Miss Sloane

Nothing but a wall of granite

miss_sloaneMiss Sloane comes at both the perfect time and too late.  It’s realistic, sharply written, and full of speeches we need right now – in fact, I suspect if everyone took to heart the words of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) during a live-TV debate with arch-nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the center of the film, I mean really took them to heart, maybe the conversation about gun legislation (and whom it’s for) would be different.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the character herself might not mean all of it, that it’s all part of a carefully engineered campaign to pass a bill, the very passing of which is ultimately for the satisfaction of the lobbyists pushing for it.  And while the film peels back some curtains about political games and machinations, it’s more of a character study than a movie about guns.

The film is a frame story that begins in the present with Liz Sloane on trial for something we’re not yet privy to, judged by overzealous senator Ron Sperling (a very impressive John Lithgow). Liz’s beleaguered attorney advises her to plead the fifth on every question, but once Sperling starts nitpicking Liz’s personal business (specifically prescription drug habits) and deliberately mixing up facts about a certain deal with Indonesia, Liz explodes, and is now obligated to answer the remainder of the tribunal’s questions lest she perjure herself.  Cut to a few months earlier.  Liz, a highly successful and sought-after lobbyist in D.C., is given a rather insulting directive by the Gun Lobby: use sophomoric fear tactics to get more women to buy firearms.  Smug, superior Liz shrieks with laughter.  Not only does she fully understand how irresponsible this approach would be, given the progressed crime rate, but she adores a good challenge.  She quits working for Connors, taking a skeleton crew of her best subordinates along with her, but leaving her protege, Jane (Allison Pill), who refuses to jeopardize her own career for Liz’s idealism.  Liz is soon hired by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) in support of a bill that would require universal background checks, and the battle begins.

As has been said about Jessica Chastain more than once, she carries this film.  Much of the script’s indulgent, snappy, Gilmore-Girls-esque dialogue is given to her, and she never wastes a word of it.  Gone, though, is the charm that many of Chastain’s characters are required to exude; Liz is ruthless, manipulative, and unapologetic.  She’s self-possessed, but not infallible, which is what makes studying her so fascinating.  Small fissures are visible when she’s alone.  Bits of her background come out in conversations with male escort Forde (Jake Lacy).  When one of her two long cons in the film – an ingeniously devious exploitation of gun-violence survivor Esme Manucharian (the amazing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – becomes more personal than expected, we get a very real look at what happens when trust is violated.  This is a world where the protagonist can be one step ahead of everyone, hit rock bottom and still win, but not where people magically become friends again.

The grandest manipulation of all involves the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Jane, who is far more than an ambitious would-be grad student who looks up to Liz.  Allison Pill plays her with an inscrutability that we aren’t even aware matters until the final minutes of the film.  Stuhlbarg once again plays an antagonistic bureaucrat, and accomplishes that amazing feat of performance that allows you to steadfastly root against a character whose actor you love (maybe that’s my own compartmentalization issues talking, but it is what it is).  Mbatha-Raw’s Esme is probably the only character in the film fighting for what she actually believes in for a pure and good reason, and she becomes the most important character when she causes Liz to realize that people actually do things for reasons other than their own ego, and that self-sacrifices are sometimes necessary (and let’s face it: Liz is far overdue for one).  Lacy’s character, the escort, helps catalyze the “defrosting” process, as it were, and Liz gets some surprisingly meaningful moments out of him.  Besides Lacy’s superb performance, it’s pretty cool to see a man finally play the Hooker with a Heart of Gold role.

Liz is asked, “Were you ever normal?”  It’s difficult not to wonder how she ended up the way she is.  But the film is less about that (and not at all about guns), and more about whether this kind of character can be anything else, whether one can untangle themselves from the moral web of the political system and the toxicity that comes with power.  And Jessica Chastain is the only actress who could answer these questions in such meaningful ways.

Literally the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this film is a certain photo of George W. Bush.

220px-miss_sloaneMiss Sloane (2016); written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain.

Arrival

I don’t know’s on third

arrivalDenis Villeneuve’s Arrival is probably the best first contact movie I’ve ever seen.  There’s no abduction, no galactic civil war, no silly “grays,” and no sainted white man who has to save the Earth.  In fact, there’s only one real character: Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is summoned to translate the language of an alien race that has recently landed spacecraft in disparate locations across the globe.  Despite the fact that the militaries of every nation have more or less quarantined the “shells” from the public, conflict doesn’t seem imminent; everyone still thinks it would be a good idea to see what the aliens want first.

Louise’s present narrative, in which she teams with physicist Ian Donnelly  (Jeremy Renner), straightforward military grunt Weber (Forest Whitaker), and antagonistic CIA stooge David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) to communicate with the aliens before the rest of the world – particularly China and their de facto leader, hair-trigger General Shang (Tzi Ma) – decides that it would be less trouble to open fire, is percussed by intermittent visions of her daughter’s life.  The flashbacks (or are they?) begin with a joyous birth, meaningful moments, and all the stuff you expect from movies-apologizing-for-reality montages, but then it becomes clear that Louise’s daughter, Hannah, died in adolescence from an inoperable cancer.  The past seems to weigh heavily on Louise, who struggles for the freedom to work in the quarantined shell zone, which is kept air-tight by the army.

The aliens themselves, called “heptapods” for their seven limbs, are one of the film’s greatest achievements, visually and in terms of originality.  Absent are the expected bipedal war-monger aliens who either possess convenient translators or just want to rip into us instead of talking.  The heptapods, who are so alien I can barely describe them (maybe picture a benevolent, organic version of Mass Effect‘s “Reapers”) speak in some kind of starfish language, but actually communicate via their writing system, which is more or less a magical ink that hangs in the air for a moment, and then vanishes.  Louise, chosen for a reason, slowly begins to break down this system and learns to introduce herself to the aliens, then to ask them simple questions, deciding to hold off on the “big one,” which is of course “Why are you here?”

I call Louise the only character because the others, while competently performed, exist to provide assorted foils to her.  She’s the one whose thoughts matter, whose struggle is real, and whose painful memories we have access to.  Whitaker’s character just wants to get this job finished and go home, preferably without getting court-marshaled for letting Louise go too far (though it is a bit convenient that she ended up supervised by someone so understanding, rather than Petraeus or Major Paine or some shit).  Stuhlbarg’s character is there because there needs to be an asshole government employee who reaches his boiling point before anyone else (and if Boardwalk Empire taught us anything, it’s that Michael Stuhlbarg is good at being reserved for a long time and then exploding).  Jeremy Renner isn’t actually in the film too much, which isn’t a bad thing, as his character isn’t important (honestly, for all Donnelly is good for, he could have been played by an extra whose face you never see – he serves the same purpose as Topher Grace’s character in Interstellar, although that movie seems extraordinarily silly compared to this one).

The titular “arrival” really has nothing to do with aliens.  Consider the fact that the source material is a novella called “Story of Your Life.” As it turns out (spoilers ahead), the heptapods do not even experience time the same way we do.  Instead, they experience all time periods at once, knowing from the time they are born exactly how and when they will die.  They’ve come to Earth because they have foreseen an undisclosed cataclysm that will impact them in three thousand years, and already know that they will need the help of humans to deal with it (sidenote: I’m not sure they should bank on humans being around for that long).  Therefore, they’ve come to Earth to gain our trust now.  In order to communicate this to the rest of the world, however, Louise needs to absorb this ability from the heptapods, and essentially travel to the future to stop Shang from obliterating China’s heptapod shell.  The kicker: that’s what we’ve been experiencing the whole time.  The visions of Hannah haven’t happened yet.

While the film is saying something about free will, it isn’t just asking whether you’d take the same path if you knew what was going to happen to you in the future (although it asks Louise to make that choice).  In a film like Another Earth, where a mirror planet’s versions of all of us have followed the same narrative right up until becoming aware of one another (essentially saying that we were all slaves to our destiny until that moment) Arrival (and its source story) assert that free will means not changing the timeline when tempted to.  In the original story, these ideas are conveyed via tenses – future tense for the daughter visions, past tense for the heptapod interactions – but you don’t have to study Fermat’s Principle to get it: Louise’s choice to conceive Hannah despite knowing how the girl’s life will end confirms the existence of choice itself, and that such a thing can seem monumental in the face of an inevitable future space war is amazing. Would we call it a “pro-choice” film, then?

arrival2c_movie_posterArrival (2016); based on the story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang; screenplay by Eric Heisserer; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Amy Adams.

 

 

Lincoln

Time passed, as happens

LincolnI’ve never cared much for political biopics, glorification of History’s Great White Guys, or the films of Steven Spielberg, but perhaps that’s why Lincoln did something for me – its subversion of all three forms.  Yes, it’s a film specifically designed to win Academy Awards, but the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln dilutes the Hollywood Design to the point that the film becomes less like a film and more like sitting in various rooms with the President during the last few months of his presidency.

The film’s title may be a bit of a misnomer, but its chief intention (Oscars for Spielberg) requires it to be the “definitive” Lincoln film, especially since two other Lincoln-themed movies (Redford’s The Conspirator and the campy Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) have been released in the past two years.  You may expect a story so definitively named to cover the title character’s entire life, or at least his up-and-coming years when he was wrestling for the presidency, but no; here, we see Lincoln in his final months of life, struggling to pass the 13th Amendment (the abolition of slavery) whilst being driven to the edge by his home life.  Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) supports her husband’s politics, despite their marital problems, which include the death of their middle son and the fact that Lincoln once threatened to have her put in the “madhouse.”  Additionally, Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to join the army, which Mary staunchly opposes and which Lincoln, regardless of his status as Commander-in-Chief, cannot do a damn thing about.

The timeworn trials of the Lincoln family take a backseat to the political action and sometimes feel wedged between the complex narrative involving the Amendment.  It is worth noting, however, that even though we know slavery will be abolished, Lee will surrender to Grant (Jared Harris, who hardly needs makeup to look like the general), and the Amendment will pass, the story still feels urgent and exciting.  Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is depicted as the Louisiana farmboy he was, not the baritone man’s man archetype we sometimes like to glorify him as.  He actually had a high-pitched voice (the only way he’d be heard in the back row of the giant crowds to which he gave speeches).  He was sympathetic, self-deprecating, and bizarre.  He loved to tell stories and tie old parables into what was happening in the White House.  Day-Lewis, famous method actor, completely becomes Lincoln in this picture, and even gets his obligatory Day-Lewis-Closeup-Yelling scene, but even then, you’ll only see the president here, not an actor.  Lincoln’s famous bowler hat is of course included, but is never played for laughs or even for much attention; it may as well be an extension of the man himself.  Long shots provide Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast with incredible opportunities to paint carefully-crafted pictures of their historical characters.

The film’s primary standout feature, aside from Day-Lewis’s performance, is the sight of the House of Representatives floor, whereupon abolitionist and Radical Republican Congressional Leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) pushes for the passing of the Amendment while trying not to appear as a race-equality extremist.  He butts heads with slimeball Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), in fiery exchanges that I can only hope have been transcribed verbatim.  The sheer animalistic nature of the countless dozens of white men on the floor looks like something out of a parody, but we sometimes forget that this is the way it once was.  The scenes of these congressmen shouting, chanting, climbing over each other, and clawing faces, forms a perfect parallel with the opening scene of the movie – a brief glimpse at a battle from the Civil War, in which hundreds of soldiers melee to the death in a pit of mud – showcasing how absurd war really is.  Lincoln knows it, as does Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who treats Lincoln like a misbehaving child when the latter skirts histrionics or does something behind Seward’s back (such as bringing Confederate representatives to the North in order to talk peace, essentially holding the end of the war hostage until the Amendment is passed).

Lincoln features possibly the largest cast of white guys ever assembled.  So many famous and accomplished actors appear, in fact, that it becomes almost a joke after awhile, as they continue to appear one by one.  Noted comedian James Spader appears as William Bilbo, a lobbyist who has some amusing scenes as he tries to convince Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment; Michael Stuhlbarg, known for starring in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire as notorious gambler Arnold Rothstein, plays George Yeaman, Kentucky’s reprsentative, and puts on an interesting southern twang; David Costabile of Flight of the Conchords plays James Ashley, and very convincingly; Tim Blake Nelson has the part of Richard Schell, who leads Lincoln’s, shall we say, “street team” along with Bilbo; Walton Goggins, who appeared in Tarantino’s Django Unchained as a character with a much different view on slavery, appears as Wells Hutchins, one of the 16 democrats to break with their party in favor of the Amendment; Hal Holbrook, who played Lincoln in 1976, plays Francis Preston Blair, the politician who arranges a peace talk with the Confederacy; and refreshingly, Gloria Reuben appears as Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and Mary Todd’s confidante, who receives plenty of screen time and a very important scene with the president near the end.

If the film has one pitfall, it’s where Spielberg chooses to end it.  A lovely scene on the night of Lincoln’s death features the president leaving his cabinet behind in order to hurriedly meet with Mary for the opera.  “I guess it’s time to go,” he says, “though I would rather stay” – purportedly Lincoln’s real-life final words to his cabinet that evening; whether or not he prophesied his own fate is up to you.  He then hands his gloves, which he refuses to wear, to his black butler, a free man, who watches Lincoln traverse the hallway until he becomes a silhouette of that tall, bearded, bowler-hatted American icon we all know.  In shadow, he then descends the stairs, leaving this life behind, the gloves perhaps a metaphor for Lincoln passing the baton to the people he has helped free.  This is where the film should end.  Instead, there is maybe another two minutes of reel, in which Lincoln’s shooting is announced to opera-goers, a doctor pronounces him dead as his family grieves, and then a flashback of his second inaugural address is shown before the credits roll.  Is this pure indulgence, a stab at absolute completion, or does Spielberg believe that modern viewers don’t know what happened to Lincoln that night?

Lincoln reminds me of something my dad said the other day, regarding HBO’s John Adams miniseries: “I learned so much more watching that than I did in school.”  Do biopics like these take liberties with history and dramatize people and events?  Yes, of course.  Historical fiction exists to observe and interpret history, not to provide a substitute for facts.  Is there something real, though, that can be learned from a film like Lincoln, whether about the man or the time period?  Maybe.  Regardless, let’s hope we can continue to remember without relying upon the entertainment industry, or else our grandchildren are in trouble.

Lincoln (2012); written by Tony Kushner; directed by Steven Spielberg; starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, and Tommy Lee Jones.

Seven Psychopaths

It’s very emotional

It never occurred to me that Martin McDonagh, a renowned Irish playwright and director of In Bruges, might end up making the quintessential Guy Movie, or that the latter might be a movie about dognapping.  Seven Psychopaths, the newest from the Oscar-winning director of Six Shooter, had me saying “Jesus Christ” aloud quite a few times in the theatre.

Funnily enough, the film immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s masterwork, Adaptation., which was also about a struggling screenwriter attempting to find a good movie in a slough of terrible ideas.  In both films, the protagonist is named after the screenwriter. Kaufman’s assignment was to adapt a movie from a book; unable to accomplish this, he wrote a screenplay about himself trying to adapt a screenplay from a book.  I wonder, then, if McDonagh was wrestling with a concept and finally settled on writing about himself wrestling with a concept.  The tone of the film, ill-tempered and seemingly aggravated with its characters, may suggest this.

Marty (Colin Farrell), sits on his porch, enjoys the breeze, drinks heavily, and scribbles ideas for his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” on a yellow pad.  His best friend and roommate, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) wants to help Marty with his screenplay by any means necessary, and to an obsessive degree: he not only offers to co-write the story, but he even puts an ad in the paper calling for criminals with crazy life stories to come to Marty’s house and share their experiences.  Ultimately, he resorts to an unbelievable, too-good-to-spoil solution, which involves a madman called the Jack O’Diamonds Killer – a serial killer who specializes in killing members of organized crime syndicates, shown in action in the film’s opening, which features brilliant banter between Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg.  Billy is unpredictable, sexist, and gratingly annoying, and takes his surname from Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.  You might think this is a coincidence until you see Billy in front of a mirror rehearsing a conversation.

Here’s the trouble – Billy has no success in his acting career, so he makes ends meet by teaming with his other roommate, the aging Hans (Christopher Walken), in a scam that involves stealing dogs and later returning them to their owners in order to collect the reward money.  Hans’ wife, hospitalized with cancer, does not approve, but Hans, a steadfast pacifist, believes he’s doing the right this as long as he gives the money to her.  The duo, of course, steal the one dog they should not steal: a Shih Tzu belonging to the most psycho of the film’s psychopaths.  This is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a gang leader with incredible love for his dog and absolute disdain for humanity.  Costello ruthlessly hunts down anyone remotely involved with the dognapping in scenes that would normally fit into harrowing, violent drama like No Country For Old Men, but due to McDonagh’s decision to make the film exceeding self-conscious, result in raucous laughs – I was a tad ashamed of laughing at some of the film’s humor, but dammit if I could keep from cackling at Woody Harrelson popping wheelies in a wheelchair while interrogating a hospital patient.

Marty’s problem is that he begins with a concept instead of characters.  He names the film “Seven Psychopaths” before he even comes up with one psychopath.  His first character idea?  A Buddhist psychopath who does not believe in violence.  Thinking aloud on this, Marty says, with a hint of resignation, “I don’t know what the fuck he’s gonna do in the movie.”  This is one of the ongoing themes: the movie we’re watching, parts of which may or may not be happening in Marty’s jumbled thoughts, continuously seeks to find a place for its characters, and the colorful weirdos orbiting Marty (namely Billy and Hans, who make it all too clear that they know they’re in a movie), offer rolling feedback.  Billy recognizes Costello as the “chief villain,” constantly tries to set up a “final shootout” between himself and Costello’s gang, and balks when Marty suggests that the film should ultimately be about love and not shootouts.  Hans, portrayed by the eclectic Walken as buckled-down and cavalier, takes the opposite approach: he tells Marty that his women characters are all either hookers or unintelligent, and are killed within five minutes of being introduced.  This comment comes a few scenes after Olga Kurylenko’s character, Angela, is introduced and immediately killed, and after Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish) breaks up with him and is killed (albeit in what amounts to a dream sequence, but it’s the last time she’s seen).  This provides another funny, self-conscious loop, but doesn’t change the fact that in McDonagh’s film, the actual film released in real-life theatres, the women are minimally seen and either naked or dead.

As was the case with In Bruges, the seemingly minor tidbits piece together to form a brilliant conclusion.  While Marty claims that he wants his film to have “no payoffs, just a bunch of guys sitting in the desert and talking,” Billy insists that the movie will end his way.  As such, we must remember Billy’s rules for movies, which include never showing sympathy for the villain, and never killing animals (Wes Anderson might disagree).  If he acknowledges this as a movie, then he knows he must follow his own rules, and Billy’s moments of hesitation are where Rockwell’s performance shines (a supreme achievement in a film that contains way too much of him).

The film also contains a short appearance by Tom Waits as one of the serial killers who answers Marty and Billy’s ad.  He’s a red herring for the Jack O’Diamonds Killer, but provides one of the movie’s many alternate-movies, which play like Marty’s rough drafts (or, more likely, McDonagh’s rough drafts for the real movie).  Luckily, these sequences all hold a special significance revealed later (yes, even Marty’s idea about a Quaker psychopath).

Seven Psychopaths is showy about its violence, and despite its humor, is one of the bloodier movies of the year (imagine Lawless as a comedy).  I wonder if McDonagh was going through a funk when he scripted/made this film, considering the amount of unpunished racial slurs and woman-bashing happening onscreen.  Whether McDonagh is taking a dig at the notion of being truly literary in Hollywood or was as frustrated as Marty when making this, there blooms an undeniable sense of exhaustion (and a big hint at McDonagh’s view on the less-than-fulfilling life of a screenwriter) once the action is over: sitting in his room, Marty receives a phone call from Waits’ character, to whom he broke a promise, and who calmly tells Marty he’ll kill him on Tuesday.  “That’s fine,” Marty says, distracted, his eyes glazed over.  “I’m not doing anything on Tuesday.”

Seven Psychopaths (2012); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.