Game OverThinker: "DUMBER ALIVE"

Whose Side Are You On?

And here we go...

What's impressive to me immediately is how much the in-trailer narrative here feels designed to alleviate concerns that this is more AVENGERS 2.5 than CAPTAIN AMERICA 3. Obviously, the ancillary marketing and pop-cultural "presence" will be leaning harder into "Hey guys! Here's The Avengers again - many with slightly-redesigned outfits so you have to re-buy some figures!," but as an introduction-trailer this drives home the idea that this is a natural continuation of the Steve/Bucky storyline with everyone else onhand because, hey, this is their social-circle.


Really That Good: SPIDER-MAN 1 & 2

Well. This took forever (over an hour long this time - wow!) and Sony immediately issued a YouTube copyright claim on it. Said claim is now in dispute, so watch this while you can! :)

TV RECAP: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 - Episode 8: "Many Heads, One Tale"

Well... that was pretty unexpected.

A weird thing about how AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D has evolved as a series is that the more both the series and the audience seem to have accepted its position as the redheaded stepchild of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the more cavalier it's gotten in playing around with the worldbuilding. Throughout most of Season 1, when the audience was still assuming/hoping that the series was going to be a mythology-packed weekly geek-out setting up dominoes for the movies to knock down, it operated strictly on the fringes of its own universe until it was more-or-less forced to use the good silverware because CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER's storyline made it unavoidable.

But now, with the audience effectively resigned to the idea that AGENTS is mostly going to do it's own thing as "NCIS: MARVEL UNIVERSE" and not have any real noteworthy impact on the movies (example: Multiple friends/colleagues of The Avengers know Coulson is alive now, but not The Avengers themselves for absolutely no good reason) ...the show is somehow now more emboldened about play with what feel like big, essential moving-parts of the Universe that you'd think the movies would get first-dibs on messing with: Last season got to introduce The Inhumans (whose movie doesn't come out until 2019) and start early on Marvel's long-term goal of turning them into Mutant/X-Men replacements; and now along with continuing that work Season 3 now gets to re-write a huge part of the MCU's history (on Earth, anyway) with a single conversation.

Specifically: HYDRA, the villainous group whose shenanigans have driven the plots of (so far) four movies and lurk (retroactively) in the background/mythos of all the rest, now has a brand-new, way way out there origin-story - which could be a signal that the movies are done using them or that the movie and TV sides of the MCU are about to start playing nice(er) with eachother.


"Many Heads, One Tale" is, like last week's "Chaos Theory," for the most part a plot-plot-plot affair (we are now racing toward the mid-season finale) with some long-awaited character moments dropped in for seasoning: Fitz/Simmons finally cry it out and kiss, Coulson and Price both show all their cards, we get official confirmation that Gideon Malick is the Security Council member Powers Boothe played in AVENGERS and a HYDRA bigwig to boot, we (apparently) learn what the ATCU is (and isn't) actually up to and May and Lincoln bury the hatchet...

...oh, and it turns out everything we thought we knew about HYDRA, one of the essential building-blocks of Marvel's continuity-experiment, is not only wrong - they're actually up to something that sounds (conceptually) like the biggest-scale villain plan any MCU villain has had outside of whatever Thanos is up to.

So let's get that out of the way first: As revealed to Ward by Malick, HYDRA is actually over a thousand years old, with The Red Skull's "Nazi Deep-Science Division" incarnation being merely HYDRA's "thing to do" in the 1940s. As it turns out, HYDRA's actual origin is a cult that worships an unnamed all-powerful Inhuman from ancient times who was exiled from Earth using The Monolith - their entire purpose, encompassing everything the organization has ever done, is to find a way to bring this Inhuman "god" back to Earth so he (she? it?) can conquer it.

...alright, then.

In light of that, the major revelations otherwise almost seem kind of perfunctory - even though they're directly tied-in: The ATCU has been run by HYDRA via Malick the whole time, but (apparently) without Rosalind Price's knowledge - oh, and they aren't "curing" Inhumans, they're working to make and conscript as many of them as they can. Astronaut Will's portal-crossing mission? HYDRA as well, with heavy implication that the shape-shifting, mind-controlling entity that bedeviled Will and Simmons on the alien planet is the unnamed Inhuman "god." Lash? Now in Malick/Ward/HYDRA's hands, seemingly on-track to be re-weaponized. So... a lot going on to deal with.

On the non-plot side, the reveal that Price has been played by the outfit she was supposedly running felt so weirdly clunky that I almost want it to be a double fake-out. I mean, seriously? All this time she's been confidently/assertively running an operation whose supposed sole reason to exist (warehousing and attempting to cure Inhumans) she was just "taking on faith" as existing because the work was being done in a room she wasn't supposed to go into? That's dumb.

I get the purpose of the fake-out: Get the audience all riled up to see Coulson pull a stone cold "Gotcha! I played you before you could play me!" move, then yank it away by contriving a scenario where Price was actually duped and acting in good faith - making Coulson (kind of) the asshole this time... but there had to be a better way. On the other hand, the actual reveal of this was a fine acting turn for both of them. It's always uncomfortable, in a modern context, to see a "good guy" doing the 60s James Bond seduce-to-manipulate thing; and it's especially strange when the perpetrator is a character like Coulson who's typically played as a boyish do-gooder. Credit that they pulled off what's a pretty dark turn (Coulson basically used and manipulated Price in an overall pretty cruel way in order to get at intel she wasn't hiding and didn't know herself) in a way that leaves new places for characters to go rather than just ruining the character (Coulson) forever.

Elsewhere, the "let's go undercover" infiltration scene with Hunter and Bobbi was fun, but it's also the kind of well the show has gone to too many times when it needs a "fun" was to dump a bunch of exposition and place-setting. Apart from the "Oh, it's HYDRA again and they're making their own Inhuman army" discovery, we get the debut of a new recurring Inhuman villain in Mark Dacascos "Giyera;" and while Dacascos is one of those hardworking B-movie martial-arts pros action fans are always glad to see (depending on your age/region he's immediately recognizable as either Wo Fat from the newer HAWAII FIVE-0, The Chairman from IRON CHEF AMERICA, Mani from BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF or Billy Lee from DOUBLE DRAGON) it's a little dissapointing that his Inhuman power turns out to be "Magneto, just without the name and outfit."


  • Who/what is the ancient Inhuman that HYDRA has apparently been trying to bring to Earth this whole time? I don't know. I still have trouble believing that it's going to be one of the marquee Inhumans at this juncture, and it really could be any Cosmic Marvel fixture not yet claimed by the movies re-worked as "actually an Inhuman." So for now I guess everyone from Immortus to Death is on the table ("Ma'Veth," Hebrew for "Death," is the title of the mid-season finale.)
  • That having been said, it could more narrowly be The Unspoken, who was the Inhumans' king before Black Bolt. OR, if we're supposed to glean anything from HYDRA's logo apparently having evolved from a ram skull, Pazuzu technically exists in Marvel as well.
  • THAT having been said, some of the dialogue from Fitz/Simmons laying this all out mentioned "inspiring legends of devils." I wonder... could this be where/how we get an MCU version of Mephisto (who is not technically *the* devil, in the comics)?
  • Over in Entertainment Weekly, Clark Gregg (Coulson) coyly refers to talk of the (now pretty obvious) emerging storyline of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA both having Inhuman armies as "a war of some kind that will not be civil in nature, while at the same time being very civil in nature." Heh.
  • But wait - it won't exactly be a surprise if AGENTS has to mention/incorporate the events of CIVIL WAR similarly to the way WINTER SOLDIER and AGE OF ULTRON worked, but does this mean S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA are taking "sides" in it? Hm. In the comics, "Civil War" was an organic ideological schism, but I can see the movies going with "HYDRA did stuff to trigger/escalate this fight."
  • See also: Bret Dalton (Ward) has been teasing a "WINTER SOLDIER-level" twist for the mid-season. But short of "Coulson has been evil this whole time, somehow" I'm not sure what's left to do that could meet that challenge (and that would be stupid.)

NEXT WEEK: Nothing, because Thanksgiving. But the week after next brings "CLOSURE," the penultimate episode before the series breaks for Winter (and Season 2 of AGENT CARTER.)

TV RECAP: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 - Episode 7: "Chaos Theory"

Apologies, once again, for the delay. It won't repeat for tomorrow's show.

So! Once again, AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D puts a big chunk of it's internal mysteries on the table and drops in a bunch of new ones. Clever storytelling? Side-effect of only having a general sense of where your story is "allowed" to go week to week? Who can tell, at this point...


We knew Andrew Gardner was Lash as of last episode, and now as of this one we know how he got that way (Jaiying rigged some of her personal-effects with Terrigen booby-traps, leading Andrew to be exposed and discover that he has been an Inhuman this whole time) and everyone is on the same page about it; with Lash himself now filed-away in the ATCU's holding-facility - which, under the circumstances, Daisy is now feeling less self-righteous about unilaterally opposing. Well, isn't that convenient.

A strong episode overall, though (apart from the aforementioned May/Andrew business) a little light on the character work in favor of the plot. It's nice to see the pieces continuing to move so quickly, since at this rate it feels like the current scenario(s) could well be totally upended by the time the AGENT CARTER break arrives; potentially giving us yet another new status-quo to look forward to in the second half. It would be in keeping with the speed at which things have moved this season, and I'm starting to wonder if we can actually hope for a significant CIVIL WAR lead-in.

...or not. In any case:

New mystery #1: What, exactly, was Lash trying to accomplish? Before he went down at May's hands (great performances from Blair Underwood and Ming-Na Wen, once again) his dialogue seemed to imply that he was going after Inhumans who'd done something "wrong." In the comics, Lash's deal is that he kills those who've turned without "earning" it whom he deems unworthy after the fact, but this doesn't appear to be that - particularly since he claimed to be using Jaiying's genealogy-charts as a hit-list. At this point, it would be a very "signature" AGENTS' moment for Lash to turn out to have been wrongly-fighting a yet-unknown threat, so...

New mystery #2: Who is Gideon Malick and what does he have to do with the ATCU? Last time, we learned that the (apparent) head of the S.H.I.E.L.D-overseeing Security Council played by Powers Boothe has a name and is apparently a bad guy (he's reached out to Ward and Nu-HYDRA.) Now, just as Coulson (and maybe the audience?) was getting ready to trust Rosalind Price - Daisy saving her life during a fight with Lash and all that - we (but not Coulson) learn that Malick has been in contact with her the whole time. Is he calling ATCU's shots?

New mystery #3: Who were the Monolith's pre-S.H.I.E.L.D owners? Should've seen this angle coming, but did not. So, good on you, writers. While continuing to look for ways to bring Simmons' astronaut boyfriend Will back to Earth with the Monolith/portal destroyed, Fitz lands on a big clue: A near-match to the insignia from the old castle where the device was hidden at some point before S.H.I.E.L.D had it appears to have been hidden in the design of Will's mission-patch, suggesting that it wasn't (only?) NASA backing his mission but some remnant of the occult-esque secret society that was using the Monolith for unknown purposes back in the day. Okay, so maybe there are more people out there who know about the portals and how to use them... but who are they?

No need for bullet-points theorizing this time, since it feels to me like they're heading for all of these stories to converge this time around. Here's the thing: We know that whoever the Monolith-cultists were, they were men of means and position. We know that S.H.I.E.L.D had the Monolith after them, but apparently no one we've yet met was high-grade enough to know when they got it or how. Now, we know that at some point at least 15 years ago, it was used in conjunction with a NASA mission likely at the behest of those same cultists. So it feels like a pretty easy guess that said cultists are connected-to S.H.I.E.L.D in such a way that they could use The Agency's "keep an eye on alien stuff" directives to hide the thing. Seems like something Malick would be involved with, if not in charge of, yes?

So who are they (the "cultists," that is)? Well, another tangent HYDRA seems like the obvious call, but maybe too obvious at this point. AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D could use a fresh(er) regular antagonist, so even if they are HYDRA I'd imagine they'll be a "related" branch that goes by a different name. My guess? The Serpent Society. Either way, I maintain my earlier guess about Malick being a "re-imagined" version of Albert Malik, aka the second Red Skull.

Extrapolating further: A big part of the post-CIVIL WAR Captain America comics involved the real Red Skull "possessing" a high-placed military/industrial figure, so it already wouldn't surprise me to see that plotline come up somewhere in the MCU in the near future. If so, I'd bet Malick isn't so much "Red Skull II" as the O.G. Skull, Johann Schmidt, wearing a new face. Keep in mind: The one thing we know about these people is that they owned and figured out how to control a space/time portal - wouldn't it be something if Schmidt (who was zapped off to who-knows-where by the similarly portal-centric Tessaract in FIRST AVENGER) found his way back that way and has been hiding out ever since? 

The cast and writers have been teasing a "WINTER SOLDIER-level" twist for the Winter Break, after all, and Powers Boothe pulling off his face the reveal that The Red Skull has been secretly hanging out this entire time would certainly qualify. Plus, if it means the Skull might concievably become available for the movies again (maybe as a secret CIVIL WAR heavy, dare I hope??) I'd be all for that. In the comics, Red Skull serves the vital purpose of providing a "baseline" of evil to give every other villain a degree of relative nuance (i.e. "Sure, I'm a pretty bad person - but that dude is, literally, a NAZI!") and it'd be fun to have an agitator onhand who's just bad for bad's sake if you need to get a plot going economically: "Why are they trying to blow up The Rainforest, exactly?" "Nazi With a Skeleton-Head!"

Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D are apparently double-dealing against ATCU even still in "Many Heads, One Tale." (okay, that title makes me feel even more secure in predicting The Serpent Society.)

UPDATES 11/16/15

Just a quick update: This last week (and counting) has been murder on my schedule, which is why a recap for S.H.I.E.L.D from the previous week didn't end up running. It will run sometime later this evening, and the regularly-scheduled one for tomorrow should run on time. Apologies for the delay.


WARCRAFT Trailer Finally Drops

This looks suuuuuuper goofy. So I'm totally onboard.

I really only have a passing familiarity with the "lore" of WARCRAFT (Paula Patton is a human/orc hybrid, I take it?) so my interest in this has been less about what it get's "right" than about what it does to justify its own existence in a tonal/aesthetic sense. For me, the main thing that's been kneecapping video-game movie thus far is that even densely-plotted stuff like WARCRAFT tends to be a melange of genre tropes where the originality comes either from unique design/character work or from the built-in strangeness that comes from interactive storytelling; but film adaptations have thus far tended to downplay much of the "video-gamey" weirdness - resulting in films that don't seem to have much reason to exist.

If nothing else, WARCRAFT seems to have those priorities straight. This first trailer feels cut/scored to feel as akin (plotwise) to yet another LOTR also-ran, dialing back the plot/character/mythos details to focus on getting a mass-audience onboard, so the more interesting storyline we've been assured is in there is taking a back seat to the look of the thing - but man, it's a hell of a look.

I'm especially liking that the design is very clearly erring on the side of new/different/interesting over "realistic." Much as I've enjoyed seeing most of the genre from LOTR to GAME OF THRONES find a working balance between classical high-fantasy art and practical reality, WARCRAFT's world is on a whole other bonkers level in terms of bizarre creatures and locations - half-measures in that direction were never going to cut it. I'd rather the Orcs be detailed and ridiculous-looking than photorealistic (the CGI is great, but we're in Hulk-territory here where nothing is going to fool you into thinking this being can physically exist), or the humans' armor/weapons to look like super-expensive cosplay, or the locations look absurdly over-designed than try to water down everything that makes this world worth inhabiting - I mean, I'm pretty sure that one gut at 1:07 has some kind of flint-activated shotgun in a medieval-fantasy setting. That's wacky.

I imagine the question will be how Universal/Legendary think they're going to sell a mainstream audience on this stuff. HARRY POTTER was the movie-arm of a once in a generation pop-literature phenomenon hitting at the zenith of its popularity. LOTR was already widely known and had the selling point of "You've never seen live-action fantasy look this huge before." By contrast, the WARCRAFT franchise's "moment" in terms of mainstream-ubiquity (i.e. WOW) feels like it came and went awhile ago, and "LOTR but twice as melodramatic and a thousand times more cartoonishly odd" doesn't sound like a sure thing.

I doubt the studio is too worried - Universal is sitting on a ridiculous mountain of cash after a year of absolutely massive smash-hits (they literally went from a struggling industry has-been to having JURASSIC WORLD, MINIONS, FURIOUS 7, PITCH PERFECT 2, 50 SHADES OF GREY and STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON all hit in the same year) and we're still in a gold-rush period where content-starved Russian and Chinese audiences are going to turn damn near any remotely-serviceable 3D-ready actioner into a moneymaker. But they're looking for this to be a long-term multimedia tentpole, and other studios with game-adaptations in the waiting are hoping that either this or ASSASSIN'S CREED do the deed of finally breaking the genre for Joe Popcorn. That sounds like an uphill climb (and one they should've been advertising for much earlier than this) but I'm rooting for it.

Review: THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2015)

NOTE: This review is possible in part through donations to The MovieBob Patreon.

First things first: Relax.

They didn't botch it. They didn't break it. They didn't screw it up. The Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus etc you'll be seeing up onscreen and/or introducing the next generation to are largely the same ones you grew up with; and they've arrived in a perfectly agreeable, modest, sweet little movie that should re-establish them as touchstones for another several decades to come. So if those were worries you'd been nursing about THE PEANUTS MOVIE, you can exhale: It's fine.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is probably the first pop-culture "nostalgia revival" blockbuster in a good long while to face the (potential) hurdle of having to scale itself up to fit onto the big screen. Whereas other long-lived, mass-marketed intellectual properties like the Marvel movies or TRANSFORMERS land in development already dragging decades of mythology and narrative sprawl needing to be whittled down to manageable size for a feature film, Charles Schulz's PEANUTS is a gag-a-day newspaper comic strip built almost-exclusively around incidental observation that reached it's prior adaptation high-point in the form of 20-30 minute TV specials with prior attempts at movie-length adventures meeting a mixed reception.

The filmmakers solution to this problem, evidently, has been to eschew trying to "solve" it altogether: In lieu of trying to retrofit Charlie Brown's world into a space for feature-sized adventures, they've instead conceived a set of four individual mini-stories that feel very much of a kind to the classic TV specials the characters are arguably best known from, joined together by the relatively constrained scope of the action (school, the neighborhood and the individual kids' homes) and a narrative through-line about the ever-luckless Brown haphazardly trying to reinvent himself so that a new student (the enigmatic "Little Red-Haired Girl" of the comic-strip lore) might see him as something other than the "blockhead" everyone else has become accustomed to.

This kind of episodic storytelling, coupled with the gently-deliberate pacing that Schulz's world exudes as a matter of course, feels like something of a risk in an age of kids' movies where frenetic yet sprawling, plot-heavy quest narratives are the order of the day; but it pays off. The result is a quietly profound little gem that can't help but recall other classic child's-view-of-childhood vignettes like A CHRISTMAS STORY or Bradbury's DANDELION WINE. Rarefied company, yes, but well-earned - this might not be the best or most exciting children's movie of the year, but it's hard to imagine one more emotionally nutritious.

I'll admit: I was a little worried when the "Little Red Haired Girl" plot element reared it's head. Her function in the plot makes sense given her place in Peanuts canon, but in 2015 the last thing movies (especially movies aimed at the next-to-rise generation of little kids) need are more stories where a female character exists mainly for their affection to be a prize motivating the hero. Yes, LRHG gets a name and a face for this iteration, but she's still inhabiting the role of an out-of-reach ideal for Charlie Brown to strive for - not far removed from that football Lucy will never let him kick, come to think of it. He's effectively elected this person the arbiter of his own self-worth without asking if she has any interesting in that role, and the plot isn't terribly concerned with her agency or whom she might be beyond that.

So, yeah. That could be a bit (ugh) "problematic" in a modern context, but the specific context of the circumstances neutralize the issue almost immediately (or at least they did for me): These are very young kids, written and performed as such, and there's zero real sense of prurient interest at play in Charlie Brown's intentions (indeed, he's already decided that "the new kid" is a reason for him to fix himself before he knows anything else about him/her) or anyone else's. Yes, she's a (mostly-offscreen) metaphor for more powerful forces, much like the disembodied trombone-voiced adults or Snoopy's imagined Red Baron nemesis, but I'd say that's okay in a movie that has so many other rich and varied characters (male and female) otherwise.

More importantly, the story they're using this setup to tell works. Charlie Brown is uniquely defined as a pop-icon by the tragi-comic confluence of his innate goodness and the Universe's seeming utter disdain for him. Few characters have endured more martyrdom with less cause, and here he tries everything from flying a kite to a talent show to a school dance to a book report on "Leo's Toy Store by Warren Peace" to remake himself as... someone capable, basically, and is continually derailed either by his own selflessness (it's a wise stroke that we're made to understand that he's a fundamentally decent person every bit as much as a luckless one early one) or the cruel chaotic randomness of fate at every turn.

Yes, adults will see where this is all going a mile away: of course when this particular Job meets his "god" she'll have taken notice of his good intentions all along, and of course he'll come to understand that he was already worthwhile just as he is; but you know what? That's one of those lessons every new generation of kids could stand to learn as early and as often as possible, and who better to relay it to them than Good Ol' Charlie Brown?

And make no mistake: Despite the group-inclusive title, this is a Charlie Brown movie, through and through. The supporting Peanuts, though, get their room to shine. To a certain extent, the tertiary characters are the space where the film elects to go through its "greatest hits" catalog ("Dog germs!," Lucy's nickles, the stationary dance-cycles, the choral Christmas-carroling, etc), but what a catalog it is. The one spot where this begins to feel like a bit much are the Snoopy "WWI Flying Ace" fantasy-sequences that here do double-duty as act-breaks and showcases for more elaborate and 3D-friendly animation sequences. Don't get me wrong: These slapstick divergences are a PEANUTS staple, and this is the same method Blue Sky Studios perfected for keeping younger kids engaged with the suprisingly character/dialogue-heavy ICE AGE movies i.e. breaking up the more "serious" parts with cutaways to Scrat and his acorns. But they eventually run just a touch too long for my taste, relative to how much more invested I was in getting back to watching "Chuck" keep trying to kick that football.

On the other hand, what I will say for the story beats involving the other characters is that it was a huge relief to find a near-total lack of self-awareness or obvious pandering to the nostalgia set. Yes, when one of the classic Jazz tracks from the Halloween/Christmas specials kicks up on the soundtrack or the camera pans across the skating-pond or "The Wall" older fans are meant to smile or get a little misty-eyed (my near-Pavlovian response to hearing Linus casually mention The Great Pumpkin hit me with a force I imagine would've made the filmmaker's exchange satisfied high-fives) but if you've come for winking ROBOT CHICKEN-style asides to now-adult ground-floor fans about, say, Peppermint Patty and Marcie being "a thing" or whether or not Snoopy's angry unintelligible squawks at Lucy being something particularly "obscene," you won't find them here.

In fact, the lack of attention drawn to the fact that this even is a nostalgia-revival property is kind of remarkable. Even as I was appreciating the attention to detail in matching Schulz' original art-style and the unique limited-motion animation aesthetic of the cartoons (the 3D character-models are animated to look/feel more like embossed colorful stickers in stop-frame, with facial and motion-line details retaining a 2D line-art look), it took me until well after my initial viewing to realize how unusual it was that, despite no "time" being given for the setting, the characters are still using rotary phones, checking books out of libraries and otherwise existing in the same pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-iCulture world they're best remembered in.

That's almost-certainly a correct design choice (I shudder to think what a Charlie Brown with even less incentive to leave his room might be in 2015) but I'm strike by how effortless it feels where a lesser adaptation might've tried to hammer home some point about how much "better" childhood was under these circumstances. On the other hand, I look at scenes like an extended sequence where Snoopy and Woodstock try to negotiate a manual typewriter and I wonder if the youngest in the audience have any idea what that machine even is.

But those are minor quibbles, rendered barely worth a mention by how expertly the bulk of the film segues between the charming and the profound. THE PEANUTS MOVIE is a small, almost absurdly delicate thing in a world where even Dr. Seuss adaptations tend to become bloated, freewheeling pyrotechnic displays. But in it's own way it's an epic, understanding (in the way that only the very best movies about children and childhood do) how a "snow day" can feel like a miracle, how Summer can feel like a countdown, how time can compress and expand from fleeting the endless and back again between the seasons, or how things like a book report, a minor public embarrassment, the approval of a friend or the loyalty of a pet can be (if only for a moment) the most important thing in the world. It's a monument to that moment in time when the expanse between home, school and the playground was the breadth of the universe, and a reminder that there's a chance for even the chronically unlucky to be happy there - if only for that moment.

Hello again, Charlie Brown. And Snoopy. And all the rest. I missed you so much. Please don't stay away so long again.

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Review: BURNT (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon.

Yeesh. What a bucket of suck this thing is.

I'm sorry. I try as best I'm able to save the more colorful witticisms for the video reviews, but some bad movies are exactly bad enough in such a particular way that it feels unjust to approach them with more civilized verbiage. BURNT, featuring one of current Hollywood's most overexposed performers inhabiting the apotheosis of his own most tiresome stock-persona in one of the most annoying recurring narratives of the last decade or so (the mercurial ultra-driven muy-macho auteur-badass who really is so damn good at his vocation that world is just going to have to learn to deal with it, bro!), is practically the Platonic ideal of this very type; with Bradley Cooper mugging, shouting and hard-staring his way through an "I'm a troubled genius, give me an Oscar!!!" turn that asks its audience: "Sure, you loved RATATOUILLE - but wouldn't you love it more with an abusive, too-cool-for-school douchebag whose talent justifies his every flaw?"

90% of what you need to know about BURNT is that it was originally titled simply "ADAM JONES," the name of Cooper's self-consciously cocky master chef who alternately stomps or strides through every scene like a nightmare-offspring of House M.D. and Bobby Flay. The story is ostensibly about Jones rebuilding his reputation as a world-class chef by retooling the upscale London restaurant of an old pal (Daniel Bruhl) and chasing an elusive Third Star from the Michelin Guide; but it's immediately apparent that the only story it has any real interest in telling is "Adam Jones is the coolest motherfucker walking the Earth, and Bradley Cooper totally deserves a Best Actor nomination for informing you of this fact."

Yes, Jones strut the streets (except for scenes where he drives them on a "borrowed" motorcycle), stalk back-alleys and stride through brushed-metal kitchens of London in a leather jacket and daytime-sunglasses like a mid-90s Zucker Bros parody of an early Tom Cruise role; but that's just for openers. He also flips tables in fits of artistic torment, shakes and shoves his underlings like a drill sergeant (which only makes them respect him more, naturally), flamed-out in glorious rock star fashion (he did all the drugs, you guys) because even he couldn't handle his own awesomeness yet has only become more ruggedly-handsome as a result. He righteously eschews fancy modern cooking devices in favor of classical techniques (no namby-pamby test-tube nerdery here, yo!), dodges/absorbs-blows-from the henchmen of an angry druglord, and returns from self-imposed exile only after completing a perfectly Hemmingway-esque blue collar self-flagellation ritual of shucking exactly one million oysters in a New Orleans steam-shack (no, really.)

It's the sort of "hero's journey" pastiche where nearly every character, friend or foe, is built with what they're words and actions can reinforce to us about Adam Jones as their sole and sufficient foundation. Sienna Miller's put-upon single mom and sou chef repays his bullying her (physical-assault included) into becoming her best possible self by falling in love with him. His arch-nemesis (Matthew Rhys) rescues him from a post-all-is-lost-moment bender and nurses him back to health because (I am not making this up) he needs a rival as potent as Adam Jones to make his life worth living. Uma Thurman's cameo as a food critic lasts exactly long enough for her to inform us that she set her lesbianism aside for at least one night to bed him, while Daniel Bruhl's quietly-reserved maitre'd is revealed as gay midway through the story exclusively so we can be assured that he, too, is along for the ride because he's desperately in love with Adam Jones.

I'll be honest: All this self-sustaining hero worship (the goddamn AVENGERS movies don't spend this much time establishing the awesomeness of their protagonists, and one of those guys is a literal god) had me longing for the (relative) subtlety of CHEF; which I'll remind you was about how Jon Favreau was such a transcendently great director chef that his post-Marvel movies cuban sandwiches were so scrumptious as to turn film food critics into business partners and no less than Scarlet Johansson and Sofia Vergara into salivating coital supplicants. At this rate the next "kitchen-skills-as-cock-size" vanity piece will be about an ex-Navy SEAL black-belt whose artisanal tilapia dumplings are capable of putting an entire stadium's worth of Victoria's Secret Angels into immediate post-multiorgasmic comas by their aroma alone.

Some of this might be forgivable if BURNT was at least stylish or had a modicum of humor about itself, but neither is the case. The proceedings are flatly directed John Wells, also responsible for the not-bad COMPANY MAN and the frankly embarassing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Wells is mainly known as a celebrated TV producer, and there are spots where one can see where BURNT might have worked as a series where the peripheral characters could have more going on than reassuring us of what an incredible guy Adam Jones is. But even then, the casting is likely an impossible hurdle: Adam Jones is so perfectly a Bradley Cooper Role that Bradley Cooper should never have gone near it.

Cooper isn't a bad actor (he's pretty good, in fact) but his seemingly-natural cocksure persona has made him the latest actor thrust into the role of replacing "lovable asshole" titans in the vein of Bill Murray (or Harrison Ford) and he just doesn't have the sense of gravity (or mileage) about him to make it work. There's never enough "natural" depth to his turns in this vein to make him tolerable without some extra layer of mitigating distance (i.e. being the "Chaotic Neutral" member of THE HANGOVER or being a space raccoon in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) to let us regard him beyond the surface. Maybe an actor with a more authentically rough-feeling edge (Ryan Gosling, maybe?) or a built-in "opposite" persona to put us off guard (a teddy bear like Kevin James?) could've turned Adam Jones into someone sort-of worth following around for 100 minutes or so.

But as for Cooper, this isn't the one that's going to get him "there;" and should probably stop saying "yes" to screenplays that sound written with his headshot from THE HANGOVER taped to the wall.

This review was possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you would like see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

Review: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this review is possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon.

I'd like to say that being from Boston, growing up Catholic, serving as an Altar Boy in my early teens and having met the (now) infamous Cardinal Bernard Law in person on several occasions, I'd have some kind of special insight on SPOTLIGHT; which relates the true of the team of Boston Globe journalists who broke the damning story of the Catholic Church conspiring to cover up decades of sexual abuse by priests... but I don't.

Maybe I would if SPOTLIGHT were a different sort of a movie, something more melodramatic and emotion-driven like TRUTH, I would. I certainly have emotional memories of that moment in time, bound up in the fact (dramatized to subtle but potent effect in the film) that the story felt like a double gut-punch breaking in the long shadow of 9/11, but SPOTLIGHT isn't interested in that end of the story. Instead, there's a conscious effort at play (in both the filmmaking and the motivations of characters within the plot) to stick to procedural-protocol in order to expose the full truth underneath a story that can't help but be lurid, sensational and emotionally wrenching. It recognizes that the story The Globe's famous "Spotlight" team found itself having to tell was ultimately less "explosive-expose" and more like a sombre, quietly-horrifying autopsy - not only of corruption, but also failure, complicity and willful ignorance.

The result, in reality, was one of the most important published stories in the history of modern journalism, seen by many as one of the last great moments in the fading tradition of old-school newspaper reporting. The result, onscreen, is one of the best films of the year.

It's an ensemble piece by design, but the nominal hero is Michael Keaton (so much more worthy of accolades here than for the self-referential "tee-hee!" turn in BIRDMAN) as Walter "Robby" Robertson, the old-time stalwart running "Spotlight," a self-contained investigate-reporting team operating largely independent of broader Globe infrastructure doing in-depth local-interest pieces. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D'Arcy are his foot-soldier field reporters, with John Slattery as their conduit to the higher-ups.

As the story opens (following a mood-setting interlude showing how easy and matter-of-fact abuse-coverups went down in the pre-2000s in reflexively-Catholic Boston), the Globe is rocked by the arrival of Liev Schrieber as a new Editor in Chief. He's an outsider in every conceivable way one can be in a Boston old-boys club - Jewish, hails from Miami, never been to the city before, not even a baseball fan - and he makes an outsider's call right off the bat: He wants Spotlight to look into the hot-button story of an accused pedophile priest and see if there's something else there - as you know from history, there sure was; and soon Spotlight finds itself poised to deliver a story that will shake their city (and the world) to it's foundations.

It'd be easy to sensationalize this kind of material, and indeed there are moments where the back-and-forth between dogged reporters, devastated victims (one traumatized tough-guy does, indeed, solemnly tell the heroes to "Get tha' bastahds."), scheming city power-players and secretive Church officials briefly take on the air of a crime thriller. At one point, Keaton's Robertson is visibly shaken by the realization that one of the potential predators Spotlight unearths was a football coach he remembers from school, preying on victims that were his own contemporaries. There's a chilling moment where, after learning that the Church quietly maintains its own "treatment centers" to house abusive priests awaiting transfers as part of the coverups, is horrified to discover one such center in an anonymous-looking house around the corner from his own. The main "B-story" even follows Ruffalo's Mark Rezendes coaxing info out of a crusading attorney (Stanley Tucci) Deep Throat-style.

But SPOTLIGHT turns out to have sins on it's mind beyond the showy villainy of "men of God" covering for one another's evil: Despite a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger involving "buried" records and "missing" evidence, the true outrage of the story (at least as far as the screenplay by writer/director Tom McCarthy is concerned) is how much of it wasn't hidden: Ultimately, the Spotlight teams discovers the breadth and scope of the conspiracy not through some singularly-damning smoking gun... but in dozens upon dozens of small stories, questionable reports and slivers of evidence spread out over decades in the Globe archives and even their own memories.

Powerful men hiding misdeeds behind black robes and ancient institutions is scary, the film argues, but an unwillingness to connect the obvious dots born of a city's generational, ethnic and neighborhood ties to those same institutions is scarier; and SPOTLIGHT is finally more about the drive to exorcise personal guilt ("Why didn't we see this sooner and stop it?") than avenging journalistic righteousness. In fact, the film occasionally functions as an argument against avenging righteousness as a tool of reporting, makind a kind of serendipitous counter-argument to TRUTH, which contrives to argue that the (possible) lapses in newsroom due-diligence on the part of a 60 Minutes team were worthwhile because they might possibly have spared us a second George W. Bush term. SPOTLIGHT's trailers prominently feature Ruffalo (who should rightfully score a Supporting Actor nod out of this) as Rezendes making impassioned pleas that they publish the report immediately before the conspirators "get away with it!," but the film's sympathies lie squarely with Keaton's Robertson, who sternly insists that they cross every T and dot every I if their work is to stand up to the inevitable backlash.

Appropriately, the McCarthy's camera (lensed by in-demand DP Manasobu Takanagi) resists showy visual flourishes with the same restraint as his script avoids dramatic histrionics; favoring matter-of-fact compositions to capture the homey banality of the Globe's offices or the unique florescent-sepia glow of suburban Boston. What aesthetic "pops" do crop up do so with subtlety (what cinematographer worth their light-meter can resist lavishing at least a little love on New England at Christmastime, after all), particularly the presence of Boston's intimidating fortress-like Catholic churches looming like the Eye of Sauron over exterior wide-shots as reporters, lawyers, abusers and victims scurry from scene to scene (only one beat, where a story-telling abuse victim stops to point out to McAdams their proximity to a Church - and a playground - feels overly on the nose.)

Keaton and Ruffalo will likely be the performances that stand out in a movie that's nearly all performance (along with Tucci, whose abuse-victim attorney Mitchell Garabedian seems like a grump and a blowhard until we come to realize the full extent of what he's dealing with); but SPOTLIGHT turns out to be one of those ensembles where everyone, without exaggeration, is turning in top-tier work. McAdams sells the weight of being "the girl" among old men in an older business so effortlessly that the movie doesn't even need to point it out. Slattery operates as a stone-faced human mood ring, registering barely-spoken horror as evil comes to light all around him. Len Cariou finds an affably sinister current of menace in Cardinal Law - particularly in an early scene where he attempts to quietly intimidate Schreiber, who gamely sells the cunning of a man whose dry, "boring" personality is his secret weapon. And what a treat to see Boston's own Paul Guilfoyle ("Brass" from CSI) turn up as a gently-menacing Church "enforcer."

This is the sort of Fall Movie that it's easy to cynical and suspicious of, particularly when the critical accolades roll in. A "topical" scandal-saga a decade after the fact is an Awards Season subgenre if ever there was one, and just try to get established film critics to not love any movie about the romance of bygone newspaper days and the heroism of oldschool shoe-leather reporting. But SPOTLIGHT, for a change, actually deserves the tidal wave of praise it's about to receive. Here's recent-history narrative done the right way, an acting showcase that feels like a complete film instead of a bare stage for the performers to show-off from - a procedural drama that thrills without having to twist itself into a "thriller."

It's obligatory, at this point, that any movie set in or around a newsroom get's mentioned alongside ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and ZODIAC; the gold standards of the genre. SPOTLIGHT is the first one in a long time to actually belong there.

This review was possible in part through contributions to The MovieBob Patreon. If you would like see more like it, please consider becoming a Patron.

Review: SPECTRE (2015)

TV RECAP: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D Season 3 - Episode 6: "Among Us Hide..."

Hey! Turns out this was Episode 50! For those of you playing at home, that means AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D now has approximately 30-50 more episodes to go before it hits "syndication ready" numbers and Disney/Marvel even considers taking it off the schedule - ratings or no ratings.

Also: Called it.


So! Andrew Gardner - Agent May's ex-husband, top S.H.I.E.L.D advisor and counselor of newly-turned Inhumans - is also Lash, the musclebound monster whose been hunting and killing Inhumans since the start of the season. That's a good, well-managed "gotcha" on the series' part. Yeah, I figured it out, but the way it makes perfect sense in the context of what we already knew (on a series that too often executes surprises in the form of: "Surprise! And now here's some stuff from the comics and movies to make it look like this actually makes sense!")

But it's also fun because of the downright devious wrench it throws into the good-team/bad-team dynamic regarding the Inhumans situation: So far, the tension in S.H.I.E.L.D's uneasy alliance with the ATCU has been (in most of the Agents and especially Daisy's view) that S.H.I.E.L.D is looking to counsel, aid and show new purpose (via Coulson's "Secret Warriors" project) to newly-turned Inhumans while the ATCU seems to regard them as a threat and has been spiriting those they find off to... somewhere. This is classical X-Men stuff (which is the point - The Inhumans are filling in for Mutants until Marvel can wrestle the rights back from Fox) and it was really easy to but into it as the "obvious" pattern for the show...

...but now it turns out to be a lot more complicated: While May was busy learning that her ex is basically an alien-werewolf; Daisy, Mack and a temporarily-grounded Hunter wound up surreptitiously spying on Coulson finally getting his tour of ATCU's holding-facility - where it turns out they haven't been hurting Inhumans, but they have been putting (supposedly) dangerous to self/others examples into a version of cryo-freeze while they work on a "cure" for Terrigenesis. Now, that's bad... but it's more misguided than "evil" and Rosalind (Price, ATCU's head) at least seems to have her heart sort-of close to the right place i.e. wanting to help people she sees as afflicted. Meanwhile, S.H.I.E.L.D - whose first instinct will likely be to get self-righteous about this - are the ones with a murderous Inhuman-hating monster on their payroll. Awkward.

Otherwise (read: before all those final-act twists) the episode was largely concerned with May and Bobbi tracking down Werner Von Strucker - the old-HYDRA heir who went AWOL after failing to kill Andrew because... well, Lash. Some of this is classic AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D misdirection (Werner is the one who reveals Andrew's nature to May), but it also serves to intro a new heavy to the proceedings: Powers Boothe, stepping out from the shadows as one of the nameless Security Council members from THE AVENGERS to reveal himself as... somebody bad. It's not exactly clear yet, though his dialogue with Ward is meant to suggest he's either HYDRA or HYDRA-affiliated. They don't even say his name (it's Gideon Malick) yet.

Almost as surprising as the Big Reveal, though, it's how much the "boss-to-boss-crush" dynamic with Coulson and Price actually works once it gets room to breathe. The "aww, Coulson is human after all" stuff has really only ever worked in small drops seeping through the slick-operator routine in the past, but the gag is endearing (they're both working a middle-aged middle-manager version of 007-style seducing-for-intel, but also both kind of "into" it for real) and you could feel the writers having a good time with the kind of low-key stuff that you'd use to lull Coulson into a false sense of security (take-out burgers and a vintage autographed baseball bat as opposed to champagne and lingerie.) I'm not really on the "Mr. & Mrs. S.H.I.E.L.D" bandwagon yet by any means, but it was fun for an episode.


  • Well, that takes care of the "what" and the "who" for Andrew/Lash. Presumably next up will be the "how," "when" and "why." Has he been Inhuman this entire time or did he go through Terrigenesis recently? Does he want to kill other Inhumans because he doesn't find those unwittingly-changed "worthy" like in the comics, or is it something else? Since I'm pretty sure AGENTS is not going to get to set the "rules" for the broader INHUMANS franchise this far ahead of the movies, I'm guessing "something else."
  • Who is Gideon Malick? So far, I'm hoping the clue is in the name: In the Comics Universe, Albert Malik was the name of the second man to call himself The Red Skull. 
  • Regarding said Red Skull, keep in mind: The Marvel movie AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D will eventually be intersecting with this season is CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Part of the fallout from the comics' version of that story (over in the Cap books) was that a high-placed official turned out to be "possessed" (long story) by The Red Skull.

Andrew has some explaining to do in "Chaos Theory." Won't be surprised if they have May try to get it out of him first in lieu of letting the whole team in on the secret in order to keep the tension up.

Review: STEVE JOBS (2015)

Alright! Alright! Enough with the damn Steve Jobs Movies! I get it, you’re all broken up that the guy who paid people to design your trendy PHONE died! You have my sympathies but - Christ Almighty - this is the third one of these goddamn things I’ve had to watch in about 2 ½ years – if they make one more I’m pretty sure he gets to join THE AVENGERS! I’m sorry but for all this hyperbolic elevation you’d think the guy had fucking cured ca…

Um. Eh… Okay, so, probably should’ve picked a different reference there.

ANYWAY! This one isn’t so bad.

So, here’s the thing kiddos: I am consistently at a disadvantage when approaching movies, books, articles, whatever about Steve Jobs. See, all these projects – whether they're bullshit corpse-fellating hagiography like that Ashton Kutcher thing or meditative documentaries like Alex Gibney’s or this new Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin joint (that’s as close to a “takedown” as anyone will probably make) – all start from the presumption that Jobs is just so fucking complex and interesting... and I’ve just never been onboard with that. Not every camera-friendly rich guy whose name you know is Charles Foster Kane. Sorry.

True, I never have been and never will be an Apple Guy, but I’m also not a Yankees fan and I can still acknowledge that Joe Torre had an interesting life. But Steve Jobs? Sorry, there was never mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a turtleneck there for me. I know plenty of entitled, too-clever-by-half self-righteous pricks who think they’re God’s gift to their chosen field because they’re good showmen (we can sense our own, after all) so The iCult never really had a chance at grabbing me.

As far as I’ve always been concerned, Steve Jobs (the man and myth) mostly struck me as a micro-managing hype-man whose main contribution to technological history was proving that with enough curvy edges, slick advertising, cutsie-poo naming schemes and retro-Boomer form-over-function aesthetic pandering even a computer could become a trendy hipster status-symbol and cultivating a “cool” hyperconfident “genius bro” persona that all-but singlehandedly birthed a generation of smart-alecky Silicon Valley shitheads so smug and obnoxious that even I kind of want to beat the shit out of nerds these days.

What’s interesting about this particular Steve Jobs movie, then, is that it seems to (mostly) agree with me on those points. I stress mostly - Hollywood does so love it’s Great Man biopics, after all, even when the unwelcome pest of reality forces them to spend 90% of the screentime on “but he was also kind of an asshole.”

The movie is sort of a comeback vehicle for director Danny Boyle, after the compulsively-watchable yet unavoidably terrible TRANCE turned out to be a colossal disaster and after enough time had passed for people to start admitting that no amount of positive vibes about seeing a movie entirely about brown people win Oscars could mitigate SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE being just so much schmaltzy middlebrow pablum. Here, he’s tasked with adding visual flourish to another zinger-filled Aaron Sorkin chatterbox screenplay that aims to build a thematic arc about Jobs’ alleged genius and undisputed personality failings out of the backstage melodrama at the launch events for the Macintosh, the Next Cube and finally the iMac.

The structure is a fun conceit, maybe a little too clever (and proud of it’s cleverness) by half, but you can see where it makes sense: The general public’s conception of Steve Jobs was shaped almost-entirely by his carefully cultivated stage persona at various product unveilings and corporate events, so in a way pulling back the curtain on his activities there probably feels more authentic than trying to dramatize what went on in his life otherwise – the only place where the gimmick stumbles is that, once we’ve seen it play out twice we not only know how all the beats are going to go… we’ve also already figured out where the beats are going to start skipping in order to provide closure and the semblance of a character arc – the full title might as well be “STEVE JOBS: I WAS A FUCKING DOUCHEBAG FOR YEARS BUT THEN ONE DAY I GOT A LITTLE BETTER BECAUSE REASONS.”

Sorkin’s screenplay (which feels shockingly naturalistic, as though in the tech sector inner-circles he’s at last found a world where it’s almost plausible that EVERYONE talks like Aaron Sorkin) has basically two thematic “big ideas” about Jobs and/or digital age “Great Men” in general, expressed through his relationship with two recurring characters: His obvious affection but arms-length care for his daughter Lisa (all while spending decades denying her paternity) here stands-in for his dueling obsession with control and inability to take responsibility, while Seth Rogen’s Steve Wozniak pops up once per-segment to voice the concerns of old-school computing devotees whom the film posits Jobs’ actively-hostile alienation of as a metaphor for his “my way or the highway” approach to life in general.

Meanwhile, Kate Winslet does the heavy lifting as Jobs’ just-human-enough personal assistant, putting her formidable emoting skills to use at instructing the audience when we’re supposed to find Steve endearing versus when we’re supposed to follow a more organic inclination to slap a variety of smug looks off his fucking face. Surprising absolutely no one, she turns out to be the secret weapon in terms of making both the story (it’s hard to ignore otherwise that the only “stakes” here are whether or not an unfathomably wealthy bastard will become more wealthy) and Jobs himself relatable to us mere mortals.

The Lisa material is set up to form the “heart” of the film, in as much as she gets the climactic resolution that’s supposed to indicate her father’s revealed humanity and form an ironic mirror to his paternal-surrogate relationship with Jeff Daniels’ Apple CEO John Sculley (what would a Great Man Biopic be, after all, without a lot of Bad Dad psychoanalysis?); but the back-and-forth with Wozniak honestly feels like it has more thematic meat to it – not in the least because Jobs’ chief sin in Woz’s eyes – callously refusing to even glance approvingly in the direction of the hardworking Apple II developer team – feels so much more cut-and-dry in it’s stubborn pettiness. The film slyly posits a kind of “FOX & THE HOUND” relationship between the two, i.e. the cool, trendy hipster and the authentically-dorky workbench-hobbyist being destined to wind up at odds and straining to maintain the mutual loyalty of their earlier friendship anyway.

Sorkin, at least, hands Woz most of the best zingers: While depicting their famous disagreement over whether to provide extra equipment slots on the original Apple in order to allow user-modifications in violation of Jobs’ desire for a closed-system that won’t play well with others, he declares that computers aren’t supposed to have human flaws and that he won’t build Steve’s (human flaws) into this one. I’m gonna assume my biases in that debate are self evident, so obviously yes I wanted to stand up and cheer every time the movie yielded the floor to Rogen unloading a barrage of oldschool nerd grievances straight from the heart of everyone still living who prefers computers to be fucking computers instead of fashion accessories or conversation pieces.

Between Rogen as the showman and Winslet as the far and away MVP, it almost feels like Michael Fassbender gets lost in the noise a bit as Jobs himself. He’s fine, but the movie never actually wants him to stop being largely inscrutable which mutes the range a bit, plus there’s a distracting affectation happening with the accent that kept pulling me out of the moment. Eventually, I couldn’t shake the sense that an overall more interesting movie might have been made by keeping Jobs himself offscreen entirely and just focus on the more compelling characters basking (or wincing) in his glow… but I don’t wanna dwell on that idea lest someone take it and make another of these damn movies.

Still, Boyle’s direction (while not as perfectly matched to Sorkin’s style as David Fincher’s in THE SOCIAL NETWORK) keeps everything moving and visually interesting considering the whole thing pretty much happens across a bunch of hallways and backstage greenrooms – it’s a two hour movie but it breezes by feeling like something only half that long. And, hell… for a whole two hours I was almost sold on the idea of Steve Jobs as an intrinsically interesting figure – and that's not an insubstantial something.

Review: TRUTH (2015)

NOTE: Publication of this piece was possible in part due to the generosity of contributors to The MovieBob Patreon.

Reviewing TRUTH is an exercise in asking whether or not it your supposed to weigh a film against its own intentions. That's not necessarily an unusual place for a critic to be in, but it's usually in a much more extreme context, i.e. whether you should recommend a film for the laughs when it wasn't mean to be a comedy but rather a drama staged so ineptly that it becomes hilarious. TRUTH is askew in a more subtle fashion: What's up onscreen is a top-tier example of an earnest political polemic that keeps insisting on (and seems to genuinely believe in) its own neutrality, putting in a herculean (and effective) effort to rehabilitate subjects that it also insists don't need rehabilitating in the first place.

For those who don't remember the story: Right in the midst of the 2004 Presidential Election, CBS News' 60 Minutes ran a story about renewed allegations that then-President George W. Bush had not only received "special treatment" to get into the National Guard during Vietnam, but hadn't even been able to behave himself while there. This was something that had been widely assumed (or at least "kicked around") since before Dubya was even a candidate for President the first time, but now the immensely-respected 60 Minutes and venerable newsman Dan Rather were saying they had documents to back the rumors up.

Soon after, however, a consortium of right-wing "new media" bloggers began circulating serious-sounding claims that the documents were easily-proved forgeries. This was all unfolding at the moment when mainstream popularity of the Fox News Channel was at it's zenith, and the rest of the U.S. news media was living in mortal fear of being called "biased" by a viewership still residually panicked enough by 9/11 to be swallowing wholesale Fox's pitch that their GOP propaganda-mongering was actually open-minded centrism ("We Report, You Decide") that only "looked" right-wing because the rest of the media was so profoundly "left." So it was unsurprising that CBS made no real effort to defend 60 Minutes' reporting, instead going directly into apology-mode and ultimately hanging segment-producer Mary Mapes and even Rather himself out to dry.

Robert Redford's turn as Rather is TRUTH's big Awards Season showpiece, but the actual film is mainly about Mapes (her book, "Truth & Power," gets the based-on credit.) Played by Cate Blanchett in full-tilt crusader mode, the story casts Mapes as a well-meaning martyr beset on all sides not so much by conspiracy (though it feints a few times in that direction) than by a disastrous confluence of circumstances - all of which seem poised from the get-go to end with her as a sacrifice to the false gods of objectivity-at-any-cost: CBS' schedule is clogged by tacky reality specials, narrowing 60 Minutes' production-window. Their main source is a well-meaning but unreliable codger. Important support-sources can't keep their own stories straight. And then there's those bloggers - here cast as an unseen army of pajama-pundits whose ability to fire off scattershot accusations with near-absolute impunity is a deeply unfair advantage over professional journalists with standards (and bosses) to answer to.

It's admirable, at first, to see a film try to take what seems like a difficult stand ("Yeah, we might've fumbled the reporting a bit but it's obvious the story itself was probably true and besides flawed real-journalism is better than rando-blogosphere journalism") ...but that soon turns out not to be the case. TRUTH is less interested in actually making a case for its protagonists (outside of an overriding clarity that Mapes especially did nothing too terribly wrong) than in lionizing the imperiled institution of serious TV journalism that it decides they represent. What happened to Mapes and Rather is unfortunate, it argues, but that it has (or was used to?) damage The News is a tragedy.

None of which is innately a problem, especially in a terms of the filmmaking: Political/ideological mythmaking is a valid a narrative form as any other, and as mythmaking (which is not the same thing as either lying or fabricating, just so we're clear) TRUTH is a stellar example of the form. Blanchett embodies the film's take on Mapes splendidly, while Redford's Rather isn't so much imitation (he doesn't look or sound anything like him) as it is a perfect use of iconography, i.e. what better onscreen-shorthand for "this noteworthy Baby Boomer is worthy of your respect" is there than "oh wow, it's Robert Redford?" James Vanderbilt's direction, meanwhile, stays within the classical parameters of the modern biopic while also turning a story of news-office minutiae into something that begins to feel like a thriller.

But that might also be part of the problem; or at least the reason why TRUTH feels like an involving, even heart-pounding winner in the watching but leaves a nagging, questionable aftertaste regardless. This story could work as a righteous polemic ("These heroes could've saved us from a second Bush term if only the unholy blogger/corporat-media alliance hadn't conspired to destroy them!") or a detached meditation ("We'll never know the real... TRUTH") but it can't be both. So why does it too often feel like it's trying to be? Why is something so sure of it's own rightness so frequently making defensive gestures?

That's where the "Thrilling, but should it be?" issue comes in: The film wants us to be assured that it's dealing in the cold hard facts, but it wants to be more emotionally-involving than a "mere" procedural; and that involves narrative details like subtext, metaphor and allegory that can't help but be the opposite of clinical fact-relation. Most egregiously, Vanderbilt's screenplay can't resist adding topically-relevant pathos and psychoanalysis to Mapes' relationships both to the story and to Rather; which is a solid approach for the heroine of a drama with a point to make but undercuts her intended position as a moral fixed-point in the final film.

Specifically, we're informed that her matter-of-fact declaration that her team can't be "smacked just for asking questions" is a personal reference for her, having grown up being physically abused for her inquisitive nature by a violent, ultra-conservative father; a detail the film stretches not only to unnecessarily "explain" her devotion to Rather (he's the Good Dad she never had) but also to pump up her victim/hero stature when Bad Dad re-enters the story by bashing her as a "radical feminist" to the right-wing press. The implication here (Fox News, the bloggers and everyone else who attacked the story are basically of-a-kind to Mapes' abusive father) is functional but unnecessary: If the thrust of your narrative is that your hero was villified for doing nothing wrong, what are you trying to explain away with an "origin story" and pat psychoanalysis that (frankly) could be easily turned around to make the exact opposite point?

But, again, that's only really a flaw if we're taking TRUTH at its word (no, the irony is not lost on me) that it's not meant to be a Hero's Journey for an idealized version of Mary Mapes with right-wing New Media as the villain. Taken as precisely that (which, all considered, is what's ended up onscreen) it's largely a triumph that works both as a newsroom potboiler and a lament for the good old days (Redford swirls a brandy and laments bygone wonders as naturally as most people draw breath); and the fist-pump righteousness Blanchett invests Mapes' story with should prove particularly restorative for Progressive audiences: However coincidental, its hard not to think of Hillary Clinton (literally) brushing-off the Benghazi paranoiacs as Blanchett finds herself staring down an "ethics panel" of sneering suits. The question is whether it matters that TRUTH clearly doesn't think it is (and didn't intend to be) that kind of movie, and that I don't have an answer for.

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