REVIEW: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars

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REVIEW: Concussion

21 12 2015

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is barely good enough to avoid a pun about the film causing its own kind of head trauma. It is not successful enough, however, to avoid one about the film’s facts and message hitting with unnecessarily blunt force.

Even though the message of this sports-related film rings depressing (rather than the usual uplift), “Concussion” can not avoid the temptations of the genre’s heavy-handed filmmaking. Like many a tale of this ilk, the film features an unlikely protagonist who must persevere against intense obstacles and opposition. Here, that person is not a player but a doctor, Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian immigrant, perhaps more educated than an average bucket full of American citizens, lets his intellectual curiosity lead him to the discovery of a particular brain condition endemic to one group of men: ex-football players.

When Omalu breaks it down in the parlance that comes most naturally to him – science – the issue proves quite captivating. Framing the game of football as a series of shocks that the human body was not built to absorb makes his case strong. But when “Concussion” frames his struggle as one against a shadowy, monolithically evil NFL, the film falls completely flat. The silencing by commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league probably happened, if I had to conjecture based on Goodell’s rather reckless actions over the past few seasons. Yet even as someone staunchly opposed to the league’s head honcho, the film comes off like a half-baked, crackpot conspiracy theory.

When a two-dimensional character goes up against a one-dimensional enemy, no one wins. Not the film. Not the issue. And certainly not the audience. C+2stars





REVIEW: Beyond the Lights

9 08 2015

Beyond the LightsBeyond the Lights” features one of the more interesting dialogues about the suffocating pressures of fame and the stifling sexualization of our culture.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni Jean, a digital-age pop star with all the qualities of a true songbird, gets fed up with both and threatens to throw it all away by jumping off a balcony.  Thankfully, Nate Parker’s officer Kaz is there to keep her from making the leap.

What follows in writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is partially a demonstration of what happens to women who rebel against the implicit contract that they must become objects of sexual desire first and bearers of talent second.  (Shocker: people, men especially, HATE it.)  But to keep Noni from another complete relapse, she needs some source of comfort; she finds that in Kaz.

A romantic subplot is hardly objectionable, yet it seems odd when it ultimately becomes the main storyline in a film that otherwise concerns itself with female empowerment.  Prince-Blythewood directs the scenes between Noni and Kaz with all the subtlety of a Hallmark movie.  They are drawn-out, sappy, and far too numerous.

The discussion “Beyond the Lights” wants to start is worth having.  But whether you want to endure some of the standard-issue syrupy adoration to join in is a decision you have to make for yourself.  B-/ 2stars





REVIEW: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars