Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Martian, 99 Homes, Freeheld, He Named Me Malala, Labyrinth of Lies, National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

The Martian
99 Homes

He Named Me Malala

Labyrinth of Lies
National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

A Michael Shannon double feature highlights the week in film:

Ridley Scott's "The Martian" is a conventional Hollywood entertainment, mostly watchable if overlong, about NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), left for dead on Mars after being hit by a large piece of flying debris during a forced evacuation. He's not dead, of course, and the movie chronicles his efforts to grow enough food to survive until NASA somehow discovers he's alive and sends a mission to rescue him. Damon - who's been saved in movies more times than Carter took little liver pills - makes an appealing lead, bringing wry humor to his unique circumstances. But writer Drew Goddard needed to find a better way to convey Watney's thoughts than by having Damon talk to himself incessantly, and should know there's nothing faker than having people speak what they're typing as they type it. There are also one too many scenes of scientists joking about how "it would almost be easier to [insert cockamamie but brilliant idea]" before cutting off mid-sentence as the light bulb goes off. Cliché city. An early sequence involving Watney performing surgery on himself caused me to turn away, as did a few gross images later. And I dozed off during the musical montages of Mars vistas, none of which approaches the silent grandeur of "Gravity."

Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes" stars Andrew Garfield as Dennis Nash, an Orlando construction worker and single father who, with work drying up, loses his home to foreclosure early in the film. The agent who evicts him is a pitiless local real estate mogul named Rick Carver, played by Michael Shannon in what deserves to be a career-defining performance for this gifted and special actor. Carver sees something in Nash and hires him as one of his evictors, forcing Nash to inflict on others the helplessness and humiliation he suffered at Carver's hands. (The varied reactions of those thrown out of their homes - given two minutes to gather their belongings and get to the curb - uniformly ring true.) The film brings the mortgage crisis to searing life, but works primarily as a showpiece for its two leads.

Garfield, supremely sensitive in "Never Let Me Go" and a fresh, smart Spider-Man in the 2012 reboot, is a marvel of feral intensity. Nash, his desperation fueled by his survival instinct, looks upon his circumstances almost from outside, his mouth agape, his eyes wide with incredulity and indignation. He's a good man who has done his best for his son and mother (Laura Dern), yet it's all come to naught. As for Shannon, he makes the well-named Rick Carver one of the seminal characters of the year in film, with a hollowed-out quality to his physical presence. You feel that if you touched him in his Armani suit, he'd evaporate; there's a void where his soul is supposed to go. And yet, Bahrani knows better than to make him an unmitigated villain. There's something to his contempt for a couple who'd "managed to live just fine for 25 years without a patio" before taking on debt they couldn't service. Does the film cop out a bit by having Carver cross legal as well as ethical boundaries? Probably; it might go down harder if everything Carver did was perfectly aboveboard. Still, this is a compelling, potent piece of work.

Michael Shannon also appears in a supporting role in Peter Sollett's "Freeheld," as Ocean City, N.J. detective Dane Wells, whose partner, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), is a closeted-at-work lesbian who aspires to be the town's first female lieutenant. Laurel meets tomboyish Stacie Andree (Ellen Page) at a volleyball game, where the smitten Stacie goes easy on her less experienced opponent. Well, as the old joke goes, what do lesbians do on the second date? Move in. Before you know it, Laurel has bought them a fixer-upper (Stacie does the fixing up) and they're the couple next door, complete with dog. 

"Freeheld," though, is too honest to leave it at that. Laurel sees herself as a cop first and foremost, and when three yo-yos threaten them for smooching on a park bench, Laurel pulls out her revolver and scares them off (Stacie: "Do you always carry a gun?" Laurel: "Usually." Stacie: "On a date?"). And when Stacie answers Laurel's phone while she's in the shower, Laurel tells Dane, "Oh, yeah, my sister's in town," before chastising Stacie never to take her calls. Their relationship - including Stacie's acceptance of Laurel's terms, and Laurel's eventual softening - carries the ring of truth. And here a word must be said about Ellen Page. We know what we're going to get from Julianne Moore: perfection. She's one of the small handful of premier film actresses of our time. And yet it is Page whose performance here left me almost giddy. From scene to scene, with powerful quietude, she shows both self-effacement (her retreat perceptible physically and vocally) and self-assertion, demanding only a few things but insisting on them. When I'm watching a scene with Julianne Moore and find my eyes glued to the other actor, wow - that's a hell of a compliment.

Laurel and Stacie have only been in their new home for a few months when Laurel goes to the doctor for what she thinks is a pulled muscle and comes back with a diagnosis of late-stage lung cancer. She wants her police pension to go to Stacie when she dies - Stacie doesn't have a pot to piss in, and would surely lose the house without it - but the county Board of Freeholders, claiming not to have the authority to vary the terms of their contract with the police union, denies her petition. That's when Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell), a flamboyant gay Jewish lawyer from New York, unleashes his faggy fury on Ocean City, importing activists, working the town paper's lead reporter, and taking over the Board's meetings. Dane, who'd been nursing a crush on Laurel but now knows the truth (and knows she'd do the same for him), works his fellow cops, slowly bringing them over to the righteous cause. I'm ready for some movies where Julianne Moore doesn't die, but I won't soon forget the sight of her near the end, her breath coming at pains, softly and without anger telling the freeholders, "Time is of the essence."

"Freeheld" is a true story, and an inspirational one. It is a tearjerker, and an effective one. (I'm not ashamed to admit the water works were flowing freely.) I give it 3.5 stars the way Rex Reed called "Philomena" a "perfect movie." It's not, of course, and "Freeheld" doesn't exactly break new cinematic ground. But I understand the sentiment. When you love a movie, you want to share it.

Quick capsules from the art house: Malala Yousafzai, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and subject of Davis Guggenheim's documentary "He Named Me Malala," is unquestionably a likable and engaging young lady, her fight for the education of girls a valiant one. But I expected a less unquestioning examination by Guggenheim, whose "Waiting for Superman" cogently elucidated the problems facing American public education. Malala states that the Taliban do not reflect Islam, at one point commenting that Islam "is about humanity and equality." Guggenheim allows the comment to go unremarked upon. A better film would have dared to ask what it is about Islam that produces such evil forces as the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS, all of which claim to act in its name. It is fair to judge a people by those they put in power, and while the method of empowerment may not be a peaceful democratic vote, the Taliban would never have come to power in Pakistan without the backing of the people. "He Named Me Malala" might have worked as a 20-minute TV newsmagazine profile; as a full-length documentary, it's a missed opportunity to hold Muslims' feet to the fire… Regular readers know how I feel about Holocaust movies. A filmmaker really has to bring something new to the table to interest me in the subject. "Labyrinth of Lies" director Giulio Ricciarelli is on to something with his story of Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a German prosecutor so outraged by his countrymen's collective amnesia (he stops young people in the park, asking whether they've heard of Auschwitz; most haven't) that he begins a crusade to find and try all those who worked at the camp. There are interesting ideas in play, such as that the Nazis didn't just disappear when Germany lost the war; they went back to being ordinary citizens. "Do you want every German to ask his father whether he was a Nazi?" a superior asks Johann, to which he responds, "Yes, that's exactly what I want." A flatness to both the direction and the lead performance keep "Labyrinth" from taking off, and the two-hour-plus runtime is padded by Johann's go-nowhere friendship with a survivor… My verdict on Douglas Tirola's only intermittently funny documentary "National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead": scads of stoned, lots of drunk, some dead, not enough brilliant.

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