Archive for October, 2015

Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle)

Posted: October 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

I have no idea how accurate or inaccurate “Steve Jobs” is at portraying the real Jobs.   As someone who fails to see the appeal of Apple products and despises its business practices, my feelings toward the real Jobs have fluctuated between disgust and indifference, depending on how much news comes out as to whether he was more or similarly evil to other Capitalists.  Given that the film is written by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the excellent “The Social Network” which contained a Mark Zuckerberg who was far more eloquent and interesting than the real Zuckerberg appears to be in interviews, I assume the fictional Jobs is similarly more eloquent and interesting.  I suppose the question I have about Jobs, upon seeing the film, is if he actually DID anything worthy of the odd cult of personality that surrounds him in modern culture. Based on the film, Jobs was not a tech genius or a visionary.  The film argues that Jobs was a jerk who built upon the work of others, had marketing and presentation skills, and whose main character arc was to go from a person who wanted to force people to like what he wanted them to like to a person who made small accommodations and then convinced people to like what he wanted them to like.  The film also portrays him as a narcissistic ass who doesn’t know the difference between a work of art and a product for consumption.  Granted, these things aren’t always mutually exclusive (a movie is both a work of art and a product, and how much it is of one versus the other is often the deciding factor in its quality or lack thereof) but Wozniak (Seth Rogen) is right: a computer is not a painting.

Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender, who looks nothing like the real Jobs but is a phenomenal actor who is capable of delivering Sorkin’s dialogue and making it sound like real human speech, for which he deserves an Oscar nomination.  Fassbender makes a profoundly unlikable character enjoyable to watch, which few actors can do well, especially when that character is in every scene of the damn movie.  Anyone who appreciates acting as an art form has to see the film solely to see how Fassbender portrays a character at three different stages of his life, plus flashbacks, and makes them seem like the same person slightly altered by age and experience.  How virtuosic this performance is may be lost on some people simply because this performance, and “Steve Jobs” itself, feels like it belongs more on stage than it does on film.

The film is divided into three distinct acts.  We have 1984, where Jobs is introducing the Mac computer after the triumphant “1984” commercial which aired during the Super Bowl.  Then we have 1988, after Jobs has been fired from Apple because the Mac was a commercial failure compared to the Apple II computer which didn’t have the closed system Jobs insisted the Mac have. In this segment, Jobs is launching his Next computer, which is bound to be a failure and he knows it.  Then we have 1998, when Jobs has been brought back to Apple is about to lunch the iMac, which was the start of the golden age of Apple which would eventually give us the iPod and iPhone and iPad.  While the screenplay by Sorkin is the real star of the film, Danny Boyle tries his hardest to give us compelling visuals for a story that takes place largely in dressing rooms and hallways before presentations.  The coolest innovation is having each of the segments shot on different film stock.  1984 is shot on 16MM, and seeing 16MM on the big screen is so rare nowadays that it was visually my favorite segment just for the novelty of seeing a major film shot using it. 1988 is shot using the traditional 35 MM film stock.  1998 is shot using digital, which is how most films are shot nowadays.  It’s a cool way of indicating the passage of time in a way outside of the normal obvious ways of making something look “period” (hair styles, costumes, and props), and the fact that Boyle is also able to get a striking shot in the film here and there (the near-opening shot of empty red metal seats, a downward shot of Jobs at a light table through funky lighting fixtures hanging from the ceiling in the third segment, etc.) is a testament to him.  I’m not always a fan of Danny Boyle ( I HATED “Slumdog Millionaire”, “127 Hours” didn’t sufficiently showcase the passage of time, “A Life Less Ordinary” was a mess, etc.) but “Steve Jobs” is one of the best film’s he’s directed.  Perhaps knowing that the film was originally going to be directed by David Fincher, one of the best living directors working today, forced Boyle to up his game.  Maybe Sorkin’s screenplay had the shots written in and Boyle was just following the blueprint.  Whatever the case may be, Boyle outdid himself here.

In 1984, Jobs is riding high on expectations.  The “1984” commercial played well, and the world is anxiously awaiting the Mac as a computer with the potential to rival IBM for control over the personal computer world.  Jobs has insisted on a computer with a closed system, one which cannot be altered by the user and is not compatible with outside components. One wonders if the word “monopoly” ever entered Jobs’s head.  The system is so closed that the Mac cannot be physically opened unless one has special tools.  Later, in flashback, Wozniak tells Jobs something along the lines of “computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws; I’m not going to put yours in one.”  Wozniak is the guy with actual tech know-how and developed the open-ended Apple II computer, which was a financial success.  The success was a double-edged sword, however, as the film’s narrative is that the failure of the Mac lead Apple to double-down on the Apple II and be afraid of further innovation, which proved to be Apple’s death knell.  In this segment we’re also introduced to Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) who seems to be the one employee Jobs respects, or at least tolerates, and who follows him from company to company with a loyalty that, given how Jobs is portrayed in this film, is inexplicable.  Hoffman attempts to act as Jobs’s conscience, or reason, or connection other human beings.  Occasionally she’s successful.  Then there’s Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), the man whose nuts and bolts skills create what Jobs merely has the power to ask for and who takes repeated verbal abuse from Jobs.  Lastly, there’s John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), CEO of Apple and surrogate father to Jobs who has business know-how but little imagination.

Oh, but that’s actually not all.  See, Jobs has a daughter named Lisa (played by different actresses in each segment), though he cruelly and callously denies parentage of her despite having some genuine feelings of affection for her buried not-too-deeply under his asshole visage.  The mother of Lisa is Chrisann (Katherine Waterston), who is not portrayed positively but gets sympathy based solely on how cruelly Jobs treats her and how Jobs thinks throwing money at her is a solution to everything once he’s done ridiculing and threatening her.  The relationship between Jobs and Lisa is used to contrast the relationship between Jobs and his computers.  Jobs denies Lisa while trumpeting the Mac.  Jobs warms to Lisa while lying about the Next computer, which he knows sucks but the technology didn’t catch up with his vision.  Finally, Jobs makes peace with Lisa at the time he finally has a good product that people actually want, the iMac.  This relationship between creator and creation is probably the main theme of the film.  The funny conclusion to draw is that Lisa is a good person (we’re told and we have no reason to disbelieve) DESPITE Jobs as a parent.  Similarly, given that Jobs seemingly has no technological, engineering, or coding knowledge or experience, his tech creations are similarly the works of other people.  With the popularity of Apple, we forget that Jobs didn’t actually invent anything.  He didn’t invent the internet, and the MP3 player and the smartphone would have been invented without a Steve Jobs ever having existed.  Jobs did not create anything of use, and the film opens with a vintage film clip of “2001” author Arthur C. Clarke telling us what he thinks the future will look like (it’s scarily accurate) calling into question how much of a “visionary” Jobs even was.  The film may be trying to subtly argue that Jobs is no more responsible for our tech-infused contemporary zeitgeist than he is for the person his daughter became.  To the film, Jobs is not a prophet or a genius, he’s just a hyper-intelligent asshole who evolved into being a good salesman.

Again, it is possible that the film isn’t playing fair, and Jobs actually contributed more to tech and society at large than we’re shown here.  It’s possible.  But the film gives us a Jobs who is all flash, attitude, and cockiness, wrapped in intelligence but still having little substance beyond that.  He doesn’t think of anything new, he doesn’t create anything new, he simply designs a pretty package (a disk slot that looks like a playful mouth, a perfect black cube, a colorful translucent box) and waits for the consumer to decide they want the pretty new thing.  Steve Jobs wants to think he’s Bob Dylan or Alan Turing, but he’s really just a QVC program, telling you to act fast because supplies are limited, and giving you a choice of pretty colors to give you the illusion of choice when, really, you’re stuck with Jobs’s selfish, closed system.

Jobs doesn’t grow as a person in the film, but he does lighten up.  The difference seems to be that society changes for the worse.  In 1984 people base computer preferences on functionality, whereas in 1998 they seem to base it on hype, marketing, and aesthetics.  Jobs didn’t get smarter, people got dumber, and in that sense the film may simply be arguing that Apple is nothing but hype, marketing, and aesthetics wrapped in a box of pretension, and so was Steve Jobs.  Make no mistake, the film hates its main character in a way few films do, and the quasi-happy ending is not as happy as it appears.  Ask yourself one question: did Jobs save that drawing because he loves his daughter, or because he loves himself?

“Steve Jobs” is a very good film, but it’s not for everyone.  It’s tightly contained acts of mostly dialogue feel more stage-like than film-like, the film is pretty much nothing BUT dialogue, and the main character is an unlikable asshole.  However, the film is excellently written, wonderfully acted, and wholly fascinating.  Watching the film I was riveted, both happy and angry during every scene.  “God sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we like him because he made trees.”  The film is not just about creator and creation, but also about creation and viewer/user.  We may not like Steve Jobs, but many people like Apple products. I may hate Capitalism, but there are consumer goods created under Capitalism (by workers) that I enjoy.  Roman Polanski is a scumbag who drugged and anally raped a 13-year-old girl, but he’s directed great films.  If we like something, we often excuse its creator and its origins.  “Steve Jobs” tells us that maybe we shouldn’t, but if we do, the creation better be more like a tree and less like an iPad. B+

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Back in the 1950s, Arthur Miller wrote the play “The Crucible” to make the Salem Witch Trials an allegory for the then-contemporary HUAC and later Senate McCarthy hearings attempting to purge Hollywood of alleged Communist sympathizers.  Well, now it’s 2015, the Soviet Union has been dead almost 25 years, and “Bridge of Spies” is at least partially using Communism as the allegory for our contemporary fears of radical Islam and terrorism.  Spielberg’s last film, 2012’s “Lincoln”, was also an allegory, albeit one that seemingly went over everyone’s head.  “Lincoln” was an allegory for the then-contemporary fight over Obamacare. Lincoln was representative of Obama, who wanted a middle of the road solution. The Radical Republicans of Lincoln’s time, who thought freeing the slaves using the 13th Amendment wasn’t enough and that former slaves deserved full citizenship, represented Liberals who wanted a public option or, even better, Single-Payer.  And then the Slave states and the Democrats, who wanted none of it, represented the modern day Republicans who opposed Obamacare with any number of scare tactics.  The allegory in “Lincoln” was pretty spot-on, whereas “Bridge of Spies” suffers a bit more because the Soviet Union and radical Islam are not as similar as Spielberg would argue.  Perhaps if I wasn’t so damn interested in old Communist and Soviet history, this would bother me more, but the subject matter of this film plays right into my wheelhouse so, well, I loved the movie.

The story revolves around an American insurance lawyer named James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in a particularly Hanks-ian role.  Donovan is tasked with defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and accused Soviet spy who the film makes it clear to us is indeed guilty of the crimes he’s accused of.  Despite this, the film portrays him as likeable and relatively harmless.  With the benefit of hindsight, and having had the Soviet archives opened following the fall of the Soviet Union, we know that the Soviets were not nearly as much of a threat to the American way of life as we thought they were at the time, which also helps us as an audience to like Abel.  In 1957, however, this wasn’t the case. Kids were terrified in schools by with short films about how to “duck and cover” to avoid a nuclear blast (the films shows us this, but modern generations are likely more familiar with this from “South Park”).  This is prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war could have happened and was avoided, but the fear that the Soviets would launch a nuclear attack was palpable in the minds of most Americans.  As such, the American public wants to hang Abel and doesn’t much care if he gets due process or a fair trial.  This may remind contemporary audiences of how we treat suspected terrorists these days.  Many on the Conservative side of the spectrum want to lock up suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay without a trial indefinitely, claiming that terrorists aren’t deserving of our due process.  Some have gone further into saying torture is justified against these people.  The United States itself has tortured suspected terrorists because, regardless of whether our actions make us no better than our enemy, we assume we have moral and ethical superiority simply because we’re us and they’re them.  Odd that when we faced the Nazis, another existential threat, we didn’t resort to torture, and we still tried Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.  The film even lets us know that Donovan worked on the Nuremberg trials.  “Bridge of Spies” lets us know that Abel, despite being a suspected spy for American’s Mortal Enemy that Abel was not beaten or tortured.  Later, when the film shows us an American spy pilot captured by the Soviets, all the Soviets due in the way of torture is sleep deprivation, not rectal force feeding of humus.

With enemies on all sides, from the American public, to his boss and his wife, and strangers on the train, Donovan sticks to his ideals and the rule of law.  No matter how unsavory a person may be, no matter how despicable their alleged crime is, every human being deserves an adequate defense, basic rights, and the rule of law.  It’s easier to argue these things using events that are firmly in the past.  If Spielberg made a movie about a lawyer defending a suspected terrorist by filing a habeas corpus petition, modern Conservatives would be decrying him on Fox News for making more Liberal propaganda from Lefty Hollywood.  This is why allegory is a powerful tool to use when making a political point, as Arthur Miller demonstrated in 1953 with “The Crucible”, or George Orwell demonstrated with his novel “Animal Farm”.

The issue with Spielberg’s allegory comes because “Bridge of Spies” has two distinct halves.  The first half of the film is solely about defending Abel and whether or not we abandon the Constitution and our rule of law or whether we as a country truly stand for the ideals we claim to have and that make us better than our purported enemies.  This half is a solid allegory.  The second half of this film is different.  The Soviets capture one of America’s spy pilots (Austin Stowell) and the DDR/East Germany arrests an American student (Will Rogers) who was studying the Soviet economic model at an East German School.  The CIA asks Donovan to negotiate a swap of Abel for the pilot, and Donovan wants to try to swap Abel for both the pilot AND the student.  This second half is tough to see as a direct allegory.  For one, radical Islamic terrorist groups will always behave differently than official nation-states.  One cannot really equate the Soviet Union with Al-Qaeda or ISIS because the latter two are rouge groups (despite ISIS referring to itself as a “state”) and the Soviet Union was a nation-state (or a nation-state with ostensibly sovereign satellite states), and those types of entities act substantially different form one another.  As the second half of “Bridge of Spies” is about negotiations, one immediately thinks about the negotiations for the nuclear treaty with Iran.  “Bridge of Spies” started production in 2014 and the negotiations for the Iran treaty began in late 2013, so it’s possible that a allegory toward that was what the filmmakers were going for.  Either that or the allegory was confined to the first half of the film, with the second half simply being a telling of the historical incidents which took place.  Since the second half of the film is not as direct an allegory I cannot say, except to note that if the United States was willing to negotiate with its mortal enemy in 1957, it seems odd that modern day Conservatives balk at attempting to negotiate with a hostile nation-state in 2015.  “Bridge of Spies” certainly argues that negotiations can work among hostile parties as long as each side genuinely wants something from the other side.  Iran, like the Soviet Union, is a nation-state.  No one is arguing we try to make a treaty with Isis, though I suppose the United States has tried negotiating with the Taliban, which once ran a nation-state but could now be considered a terrorist group.

How much you like “Bridge of Spies” will depend largely on how much you like politics in general and the Cold War and Communist history in particular.  I love both, and so I loved the film.  Most audiences are not as familiar with this history as I am, so for them I cannot speak to their enjoyment.  Indeed, some audiences may find a film that is largely comprised of people talking o each other in rooms to be slow.  This is a spy film where nothing blows up and there are no action sequences.  Personally, a tense conversation is often more suspenseful to me than James Bond driving a sports car through Prague, but today’s audiences have a shorter attention span and perhaps a smaller intelligence than audiences used to have.  “Bridge of Spies” suffers at points from Spielberg’s trademark sappiness (the music underscoring Abel’s “standing man” speech is painfully melodramatic and on-the-nose), but otherwise this film feels more like the intelligent films of the 1970s than the hyperkinetic idiocy of today’s motion pictures.  Sure, most audiences will not watch the scene that takes place in the Soviet embassy in Berlin and want to take home many of the props they see (a giant painting of Lenin, busts of Lenin and Marx, a giant bronze Soviet seal, etc), so they will not get the uniquely personal thrill I got from this film.  Also, having been to Berlin and visited the DDR museum, I was pleased to recognize places and iconography I have seen in person.  These are joys unique to me and a few other history buffs and modern Marxists.

One of the surprising things about the film is just how FUNNY it often is.  I attribute this to Joel & Ethan Coen writing parts of the script.  The Coen Brothers are incapable of writing a drama without any humor in it.  Sometimes this works really well, like in their greatest film “Fargo”, and sometimes it is annoying as hell and tanks the film for me, like “Blood Simple”.  Here, the humor works well without capsizes the film.  The other writer, Matt Charman, likely helped reign in the Coen’s penchant for slapstick and ironic silliness, so we get a drama that occasionally makes us laugh, but ultimately works as a tense and suspenseful drama and enjoyable history lesson and allegory for our modern times.

I sort of wish the allegory was a little clearer in the second half.  I wish Spielberg didn’t resort to sappiness when he makes a drama like this.  I wish Spielberg wasn’t so in love with filming everything with a silvery-blue tint nowadays (not as bad as when he made “Minority Report”, a film ensconced in silvery-blue), but the look isn’t too distracting.  That being said, “Bridge of Spies” is still one of the best films of the year.  It tells a compelling story in a wonderful way, makes a political point, is well-acted, has a tight script that hits all the right notes and balances drama and humor well, and feels like a film from a better era of moviemaking. I loved it. A-.

Goosebumps (dir. Rob Letterman)

Posted: October 26, 2015 in Uncategorized

In lieu of a written review, enjoy this video review my GF and I made of the film.

Knock Knock (dir. Eli Roth)

Posted: October 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Knock Knock” is a film with a message that isn’t entirely able to be dug out of it.  Eli Roth’s films usually have a political message of some sort in them, with “Cabin Fever” being the least political up until now, and “Knock Knock” is his first film to not feature the theme of culture clashes.  The difficulty of ascertaining the message of the film does hamper the enjoyment of it, but at least we can guess as to what Roth was going for here.

Apparently, this film is a pseudo remake of a 1977 film called “Death Game”, but since I have not seen that film, this knowledge doesn’t help to understand this new film.  “Knock Knock” has superficial similarities to films like “Funny Games” and “Hard Candy”, these low-budget, almost stage-like home invasion morality play films.  We can add to that the subgenre of films where men who cheat on their wives are punished by their mistresses, like “Fatal Attraction”.  Usually the messages of films such as these are blatant. Men shouldn’t cheat because it’s wrong, or men shouldn’t teat because women are crazy.  Whether the particular film is misogynist, misandrist, or both can vary.  “Knock Knock” is a film that is not really clear because it stacks the deck so much on one side that it eliminates any easy answers.  The women of the film are so obviously in the wrong in their actions, despite the man also doing something wrong, that we’re left thinking there’s a subtle message we’re not getting.

Perhaps a plot description is in order.  Keanu Reeves plays Evan, an architect who is married with two kids.  His house has more pictures of his family than any house has ever had ever, making me think the film was going for some sort of satire.  Indeed, the early parts of the film are shot and set up like the worst Lifetime TV movie you’ve ever seen.  You can imagine the TV spots advertising such a film, with corny voiceover like “He was the perfect family man, until one night temptation struck.”  Evan’s wife (Ignacia Allamand, who seems unable to act in this film, even though she pulled off a passable performance in “The Green Inferno”) and kids are going away over a long weekend, leaving Evan alone to work on a project.  On the first night alone, the doorbell rings and on Evan’s doorstep are two young, soaked-from-the-rain girls, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, lead actress from “The Green Inferno” and Roth’s rela life wife) and Bell (Ana de Armas).  They claim a taxi dropped them off and they couldn’t find the house where they are to attend a party.  They also claim their phones have gotten soaked and ruined.  Evan, who we learn hasn’t had sex in weeks because he’s recovering from shoulder surgery (okay?) lets them in to use his computer.  When the girls find out they were dropped off in the wrong neighborhood, he has an Uber sent to pick them up, but because of the rain it’ll take 45 minutes for the car to get there.  The girls are soaked and ask to dry their clothes in the dryer, so Evan lets them while getting them robes to wait in.  They have a polite conversation that gets progressively more flirtatious on the girls’ end while Evan is obviously flattered by it, but tries very hard to keep things friendly and appropriate.  He gets up when they start touching his shoulder or rubbing his arms, he changes the subject when the girls bring up sex.  All in all, he has more will power than most men would have in this porn movie-esque scenario.

I’m not sure it’s a spoiler to say that Evan eventually relents to the bombardment of come-ons, but not before he’s practically blowjob-raped by both girls at the same time.  Later, an actual woman-on-man rape happens to him.  Here’s the thing: if this film is trying to make a simple don’t-cheat-on-your-wife message, that’s very hard when the girls commit what would be considered entrapment if this were some sort of law enforcement proceeding, and then commit out and out rape on this guy.  If the film is just saying women are evil temptresses who shouldn’t be trusted, then the film wouldn’t spend so much time reminded us that Evan is married with children, to the point where the entire set design is made up of family photos or pieces of artwork Evan’s wife has created.  The film doesn’t want to let Evan off easy, but it also stacks the deck so that the girls’ actions are far more wrong than Evan’s.  Evan essentially made the mistake of being too polite in letting the girls in, and not firmly shutting down their flirting.  He then, of course, made the mistake of not stopping the two-girl blowjob that was forced upon him.  Those mistakes might warrant the end of his marriage, sure, but they don’t warrant the psychological and physical torture the girls put him through.  Also, these girls are made as close to clinically insane as possible.  It doesn’t read, though, as if the film is indicting all young women, for some reason.  The film only really gives us two other adult female characters (Evan’s wife and Evan’s physical therapist, played by Colleen Camp) and both of them are not portrayed in any sort of misogynistic manner.

So then what is this film’s point?  Is it just a story of two crazy women who entrap a man into sleeping with them, and then punishing him for succumbing to their incredibly strong demands?  That seems rather pointless.  Why the rather arch satire of TV movies and pornography.  Why is a man’s fantasy scenario going wrong amplified by Genesis wearing a shirt saying “This is all a dream” and then later having her write on a mirror in lipstick “This is NOT all a dream?”  It seems like perhaps Roth is attempting to poke a whole in a common male fantasy, be that affairs with younger women, threesomes, or whatever.  Perhaps it’s poking a whole in female wish fulfillment of cheating men getting what they deserve by making Evan receive far more than he actually deserves.  Maybe Roth is merely poking a whole in easy morality, and reminding us that situations are not always as black and white or as surface as they appear to be.

One of the major themes of Roth’s last film “The Green Inferno” (filmed a year before “Knock Knock” but released mere weeks before due to issues with that film’s release) was shaming via social networking.  In “Knock Knock” there is a scene where an out of context video is shared on social media with people in order to wound Evan.  It is perhaps likely that Roth is really just making a larger comment about internet shaming.  Roth may be making a point that when there is an online controversy about something the entire context isn’t known and would change initial perceptions, or that the outrage is often out of proportion to the act causing the outrage, even if some outrage is indeed justified.  My guess is if “Knock Knock” has a message, it is somewhat related to Online Shaming, but the film could do a better job of articulating that message.

“Knock Knock” is fairly entertaining as it goes along, but the satire could be lost on some and that message is too buried among the other extroverted weirdness to be considered an asset to the film. Coming off the very good “The Green Inferno”, this is Roth’s weakest film since “Cabin Fever”.  C+.

Black Mass (dir. Scott Cooper)

Posted: October 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

Let’s cut to the chase.  The thing everyone wants to know about “Black Mass” is whether or not Johnny Depp is any good in it.  After all, Depp has gone off the deep end, constantly wanting to do more and more outlandish characters that feel like they belong in sketch comedy instead of film.  “Mortdecai”, “Tusk”, “The Lone Ranger”, and other films have ruined his standing as a good actor that he’d had for a long time.  Then “Pirates of the Caribbean” became a hit, he became an A-lister, and he wanted to do wackier and more outrageous roles.  As a result, he became a much worse actor.  I was never really a fan of the “Pirates” films (I like the second one, but overall I was cold on the whole series), and honestly I’d have to go back to 2007, a full 8 years ago, to see “Sweeney Todd” as the last film I unapologetically liked Depp in.  So now we have Depp playing the lead in a serious dramatic role based on the true story of a notorious mobster, and it looked like he might be back on track.

The problem is that Depp looks nothing like James “Whitey” Bulger, and so he once again finds himself covered in a ton of make-up to play an arch role.  The make-up isn’t badly done, exactly, but Depp doesn’t look like Bulger, or anyone human for that matter.  Standing against other actors who are not in obvious make-up, Depp’s Bulger looks more like a vampire, a nosferatu, than an aging Irish criminal.  In a sense this works, because it gives the Bulger character in the film an extra feeling of evil compared to the other characters and makes him stand out, but it also is distracting and takes you out of what is otherwise a solid, middle of the road gangster picture.  As for Depp himself, well, his performance bears all the hallmarks of a low-key Jack Nicholson impersonation.  I’m not talking an arch, “Heeeeere’s Johnny” Nicholson, but a more subtle Nicholson as seen in earlier films like “Reds”.  This may not be an accident, as Nicholson played a character loosely based on Bulger in “The Departed”, but it’s noticeable in the same way it was noticeable that Heath Ledger adopted various Michael Keaton-as-Beetlejuice inflections when playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight”.  Depp’s performance feels very coptcat-ish.  It’s the sad state of Depp’s career that even despite these reservations this is one of his better performances in a long time.  I wish they had cast another actor, one who looked more like Bulger so the damn make-up wasn’t needed.

Honestly, if we’re talking about someone’s acting, it should be Joel Edgerton, who plays FBI agent John Connelly, the man who invites Bulger to be an informant to the FBi and, as a result, protects Bulger from facing the legal consequences of his actions for decades.  The last time we saw Edgerton, he was playing the reserved and potentially psychotic Gordo in “The Gift”.  If you compare his performance in “The Gift” with his role in “Black Mass”, well, they are extremely different characters, and the fact that Edgerton can play such different characters so damn well is a testament to that man’s ability.  Edgerton is the real star of the film, not Depp.  In fact, the abundance of great actors in “Black Mass”, including roles for Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others, make Deep’s flaws stand out even more.  I mean, this is a film where even Dakota Johnson, who played Ana in “Fifty Shades of Grey”, does a good job in her tiny role as the mother of Bulger’s child.

Being based on a true story, “Black Mass” doesn’t follow a traditional narrative plotline.  We start out with Bulger being the head of small organized crime outfit, until he makes a deal with Connelly to give information on his enemies to the FBI in tacit exchange for the Feds leaving him alone.  With nearly free range, Bulger gets involved in everything from professional jai alai to attempting to supply weapons to the IRA.  Bulger is not reserved in using murder, and even does the dirty work himself on a number of occasions.  In addition to FBI protection, his younger brother (Cumberbatch) happens to the a senior member of the State Senate, which also helps matters.  Bulger isn’t a complete monster, as we’re shown he cares about his son and his mother, but there are few redeeming qualities to the man.

The main theme of the film is informing.  The film beings with a member of Bulger’s outfit, Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) insisting he is not a rat, before then telling everything he knows about Bulger.  Other members of the team, many years after the fact, also inform.  Bulger himself is seemingly hypocritical as he informs on his competitors (namely the Italian mafia) to the FBI while exactly the most brutal revenge murders on those who inform against him.  In fact, almost all of the people murdered in the film are killed because they inform on someone (I think I counted two murders that had nothing to do with informing, and one murder of someone who could potentially inform in the future but made no moves to do so before he’s killed).  Bulger informs to Connelly, and when Connelly finds out about people informing on Bulger he reports that info to Bulger.  Later, an agent informs on Connelly, both to the FBI and to the newspapers.  “Black Mass”, if nothing else, is about people betraying their confidences to other people, and both how that can lead to people being punished as well as lead to those persons being absolved, or receiving leniency, legally and personally.  It is about how some people inform for their own advantage, and some people inform in desperation.  It’s been recorded that Ben Franklin once said “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”  “Black Mass” seems to be the filmic argument in favor of that statement.

“Black Mass” isn’t noticeable different from other gangster films to warrant standing out from the genre.  It’s of interest to me for having grown up in Rhode Island, where people like the characters in “Black Mass”, even if they’re not in the mafia, do reside, and the film feels authentic having known many people like this.  Because it’s based on actual events, learning of those events is interesting in and of itself.  The idea of a Massachusetts gangster being involved in skimming money from the niche sport of jai alai, or trying to fund Irish terrorists, is really fascinating.  As far as it being a film in and of itself, though, there isn’t really anything here we haven’t seen before.  “Black Mass” is very much of its genre, but it doesn’t rise above it or transcend it.  Also, the ending is abrupt and anticlimactic.  The particular alliance between law enforcement and Bulger, and the idea that the federal government in a great way allowed Bulger to become as big and powerful as he became, is the big distinguisher between this story and others, but it’s not enough to set this film apart from other ones, as the mob paying off law enforcement is a common theme.  It’s just in this case law enforcement wasn’t simply bribed, it created and nurtured the alliance.

The director, Scott Cooper, previous did the similarly good-but-familiar “Crazy Heart”.  The man knows how to direct a good drama, and to get good performances out of his actors, but his films feel very safe and almost hermetic in their familiarity.  I have not seen the film he made between these two, “Out of the Furnace”, but I hope as he goes on he takes more risks, especially in choosing films with more ambitious screenplays, as he has shown himself to have a lot of talent.

If you like mafia films, and you’re interested in the real life story and the subject matter, “Black Mass” is worth seeing.  It’s well directed and mostly well acted, and the story is told in satisfactory way.  It just doesn’t stand out, and Depp is distracting. B.

The Walk (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Walk” is a fictionalized account of an incident in 1974 when a French tightrope walker named Phillipe Petit spent 45 minutes walking back and forth across a cable suspended between the two towers of the then-new World Trade Center.  He was 1,350 feet above the ground with no safety wire or harness.  The Towers, which at the time were unpopular, suddenly gained approval by New Yorkers, and the feat was so impressive that all criminal charges against Petit for the act and the planning of it were dismissed as long as he performed a free show for children in Central Park.  It’s one of those stories that, if it were not true, would be wholly unbelievable.  For those of us not alive in 1974, we perhaps learned about this story through the documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), and of course learning about this event is forever colored by the 9/11 attacks.  Those buildings are no longer there, and some victims of the attack jumped to their deaths from the same heights that Petit once stood on a wire at.  What was once simply a skillful daredevil fear has been imbued with a profundity that did not exist at the time.

“The Walk” largely takes the form of a heist movie, with the formulaic structure of the team being assembled, the intricate planning of an illegal act, and then finally the act.  The difference, of course, is that the illegal act is not the robbing of a bank or casino, but something more benign.  Sure, if Petite had fallen to his death it wouldn’t have been so benign, and he could have potentially hurt others in the course of the act if he or any of his equipment crashed down below, but for the most part the only person at risk from the event was himself.  What’s amazing to consider while watching the film, in the wake of 9/11, is how lacking the security at the Towers were.  Petite and his accomplices were able to make multiple surreptitious visits to the Towers to study their architecture, security measures, and layout in a manner that would have proven most invaluable to someone with less benign motives. In 1974, before terrorists attacks on domestic soil became a national fear of the American populous, this wouldn’t have even been considered, but in hindsight it adds an extra uncomfortable feeling to the whole situation.

If someone simply wants to know the details of what happened to make Petite’s impressive feat a reality, the documentary “Man in Wire” is a much better place to go.  “The Walk” suffers from a number of flaws. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while often a very good actor, has a distractingly cartoonish French accent in playing Petit, who himself has a strong French accent, but not quite as Looney Tunes as Levitt is showcasing here.  The film has an annoying voiceover from Levitt and often cuts to him delivering information from the top of a very fake CGI Statute of Liberty, a gift from the French to NYC…very subtle comparison to Petit giving the city a gift via his performance, right? Yeah, subtlety has never been director Robert Zemeckis’s specialty in films like this (“Forest Gump” comes to mind) and this voiceover and filmed narration is a device I wish had been left on the cutting room floor. It makes our main character more annoying then he has to be.  Granted, for a guy to do what Petit does, he has to be a little egotistical and crazy, but he doesn’t have to talk our ear off with narcissistic pleas to his own deep feelings.

The film doesn’t quite give us a reasonable timeline of the development of Petit’s skill.  Oh sure, we see him train on somewhat low high wires on his own, and we see him get tips and pointers from a master Czech circus owner (Ben Kingsley) on how to tie the correct tightrope knot, but this film could have desperately used a montage or something showing Petit getting better.  Instead, the film provides us with a walk over a pond where Petit gets distracted and falls off.  The next time he gets on a wire, he’s suddenly successfully walked a wire across the two spires of Notre Dame, which is much higher and more dangerous than the pond he failed at.  What? How did Petit suddenly get that much better? The film doesn’t give us an answer; it just wants us to assume he’s suddenly awesome, and ready to tackle his plan of walking across the two towers.  In reality, Petit did many other walks in preparation, and those would have been useful to put in the film, if even only in a quick montage form.  I guess the filmmakers decided not to do this to make the inevitable Trace Center walk have more suspense, but since we all know that Petit did this walk successfully, that suspense is cut off at the knees anyway.

The film doesn’t particularly go a good job of explaining Petit’s drive to keep performing on high wires.  We’re basically just told he saw the circus once and was enraptured.  Then he’s being kicked out of the house by his parents for not giving up on his dream.  The film introduces us to a love interest, Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), but it never gives us a sufficient explanation for why Annie is interested in Petit, she has no real role in the high wire walk, and she pretty much dumps Petit as soon as the walk is over.  This character has no reason to exist in the film except for the fact that the film has no other real female characters to speak of.  The filmmaker should have given her character a reason to be included, or eliminated her.

Honestly, though, the reason to see “The Walk” is not for the story of Petit as a person.  The film exists for us to experience, first hand, the elaborate planning of the high-wire walk, and then to put us out on the wire with Petit, the one thing the documentary could not do.  The planning stages are fun to watch, and it’s amazing how much time, effort, planning, and manpower was needed to pull this thing off.

As for the walk itself, it is THE reason to see the film, especially in 3D. For all the flaws the film around it contains, those 20 or so minutes on the wire with Petit are edge-o-your seat, rollercoaster ride-level thrilling.  3D does a better job of masking bad CGI than 2D, so I don’t know how it plays in 2D, but in 3D you FEEL like you’re on that wire and that Petit could fall to his death at any moment. I personally was gripping the armrest of my seat and became very nervous any time Petit decided to kneel down, or lay down on the wire, or shift his balancing pole behind his shoulders and turn around to walk in the opposite direction.  I was biting down on my teeth and saying to myself, in my head, “No! Don’t do that! You’re insane! Get down from there!”  For that sequence, the film does what the best of movies do, and that is to make you feel, in a gut-level, instinctual way, that something that is not happening is really happening, right now, on the screen, and to inspire a visceral emotional reaction because of it.  “The Walk” may be lackluster for most of its running time, but for those 20 minutes, it is one of the best films of the year.

So how the hell do I grade a film where 20 minutes are an A but the other 103 minutes are maybe a C+?  I guess I split the difference.  The movie is overall pretty amusing, but the script is flawed beyond belief and the narration is annoying as hell.  Still, you forget all of that for the film’s climax, and the planning scenes are very interesting. I guess is some of the film is excellent, and most of the film is so-so, the film as a total can still be called good. B.

The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)

Posted: October 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Martian” is a celebration of human intelligence.  It is a film about smart people using their brains to figure out enormous problems involving science, math, and bureaucracy. The film attempts to be hard science fiction, while not being all that speculative.  It fits somewhere between the grand ideas of a “Gattaca” and the action movie nonsense of an “Independence Day”, and follows up on the heels of “Gravity” and “Interstellar” in showcasing the tenacity of the human spirit towards survival.  It’s certainly a lark to see a big budget sci-fi film and the main draw of the film is finding out how smart people deal with seemingly impossible problems. This is an action movie where most of the action is inside the heads of geniuses.

Sometime in the not-too-distant future (maybe 30-40 years) NASA has sent a mission to Mars. When a freak storm hits the planet (I’m told that because of Mars’s thin atmosphere that this storm is the least believable thing in the film) one astronaut, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind when the crew decides to leave the planet early.  Injured, but still alive, Mark makes his way back to the temporary habitat set up for the astronauts to live in while on Mars.  The habitat was designed to last 31 days and has enough food and water to last about 6 people that amount of time.  There is now only one person, but with a 4 year travel time between Earth and Mars, Mark faces a seemingly impossible goal of keeping himself alive on limited resources for a very long time until a rescue can arrive.

Mark is not the most likeable guy.  He’s a smart ass and bit sarcastic, and sometimes quite funny, but something about the character rubbed me the wrong way, which probably kept me from being too invested into whether he lives or dies.  The character is obviously smart, and watching how he figures out ways to create water and grow food with the limited resources from the planet and from NASA is quite astonishing because, well, only a very smart individual who knows a lot about science and NASA’s equipment would think of these things.

Unlike “Gravity”, a film that makes us feel as lost and adrift in space as Sandra Bullock’s character in that film, we as an audience never quite feel stuck up on Mars with Mark.  This is probably because at last half of the film takes place on Earth with the NASA people working to get him home.  Jeff Daniels is in full “The Newsroom” mode as Teddy Sanders, the head of NASA, who unlike the clichéd evil government bureaucrats of other films, is played as a realistically pragmatic guy who tries to do the best thing while sticking to the legal and ethical obligations of his position and his agency.  His decisions, which sometimes place him in the de facto role of villain, always feel like decisions that would be reasonable and not-heartlessly made by an intelligent person in his position.  I like not going for an easy villain.

The main NASA employee who commands the Get Watney Home mission is Vincent Kappor, played well by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is the Earthbound parallel to Mark that is trying to figure out how to get satellites and food supplies ready and sent to Mars, as well as different contingency plans, and using his knowledge of materials at Mark’s disposal to help Mark out with tech issues that are outside of the stranded astronaut’s particular intellectual purview.

Without knowing much about hard science, the logistics of space travel, or surviving on a harsh and uninhabitable planet, I will say that the film’s science at the very least FEELS realistic.  If the film fudges some possibilities and facts here and there, it does so without breaking this feeling of realism and thus working within the slightly futuristic world the film is creating.  All films, especially of a sci-fi nature, are going to contain certain far fetched elements, but “The Martian” never set off my layman’s bullshit alarm, and this feeling of realism helps ground the film so that it stays as a story about the characters and not about various flights of fantasy.

“The Martian” is a very good film which will engross you and make you celebrate that some people on this planet, and some day maybe another, are a lot smarter than you are.  If the film didn’t effect me as strongly as I’d like to, it is because Mark is sometimes off-putting as a character, and by choosing to show the NASA side of the situation, we never feel “trapped” with Watney in the same way we felt trapped during “Gravity” right along with the stranded character.  In that way, this new film is not as immersive as that previous film.  Still, the world of the film is a very good one, with the vast landscapes of Mars looking very convincing, and the offices of NASA attempting to look somewhat realistic (look at their kinda-crappy break room).  Mostly, I just like the fact that we have a big Hollywood picture that is about smart people using their smarts, as opposed to big people using their guns.  I’m not against a good action movie, but the United States already has a lot of people who want to be gun-toting vigilantes.  It doesn’t have enough people who want to be scientists and engineers. B+

Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Posted: October 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Sicario” is a bleakly cynical and pessimistic film.  Those are not bad qualities for this film to have.  We’re perhaps used to films showcasing the futility of the U.S. drug war, but here we have a film that almost argues that law enforcement and laws in general are futile, that nothing of any greater good can be done, and that the only justice we as humans can make for ourselves is occasional one-on-one personal justice, e.g. revenge.  It’s not an affirming message, but perhaps in our world it is somewhat valid.

The film begins with an FBI tactical team storming a house in Arizona. After arresting one inhabitant and killing another, the team finds that the walls of the home are filled with dead bodies.  Later, some local police trip a bomb in the shed located in the backyard.  This all appears to be the work of a Mexican drug cartel responsible for violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The leader of the tactical team is Kate (Emily Blunt), an honest, tough, and resourceful member of the Bureau.  After the raid on the house, she is called into a meeting with higher ups and asked to voluntary for a joint task force aimed at going after the cartels in a manner more effective than cleaning up after bodies.  The offer seems to mostly come from a sandal-wearing Department of Justice advisor named Matt (Josh Brolin), who may or may not be CIA.  Why he wants Kate on the task force is not immediately known.  As audience members, we think this is going to be the clichéd storyline of a special and powerful person who is elevated above their ranks because only THEY can fix what is going on.  “Sicario” is not doing this.  “Sicario” eschews such clichés, and when we finally find out why Kate was chosen, the answer is so realistic and not-clichéd that it is a welcome but devastating gut-punch of pragmatic realism.

It is rather quickly that Kate finds out she’s in for more than she bargained for.  Almost as soon as Kate accepts the assignment, she finds herself on a plane with Matt and a quiet, non-American named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who will only say that he used to be a prosecutor in Juarez, Mexico.  Then, despite the FBI having no jurisdiction in the sovereign country of Mexico, Kate finds herself crossing the border on a mission to Mexico to kidnap the brother of the man though to secretly be the second-in-command to the biggest drug cartel operating out of Juarez and supplying cocaine to the United States.  Kate struggles with the legality of this, and further missions, as the film goes along.  Torture, interrogation tactics, rules of evidence, and choosing whether or not to do things in accordance with the rule of law, or to stretch the law to perhaps attain better results become the main focus of the film, which is a slow burning drama that sometimes wants to pretend it is an action movie, but never devolves into such base entertainment.

I am not familiar with any of the other work the writer of this film, Taylor Sheridan, has done. Apparently, he is mainly an actor and this is his first screenwriting credit.  He deserves a lot of credit for writing a film that is unconventional in how it proceeds.  It would have been so much easier to make this a film about a woman in a world of men who is chosen, through her above average skill and knowledge, to take down an evil drug cartel by bending the rules.  That film may even be good, if rather predictable.  That film is not what “Sicario” is.  “Sicario” is a deeper and more intelligent film because the purpose of the film is not to tell the story of a woman in the world of men, or to be about a sinlke drug cartel, or even to be a film like “Traffic” which examines the drug war and trade.  “Sicario” is really about the rule of law, and how the United States breaks the law, without apology, to reach small, pragmatic results that don’t really do much of anything.  This could apply as easily to the war on terror as it does to the war on drugs.  Honestly, if you think about what the film ends up saying, this is one of the most purely anti-American films that have been released in some time.  Kate is our protagonist, but not the film’s focus (in fact, the film often leaves her behind when telling its story), and she seems to be our main character simply because she is one of the only characters in the film that has ethics and a conscience, and we as an audience are meant to feel the same outrage that she does.  At the end of the film, when she has a chance to cross the line into lawlessness for revenge, or maybe just to try to do what she thinks may be just, she does not.  Her moral fiber is not broken, even if that of the United States already is.

The film shows us a corrupt state cop (as opposed to a federal cop) in Mexico (Maximiliano Martinez) almost form the beginning, and later we learn of corrupt cops in the United States, as embodied by the character of Ted (John Bernthal), an Arizona PD officer on the take from the cartels.  “Sicario” seems to be drawing a parallel, making us see that while we Americans think of our country as one of laws and civility, and think of Mexico as a lawless wasteland of corrupt cops and poverty, our countries are more alike than they are dissimilar.  Oddly enough, the Mexican cop is portrayed as mainly a man doing what he has to do for his family, whereas Ted is just a bad person, through and through, though has also brought into the easy money of being on the take from the drug world to support his family.

The only character that seems to be in a position to get what he wants is Alejandro, who is really just looking for revenge.  The United States government is revealed to mainly want to contain a problem because it feels impotent to stop the problem. “Until you convince the 20% of the population who uses their shit to stop, this is the best we can do”, Matt says (or something to that effect, I don’t have the screenplay in front of me).  When we finally find out *spoiler* that the U.S. is only trying to shut down the Mexican cartel so that the Columbian cartel can have a monopoly and inter-cartel violence will be eliminated and stop spilling over into the U.S., we understand the practicality of that, but feel dirty that the United States would essentially reduce itself to being a business partner with druglords.  Then again, the United States’ history with Latin America in the 20th century has more or less been one of hurting the peoples of those countries for its own economic gain. *end spoiler*

 

“Sicario” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has previously made two features.  One of them, “Enemy” (2013) I have not seen.  The other, however, was “Prisoners” (2013), a film I liked the visual look of, but hated story-wise for it’s ridiculously pro-Christian and anti-Atheist message.  That was the film where a father whose child disappeared kidnaps and tortures a mentally challenged young man until he finds out that his kid was kidnapped by an atheist woman who kidnaps and kills children in order to cause people to lose faith in god.  O…kay.  I found that film to be offensive for being ostensibly pro-torture and for being a Christian fever dream of the benefits of religion in the fact of evil, child-killing secularists.  “Sicario” features no religious messages that I can divine, so I will assume everything I hated about “Prisoners” came from that film’s writer, and not from Villeneuve.  My guess is the director, based on the two films of his I have seen, is fascinated with how the law is bent to attain some semblance of justice.  Both “Prisoners” and “Sicario” deal with revenge, torture, and law enforcement officials breaking the rules in the course of solving crimes, but they don’t deal with these issues in an easy, “Dirty Harry”-esque way. Whatever issues I have with “Prisoners”, it was, like “Sicario” a slow burn that tried to deal with issues rather than just paste them over for easy crime procedural narratives.  Villeneuve wants to examine these issues and not just use them as window dressing for easy action or mystery plotlines. I admire that, and “Sicario” is a far better film than “Prisoners” because he was finally given a script that lived up to his goals.

If “Sicario” is too oppressively dark and cynical to love, that’s not necessarily a demerit.  Whether it is a useful message to put into the marketplace that we should just throw up our hands and not try to do anything of greater good or significance, I’d probably disagree with.  However, the message the film gives is a valid message to believe, given what we know about the world in general and United States foreign policy in particular, and the film delivers its message is a refreshingly non-hackneyed way. B+.

Grandma (dir. Paul Weitz)

Posted: October 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Grandma” is a breath of fresh air.  When so many films these days are about special effects or two-dimensional cartoons that films insist on telling us are characters, it is simply refreshing to see a film about actual characters who feel like living, breathing people.  “Grandma” has a plot, albeit a simple one, but the film is about interesting characters dealing with a genuine but not huge problem, and we end up enjoying a short but sweet film that is here to tell us that we’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we shouldn’t be shamed if we acknowledge our mistakes and try to fix them.

The great Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a lesbian poet whose long-time partner died a few years back.  As we meet her, she is breaking up with her current girlfriend, Olivia (the invaluable Judy Greer) in a seemingly callous manner.  Soon after this, Elle is visited by her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner).  Sage has a problem.  She’s 18, pregnant, and doesn’t have the money to get the abortion she has scheduled for later that afternoon.  Elle has recently cut up her credit cards after becoming debt free, and is short on liquid cash at the moment, so the film becomes a trip around town as Elle hits up old friends to try to scrape together $600.00+ to pay for Sage’s abortion.  The results of this are funny (as when a former women’s clinic that did abortions for free has become a coffee shop run by a Christian), heartbreaking (a visit to a former male flame of Elle’s, played wonderfully by Sam Elliot), and funny again (Elle getting punched by a little girl outside of an abortion clinic).

The film is episodic in nature and divided into chapters, giving the film the feel of connected short films where each scene is almost a story in miniature, and allows for a better blending of comedy and drama in a way that feels tonally cohesive in a way few other dramedies do.  Lily Tomlin keeps us laughing with her realistically-and-never-sitcommy snarkiness, even when other characters are making us feel something deeper and more serious.  The best scene in the film features the aforementioned Sam Elliot, who starts off as a quirky character before giving us an absolutely heart-wrenching section where grief, loss, and just complete HURT is felt in every word he speaks.  The fact that he’s speaking of a hurt the character has been feeling for decades makes it all the more powerful, because we’re shown a man who has not be healed by time for wounds too deep, and wounds caused by an action I won’t reveal here, but is an action that wasn’t wholly wrong for Elle to have done.

The film seemingly pokes the barrel of hot-button issues.  Our main character is an elderly lesbian and the whole film is about attempting to get the granddaughter (who is the least rich character in the film) an abortion.  Honestly, the lesbian subject matter at this point just feels like a normal subject matter and not a capitalized Subject Matter.  No one save for the most right-wing of religious people are shocked or taken aback by realistic depictions of homosexual romance anymore, and for that we should all be grateful.  I do like that this film eschews arch stereotypes of lesbians and just feels natural about the subject.  As for abortion, well, it is odd that a legal medical procedure has become one of the most taboo topics for film to cover. Most films either casually dismiss it (“Knocked Up”) or mention it as an option only to have it be the option that is not chosen (“Juno”).  “Grandma” even kind of takes a jab at “Juno” by having Elle dismiss an abortion protestor brining up when a fetus has fingernails.  Recently, I can only think of “Greenburg” when I try to recall recent films where abortions are performed without any sort of moralizing about the issue.  For a popular, mainstream film, you might have to go back to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and that was 33 years ago. “Grandma” does cover the ethics of abortion and the doubts the granddaughter has, but the film comes down firmly on the side of prochoice while also not downplaying the seriousness of the decision, how hard it is to make that decision, and also allowing a character (again, Sam Elliot) voice legitimate grievances with certain aspects, even if they’re neutral on abortion in and of itself.  This is a fiction film that deals with abortion in a reasonable, adult manner, and that’s so rare that it seems transgressive when it really shouldn’t.

The film was written and directed by Paul Weitz, and I am as shocked as can be that this film was not only written and directed by a man (female character are rarely written this well and authentically by a male writer), but that it was written and directed by Paul Weitz, whose career up to this point has largely been in teen comedies or otherwise really bad comedies. He co-directed the first “American Pie”, which was genuinely good and funny film that attempted to be not-as-misogynistic towards women as other teen sex comedies had been, and was marginally successful in that regard. Then he went on to co-write the unfunny “Nutty Professor 2”, co-direct the unfunny “Down to Earth”, co-write and co-direct the critically successful but unliked-by-me “About a Boy”, write and direct the decent but forgettable “In Good Company”, write and direct the underrated but unnecessary cultural satire “American Dreamz”, write and direct the unseen-by-me and critically hated “Cirque du Freak”, and so on.  “Grandma” is far and away his best film.  It blows all of his other films out of the water, and it’s a shock that he had this film in him, and it took him this long in his career to make it.  Lily Tomlin is a huge reason why this film is successful, but the naturalistic screenplay which deftly balances humor and drama, laughs and pathos, is a magnificent feat by a screenwriter I didn’t exactly respect before seeing this film.  That has now changed. Weitz has delivered a wonderful film here.

“Grandma” is the type of film you don’t see much anymore.  It is character-driven, feels real (albeit with more articulate and interesting people than we normally meet in it), deals with issues in a naturalistic and appropriate manner, and makes you feel something, even if the stakes are relatively small.  Nowadays these types of films go through the festival circuit before being dumped to VOD and forgotten, and I’m glad that this film has gotten a wider-than-usual theatrical release.  It’s smart, charming, made me feel something, and is one of the best films of the year. A-.