Two Weeks at the Movies

October, 2015, Commentary

A film festival in Colorado and a weeklong trip to New York City have provided a bumper crop of opportunity to see films but no time to write about them individually. So here’s a compendium of thoughts about 8 new movies you may get the chance to view before the holiday season.

On the festival circuit, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict turned out to be the cinematic version of a Vanity Fair article, focused on the art dealer’s bohemian lifestyle rather than her highly successful track record at identifying those artists who dominated abstract expressionism after WW II. There’s an abundance of name-dropping in this one, but far too little analysis of movement itself or her role in it.

Honors for the most artistic film recently released should go to Embrace of the Serpent, Columbia’s entry in the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Film this year. Shot entirely in glossy black and white film stock, it condenses the early 20th century travel diaries of ethnologist Theodor Koch Gruenberg and ethno-botanist Richard Evans Schultes into a surrealistic meditation on the destructive impact of scientifically-oriented cultures on myth-based indigenous societies inhabiting the Amazon and its tributaries.

If our technologically obsessed society takes a beating in Serpent, it’s countered by the exuberance of The Martian, Ridley Scott’s delightfully buoyant homage to travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Combining extraordinarily detailed set design with enough high-tech equipment to dazzle even the most hardened geeks and a cast featuring performances from 7 well-known Hollywood actors, Martian imagines Matt Damon as a modern Robinson Crusoe mistakenly left behind by a NSASA team sent to explore Mars. The film osculates between Damon’s ingenious efforts to stay alive in this alien environment and the moral/technological crisis faced by his earth-bound colleagues as they scramble to rescue him. Damon carries the first half of the film single handedly while Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara and Chiwetel Ejiofor provide an intriguing assembly of personalities attempting to pull off Damon’s near-impossible rescue. This is commercial filmmaking at it’s best; terrific production values, crisp dialogue and a continuation of the dazzling cinematography to be found in Scott’s previous sci-fi classics Alien, Blade Runner and Prometheus. This is the 78 year-old director’s best film in years and must be seen on a big screen to fully appreciate the it’s dazzling impact.

If you prefer meandering storylines, carelessly evocative dialogue and quietly observed characters, try Mississippi Grind, a poignant study of how the boys in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn might have  grown up in this century. Grind traces the quixotic odyssey of Gerry (Ben Mendelson) and Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), itinerant gamblers traveling from Iowa to New Orleans to participate in a high stakes poker game. In the skilled hands of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (a husband and wife writer/director team), Mendelson’s klutzy vulnerability and Reynolds’s blissfully destructive charm examine a blue collar slice of middle America with mordant wit and insight. Successive failures blend into a winsome victory here and the journey is well worth the time taken to enjoy it.

If slow pace and low stakes aren’t your preference, try the intensity of Pawn Sacrifice. Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall) pits Toby Maguire  against Live Schreiber in this intensely paced reconstruction of the Nixon-era international chess championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. Though Zwick struggles to position the competition as a crucial part of  the geo-political strategy of both countries, Sacrifice works best when it delves into Fischer’s obsessive behavior and his volcanic eruptions leading up to the main event. You don’t need to know anything about chess in order to appreciate the intensity Maguire brings to his role nor the cool bemusement Schreiber employs in his. The character development here isn’t sufficient to make this an outstanding effort, but it’s certainly an interesting film.

Maguire personifies instability under stress, what’s the purpose of Benicio Del Toro’s icy detachment in Sicario?  French Canadian director Denis Villenueve delivers a pulse-pounding tale of the current drug wars along our southwestern border that manages to veer off into the same revenge theme he explored two years ago in his critically and commercially successful Prisoners. In that film as in this one, an implacable thirst for vengeance corrupts a man who pays with his soul for the privilege of securing his pound of flesh. Sicario’s breathless pace, explicitly brutal violence and a pair of brilliant turns by Del Toro and Josh Brolin as shadowy agents of the U.S. government almost make this study of the moral/legal costs of the drug trade an authentic examination of whether ends actually justify means, but a subplot involving an F.B.I. agent played by Emily Blunt reduces the movie to yet another analysis of moral impotence in the face of violent retribution.

For sheer irritation, it would be hard to beat the German import Veronica, written and directed by Sebastian Schipper. This story of a young female tourist’s encounter in Berlin with a quartet of 20-something addicted thugs unfolds over 2 hours and 15 minutes in real time - - which means the movie consists of a single “take” by the camera. Sadly, the technique’s only intermittently interesting; without edits to eliminate non-essential material, the audience must sit through innumerable taxi rides that occupies all the time it actually takes to complete them. If the characters were interesting enough (and their dialogue sufficiently revealing) perhaps a shortened version of this approach might have made this an interesting experiment but no one should be forced to sit through viewers this director’s flawed experiment.

Nor can any excuse be made for this 5 year-old import from China directed by Swedish director Mikael Hafstrom. In the past, he’s underutilized skilled actors like Clive Owen (Derailed) and John Cusack (1408) in standard pot-boilers. He wastes Cusack again here as an American undercover agent in Shanghai, an espionage thriller set in that city on the eve of Japan’s takeover in  1941. Despite excellent sets that create a vivid impression of an international city of that era and the presence of Chinese stars such as Chow Yun Fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Li Gong (Raise TheRed Lantern), Shanghai’s script is riddled with confusing plot twists and the film misuses Cusack’s wittily laconic talents. An action star he most certainly isn’t and the entire production becomes hopelessly mediocre.

The Verdict? Eight films, ranging from "should definitely see" (The Martian, Mississippi Grind) through interesting but flawed (Sicario, Pawn Sacrifice) to the pretentious (Eye of the Serpent, Veronica) and finally, just dull (Shanghai, Peggy Guggenheim:Art Addict). 

Next time? Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.



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