Movie Reviews - 2015 postsFriday October 23, 2015
Movie Review: 99 Homes (2015)
I think I’m getting hard-hearted.
In “99 Homes,” written and directed by Ramin Bahrani (“Goodbye Solo”), we’re supposed to root for Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young carpenter/construction worker who can’t find work in Florida during the global financial meltdown, and he winds up losing his family home.
Admittedly, that’s a powerful scene. In court, the judge tells him he has to vacate the property but he has 30 days to file an appeal. But the very next day the cops (or off-duty cops dressed up for private contracting?) show up, along with Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real estate broker who foreclosed on the home, and they order the family, including Nash’s mom, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his son, Connor (Noah Lomax), out. In two minutes. “This isn’t your home, son,” Carver tells him. Later, amid chaos, crying and shouting, Carver adds, “The two minutes is a courtesy. You’re trespassing right now.” Imagine that. You are given two minutes to gather all the possessions you have, to leave all you know, and this sliver of time is called “a courtesy.” The free hand of the market is often a fist.
And after the two minutes? I wondered if they would lose everything. Instead, sketchy-looking laborers simply dump the rest onto what was once your front lawn. You take what you can and leave with your tail between your legs, while the broker who foreclosed, who is actually making a killing on the deal, stands on what was once your porch smoking a cigarillo.
(I thought the cigarillo a bit much.)
Nash and his family wind up in a motel-like way station with the rest of the wretched refuse (pst: blacks/Hispanics), but he returns. His life turned to shit because he’d chosen the wrong moment to take a loan out on his mortgage to buy tools for his construction/carpentry business, and one of Carver’s scumbag laborers swiped some of those tools. It’s the final insult. So he goes to Carver’s business, finds the guy, starts a fight. Just then, Carver emerges with the news that another of his homes has been abandoned with the toilet overflowing and a shit stream is spilling out into the yard. Nash tags along and reveals himself to be resourceful and willing to get dirty. And Carver offers him a job.
That’s the set-up.
Bailing out winners
It’s a good one. In order to survive and get back his home, Nash has to work for the man who turned him out of his home; and his job is turning other people out of their homes. Carver puts it this way:
You go to church, Nash? One in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. Every other poor soul is going to drown.
He also puts it in Donald Trump fashion:
America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners—by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.
Carver says he began his career wanting to put people in homes, not take them out of them, but the world changed. The government deregulated, banks gave out subprime loans, and everyone tried to capitalize on the easy money to be made in the housing market. Then pop went the bubble. Now Carver is getting rich off of everyone else’s slide into poverty. He shows Nash how to get rich, too. But unlike Carver, Nash is conflicted. He feels bad about it. He still wants the people he’s throwing out of their homes to like him.
He's so conflicted he lies to his mom and his son about where the new money is coming from. He claims it’s construction work. He doesn’t let them know he’s become the enemy. He keeps pretending you don’t have to do what you have to do in order to survive in the world.
That’s why I liked Carver, the movie’s ostensible villain, more than Nash, the movie’s ostensible hero. Carver is clear-eyed about who he is and the way the world works. It’s not heroic, it’s just interesting. Nash's conflict just isn't interesting to me.
I was even more annoyed with Nash's mother, sitting back and moralizing while she contributed ... anything? She objected to the way Nash brought them money? Helped them survive? I would’ve liked a scene where Nash told her, gently maybe, but with an undercurrent, that her kind of morality was for the comfortable. And they were no longer comfortable.
Stacking the decks
“99 Homes” is worthwhile because it shows us that modern America isn’t about hard work; it's about working the system. That's how you get ahead.
But Bahrani screws it up. He doesn’t let the movie live in the gray area between Nash’s morality and Carver’s lack of it. He stacks the decks against Carver. He turns the moral issue, with its undefined lines, into a legal one, with its clear demarcations. He gives us a clarity we don't need.
In clean, conference rooms, Carver makes a deal to turn 100 people out of their homes by a certain date in order for him and Nash to capitalize. Unfortunately, the 100th turns out to be a problem. He’s this guy, Frank (Tim Guinee), that Nash vaguely knows, and with whom he sympathizes, and Frank has actually done the paperwork to keep his home. So Carver sends Nash to falsify the record so they get the home anyway. But then Frank flips out, holes up with his family in his home, brings out a rifle. He’s making a stand in the grand, stupid American tradition. It’s actually a little nutty. This is the guy that Nash hopes will like him? That we’re supposed to sympathize with? The guy shooting at the cops?
Of course this is the moment Nash finally opts for morality. He enters the fray, arms raised, and owns up to falsifying the record. Frank stands down, Nash is arrested. And in the back of the patrol car, waiting to be taken to jail, Nash looks over and sees Frank’s tousle-haired boy staring at him. And the boy smiles.
Nash is liked!
Really? Is that supposed to be a glimmer of hope? The smile from the kid? Some glimmer. The kid's father will be arrested and imprisoned, so they'll lose the home anyway. If Carver is arrested someone else will simply take his place. Nash, he gone. The real estate market continues. The free hand continues. It's the saddest of endings and the movie doesn't know it. It thinks it's giving us a gift.
Movie Review: Steve Jobs (2015)
For a movie that combines two of the things I dislike most in the world—backstage drama and product launches—it’s not bad.
But was there a better way to tell this story than the three-act play? Or the symphony? Ah yes, the symphony.
Here’s what we get. As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) gets ready to launch three iconic products—1) the Macintosh in 1984, 2) the NeXT Cube in 1988, and 3) the iMac in 1998—he interacts and argues with, among others, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple computer scientist Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels). Flitting around the edges is Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), who does a poor job of protecting her boss just before he gets on the big stage. The opposite. To her, the half hour before a product launch is the exact right time to lambast Jobs about his “child problem.” In that he has one but won’t acknowledge her.
These are the main points of backstage contention:
- Pay for your child and her mother, ya deadbeat
- Acknowledge the Apple II dudes, ya ingrate
- Is a closed system really such a good idea?
- Was that 1984 Super Bowl commercial really such a good idea?
- Who fired whom?
Themes are revisited. The clue to the Time magazine cover, railed over in the first act, is revealed in the third. The clue to Jobs’ adoption, which may or may not be the source of his fierce drive, is revealed in the third. In the first act, Wozniak asks/demands that Jobs acknowledge the people who worked on the Apple II at the launch of the Macintosh, which seems like a bad idea even to me. In the third act, he demands the same damned thing at the launch of the iMac. Really? I thought. Again with the Apple II? Man, that wore on me.
Most of the arguments wore on me. It was screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s usual script—hyper-articulate people walking hallways while others trying to keep up physically and mentally—turned up to 11. There was so much bickering and carping, and in such public view, it felt like a Silicon Valley version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
I liked moments. Lisa, the unwanted child, becomes wanted when she plays well with Jobs’ other child, the Macintosh. I like Jobs’ admission about the Cube: “I guess you could say, in layman’s terms, we don’t have an OS.” That made me laugh. Could you argue that Jobs is like a closed system himself? He doesn’t communicate well with others. “I’m poorly made,” he says in the end. Good line. For all of us.
But Sorkin and director Danny Boyle go too much with the conductor metaphor. In the second act, Jobs tells Wozniak something conductor Seiji Ozawa supposedly told him: “Musicians play their instruments; I play the orchestra.” That’s who Jobs is. We know that immediately, but Sorkin drives the metaphor home. Relentlessly.
Is “Steve Jobs” too much of a closed system? Does it strive for a kind of artistic perfection at the expense of something more expansive and interesting? I wanted to know more about Jobs’ early days: How he met Wozniak and why computers and what they learned in the garage. I wanted a story and got this.
Here’s a story. It relates to the iconic Super Bowl commercial from 1984 (not to mention “1984”), which creates buzz but not demand. Jobs thinks the Mac will fly off the shelves but it doesn’t. It’s good, and friendly, but too expensive, not to mention a closed system, so it’s Microsoft, a year later, that takes off, since its software communicates with the hardware of other companies. Consumers mix and match. They buy low. Yet when I was in a position to buy my first PC, eight years after that iconic commercial aired, I bought a Mac. Why? Because I thought that’s what everyone used. And this is in 1992. In Seattle. Which reveals either how effective that ad was or how dumb I am. Both. For the record, I haven’t stopped using Macs. I’m writing this on an iMac: OS 10.9.5 and counting.
There’s great acting here—particularly from Fassbender—and I could watch Michael Stuhlbarg in almost anything. He has a gentleness to him; he has kind eyes.
But overall “Steve Jobs” is too many unpleasant people having too many arguments that never end. Sorkin and Boyle keep taking us backstage when I wanted to get back to the garage.
Movie Review: Focus (2015)
Why the Hollywood fascination with con artists? Is it an easy metaphor for what they do to us? Show us a pretty face or a handsome bod and while our attention is diverted pick our pocket? We leave the theater feeling rooked.
And what the fuck happened to Will Smith? For 15 years he couldn’t appear onscreen without exuding charm, but since coming back from a four-year hiatus he’s played the most charmless dolts. He plays soft-spoken superior men who don’t have time for the rest of us. We’re an avenue to his power. We get stepped on.
“Focus” is a kind of love story, just not a very good one. Nicky (Smith) takes Jess (Margot Robbie), a pretty blonde amateur scam artist, under his wing, and shows her the basics of grifting. Then during a Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans, he lets her in on the super-efficient rarefied air of his grifting operation, where members of his team pick pockets and scam football fans as easily as football fans high five one another. Before the game even starts, they’ve netted more than $1 million of, well, our money. Thanks, bro.
But there are intimations that Nicky has a gambling problem, and, at the game, which isn’t really the Super Bowl since the NFL didn’t want to be associated with this thing, he gets into a series of bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong), a happy-go-lucky Chinese gambler, and keeps losing: $1,000, $50K, then $1 million—all the money he’d earned, or stolen, all gone on what are in essence 50/50 bets: The next play will be a run; the next pass will be caught, etc. Finally, ruined, he decides to make an absurd bet where the odds are astronomically against him. He bets that Liyuan can pick the number of any player on the field and Jess can guess it. Liyuan tries to warn him off; Jess is horrified and wants no part of it. But the bet goes forward. And using binoculars, Jess spies, on the sidelines, Farhad (Adrian Martinez), an overweight grifter who is part of Nicky’s team, wearing No. 55. So she chooses that one. Which is the number Liyuan chose. Nicky wins it all back! But how? That’s what Jess wants to know.
Turns out they’d set up Liyuan from the beginning. They made sure the number “55” kept appearing in his field of vision during the previous few days. They were also playing the Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in the luxury suite, with its background vocals going “Woo woo, woo woo,” and Nicky helpfully explains to Jess that the Chinese word for five is “Woo.” Woo woo. Five five.
And that’s it. That’s how they won that absurd, impossible bet. In that absurd, impossible fashion.
It turns out Nicky doesn’t have a gambling problem. But then why does he go to the racetrack and lose? Who’s being set up there? Just us? And how did he know he would lose all of those 50/50 bets earlier? Or did he plan to just keep betting until they got to the point where the absurd bet was necessary? Except it never was.
After all this excitement, Nicky unceremoniously cuts Jess loose. He gives her the money she earned and boots her from his car. I guess he was becoming attached and he doesn’t want attachments. That would be vaguely human and Will Smith isn’t that anymore.
Oh, and FYI, but the Chinese word for “five” sounds more like “oo” than “woo.” It’s third tone, falling and rising. It's very specific. What the Stones sing sounds as much like five in Chinese as it sounds like five in English.
Anyway, that’s the first half of the movie. The second half is set in Buenos Aires, where a rich, unscrupulous racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), against the wishes of his personal bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney), hires a seemingly bereft Nicky to scam his competition. Garriga owns a McGuffin that will allow him to race faster, and he wants Nicky to pretend to be a disgruntled engineer who will sell that technology to the Aussie competition, McEwen (Robert Taylor). Ah, except he’ll really be selling something that’s not quite as good, allowing Garriga to keep winning! Hahahahahaha.
So that idea is stupid. But then Nicky double-crosses him by selling the real McGuffin to nine of Garriga’s competitors, netting $27 million in all, even as Owens closes in on both Nicky and Jess, who is Garriga’s girlfriend, and over whom Nicky seems to be getting all moony-eyed. Seems he’s missed her these past years.
Except! She’s not really Garriga’s girlfriend. She’s just trying to steal his watch or something, while Garriga and Owens think of her as a garden-variety racetrack skank. (The movie is not kind to Robbie's character.) Plus! Nicky is faking being moony-eyed. That’s part of the scam, too. Because! Owens is really working with Nicky. He’s really Nicky’s father. Which leave us! Nowhere.
Movie Review: Everest (2015)
Everyone leaving the 4:30 show of “Everest” at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle last Saturday looked wrecked. They kept exhaling, a few gripped and ungripped their hands, many asked aloud, “Why the fuck would you...?”
That’s asked of the mountain climbers in “Everest,” too, apologetically by Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), the famed journalist for “Outside” magazine who is writing an article on the paid expeditions of Mount Everest begun by New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke). At first, Krakauer’s question elicits hems and haws. Then, joking, they all point and yell in unison, “Because it’s there!” Finally, Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), the postman, gives an answer in his usual quiet, forthright manner:
I have kids. If they see a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same.
Everyone smiles and nods, and you get the sense that Krakauer has his lede—or at least a good anecdote for the story.
The unasked follow-up becomes more important as the movie progresses. And if you fail? And if you bring others down with you? What lesson have you imparted?
This is not the usual bullshit; it’s not a Hollywood story. Here are some lines from the trailer:
- “You’ve got to get moving! You’ve got to come on down!”
- “We’re all getting down together!”
- “If anyone can come back, you can.”
In most Hollywood movies, the guy would get moving, they would all get down together, the dude would come back. In “Everest,” the answers are: Nope, nope, nope.
“Everest” is a felt movie; it’s a movie you feel in your bones. Its director, Baltasar Kormakur, directed “The Deep,” a 2012 Icelandic film about a fisherman who survives in impossibly cold waters, and my review ended thus: “You’ll be chilled to the bone. Bring warm clothes.” Same here. It’s an ordeal. It’s gripping. I know I kept gripping Patricia sitting next to me. It’s also stunning and beautiful, and worth seeing on the big screen. You’re amazed at all that beauty, and more amazed that anyone would risk everything to experience that beauty. You also sense that the beauty doesn’t care. The mountain doesn’t care.
We do. We have a short window to care about these characters, and Kormakur makes it work. I think it has something to do with the way they were written and the quality of the actors: Kelly’s dark-eyed stare, Hawke’s good-natured humbleness, Clarke’s professional calm. You sense quiet competence from them. From Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), you get an outsized Texas personality, but that’s fun, too. He’s not my guy, but I enjoy him. He wears a Dole-Kemp T-shirt but I could hang with him.
Why this disaster—one of the worst in Everest's history—on this day? Four things:
- The ropes near the summit need to be repaired
- The oxygen tanks are empty
- Doug has to summit
- The storm
Basically, if the storm hadn’t hit the delays wouldn’t have mattered to the extent that they did. If the delays hadn’t happened, most of the climbers would’ve made it back to camp in time. Eight people wouldn’t have died.
Were 1) and 2) a consequence of all of the other adventure companies climbing and profiting from Everest in Rob’s wake? That with this competition came cutting corners? That not everyone was professional in a place where you had to be professional or die? The famed Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Sigurosson) gets off a good line early when the different adventure companies are fighting for space and time. “We don’t need competition between people,” he says. “The competition is between the people and the mountain; and the last word always belongs to the mountain.”
In the end, “Everest” is as cold as the mountain. It offers little in the way of solace. That's the harsh beauty of it.
I keep going back to Krakauer’s question. Why summit? Why climb? Why be impelled upwards?
It’s not on nearly the same scale, but I love hiking the mountains of the Pacific Northwest; and I think I love hiking because it’s arduous, it’s beautiful, and I feel better having done it. But I also hike because I’m good at it. Going up, not many people on the trail pass me; I pass them. It makes me feel good.
I think that’s why most of us do what we do. We feel good about being good at this thing, so we keep doing it. And I think that’s why these climbers did what they did. They were among the best in the world at it. But for some that wasn’t enough.
Bring warm clothes and someone to grip.
Movie Review: Hot Pursuit (2015)
Sometimes a summer movie that looks OK in trailers but bombs at the box office still turns out to be not horrible.
This isn’t that. “Hot Pursuit” is a candidate for worst movie of the year.
Reese Witherspoon is Cooper, a by-the-book, daughter-of-a-cop who, having infamously tasered the Mayor’s teenaged son after he calls “shotgun!” while walking with his bros to their car, is relegated to the evidence room. Ah, but then the plot. Or the assignment: help bring back Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara) and her husband, who is turning state’s evidence against Mexican drug lord Vicente Cortez (Joaquín Cosio), whose enemies tend to disappear. The husband doesn’t even make it out of his house. Anglos in masks attack first, then Mexicans. Both Riva’s husband and Cooper’s partner are killed and the two women go on the lam in a red Cadillac convertible with 42 kilos of coke in the back.
It’s a buddy film. Cooper’s white and uptight, Riva’s loco and Latina. It’s “The Heat” but more outré and far less funny. Witherspoon and Vergara are rushed through set pieces that become increasingly cartoonish. They cross the Mexican border, for example, by pretending to be a deer and making “deer noises,” even as they bicker loudly. Later in the movie, handcuffed together, they commandeer a bus full of old people, whose eyes light up happily as they find themselves in the middle of a crazy car chase/shooting gallery. Because you know old people.
Witherspoon mostly works doing a working-class Tracy Flick but Vergara is way too outsized. She stomps on scenes.
Of course, during their adventures, Cooper learns to loosen up while Riva learns ... responsibility? Doesn’t matter. In these types of movies, it’s always the uptight one that has to learn something. Being less uptight, chiefly. Getting a man.
Early movie reveal: The masked Anglos are cops from Cooper’s precinct, so she can’t trust that outfit.
Mid-movie reveal: It was Riva herself who hired the Mexicans to kidnap her (and her husband?) because she wants revenge against Cortez, who killed her brother years earlier. So why not let hubby turn state’s evidence against him? Wouldn’t rotting in a U.S. prison be pretty good revenge?
Eleventh-hour reveal: Cooper’s captain is dirty, too. Which raises the question: Shouldn’t Cooper come out of this totally effed up? Disillusioned? No one is who they say they are. Instead, she comes out whole, and pals with Riva, who, in movie terms, is her biggest betrayal.
“Hot Pursuit” comes from two writers with lousy sitcom backgrounds (“According to Jim,” “Two Broke Girls,” “Whitney”) and a director, Anne Fletcher, who has directed mostly lousy chick flicks (“Step Up,” “27 Dresses,” “The Proposal” and “The Guilt Trip”). It shows.