured by the Russians, they must commit suicide. One of these pilots is Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who undertakes one of the first of these missions in 1962. The Russians spot his jet and successfully shoot it down, but Powers fails to blow up the aircraft before it crashes; additionally, when he parachutes to the ground, he does not take his own life and winds up being captured by the Russian army. The resulting trial naturally finds Powers guilty of espionage and he is sent to prison.

Once again, Donovan is called upon for his expertise – but this time, it is the CIA who reaches out to him. The Agency wants Donovan to use his negotiating skills to go to East Berlin and talk the Soviets into exchanging Powers for Abel. As he is briefed on the information, Donovan is informed that there is another American – Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) – that is also being held in East Berlin; Pryor is a graduate student in Germany to study economics and he was arrested because he was incorrectly believed to be a spy. Although the CIA tells Donovan they aren’t interested in Pryor, Donovan becomes determined to see the release of both men. But when Donovan meets with the East German representatives, will he be able to negotiate the release of these two Americans or will any potential deal fall through?


If you reduce things to their most basic ingredients, movies are about emotional manipulation.  Comedies are intended to make you laugh, thrillers try to scare you and dramas make you weep.  We pay for this when we buy a ticket at a theater or purchase a film to stream to our television (or the mobile device of your choice).  This is what we call entertainment.  The most highly regarded directors in this medium are specialists in manipulating emotions.  Steven Spielberg is among the best of them and he succeeds at this again in his latest, “Bridge Of Spies”.  

His protagonist – a quiet, modest hero – is ultimately redeemed after being reviled and in his own way, this lawyer finds his own form of justice.  Although this is Donovan’s story, Spielberg makes an interesting choice in terms of the two prisoners:  we wind up feeling more sympathy for The Russian Spy than we do for The American Spy.  Maybe this is because The Russian is given considerably more screen time.  Or maybe it’s because The American is not heroic; he is seen as cowardly because he did not fully carry out the instructions of his mission.  Then again, maybe it’s because The Coen Brothers contributed to the screenplay.

Once again, we are faced with a movie that has a difficult time maintaining a level of suspense because it’s based on real events that occurred slightly beyond the middle of the previous century; if you’re familiar with American history from this time period, you pretty much know how things turn out.  This being the case, the director already starts out at a disadvantage when trying to tell his story because many members of the audience already know how it ends.  Ultimately, it’s a history lesson that is made mainstream by virtue of its oversimplification. 

Bridge of Spies (2015) on IMDb

“Steve Jobs”–Movie Review




This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece screening at The New York Film Festival – the new biographical drama “Steve Jobs”, starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle.


When the co-founder of Apple alienates both colleagues and family, will he be able to repair those relationships or will his personal demons prevent him?


Before the official introduction of The Macintosh computer in 1984 before a packed crowd, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs (Fassbender) celebrates his latest innovation with the company’s Chief Executive Officer, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), over a glass of expensive wine.  But things are not as joyous with Jobs’ other colleagues; his partner and co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) feels as though he and his engineering team are being severely compromised because the people who made a name for the company by building the Apple II are being phased out; he’s also in an ongoing imbroglio with his Director of Marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet).  On top of that, Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) encounters him with the reality that in spite of Jobs’ public denials, he’s the father of their 5 year old daughter, Lisa. 

Despite meeting with great fanfare, The Macintosh fails to meet sales expectations.  As a result, Jobs is forced out of his own company and eventually becomes the founder of a competitor, NeXT.  Prior to the 1988 launch of their first product – known as The Black Cube – Jobs is once again encountered by ghosts from his past, some of whom are now suing him.  Although he is now paying substantial child support to Chrisann, she demands more, but Jobs counters with accusations that she may be an unfit mother.  Meanwhile, rumors abound that Apple might buy NeXT – even though the new company’s biggest secret is the fact that their computer doesn’t even have an Operating System yet!

With Apple Inc. now under Sculley’s control, his major product introduction is the a pocket-sized personal productivity tool, The Newton, which uses a stylus to convert handwritten text into computer-readable instructions.  Unfortunately, that flops, too, and Apple begins to lose stock value, market share and industry confidence; The Board Of Directors winds up firing Sculley and lures Jobs to return.  By 1998, Jobs sees which direction the wind is blowing and invents The iMac, a new version of The Macintosh that’s solely designed to be used to surf The Internet.  But when a now college-age Lisa challenges her father over his threat to stop paying her tuition, will the two be able to resolve their differences in time for the official announcement of Apple’s newest product?


Steve Jobs may have been a flawed human but “Steve Jobs” is an excellent movie.  For those looking for the complete life story of this marketing genius, you’ll be disappointed; instead, this film offers insights to Jobs’ personal and professional life using three major events:  the introduction of the Macintosh at Apple, the introduction of The Black Cube at NeXT and the introduction of the iMac upon his triumphant return to Apple.  The choices turn out to be quite appropriate, given that it forces Jobs to confront problems with his family, friends and co-workers. 

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has developed a reputation of writing scripts that are dialog-heavy; “Steve Jobs” is no different.  At times, the movie feels like a play not necessarily because it has a static feel (although most of the action takes place backstage at different product launches) but more because of its talky nature.  During battles with various people, the history behind those fights are revealed in flashbacks intercut with the present-time arguments; whether this was how the screenplay was written or it was an editing choice by Danny Boyle is hard to say.  Particularly well-written were the scene where Lisa begs Jobs to let her live with him (little Ripley Sobo is guaranteed to break your heart in this one) and where Woz lays into his former partner (Seth Rogen nails it here). 

Prior to the screening, the movie was introduced by director Danny Boyle, who brought screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and stars Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender on stage.  Boyle was both personable and funny, cracking a few jokes; he claimed that the Saturday night screening at The New York Film Festival was The World Premiere of the “finished” version of “Steve Jobs” because after it was shown at Telluride, he decided to re-edit the film, so he considers the one screened here as what will be the final version.  Boyle also mentioned that this weekend was Winslet’s birthday, so he had the audience sing “Happy Birthday” to her. 

Steve Jobs (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, October 03, 2015

“Where To Invade Next”– Movie Review



This week at The New York Film Festival, I attended the United States Premiere of the new Michael Moore documentary “Where To Invade Next


When other countries can claim a better quality of life than America, what lessons can this country learn in order to improve?


With The Joint Chiefs Of Staff a bit flummoxed as to what the next military move should be for The United States Of America, director and political activist Michael Moore boldly takes it upon himself to assume the role of their Commander in order to decide which country America should look to invade for its subsequent political incursion.  But in taking on this great responsibility, Moore takes a different tactic:  Which country should The United States “invade” in order to steal ideas from them for the express purpose of making America better?

Moore decides to visit Nordic, European, South American and North African countries in order to determine which would be best to “invade”.  In the various nations he visits, Moore discovers that Italy is very generous in terms of how it treats its workers with vacation time.  France offers its citizens free health care; Moore maintains that American opponents claiming this will raise taxes to an unreasonable level are mistaken – he shows that French taxes are not substantially more than that of The United States – and for that matter, their citizens get much more in the way of services than Americans considering how much they pay (he claims 60% of American taxes go to the military). 

In Argentina, Moore learns their law enforcement policies are vastly different from America’s when it comes to drug-related crimes.  There, the police don’t even arrest people who openly use drugs because it is believed that this does not prevent drug use.  The Scandinavian countries may be the ones The United States might learn from the most in terms of both their educational systems and belief in feminism – even Tunisia could teach America a lesson about freedom and feminism.  While some may choose to wear baseball caps emblazoned with the demand to “Make America Great Again”, perhaps in order to achieve that goal, the country needs to look to its past to see what made the country great in the first place. 


The camera lies.  Even in documentaries.  It is an easy mistake to make that when you are seeing a documentary, then you can understandably assume that you are viewing something that is non-fiction.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  That’s especially not the case when the documentary in question has been crafted by someone with an obvious agenda – as in the case with Michael Moore.  Moore has a reputation of manipulating certain facts – or, at the very least, timelines – in order to serve his point of view.  So, it is with a healthy degree of skepticism that one must view any of his work.

“Where To Invade Next” appears to be the current chapter in director Michael Moore’s manifesto of pushing Socialism on The United States.  However, there is a crucial question that is never asked in this movie:  If America’s forcing of Christianity and Democracy on other countries never proves to be a good fit, then why should we believe that forcing the European brand of Socialism on America would be a good fit?  In this documentary, even Moore makes a passing allusion to the fact that he’s not particularly interested in getting other viewpoints (in this regard, he may be the left’s version of Rush Limbaugh).

Make no mistake about it, “Where To Invade Next” is incredibly funny – even funnier than purported comedies aspire to be.  But when necessary, it touches your heart and dares you to open your mind and force the viewer to think.  Perhaps the initiation of these vital conversations is what’s most important in this film.  As a documentary, however, it may be a bit too long; although the screening seemed to be packed with Moore’s stalwarts who both applauded and laughed at several points throughout, there were some members of the audience who walked out before the end.  Was this because they disagreed with the director’s views or because the movie needed some trimming?  Well, if it was because of a philosophical/political disagreement, then they probably wouldn’t have elected to attend the screening at all – and for that matter, they wouldn’t have waited until 15-20 minutes before the end to leave.

Where to Invade Next (2015) on IMDb