Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Steve Jobs, Jafar Panahi's Taxi, Victoria, Room, Beasts of No Nation, Bridge of Spies, Truth, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, Experimenter

Steve Jobs
Jafar Panahi's Taxi


Beasts of No Nation
Bridge of Spies

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Nine movies to plow through = a quick capsule on each:

Three Steve Jobs movies is more than enough for any lifetime, but Danny Boyle’s impressionistic “Steve Jobs,” with another strong performance by Michael Fassbender (and nom-worthy work by an unrecognizable Kate Winslet as his factotum), captivates. Is Aaron Sorkin’s script occasionally in love with its own voice? Indubitably. But it’s smartly structured – around three product launches – and develops the whirligig, one-door-closing-as-another-opens momentum of good farce… In “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi,” a different sort of quasi-documentary, we ride through Tehran with the bedeviled filmmaker (and world’s worst cabbie). “Taxi” isn’t as important as his seminal “This is Not a Film,” but manages to get a few digs in at his government tormentors – and to give us rare glimpses into the commerce and social politics of contemporary Iran…The marketing campaign for the German crime thriller “Victoria” invites comparison with “Birdman” (it too consists of one long tracking shot), but here the effect comes off as gimmickry; it doesn’t build any of that picture’s breathless momentum. The first, more boring, half introduces Victoria, a recent arrival from Spain; Sonne, the sensitive ne’er-do-well she meets at a dance party; and his hooligan pals. The second half is a fairly standard bank robbery gone bad, the ending: pfft… Regular readers know how much I loved Brie Larson in 2013’s “Short Term 12” and “Don Jon,” but I didn’t buy the set-up of “Frank” director Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room”: what escape attempts her Joy would have made seven years into her captivity, what her son Jack would and would not understand about the world. I didn’t warm to the child actor, Jacob Tremblay, disliked his frequent voice-overs, and found much of his dialogue (such as a reference to his long hair as the source of his “strong”) phony. Jack’s rescue, which should be a heart stopper, is directed clumsily; the melodramatic aftermath – with nothing parts for Joan Allen and William Macy as Joy’s now-separated parents – plays like an over-budgeted Lifetime movie… I slept through as much of the straight-to-Netflix “Beasts of No Nation” as I could. The title highlights the overarching problem: setting this story of Agu, a boy who sees his family killed and is forced to become a child soldier, in an unnamed country doesn’t make us think “This could be anywhere in Africa”; it makes us think, “All these atrocities” – the film’s unremitting, and grossly overlong – “are the creations of a script.” Young newcomer Abraham Attah outshines Idris Elba, whose performance as Agu’s commandant and replacement father figure feels actorly… Tom Hanks made his name in the 90’s, when in film after film he served as an aspirational Everyman figure: a sensitive guy, upright but not stiff, bound by professional duty and personal honor – a better version of ourselves. He’s back in mid-career form in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” as the insurance attorney turned international negotiator James Donovan, who kept Russian spy Rudolf Abel from the chair, then effected the exchange of Abel for American airman Francis Gary Powers and economics student Frederic Pryor. Mark Rylance’s deadpan humor makes Abel the most memorable figure in this solid if unremarkable piece of work. Amy Ryan is given the retrograde part of James’ adoring wife Mary, who finds out what he’s done while he was supposedly on a fishing trip and purses her lips as if to say “Naughty, naughty.”… Writer-director James Vanderbilt’s “Truth” takes us back to the muckraking journalistic thrillers of bygone years. Here’s a consummate entertainment for audiences of all political persuasions. Without attempting physical verisimilitude, Robert Redford slowly and surely becomes Dan Rather. But the movie belongs to Cate Blanchett – with Meryl and Julianne, one of the holy trinity of modern actresses – as “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes, CBS’ second scapegoat for a controversial report on W’s military service record that the network rushed onto air. (It happened to be true both in fact and in context.) The catatonic look in Cate's eyes as she lies in bed realizing her fate is one I’ll not soon forget. But there are moments of great humor, as when a liquored-up Rather phones Mapes after the shit’s hit the fan: “This is Dan plus three,” to which she replies, “I’m working on a Tanqueray and Xanax cocktail.”… Nostalgic fun defines Colin Hanks’ doc “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,” which details how founder Russ Solomon’s hands-off philosophy and try-anything-once approach to life turned Tower into a billion-dollar business that felt like family, but also gave rise to the over-expansion that killed the golden goose. Interviews with mouth-like-a-truck-driver ex-execs (almost all of whom started as clerks) provide lots of laughs… Finally, thumbs down for Michael Almereyda’s oddly subdued “Experimenter,” about the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, best known for a 1961 experiment in which the subject – believing himself to have been randomly chosen as the “teacher” – pressed levers ostensibly subjecting another subject (in reality, a collaborator) - the "learner" - to increasingly painful electric shocks for missed answers to word-pairs questions. Despite their qualms, most subjects imposed the maximum punishment (450 volts) simply because the experimenter instructed them to do so. It’s inherently interesting material, so I was expecting a worthy companion piece to this year’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” But “Experimenter” left me squirming in my seat, its attempts at artistry stilted and inscrutable.


  1. In Steve Jobs, Fassbender was weak, the performance particularly suffering in comparison to Kutcher's. It was an abyss that dragged all the other good performances down with it. (Awaiting your comparison of Jeff Bridges as Tucker v. Sculley.) Any Jobs biopic has to capture his energetic charisma not just petulance. A movie whose structure and set design betrays itself that it would really rather be a play has a special burden to do so. Fassbender made him just another a-hole executive. Two stars.

  2. If I had to give an Oscar nomination to anyone in "Steve Jobs," I'd give it to Kate Winslet. And I'm not normally a huge fan of hers.