Friday, September 25, 2015

Black Mass, Everest, Sicario, Pawn Sacrifice, The New Girlfriend, Breathe, Peace Officer, A Reunion

Black Mass

Pawn Sacrifice

The New Girlfriend

Peace Officer
A Reunion

The fall film season kicks off in earnest:

Johnny Depp’s probably a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as the notorious Boston crime boss and longtime fugitive James “Whitey” Bulger in Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass,” but the Oscar the flick should win is for Joel Harlow’s makeup, which makes Bulger’s face a must-have Halloween mask. (I was reminded of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight,” another triumph of makeup over acting.) Depp – perhaps off his game after so many years of studio garbage (“The Lone Ranger,” “Mortdecai”) – cannot pierce the iconography to find the man inside the myth. Scenes in which Bulger metes out violence – or, less frequently, holds back – feel arbitrary and reveal little. A more discerning choice for a nomination would be Joel Edgerton, who brings flesh and blood to the FBI agent John Connolly’s descent into corruption and criminality. (With his work here and, more impressively, directing and starring in “The Gift,” Edgerton is having the kind of year that should put him on the map for good.) “Black Mass” is watchable from moment to moment, but slow, and surface-deep. I waited in vain for a scene as potent as the one in Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” in which Casey Affleck unleashes a lifetime of pent-up anger at his brother, Christian Bale, or for the texture the director brought to “Crazy Heart,” helping Jeff Bridges to his overdue Oscar. And the roles for women in this movie are beyond retrograde: how do you tell an actress like Julianne Nicholson to futz around with a blender while the men are transacting their bloody business?

Baltasar Kormákur's "Everest" will never be confused with high art, but damn if it's not a good old-fashioned Hollywood disaster movie, with better actors in almost every part than it has any right to and the first-rate sound and visual effects that big-studio money buy. Jason Clarke gets the lead (Jake Gyllenhaal's part is relatively small), and shows himself capable of carrying it. Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Debicki, John Hawkes, Emily Watson (who must have gone through a year's worth of onions), Sam Worthington, Robin Wright,... wow. Lem Dobbs and Justin Isbell's script occasionally falls into a crevasse of banality, and the sheer selfishness of some of the climbers (one of whom left an eight-months-pregnant wife to attempt the ascent) makes them unsympathetic, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't vicariously suffered through their grueling slog or felt some measure of their grief.

You get Benicio Del Toro to appear in your movie, and it’s essentially an intelligence test: the smarter you are, the more screen time you give him. By this standard, Denis Villeneuve proves himself no dummy, ceding large swaths of “Sicario” to the Oscar winner and delivering on the promise of 2013’s brooding “Prisoners” with the best film to come along in months. Ostensibly, it’s told from the point of view of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an up-and-coming, by-the-book FBI agent selected (but not assigned; she is told she must volunteer) for a murky but clearly high-up government task force working both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border to bag the top kingpins of the drug cartels. Josh Brolin is highly appealing as her new shorts-and-sandals-wearing boss Matt, a self-labeled “DOD adviser” whose actual affiliation we learn only near the end, but who’s buddy-buddy with everyone who matters. Brolin has become an important and dependable actor, and here he shows the easy suavity and agility of a younger Pierce Brosnan. I also want to mention Daniel Kaluuya, a new name but a familiar face, terrific as Kate’s FBI partner, Reggie. Here’s an actor who understands the power of quietude, the confidence required to command the screen without raising his voice. The superb Jon Bernthal has a small but pivotal role as a local Phoenix cop. But it’s the magnetic Del Toro who takes “Sicario” to another level as the on-the-ground fixer motivated by a past too painful to discuss. Villeneuve places himself in the firmament of top directors with a master class in technique, orchestrating a symphony of anxiety and dread from the engrossing set pieces in Taylor Sheridan's lean, taut script, Roger Deakins’ original cinematographical compositions, and the pounding, insistent score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. 

The last of the week’s prestige pictures is also the least. It’s Ed Zwick’s boring-as-shit “Pawn Sacrifice,” which wastes a memorable performance by Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer (and solid support from the Three S’s: Sarsgaard, Schreiber and Stuhlbarg) in two torturous hours that would test the limits of even passionate chess fans but for non-players approach unwatchable. Zwick makes the mistake of picking up Fischer’s story too late, to where he’s already well on his way to insanity. There’s not enough of an arc, and the movie becomes a series of scenes of breakdown or appalling acting-out. Fundamentally, it feels redundant after Liz Garbus’ superior documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World.” As with Steve Jobs, audiences are likely just Fischered-out. Director Steven Zaillian, in “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” showed how chess could work cinematically: as a metaphor for competing approaches to life, as a conduit for self-reflection and self-definition. “Pawn Sacrifice,” by contrast, is a mere sports movie, and a leaden one at that.

Quick capsules from the art house: François Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend” may go down as the first and only movie I’ve ever liked about a transvestite. (I find femininity attractive in women, masculinity in men, and ne’er the twain shall meet.) It works because of Ozon’s sophisticated comic sensibility, which recognizes the excitement and fun of sexual transgression, and because of Romain Duris’ performance, a marvel of modulated physicality, as David, a recent widow reveling in the liberation of public outings as “Virginia,” and that of Anaïs Demoustier, as focused as a laser beam, as his late wife’s best friend Claire, who finds herself drawn to both David and Virginia and, even more, to the thrill of the taboo… There is much to admire in “Breathe,” the first significant directorial work by the French actress Mélanie Laurent. It stars Joséphine Japy as Charlie, a studious teenager being raised by single mother Vanessa (Isabelle Carré), and charismatic Lou de Laâge as Sarah, the rebellious new girl in school who quickly makes Charlie her best friend but, in social settings, frequently and inexplicably freezes her out. The naked emotion Laurent has extracted from her leads, particularly in a gripping final sequence, merits note, as do some fascinating choices in scene composition, as when Charlie follows Sarah home and discovers a lie her friend has told about her own mother. The camera tracks Charlie as she walks furtively outside Sarah’s house, listening but not seeing, as Sarah moves from room to room. The sound design of the film is impeccable as well. So why the discommendation? Well, because I didn’t buy that Charlie would keep coming back to Sarah after being treated so badly, without reason, time and again. Her line that “nothing feels worse than when we’re not together” rings false, and Sarah’s abrupt behavioral shifts feel overly schematic… An enthusiastic recommendation for Brad Barber and Scott Christopherson’s documentary “Peace Officer,” which tracks the militarization of police departments across the country. (That the incidents catalogued here took place in lily-white Utah allows viewers to set aside the inflamed racial rhetoric of recent months and recognize this trend as the one to blame for the clear majority of preventable fatalities in police-citizen encounters.) Our guide is the affable, engaging and unimpeachable former sheriff Dub Lawrence (he once wrote a parking ticket on himself), who introduced the concept of the SWAT team to Davis County only to see it, decades later, kill his son-in-law during a domestic violence call that spiraled out of control. The military donates used equipment to police departments on the condition that, by law, they must use it within one year or return it. The gear comes with a concomitant us-vs.-them mentality that views the public as an enemy to be neutralized. But the factor most to blame for needless deaths of both police and citizens is the protocol that calls for SWAT teams to raid homes with (for example) illegal marijuana grows in the middle of the night, entering immediately upon knocking, with weapons raised and ready to fire. It is impossible for the citizen (who may have been improperly identified) to know whether it is the police or a gang of criminals coming for his home and family. These raids leads to instantaneous, uninformed decisions with life-or-death consequences on both sides, and cry out for reform… Finally, a big thumbs down for the go-nowhere gay-themed indie "A Reunion," the intriguing trailer for which suggests something in the vein of Gregg Araki's seminal "The Living End," but which winds up as airless and faux-artistic as an '80s cologne commercial.

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