Saturday, November 21, 2015

"Secret in Their Eyes"

 2 / 5 

The corpse should be the only lifeless part of a murder-mystery, but that's not the case with Secret in Their Eyes, which is dramatically inert, with listless performances by its three high-profile leads, none of whom can inject a single spark of vitality into the draggy, slow-moving drama.

Granted, there are a couple of moments where Secret in Their Eyes almost resuscitates itself, but before it can get on its feet, it collapses again under the weight of its attempts to take a melodramatic potboiler and turn it into an Oscar-season contender.

It's based on a 2009 Argentinean movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  That film was made with vigor and urgency, not to mention bold and stylish filmmaking choices that included its deservedly famous single-take foot chase through a packed soccer stadium.

The Americanized version lacks any real cinematic ambition.  (The stadium scene is there, but is shot in a traditional, straightforward style.  Perhaps director Billy Ray is being smart by avoiding direct comparisons to the first; but like many of the changes, it leaves little left to exploit.)  Instead, Secret in Their Eyes tries to focus more on the human aspect of its central story.  In this update, the crime that launches the plot is the brutal murder of a young woman -- who turns out to be the daughter of an FBI terrorism task force investigator.  The investigator is played by Julia Roberts, a normally captivating actress who unfortunately mistakes a lack of makeup with dramatic intensity.  She's fine, but nowhere near as emotionally vulnerable or ferocious as her wan cheeks and sunken eyes might indicate.

Her co-worker (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who seems oddly indifferent to the role), is the first to see the corpse, which is found near a Los Angeles mosque that's under investigation in the months after 9/11.  (The movie was shot long before mosques and Muslims became the hottest, angriest, ugliest topic in American politics.)  They both work with a deputy District Attorney (Nicole Kidman), who helps them track down the terrorism suspect who may also have been the murderer.

Secret in Their Eyes moves back and forth through time, from 2002 to 2015, as the suspect is first released from custody, then becomes the subject of an obsessive sort of quest to bring him to justice.  Mixed in is an ill-fitting, unrequited romance between Ejiofor and Kidman, which never quite gels -- their years-long flirtation doesn't take the story in any new direction, either in terms of plot or theme.

Worse, the political underpinnings of the story don't go anywhere at all.  The original used the backdrop of Argentina's own political history, in which its government turned against its own citizens with deadly results, as a way to give structure and meaning to the drama -- it was a political thriller in the most literal sense.  In this version, there's no payoff; the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 are mentioned over and over, but there's no critical eye cast on government or policy, not much more than some oblique references to the preening self-absorption of those who run for elected office.

With the exception of an effectively nasty interrogation scene to which Kidman brings some unexpected energy and fire, Secret in Their Eyes mostly meanders through territory that will seem awfully familiar to anyone who occasionally watches Lifetime or Dateline.  It's mostly presented with the same sort of detached recitation of facts as it moves from what happened in 2002 to the same characters in 2015 as they continue attempting to bring the killer to justice.

Ultimately, it leads to a third-act plot twist that feels less inspired than contrived.  Worse, the movie doesn't give the audience even a moment to feel surprised or comprehend what it all means because the big revelation is accompanied by countless flashbacks to lines of dialogue or portentous looks from a character that are the equivalent of the filmmakers screaming out, "You see? We told you what was going to happen and you didn't notice!  Aren't you shocked?"

They have to do this cinematic equivalent of screaming, because they realize it's more likely that no one noticed because the story just isn't really worth paying a lot of attention.  The revelations seem less surprising than a desperate final attempt to add some interest to an otherwise bland, dull story.

With such talented stars and a director whose previous films include the compelling and underrated gems Shattered Glass and Breach, it's all a bit of a letdown.  Ray has taken terrific source material and leeched the life from it, leaving behind something that bears a few tantalizing indications that it could have been a good idea, might have been interesting, but instead has refused to cooperate in the transformation process.  Instead it's become uncooperative, and stubbornly resists becoming the bold and essential American political thriller it could have been.  It just sits there, unmoving, lifeless and, most of all, unconvincing.

Viewed Nov. 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Favorite Films: "The China Syndrome"

The China Syndrome was made by people steadfastly opposed to nuclear energy, and might have come and gone from theaters back in 1979 as nothing more than a liberal fever dream if, 12 days after it opened, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history hadn't taken place.

The movie began playing on March 16, 1979, and late in the afternoon of March 28, the radioactive core of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island began its unprecedented melt down.

During The China Syndrome, a character explains that if the core of a nuclear power plant were to experience a total meltdown, the radioactive material would burn through its containment structure, not to mention the earth below it, theoretically not stopping until it got all the way to China.  (You know, the way kids used to think that if you never stopped digging a hole, China's where you'd end up.)  An accident like that, the academic protestor in the movie says, "could render the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable."

Oh, by the way, the Three Mile Island plant was in Pennsylvania.

Suddenly, everyone in the country wanted to know what it was that almost killed them, and their curiosity drove them to The China Syndrome in droves.  Maybe they were expecting an angry activism-style film, or a dry and dull lecture about the dangers of nuclear power.  Very likely, though, they weren't expecting the smart, tense, ludicrously entertaining thriller they got.

The China Syndrome meshes the cinema-verité-influenced work of 1970s realist auteurs and blends its no-nonsense approach with the style and polish of a studio film, resulting in a movie that feels both stylish and real.  It's urgent and serious, but never forgets its greater mission to be a hell of a good movie.

It's anchored by two stars who were at the pinnacle of their popularity and ability, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon.  At 42 and 54, respectively, they're practically senior citizens from the perspective of today's youth-obsessed Hollywood, but The China Syndrome shows the power of (relative) maturity: They're both alarmingly good in their roles, joined by comparative youngster Michael Douglas, then coming into his own as a movie star after starring in the TV cop drama "The Streets of San Francisco."

Fonda plays Kimberly Wells, a Los Angeles TV reporter who's sick of the lightweight human-interest stories she's relegated to covering.  She jumps at the chance to do a piece about the newly opened (and fictional) Ventana nuclear power plant.  It's a puff piece, but at least lets her talk about a hot-button subject.  During the visit, something happens.  Kimberly's cameraman (Douglas) captures the frantic actions of the control room on film -- including the anguish and relief of the plant manager, Jack Godell (Lemmon).

The news crew races back to the station, insisting that they have a bombshell news story -- but they don't know what it is.  The power plant's PR guy insists it wasn't an accident, just an "unexpected transient," and that the news crew didn't understand what they were seeing, and despite the alarms and warning lights, nothing actually happened.

But Kimberly and Richard, the camera guy, aren't so sure.  They take the film to a nuclear expert.  He tells them that what they experienced bordered on catastrophic -- that not just L.A. but all of California was put at risk.  Kimberly becomes determined to uncover the real story.  She tracks down Jack Godell, who finally agrees to tell her what he knows.  Not surprisingly, none of this makes the power company very happy.

The China Syndrome deftly weaves a classic story of an amateur sleuth with political commentary -- but it's the expertly handled suspense that makes the movie a standout, even 36 years after its release.  The exterior trappings may seem anchored in the 1970s, but they're easy limitations to get beyond.  As the story ramps up, so does the tension, leading to a remarkable climax inside the control room, as Kimberly and Jack Godell, who has barricaded himself inside, prepare to go live on the air to warn the public of exactly what's happening at Ventana -- while an invading police SWAT team tries to get in.

Director James Bridges, who would go on to Urban Cowboy the following year but never quite hit the highs of The China Syndrome, wrote the screenplay with Mike Gray and T.S. Cook, and among the film's many remarkable accomplishments is the absence of a musical score.  It doesn't need the addition of external cues to tell its viewers what to feel or how to react -- it's intense enough as it is.

Nearly four decades later, the movie has lost little of its ability to enthrall.  Meanwhile, nuclear power never did quite gain the traction its proponents had envisioned.  Three Mile Island certainly didn't help their cause.  Neither did The China Syndrome.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Favorite Films: "Magnolia"

"And, it is in the humble opinion of this narrator
that strange things happen all the time.
And so it goes and so it goes and the book says,
We may be through with the past,
but the past ain't through with us."

Magnolia is a crazed film, a movie like no other, a genius work that refuses to explain itself -- but needs no explanation.  It is like a human-scaled version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, equally as epic and exploratory, and filled with grand ambition to look at the way we are, the way we behave, the way we love and hate and fear and worry, and to marvel at what it sees.

Its director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has said, "Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make," and he's right, because Magnolia is one of the best American movies ever made.  Magnolia revels in the pure joy of being a movie, of making impossible shots and impossible things happen, of layering story and sound and music and happenstance in such extraordinary ways that even though it is a film about a very specific time and place, it feels timeless and universal.

The time and place is just before the turn of the century in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.  The Valley is a concrete jigsaw puzzle of strip malls and apartment buildings, dotted here and there by movie and TV studios; it is not a glamorous place, but it is the place where glamour is made by working-class people who are less concerned with appearances than their tonier neighbors "over the hill."

It's Anderson's cinematic Yoknapatawpha County, a microcosm of all humanity, which in Magnolia is overcome by a certain wary anxiousness, maybe about the coming 21st century, maybe about the seemingly never-ending rain that won't stop falling in L.A., maybe just because their lives are falling apart -- which, Magnolia observes, is what happens to lives.

Magnolia begins with a fast and ferocious opening that explores the seeming impossibility of chance in life.  Its vignettes aren't connected to the rest of the movie except in the message: Nothing happens by chance, except, perhaps, everything.  As Magnolia continues, its seemingly random characters also seem disconnected, until they begin to overlap, connect, intersect and collide, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.  Though few of them are alone, they are all lonely, and most of them are consumed by their pasts.

There's a prodigious little boy (Jeremy Blackman), a contestant on a popular quiz show, who doesn't want to play the game anymore.  There's the host of the quiz show (Philip Baker Hall), who finds out he's dying of cancer and tries to make amends to the daughter (Melora Walters) and wife (Melinda Dillon), whose lives he has harmed.  There's the producer of the quiz show (Jason Robards), much further along in the process of dying, his caretaker (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who is being driven to a nervous breakdown because she's surrounded by death and regret.  And there's the producer's son, a sleaze-bucket sexual self-help guru (Tom Cruise), whose rage at the way he has been treated by life is channeled into a crazed public persona.

All of them find ways to sideswipe, and sometimes collide head-on with, each other, joined by a sweet-hearted police officer (John C. Reilly) who isn't very good at his job, and a has-been quiz-show contestant (William H. Macy).

Magnolia is a sprawling film, but Anderson brings it all together masterfully, with camera work and editing that are dizzying and dazzling.  Anderson is fearless behind the camera, and his daring extends to his actors, who are unapologetically emotional and uniformly astonishing.

Its concerns for traditional story cower in comparison to its concerns for extreme emotion, Magnolia bears less resemblance to a standard film than to an opera -- virtually every moment is filled with music (the propulsive score by Jon Brion adds tremendously to the jittery anxiousness and luxuriant emotion).  Magnolia is driven more by visual style and thematic cohesiveness than by a linear plot.  When it needs to pause to emphasize an emotion or a specific story beat, the camera turns to a particular character and lets the moment happen; it's like a cinematic aria, spoken rather than sung, indulging in its splendid actors.

It's not always simply spoken, though.  In one astonishing scene that makes even jaded movie viewers sit up and take notice, all of the major characters break into the same song as they listen in on the radio, underscoring the ways in which everyone is connected -- practically and emotionally -- in ways that might surprise even them.

The opera comparison persists throughout Magnolia, because the final act of this long, absorbing movie heads into richly theatrical, emotionally tricky territory.  Just as every one of the characters reaches an existential tipping point, just as each of these fragile people is about to shatter, something extraordinary happens.

This being L.A., Magnolia could have easily and believably brought in a fire, a mudslide or (like its cinematic cousin) a grand earthquake.  But Anderson refuses to do anything easily -- and this cataclysm is so entirely unexpected that it's not surprising to know that many first-time viewers react to it with something less than appreciation.  It is a bizarre occurrence, one that has never been seen on film before and one that's unlikely ever to be put on film again.

It is so wildly weird that it's perfect.  It's a reminder of the kind of coincidence and impossibility chronicled in the film's opening moments, the extreme unpredictability of life.  It is as nonsensical yet plausible as, say, a gunman walking into a theater and shooting people, or as two jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center.  Of course, when Magnolia was made, none of those things had yet happened -- but in the wake of those real-life insanities, Magnolia has become a film I've turned to time and again to bring some sense of order to a chaotic world.

I've watched all 3 hours, 8 minutes of it tonight, the night after Paris was attacked.

In the past 24 hours, I've heard the word "senseless" used over and over to describe those attacks.  But what in life is sensible?

How is it we can so regularly fail to see the way our lives can fall apart at any moment, how one word from another person, one look, one act of kindness or cruelty, can change everything?  How can we believe we have control when things that defy plausibility happen with astonishing regularity?

One one hand, they may not be as grotesquely extreme as the incident that closes out Magnolia -- but, on the other, in their own devastating ways, they are even more unbelievable.

Yes, strange things happen all the time.  And, yes, as the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us. So maybe the best anyone can do is just to find someone else, someone equally as imperfect and difficult and scared, who will experience those things with us.   Magnolia discovers that deep in the San Fernando Valley, during rain-soaked days and anxious nights, that, in the end, that's all anyone really wants, or even needs: To get through the impossible randomness of life, to hope it doesn't overwhelm is, and to wait for the rain to clear.

Saturday, November 7, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

Movies and newspaper journalism don't typically mix well.  Being a newspaper reporter -- a job I was fortunate to have for a time many years back -- is not a glamorous job, and the careful and methodical work of an investigative journalist is even less movie-ready.  More than that, despite the romantic insistence of some of the best movies about newspapering, journalists with the looks and charm of Robert Redford, Sally Field and Cary Grant rarely populate newsrooms.

Director Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight is, then, an impressive accomplishment.  OK,  yes, it has some pretty darned good-looking people in its cast, but they're not given the polish of Hollywood; Spotlight is a determinedly straightforward, no-frills look at how journalism worked just before the whole industry imploded, and McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer capture the confusing, confounding messiness of reporting with intense authenticity.

Spotlight throws its audience into the newsroom of The Boston Globe without commentary.  There are no pat introductions, no basic primers into the way things work.  But the movie also wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story: The newspaper has a new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber, looking as grown-up and tired as most everyone else in the film), a Jewish outsider from The Miami Herald who thinks the paper has been a little soft on a potentially interesting story about alleged child abuse by Catholic priests.

Less sure about the approach is Ben Bradlee Jr. (played by John Slattery).  It's never mentioned in the movie, but Bradlee's father was the executive editor of the Washington Post during that paper's Watergate investigations, so he knows a little something about the way a newspaper has to be absolutely sure of the stories it prints.

Spotlight is led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who oversees a small team of reporters, including Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James).  Now, let's be clear, Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Broadway musical actor James aren't exactly un-beautiful people, but Spotlight makes them entirely believable as low-paid, high-intensity print journalists.

The Spotlight team isn't quite sure what they're working on or how deep it goes -- but as Baron insists that they take it further, sometimes over Bradlee's objections, the story begins taking on a life of its own.  They meet victims, broken and pained men who can't get past what happened to them, and in some of the most raw and surprising scenes in the movie, the men share their stories in explicit detail.

Still, it's not enough.  Baron wants them to go further, to get to the core of the story -- how Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law not only knew that priests were abusing children, but that the scope of the crimes was larger and more pervasive than anyone imagined, and that the church actively covered up the allegations.

Spotlight, with little embellishment or excess flair, grapples with some of the toughest questions, not just of the scandal, but of the ethics of journalism: Does the newspaper have its own motives?  Does it have culpability, given evidence that emerges that the newspaper's staff knew of the allegations and did nothing about them?  What of the newspaper's role as champion and supporter of its city?  What responsibility does it have to protect the identities and integrity of its sources?

Yet Spotlight isn't a movie about the ethics of journalism, exactly, and it doesn't make a particularly significant effort to be irate about the abuse scandal itself -- not, at least, until its final title cards, which describe the genuinely disquieting global scope of priestly abuse.

 Spotlight is instead aiming its sights higher than being an issues film: It wants to be a good story well-told, and in that it succeeds admirably.  It captures both the intent and the spirit of "old-fashioned" journalism as well as any movie ever has, and by doing so it underscores what's missing from today's ubiquitous online media -- the hard, tenacious work of reporting, the process of checks and balances within the system of professional journalism, and the impressive dedication of traditional reporters.

Throughout Spotlight, there's a persistent undercurrent of the threat from online journalism. The story takes place in 2001 and 2002, just as the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, and when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, become a key plot point, the threat from the terrorists is not quite as overwhelming to The Boston Globe as the threat from the huge billboard for "AOL Anywhere" that sits right next to its office building.

Journalism was one of the many elements of life that changed that day, but Spotlight captures one of the last epic stories about newspapering, a story that was taking place just as the world was being forever altered.  Though the movie is made with a certain emotional reserve, Spotlight offers an unexpectedly compelling reminder for what we have lost with the decline of print journalism. In its final scenes, huge presses run ink across paper, the newspaper is cut and packaged into bundles, loaded on to trucks, and delivered around the city.  At the same time, on the same day, everyone will learn the story in the same way -- by reading it in the newspaper.

As those trucks fly by, "Robby" Robinson watches them from his car.  There's a little gleam in his eye, he might cry.  And he might well have reason to do exactly that.  Yes, he has put to bed a great story, one that's going to have ramifications on an entirely religion for decades to come.  But that's not why the tears are in his eyes; he's watching the end of American newspapering.  Spurred by 9/11's need to tell us everything we needed to know and to do it now, newspapers couldn't compete.  In those trucks, Robby is watching his future roll away.

Spotlight may be about the way the Catholic Church was brought down by a team of doggedly persistent, fiercely intelligent and dedicated reporters -- but it's also about the way the newspaper industry brought itself down, how it never found a way to adapt, and instead ceded its power to the news flashy high-tech thing.

In one of his previous films, The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy brought a similar clear-eyed melancholy to his subject; he refused to be wistful, insisted on letting scenes play out the way they should.  With The Station Agent, he created one of the most lovely eulogies to the sort of life adults aren't really allowed to live anymore, independent and free and solitary.  In Spotlight he does the same -- Spotlight isn't an epitaph for newspapers, it's just a reminder that newspapers have an important role to play, that they are staffed by trained professionals who believe strongly in what they do, and perhaps its a hopeful movie in a way, a reminder that trained and educated journalists can affect change in a major way.  The good ol' fashioned newspaper(wo-)man still has a vital role in today's society.

This is what Sarah Palin dubbed the "lame-stream media": Professionals who watch out for misdeeds, who examine the dark sides of the world -- religious figures, politicians, law enforcement officers are all fair game -- and turn a spotlight on them.  This is the kind of journalism that scares unprepared, ill-advised public figures because, as the movie shows, its practitioners are trained to be thorough and methodical, to be objective in their writing even when they can't be objective in their personal views.

No wonder they're being pushed aside.  Spotlight is a sobering reminder that their work remains vital, that it's necessary, even in the post-AOL Anywhere age.

Viewed Nov. 7, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Favorite Films: "The Fly" (1986)

No, director David Cronenberg has said, his disquieting, compulsively watchable remake of The Fly isn't about the AIDS crisis that was at its height in 1986, when he made the film.  It was intended, Cronenberg said, to be about the horrors of disease in general.

Yet nearly 30 years later, it's almost impossible to watch The Fly and not think of how terrified the world was of that particular disease and the way, before science learned how it could be controlled, ravaged both body and mind with staggering swiftness.

With movies like Rabid and Videodrome, Cronenberg had already become well-known for his mastery of the sub-genre of "body horror," movies that showcased the singular fright that comes with recognizing human biology is all too frequently out of our control.

Although The Fly is a movie based on a science-fiction concept, it's not strictly a sci-fi film, and there's something shockingly relatable about what happens both to scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) and journalist Veronica "Ronnie" Quaife (Geena Davis).  Brundle has been working in secret on a project to teleport items 15 feet across a room, from one sleekly designed pod to another.  Ronnie is stunned by what she sees, and wants to write a book about Brundle's work.  They fall in love.  When Brundle successfully teleports a baboon, they celebrate.  Then, in the moment that makes The Fly work so well, Ronnie leaves him.

Her old boyfriend is trying to cause trouble.  She wants to make him go away.  Brundle is jealous and worried.  She tells him not to be.  "I do have the residue of a former life, you know," she tells him.

Angry, scared, afraid to be lonely, Brundle gets drunk and impulsively tests the teleportation device on himself.  A fly gets into his pod.  The computer doesn't know what to do with two pieces of material to teleport, so it fuses them together and turns Seth Brundle into Brundlefly.

The change doesn't happen all at once.  It begins with a small mark on Brundle's body, a hair growing out of his back.  Ronnie notices it when she comes back to him -- which is what she promised he would do  But Brundle is just a man like any other.  He doubted her, and in a moment of weakness and fear, he did something he comes to regret -- an indiscretion that comes with a huge price.

In those terms, The Fly does very much feel like a direct commentary on AIDS. Notably, the film doesn't pass judgment on Brundle's transgression; it goes out of its way to use it as a way to humanize this odd, off-putting scientist.

As Brundlefly grows, Ronnie notices, and she wants to help him -- but he pushes her away, he wants to deteriorate in isolation.  And then, as things get worse, he needs her back.  She is the only person who knows what he is going through.

Ronnie returns to Brundle's lab and sees the frightful, horrific monster he has become.  Pieces of his body are falling off.  Tumors grow everywhere on his body.  He can barely walk.  His discolored body is filled with ticks and twitches.  Brundle admits that calling Ronnie was a mistake.  He thinks she should leave.  Instead, she hugs him.

It's a beautiful act of humanity.  Ronnie is not afraid of Brundlefly.  That hug takes The Fly into territory most horror films never attempt: The monster is still human, and is filled all-consuming fear, self-loathing and regret.

The relationship between Brundle(fly) and Ronnie keeps The Fly focused and weirdly believable, and it's impossible not to regard it as a touching commentary on exactly the sort of relationship that people really found themselves in during the 1980s -- one partner dying at an alarming speed, another refusing to walk away, even when the rest of the world refused to even acknowledge (much less sanctify) their relationship.

No matter how well the "body horror" aspects work (and almost all of the scenes with Brundlefly retain an alarming ability to shock, disgust and frighten even today -- The Fly that has lost none of its horror or its entertainment value since it was made), it's the refusal of Ronnie to give up on Brundlefly that sends the film into the stratosphere in its Grand Guignol final act.

Those last 15 minutes or so are masterful.  That The Fly always seems ready to go off the rails is just a trick; Cronenberg is in complete control.  He knows exactly where the film needs to go, which is to its harrowing final scene, which blends human drama, high emotion and just enough gore in ways most films would be afraid to try, particularly a genre-driven horror film.  (It's all backed by a massive, propulsive orchestral score by Howard Shore.)

There never really has been a film quite like The Fly.  Cronenberg's oversized vision is matched to a story so simple that the horror and dread are inherent in every scene, in every frame. It's a classic horror film, one that I think people will be watching and studying in another 30 years.  There can't be many more perfect examples of how to take a man, turn him into a hideous, deformed monster -- and yet retain his humanity, all the way until his final movement.

Brundle the man, somehow, is always in there.  And when you think about that, and the way we see people slip away from us in the throes of grave diseases that kill slowly, and how we tend to think of the illness as defining the person -- when you think about all that, it's all the more impressive that a 95-minute long horror film has so much to say about how we remain loyal to those we love, how we are committed -- even when the unthinkable happens.

Cronenberg may be right, AIDS wasn't on his mind (necessarily) when the movie was first made -- but it was on the minds of those who saw it.  For anyone who first encountered The Fly from ages, say, 15-45, it's a grim and arresting reminder of how far we've come in a short time.  Many of those body-wasting, skin-destroying symptoms have been abated -- but for those who stood by and watched or, even more, those who survived, it's difficult to forget the fear.

Let's be clear: The Fly works best as a pure, straightforward horror movie.  That's how to enjoy it the first time (or maybe even the sixth time) around.  But the more you watch it, the more you realize that between the vomiting Brundlflies, the vomiting on food to eat it, the stomach-churning makeup by Chris Walas -- despite all that, it's a love story.  It's a story of two people who are going to be committed to each other all the way to the end, if that's what it takes.

Somehow, The Fly combines disgust, horror, suspense and the grotesque, but makes it all into a story about the powerful bonds of love and commitment.  It is a shocking film; even now, you may find yourself turning away from the screen at key points.  Yet it defies expectations by generating real sympathy, maybe even a few tears, for the monster ... and for the person who can't help loving him, despite it all.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"The Walk"

 5 / 5 

The twin towers of the World Trade Center appear within the first seconds of Robert Zemeckis's film The Walk, and when they do, there is reason to be anxious and suspicious.

They look phony. They look like the digital constructs they are. And when Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in the same frame with them, speaking in a jarring, distracting French accent, everything seems like it's going to go wrong with The Walk.

Then, like a high-wire artist whose first step seems tentative and dangerously wrong, The Walk recovers, and as those towers appear over and over, we become used to seeing them on the screen again -- we adjust to a different reality. Then The Walk does something truly extraordinary:

It shows us a man so exuberant, so confident, so filled with an infectious happiness that he makes us recall what we were like (or, at least, what we imagine we were like) before Sept. 11, 2001, before the towers fell down and we lost our joy.  Of course, we didn't realize the towers were an embodiment of joy, which The Walk tells us they most certainly were; the only way we can know it is by looking back.  So, The Walk returns us to a time when they stood -- when, indeed, they were new -- and does it with such a heightened, almost dreamlike, sense of reality, that seeing the towers actually makes us smile.

The Walk is the story of Philippe Petit, who seems to have been born an artist, much to the chagrin of his parents, and an over-confident showman, much to the chagrin of his mentor, a Czech circus owner named Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley).  In a story seemingly designed for Hollywood, Petit sneaks into the circus as a boy, sees the high-wire act, and is smitten.  He is sure he is meant to walk on a wire, and Petit is the kind of person who won't let go of an idea he is sure of.

The biggest idea he has comes when he sees a magazine article about the then-under-construction World Trade Center in New York City, and to him it is both simple and obvious: The 140-foot space between the two buildings is a space he needs to hang his wire and walk.

Why?  The Walk comes closer than any mainstream movie I've seen to answering the question of what motivates art, and to Petit his high-wire walking is most certainly art.  It is, in a line echoed several times throughout the movie, "something beautiful."

It's beautiful in spite of, or maybe thanks to, its flaws.  Although its opening hour is entirely engaging and efficiently told (and after a few minutes, Gordon-Levitt's French accent becomes less grating) the movie walks its own fine line between intriguing and cloying.

After that opening, The Walk becomes a giddy caper, as Petit recruits friends and strangers to help him in his quest. They find ingenious ways to sneak into the towers and make their plans.  Petit's girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) remains steadfastly supportive throughout, and in its characterizations of everyone except Petit The Walk is about as rich and complex as, say, Titanic.  Some of the dialogue is silly, the lack of doubt for Petit's endeavors rather astonishing.  Sure, it's lighthearted fare, and it's consistently entertaining.

But much as Titanic found its surest footing -- and its heart -- in the sinking, what The Walk really cares about is, well, the walk.  Those last 20 minutes may be driven by the visuals, but there's something more, something that goes a lot deeper.

Through all of its seeming simplicity, The Walk opens a sincere and passionate argument that Petit's daring adventure -- which is also depicted in the straightforward but also stellar Man on Wire -- transcends mere stunt: It is a grand ambition undertaken with a passion and heartfelt earnestness that feels missing from our revenue-hungry culture.  Petit does what he does because he thinks he can and should.  He stands to achieve no monetary gain, he doesn't even expect to be well-liked for it.  It's just something he has to do.

Zemeckis's films are often technical marvels that lack a certain emotional spark -- let it be known I'm one of those who thinks Forrest Gump is a visual wonder that has no soul, and the director's experimentation with motion-capture animated films have been depressing and grim.  And yet, I left The Walk unexpectedly moved, feeling that I just watched, well, something beautiful.

That long and spectacularly created wire-walking sequence is exquisite.  Despite myself, and watching the film in good old-fashioned 2-D, my palms started sweating; The Walk had me utterly absorbed.  The outcome of the walk is never in doubt (after all, that's Gordon-Levitt as Petit narrating the story in retrospect), but the point isn't to generate that sort of dramatic tension: It's to generate feeling and awe, and that is something, even in spite of its wall-to-wall use of digital trickery, The Walk most certainly does.

The final shot, which echoes the first, is accompanied by a line of dialogue so wistful and pitch-perfect that The Walk, no matter what the initial hesitation, becomes a remarkable remembrance of a time, place and feeling that we might never be able to experience again.  There is loss at the core of The Walk, but not a mournful, plaintive lost -- a romantic and lovely one, a hopeful reminder to look back at the past and remember joy, that we might have it again in the future.

Viewed Oct. 17, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Monday, October 12, 2015

"Bridge of Spies"

 4.5 / 5 

Movies don't come more pedigreed these days than Bridge of Spies.  It's a Steven Spielberg film written by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Tom Hanks.  Its poster depicts an earnest-looking Hanks wedged between the Stars and Stripes and the hammer and sickle with a tagline that touts that the movie will show the world what America stands for.

Ignore all that.

Bridge of Spies isn't the awards-season message movie that it might have you believe.  Instead, it's the closest Spielberg has come to matching the kind of filmmaking that labeled him a genius, a movie that seeks first and foremost to entertain, and to do it with sleek storytelling, luscious visuals and the kind of cinematic set-pieces that put him into the same league as Alfred Hitchcock.

This is the kind of film Hitchcock might have loved to have made, a movie that begins with an ordinary guy -- James Donovan, a high-priced lawyer, true, but one whose specialty is about as mundane as you can get: He represents insurance companies in accident claims.  He is that Hitchcokian "every man," a guy so non-descript you wouldn't look at him twice if you saw him on the train during his commute from Brooklyn.

There's another guy you wouldn't look at twice in Bridge of Spies.  His name is Rudolf Abel, and he's a Soviet spy.  He's supposed to be nondescript, and achieves his goal so well that even when the Feds run right into him during a chase, he tips his hat, apologizes and walks on his way.  They catch up to him, though, and Abel is arrested for spying.  It's 1957, and Cold War tensions are mounting.  The Soviets believe the U.S. is preparing for a nuclear attack.  The Soviets believe the Americans are getting their nukes ready.  The world is at a standoff.

The capture of Abel (played with understated humor and dour resignation by Mark Rylance) could be a turning point.   Donovan's bosses want to follow the letter of the law, so they appoint Donovan to provide a "competent" defense of the accused.  The case against Abel has been decided even before he sets foot in the courtroom, and when the guilty verdict is handed down, Donovan uses his actuarial-table mind to make one last-ditch appeal to the judge.

It's a war, he reasons, and we've got one of theirs.  Sooner or later, they'll have one of ours, and when they do, we'll need their guy for leverage.

Later never happens, because Capt. Francis Gary Powers has been recruited for a top-secret spying mission (it's so much more polite to be called a "photo reconnaissance" mission), and he doesn't make it far.  He's captured by the Soviets.

Neither government can get involved.  And that's where Donovan comes in to play.  He's needed as the go-between, to negotiate with the enemy -- and a married father of three who has spent most of his days analyzing liability in car crashes finds himself playing a potentially deadly game of espionage in the war-torn no-man's-land of East Berlin.

His mission is to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange of the release of Abel.  They'll carry out the exchange on the Glienicke Bridge -- the Bridge of Spies.

Donovan doesn't really know how he got here.  The best he can do is talk and reason and negotiate with people who don't want to talk or reason or negotiate.  The government disavows knowledge of his activities (they're good at that, it seems) and he mostly on his own to figure it all out.

The stakes are high, and Spielberg does a masterful job of depicting Berlin in flux, as Communist Russia built its wall to keep "their" Germans from escaping to the free West.  It's a dangerous place in a dangerous world, and for long stretches Bridge of Spies takes on both the physical appearance and the pacing of a 1940s noir thriller, played halfway in light with exquisitely long two shots that allow the two sides to go head to head on screen.

Spielberg brings many of his signature visual touches to Bridge of Spies, but those compositions, framings and shots only enhance the film -- they don't detract the way they have in movies like Minority Report and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Spielberg seemed to be mimicking himself.

Here, he finds new life in his classic style, and the movie benefits.  Bridge of Spies tells a massive story, spanning half the globe at times, and Spielberg's unmatched expertise keeps it simultaneously contained moving forward at a brisk speed, keeping the tension high with the confidence of a true master.

There's a lot of exposition at the start, and even throughout, but it's never dull and it's all important (except, perhaps, for a couple of odd scenes played mostly for laughs, like one involving Abel's alleged family).  There's hardly an ounce of fat on the movie, and because Spielberg knows exactly what he's doing, watching Bridge of Spies really is like watching a master craftsman at work, blending his scenes; counterbalancing intensity with softness; knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension and when to let it go slack for just a moment.  The result is free from excess, yet not so lean as to be tasteless -- it sizzles and crackles and all looks and feels exactly right.

Save a few extraneous, softly patriotic scenes at the end, Bridge of Spies is also not a movie trying to make a grand political statement, or even to warm our hearts -- it wants to engage our minds, and thrill us the way a good thriller should, by getting our brains working.

Bridge of Spies is Spielberg's best movie since his 1994 one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.  He's made some fine films since then, and some that were, generously, less successful.  But Bridge of Spies is a solid reminder, as if we ever really needed one, that when Steven Spielberg is at his best, there is no American director finer, more solidly in control of his craft.

Bridge of Spies a great spy thriller, a tense drama, a fascinating historical story.  More than all those things, though, and most importantly for moviegoers in need of solid entertainment, it's one truly terrific film.

Viewed Oct. 12, 2015 -- DGA Theater