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Monday, December 09, 2019

Movie Review: Cynical ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ Is Good Fit For Bullock

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service (TNS)

The Sandra Bullock-starring Our Brand Is Crisis, is an acidic, biting political satire that asserts the notion that marketing has taken over the democratic process. There’s truth in that thesis, especially since the film is based on a documentary of the same name that captured the machinations of American political and branding consultants for hire during a 2002 election in Bolivia. For director David Gordon Green, it’s a step in a new, more sophisticated direction, and for producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney, the film is an entry into their stable of slick political romps that are topical whether they are contemporary or not.

“Calamity” Jane (Bullock) is dragged out of self-imposed retirement by Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd), political operatives looking for a scapegoat as much as they are a ringer. They’ve secured a contract with a presidential candidate, Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), in Bolivia and are heading for parts South with a team including branding guru Buckley (Scoot McNairy). What actually gets Jane on the plane to Bolivia is the chance to square off with her longtime sworn nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), who’s been enlisted by the competition.

Jane is a perfect role for Bullock’s everywoman persona — she plays her as a bit of an idiot savant, rumpled, constantly clutching a half-eaten bag of salty snacks, outfitted in her ever present trench coat and glasses. She spouts Sun Tzu and Machiavelli quotes at random, but she’s clear-eyed and not a sycophant, which allows her to see through the mess of Castillo’s campaign. She claims the nebulous threat of “crisis” as their brand, and the tide starts to turn. When she launches all out war on their competition, it’s personal more than anything else — she just wants to beat Pat Candy

The team, and the film, harbor no starry-eyed belief in Castillo as a candidate — he’s basically the Donald Trump of Bolivia, a billionaire who’s been president once before. The people believe he will go running right to the IMF and plunge their country into a pit of globalized debt. He just might, but that’s not the point for his campaign team, who can only see poll numbers. For Jane, it’s a blood feud played out upon a national landscape that won’t have any effect on her real life.

Much hay has been made of the fact that the lead role was originally written for a male actor, and it’s to the film’s credit (and writer Peter Straughan) that it never becomes about Jane’s gender. Nor is it about the other political fixer’s gender or race. They are all driven by the same craven political competitiveness that transcends their identities — for better, or probably worse.

Jane is a genius, but she’s deeply flawed and complicated, struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, her own past regrets. That dark underbelly adds depth and dimension to the ironic humor of Our Brand is Crisis. The team laughs, drinks, and pranks each other to keep their own consciences at bay. Jane’s real demon is her own existential terror.

The film is deeply cynical, and there’s a fearlessness in that cynicism. This is undermined in the eleventh hour by an implausible change of heart that feels tacked on to please focus groups and give the film a Hollywood ending. While Jane gets the hero’s redemption, she’s far more interesting when she’s not being a hero.

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3 stars out of 4

Rated R for language including some sexual references.

Cast: Sandra Bullock, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Joaquim de Almeida, Scoot McNairy

Directed by David Gordon Green

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

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Photo: Sandra Bullock at the premiere of Our Brand is Crisis , 2015 Toronto Film Festival (Wikimedia Commons)

Movie Review: ‘Suffragette’ Is An Unglamorous Look At Important Fight For Rights

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service (TNS)

The story of women fighting for the right to vote is all too recent, and for some, all too forgotten. Director Sarah Gavron and writer Abi Morgan bring the history of the British suffragette movement to bear in the film Suffragette, as a reminder of the struggles that have come before, and the achievements that have yet to be won. The resulting film is dark and unglamorous, but it burns with a determined fire, giving these women a revolutionary hero treatment.

Suffragette is carried by the excellent Carey Mulligan, who does career-best acting in an unshowy role. Her Maud Watts is a fictional stand in for the working class women drawn into the movement in the early 20th century, fighting alongside real historical figures Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a glorified cameo) and Emily Davison (Natalie Press). As Maud, Mulligan is drawn and wan, her eyes tired, her mouth pulled into a wry, sad smirk, like she can’t even believe her situation herself. From a contemporary perspective, it’s hard to comprehend the realities of this brutal, bloody battle.

Maud works in a huge industrial laundry run by a sadistic, lecherous man, Taylor (Geoff Bell). As she testifies before a government committee, she was born there, her mother carrying her on her back while she worked. Maud started work at age 7, and at 24, the dangerous, injurious work of steam, irons and clouds of linen are all she’s ever known. Her husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw), is passive, cowardly. The greatest, and only, joy in Maud’s life is her small son, George (Adam Michael Dodd).

At the laundry, her mouthy friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) starts to spout off about “Votes for Women!” and with the prodding of proud suffragette pharmacist Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter), and upper-class activist Alice Haughton (Romola Garai), Maud is soon embroiled in the fight.

Spurred by entreaties to civil disobedience espoused in Emmeline Pankhurst’s secret speeches, they become a group of feminist terrorists, which garners the attention of law enforcement. Like many other freedom fighters and revolutionaries throughout history, they are subjected to government surveillance, imprisonment and torture while fighting for their rights. These suppressive actions, enacted by a group of men scared to lose their power, only inspire the women to fight back with even more ferocity.

The torment that Maud is put through is devastating, but Suffragette, as a film, often robs itself of its own emotional power. The film is shot with hand-held cinematography, which helps to bring an immediacy to early 20th century London. But during dramatic moments, the handheld close ups are chaotic and confounding. During a powerful scene where Maud stands up to her nemesis, Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), her face is partially obscured by his shoulder. It could be a visual metaphor for the continued presence of oppressive patriarchy that obstructs her path, but it’s also a frustrating obstacle in the audience feeling Maud’s vigor when she fully comes into her own power.

Despite these questionable aesthetic choices, Suffragette successfully ties together varied themes that place the movement within a wider context of civil rights struggles. The right to vote is motivated by economic and labor issues, and stoked by government persecution. This revolution looks like others that we’ve seen on screen, and the film legitimizes it while also offering a stark reminder that the fight is far from over.

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3 stars out of 4

Rated PG-13 for some intense violence, thematic elements, brief strong language and partial nudity.

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Romola Garai, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw

Directed by Sarah Gavron

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

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Photo: (From L to R) Actresses Ramola Garai, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff and Carey Mulligan pose at the Gala screening of the film “Suffragette” for the opening night of the British Film Institute (BFI) Film Festival at Leicester Square in London October 7, 2015. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Movie Review: Malala’s Light Shines Through Flawed Documentary

By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service (TNS)

Chances are, you’re already familiar with Malala Yousafszai, the young activist and Nobel laureate who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan. But with Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, He Named Me Malala, based on her memoir, I Am Malala, you’ll get to know the remarkable girl in a much more intimate and illuminating light. While the film itself is plagued with structural storytelling issues that are at best emotionally numbing, at worst confounding, Malala’s inspirational spirit is undeniable, and the documentary allows that to shine through.

Guggenheim’s film weaves three different timelines together to tell the story not only of Malala but of her family, and most significantly, her father Ziauddin, who has informed her worldview. There’s the present day, which features warm scenes of Malala interacting with her family, going to school in England, and attending to her new responsibilities as a global education activist. The second timeline focuses on the attack itself, and the conditions and actions that led up to it, but tells it in reverse.

The third timeline is animated in a soft pastel sketch style, and explains how Malala got her name. The Afghani fable of a young woman who raised her voice to inspire her people is Malala’s namesake. Given to her by her father, a passionate educator who taught Malala to be independent and outspoken, Guggenheim wonders if the name predicted her fate, or if Malala chose her own path.

Eventually we learn that Malala, as a young teen, made the choice to become a loud critic of the Taliban’s practices in her hometown of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, as they were bombing schools daily and preaching that women had no need for education. Coming late in the film, young Malala’s fervent, strident public speaking is awe-inspiring, particularly since we are well aware of the dangers that would befall her.

In this sense the intertwined reverse storytelling works. We come to have affection for her and understand her as a regular teenage girl, while having the groundwork for the situation laid out for us, so that when we see her speaking out for girls’ education, we understand the importance and consequences. However, there are some very jarring switches between the storylines, going from Taliban bombings to lighthearted moments of Malala talking about school, teasing her brothers, or giggling about her favorite cricketers.

This head-snapping timeline shifting makes it so that your emotions are constantly yanked around, and cuts off important moments that could use more time to breathe. However, Malala is such a charming and inspiring presence, and the film takes the time to make sure we see her not just as invincible, but as vulnerable, goofy, and sweet.

When we see her in this light, we know that she’s not someone extraordinary, she’s just an ordinary girl who believed so much in standing up for the right thing that she couldn’t help but do it. This realization is empowering, demonstrating that any person can stand up and do what’s right when they have the courage of their convictions. But, too few actually do what she did, and that’s what makes her so special.



3 stars out of 4

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Cast: Malala Yousafszai, Ziauddin Yousafszai

Directed by Davis Guggenheim


Photo: Malala Yousafzai at the Kisaruni Girls School on May 26, 2014 in Massai Mara, Kenya. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)