Friday, October 5, 2018

"A Private War" Review – Indie Movie Round-up #2

A Private War dispenses the most punishing kind of Oscar bait with on-the-nose politics and excessive reverence for its subject Marie Colvin. Also reviewed: Mandy and The Sisters Brothers.

War as Chore

A Private War is the kind of sadistic movie to spoil its ending within the very first shot and continue spoiling it doggedly only to stretch out its climax forever when it finally gets to that point. The camera glides up and away from a debilitated courtyard to reveal a Syrian city blanketed in a haze of dust, as Rosamund Pike speaks some voiceover that may or may not prove important later on. The rest of the movie hopscotches from one Middle-eastern conflict to another, each location change accompanied by a title card that suspiciously notes how many years remain until Homs, Syria. This basic editing syntax enables even those unfamiliar with the real journalist Marie Colvin to deduce that she will absolutely die in Syria, which wouldn’t be such a problem if the movie didn’t take nearly two excruciating hours to get there.

Anyone who had qualms with the pacing of Adrift, The Impossible, or Lone Survivor is bound to suffer at A Private War, to an even more grueling degree; whereas those true stories carried the implicit guarantee of survival and triumph by the fact that someone lived to write about them, this one relentlessly portends death and failure. It exemplifies a prestige picture cousin to lowbrow slasher films, except there is no final girl, and the sweet release of violent closure only comes with the requisite face reveals before the credits. In the final act, Colvin bunkers down in a chiseled, hardly intact building along with other news reporters and Syrian rebels. After she broadcasts footage of a dying child to Anderson Cooper in impeccable movie fashion (the roof above her threatens to collapse), her cameraman moves to evacuate, considering their mission accomplished, but Colvin wants to stay and “help” by taking more pictures of corpses and shrapnel victims. This difference of priorities induces a drawn-out sequence of running back and forth in a missile rainstorm, culminating in the effective suicide of a protagonist whose agenda and plan of action we cannot begin to comprehend.

A Private War holds such contempt for the time and intelligence of its audience that it basically demands outside homework to answer what its heroine hoped to achieve. Normally one of these biopics ravenous for awards would include a scene concisely establishing what compels the main character. American Sniper, Hacksaw Ridge, The Social Network, and even Spotlight all leap to mind as true-story films that summarily supply a motive for their subjects. Screenwriter Arash Amel, on the other hand, makes the avant-garde decision to start his script in media res and never work his way back to the chronological beginning. How does Colvin define the terms of her own success, and why does she choose to put her life on the line for the negligible gains of “gruesome photos” that sissified networks won’t air anyway? “I see it so you don’t have to,” she barks, in a pretty damning comment on mass media in 2018, when merely looking for a concrete chain of events in Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, etc. is sufficient grounds to label someone a purveyor of Hate Speech.

Again, what is the narrative question at play in A Private War, and what are the stakes? Colvin has no personal connections, unlike in those aforementioned pictures, nor does director Matthew Heineman show any tangible policy impact of her work. Instead he makes sure we notice in virtually every scene that she’s a smoker and an alcoholic, and lest we fail to connect the dots ourselves, he even politely spells out the subtext of sorts. Towards the middle of the film, Pike prattles something like, “I am repelled by war zones, yet feel compelled to be there,” which causes her astute cameraman to share an epiphany: “It’s because you’re addicted to it!” I noted on my screener form that this dialogue, if anything, should have been stricken from the movie. Little did I know that Aviron Pictures had already cut together a trailer with the very same Eureka moment as its centerpiece. Why hold a test screening for marketing research if you’ve already committed to an ad campaign and set it in motion?

Taken as a cautionary tale about addiction, the worst possible outcome of this drama is that Colvin goes through metaphorical withdrawal from lack of death and suffering, while the best is that her story outrages some pundits on an irrelevant entertainment channel. Sensing that the movie could use a more viable emotional core beyond its Giver-esque delusions of grandeur—sparing peasants the pain of having to witness the troubles of the world—, Amel decided to insert a romantic partner in the form of Stanley Tucci. A Private War attempts to wring some personal loss out of this relationship, which would ring more truly if Colvin didn’t exhibit a progressive and morally apathetic posture towards sex, having intercourse with so many interchangeable men that she seems to attach little significance to the act. Tucci’s character is cinematic turkey stuffing, contributing nothing to the literal, internal, or workplace conflict of the film. It surprised me to see he made the final cut, especially in an era when female-led pictures, e.g. Frozen and Disney’s Star Wars, conspicuously avoid shoehorning in a male paramour for fear of being called misogynist.

Heineman stages action elegantly with gusto and grit, so it’s a shame there isn’t more of it. One particular shot tracking the actors from behind appears reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket, although it’s lopped off in the strangest of places, declining to show how the intrepid journalists escaped from a line of gunfire. Pretty much all the warfare scenes end prematurely, as the script would rather wallow in Colvin’s psychological ailments, injecting contrived scenarios in which characters discuss PTSD in the most Oscar-courting manner. Notwithstanding the child bleeding out in Homs and some other brief episodes, the film largely averts its eyes from the human toll of warfare, and by extension from whatever gave the protagonist a sense of purpose.

When it isn’t laboring overtime to show that smoking and drinking are bad for you, A Private War eventually collapses into self-important propaganda, painting a portrait of the Syrian civil war so monochromatic and simplistic that even interventionist Obama supporters may be tempted to roll their eyes at it. I would say it irked me by turning into a CNN ad at the end, but the feature had already squandered my goodwill by that point. Yes, the politics of Heineman’s film seem frozen in the 2012 presidential debates, but the bigger takeaway from it is that personal problems supersede political ones. I suppose that’s how they came up with the title.

The Not-P.T. Anderson Brothers

“It’s the journey, not the destination.” Such is the credo of Jacques Audiard’s new western The Sisters Brothers, which seems to posit that all you need for an interesting movie is several revered actors to trash-talk each other while camping in the great outdoors. Story is of secondary importance, as are witty dialogue and multi-dimensional characters, at least to a discriminating Toronto or Venice audience.

Look no further for a prime example of the whole amounting to less than the sum of its parts. The Sisters Brothers competently herds together all the expected ingredients of its post-Unforgiven genre, from grisly shoot-outs in untouched vales and plains to hardened, morally crooked heroes, and while that mix may sate the appetite of certain critics, I was let down by the scarcity of risks taken in its script. The story is split unevenly between two duos, one being the eponymous brothers involved in the hitman profession, the other being a Transcendentalist commie prospector and whoever Jake Gyllenhaal was supposed to be. John C. Reilly plays the older Eli Sisters, a kind and gentle man, at least as hired killers go anyway. Throughout the movie he bears the burden of compensating for the outbursts of Charlie Sisters, a temperamental and violent drunkard. I guess you could say he’s forced to be his Sisters brother’s keeper. From this premise and execution, one redeems another long-suffering, fraternal camaraderie story, written in the mode of Mean Streets, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, or As Tears Go By but nixing the romantic subplot and most of the melancholy comedy or craft.

The performances are all fine and good, though it’s hard to err with the trifecta of Joaquin Phoenix, Reilly, and Gyllenhaal. Out of these three, the usually comedic actor gives the most natural and compelling performance precisely because he’s trying the least for an Oscar, whereas Phoenix’s volatile drunk routine seemed more credible in Walk the Line and Gyllenhaal’s accent screams awards season fakery, albeit dedicated fakery. Going back to Magnolia, Reilly has always been a mite underrated in an industry that prizes the big and bold and transformative, the Streeps and the Depps and the Dicaprios. He provides the emotional center of this largely hallow adventure, briefly selling us on the tragic background of the Sisters family in one illuminating scene that falls too close to the end.

The ever dependable Alexandre Desplat composes another decent score, though deferring from any instantly memorable theme such as he made in Isle of Dogs or Shape of Water. The meticulous sound mixing does the utmost to immerse viewers in the wilderness, though not enough to make up for the shallow and intimate cinematography. Leave it to a Frenchman to conceive and direct a western visualized for the most part in handheld close-ups. The credits list the acclaimed Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as producers, and if not for the English dialogue, period setting, and general uncouthness of the characters, one could be forgiven for mistaking it as one of their films. There’s hardly an interesting shot in the whole movie, though I can at least compliment the depiction of the gunfights, which are messy, disorienting, and often over quickly.

Audiard gracious avoids committing many of his peers’ more pervasive artistic sins, to an extent that I want to like The Sisters Brothers more than I actually do. In an era of filmmaking weaponized against the Trump regime and consequently against itself, when even the Jurassic Park franchise birthed by Michael Crichton has sold out for cheap political points, it was refreshing to see an indie film with no such pretensions. As I said, Riz Ahmed basically plays himself as the idealistic roamer who wants to start a Brook Farm-styled village in Dallas, a place where he hopes to eradicate violence along with the profit motive. The movie makes no statements on the feasibility of his dream, nor does this strand go anywhere in the grand scheme of things.

By all accounts except for its anachronistic modern vernacular, The Sisters Brothers feels like an old-fashioned, slow-paced western, and yet it doesn’t reach half of its full potential. Many such films juxtapose male and female characters placed in turmoil to get at the root of what distinguishes each sex—what makes a man a man and vice-versa. So ingrained is the topic of masculinity in the genre that indies dubbed “revisionist westerns” (usually by academics who also love to spam the “anti-war” label) have deliberately “subverted” the gender politics permeating older westerns. For a movie focusing exclusively on four male actors with distinct public personas, Sisters Brothers curiously contributes almost nothing to the ongoing definition of masculinity in entertainment. Reilly and Fargo’s Allison Tolman share one scene in a brothel, which shows him to be a woman-respecter and then waves the great, up-and-coming actress away as abruptly as she appeared.

Despite the paltry virtues of Audiard’s performers, The Sisters Brothers almost made me yearn to be watching a John Ford & Wayne collaboration instead, and that is really saying something.

Mandy Serves up Anti-Reagan Revenge Fantasies, Instagram-style
© Mandy Films, LTD.

Note: If you would rather listen to a review that covers most of the points below, my friend and I recorded a related podcast under the moniker of Two Monkeys. We generally differed on the merits of the film, so the podcast makes a good companion piece to my written thoughts.

In the time since I watched Mandy about three weeks ago, the metal-inspired revenge film starring Nicolas Cage has garnered high praise from Kyle Smith, Sonny Bunch, and the folks at Red Letter Media. This puts me at odds with roughly half of the professional critics whose insight I value, along with the hundreds whose opinions I don’t. Director Panos Cosmatos had formerly directed the small cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, which I described as “an extremely soothing, soporific product, bound to crush even the most rigid insomnia”. Despite a trailer that portended a more eventful and plot-driven trip, Mandy unfortunately offers more of the director’s plodding shtick, that is until it tilts over into a no-holds-barred, glorified revenge fantasy against (I think) demonic Christian cultists. I would be offended by the blasphemous connotations of its imagery and literally monstrous characterization of religious people if Cosmatos didn’t try so hard to bore me ahead of the slaughter.

The movie opens with a long overheard shot of the woods set to Starless by King Crimson before cutting to a car radio playing Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire speech, which the driver irritably shuts off right as the president is condemning pornography and abortion. Cosmatos doesn’t earn either of these references, but the Reagan sound bite effectively announces his intentions: those of delicate constitutions and/or strong moral persuasions should run to guest services for their refund. The inciting incident doesn’t occur until about half an hour into the film, and once it does, we receive basically no explanation for who the villains are or what motivates them to murder the protagonist’s wife. In any case, the second half of Mandy shrugs off its über-artsy robes and morphs into a traditional slasher revenge flick—one that just happens to benefit from the presence of a typecast, unhinged, and debatably good Nic Cage.

Almost every aspect of Mandy can be regarded as a failure. The frames are doused in vivid strokes of pink and red that call to mind a J.M.W. Turner painting; while the art style occasions some scattered pretty images, it makes for an eyesore when applied to a two-hour film, over which the wary viewer will think less about the story than about the process of applying 50 different filters in editing to achieve a hallucinogenic look. The script was seemingly assembled from a smorgasbord of cryptic movie trailer lines, and the violence itself suffers from incoherent editing.

Going by U.S. release date, Mandy signifies the last cinematic contribution by the recently-deceased composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The wistful, bass-heavy score doesn’t sound like anything he’d written before, and while it isn’t destined to replace Arrival or Sicario as my default night drive soundtrack, it does stand as a testament to the artist’s versatility. I only wish it came packaged with a better film.

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