Review: The Lively Comedy Our Brand Is Crisis

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

5 new movie reviews in brief: Truth, Suffragette, Our Brand is Crisis and more.

This weekend, there’s an unusual face-off at the box office: A-listers Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock are headlining new movies, “Burnt” and “Our Brand Is Crisis,” respectively, both about geniuses who strive to make a career comeback after a meltdown.

Though reporters bemoan the state of journalism today, in the movies, it’s the golden age again as films like Spotlight and Truth revisit the theme of hard-charging reporters fighting the good fight.If you’ve been following the drama in the House, the inability of most every Republican presidential candidate to lift off, or really any news from American politics over the last 10 or 239 years, you might have noticed that politics is difficult.Except for Sandra Bullock, this fictional film based on Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary about U.S. influence on the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, is just not a very good movie.

The poor reviews of Our Brand is Crisis are puzzling, since it’s one of the few non-documentary films to show successfully a) what rip-roaring fun politics can be when it’s only about marketing and b) what terrible things can happen when it’s only about marketing. There are too many balls in the air, too many uncontrollable outside factors, for any singular figure to get all of this under control, be 10 steps ahead of the curve, and successfully and confidently blaze a trail from pre-candidacy to election to dignified leadership.

Trying to satirize politics in the modern world is nearly an impossible task, particularly when the likes of Donald Trump are a parody in and of themselves. You do realize that I’m pitching this for me?’ ” recalled Bullock. “He goes, ‘Yeah, but I want to know, like, what is she going to wear?’ ” Things have gotten a little better since then. The protagonist, Jane Bodine a.k.a. “Calamity Jane” (Sandra Bullock), has been lured out of retirement by gobs of money and a challenge: Can she convince the Bolivian people to elect as president an unpopular, arrogant, cigar-chomping oligarch named Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida)—who was already president once and bungled the job? From the screenwriter of Zodiac (and The Amazing Spider-Man) comes a dramatization of the Memogate controversy over a 60 Minutes report concerning documents critical of former U.S. president George W.

The reality of U.S. politics is dominated not so much by incompetent leaders as mortals who lack the requisite superpowers needed to steer the ship of state. It was conceived as a humorous satire of the cynical campaign tactics used by the Greenberg Carvill Shrum consultants, a U.S. group hired by Sanchez de Lozada in a bid to improve his image after a tense first presidential term.

While it is often very funny, it’s less successful in the satire department, meaning that despite its cynical subject matter, David Gordon Green’s film is, oddly, not so cynical itself. Questions of authenticity swirling around photocopied letters eventually took down news producer Mary Mapes and helped end Dan Rather’s career at CBS. Instead of superhuman strength or projectile spider-webs, this puppet master has in her arsenal a penchant for drinking and smoking, instant access to the perfect quip at the perfect time, and a convenient lack of morality. It does have Sandra Bullock in its favor, playing a James Carville-like campaign strategist (who is actually based on James Carville) traveling to La Paz to attempt to re-energize the faltering presidential bid of a stuffy, unpopular presidential candidate who’s the Bolivian version of Jeb Bush. Bullock’s conversation with the studio executive remains an all too familiar scene for actresses in Hollywood, where sexist presumptions are ingrained in the culture.

The big reason it works, though, is that it takes its premise from Rachel Boynton’s phenomenal (but little-known) 2005 documentary of the same name. She’s left politics behind, though, following a breakdown of sorts, but money is tight, so when Ben (Anthony Mackie) and Nell (Ann Dowd) track her down and offer her a gig trying to win Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida) the Bolivian presidency, she takes it, only to find that her candidate is unpopular and desperately low in the polls.

Backed by an orchestra swelling with moral rectitude, Truth is so convinced of its righteousness that it turns a fascinating issue into a story about martyrdom. Boynton traveled to Bolivia to cover the activity of a high-priced U.S. consulting firm, Greenberg Carville, and Shrum, in the 2002 presidential race, and she had amazing—frankly, flabbergasting—access. On Oct. 17, 2003, he fled the country on a commercial jet, after the “Black October Massacre” in which over 60 people including men, women, and children were indiscriminately mowed down by the military’s bullets – under Sanchez de Lozada’s command. On top of that, his first impression of her comes when she’s vomiting into a wastebasket due to altitude sickness, and worst of all, her nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), is trying to help the other guy win.

In his directorial debut, James Vanderbilt is so busy painting Mapes as the victim, he rarely stops to question her certainty or how facts become irrelevant in the 24-hour tweeting and blogging world we live in. Bullock can’t remember how many times she’s had to listen to a writer try to explain how “the wife” is really the heart of the movie. “I know what that means. She showed how American marketing techniques never before used in that region steered a desperate country towards a rich, arrogant former president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni”), who proved catastrophically out of touch. “The process of “framing” Goni to look like something he isn’t could be the stuff of a rambunctious campaign comedy like Primary Colors or, for that matter, the documentary The War Room… Bolivian protesters from El Alto were then demanding the nationalization of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, and rejected the export of the country’s reserves to Chile. Via Rotten Tomatoes: “‘Burnt’ offers a few spoonfuls of compelling culinary drama, but they’re lost in a watery goulash dominated by an unsavory main character and overdone clichés.” Recent box office performance: Cooper shot to film stardom in 2009 thanks to “The Hangover” franchise, and over the past few years he has had some big hits: “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle” and “American Sniper,” all three of which earned him Oscar nominations.

Cate Blanchett channels a little of her earlier Blue Jasmine role as Mapes, while Robert Redford’s iconic status leads to a wooden portrayal of Rather. Screenwriter Peter Straughan has a history of intriguingly offbeat work, and his dialogue and characters, especially in the form of strategists Buckley (Scoot McNairy) and LeBlanc (Zoe Kazan), zing with cleverness. Suffragette tells the story of women seeking the right to vote from the viewpoints of a poor laundress (Carey Mulligan) and a police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) charged with stopping the insurrection. (Steffan Hill/Focus Features/Associated Press) On the surface, appears to be a film about feminism, but it’s also about the slippery slope between agitator and what some would label terrorism.

Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a legendary practitioner of the dark political arts who comes out of semi-retirement to navigate the hapless ex-president back to the top job. When the gunfire stops, the camera moves in on a boy sitting on the steps of a building, his head partly covered by his coat as if he’s grabbing a nap.

Potential impact of a flop: One one hand, Cooper has had a rough year, he’s also the kind of actor who has too many projects lined up to truly be affected by this one. Carey Mulligan is Maud Watts, a woman who has been working in a laundry since the age of seven and goes from reluctant supporter to frontline soldier as her personal situation worsens. When she’s recruited for a chance to face off in Bolivia against her longtime and similarly depraved rival, Pat Candy—portrayed convincingly enough as a stock Billy Bob Thornton character by Billy Bob Thornton—she signs up. The twist, if this movie indeed contains one, is that the tried-and-true strategy of winning at all-costs via attack ads and character assassinations, has snuck past the U.S. border into South America, where candidates – and their U.S. advisors – believe it’s more important to win than to lead. Jane’s own behavior is ethically questionable, in terms of the way she frames the discussion once she’s on the ground, turning Gallo’s talking points from prosperity to crisis, thereby giving the film its title.

It’s a sad-but-true cliche recurring ad nauseum throughout “Crisis,” which should more accurately be called “Chaos,” considering that’s the brand director David Gordon Green (doing a 180 from “Pineapple Express”) is really selling with his schizophrenic potpourri of slapstick, cynicism and come-to-Jesus drama. At the start, Jane has been out of the consulting game for several years, following a traumatic mayoral race. (A heavy back story is subsequently revealed, followed by an ever heavier back story to the back story.) She moved to a mountain cabin, stopped smoking, got sober, and started doing pottery.

But “Crisis” isn’t actually all that interested in ethics, and it doesn’t really explore the quandary of whether freelance political consulting, the hiring of outsiders from another country, is noble and just. You see it so clearly,” said Thornton. “When Donald Trump says, ‘First of all, I respect women, I love women.’ It’s like, you start with that? Still, the combination of Gavron’s urgent, hand-held shooting style and Mulligan’s face – a mixture of pain and determination – create a stirring experience. Then Jane figures out a hook: To make Castillo more attractive than the frontrunner (a young, engaged populist who represents hope and change), she has to sell the idea that the country doesn’t need someone, well, likable.

Pre-movie buzz: This part was originally for George Clooney, who’s a producer on the project; but Bullock was interested in the role, so it was rewritten. It’s about how lost in the win we may have gotten, even to the detriment of our own soul and to the detriment of, in this case, an entire body of people,” Bullock said.

Green’s glossy new take on the subject matter doesn’t dig that deep with the material, not unlike “The Blind Side,” for which Bullock won her Oscar. Directed by August: Osage County’s John Wells, Burnt transports us into the kitchen of the high-end restaurant where Adam bullies and berates his staff into a quivering crew churning out perfection.

But the filmmakers invent an antagonist of near-mythic stature to make her lust for a win: Billy Bob Thornton’s Pat Candy, who works for the leading candidate. She landed an Oscar win for “Blind Side” and nomination for “Gravity.” “Sandra Bullock found herself in an odd situation where she was basically a bigger star in 2013 than she was back in 1993/1994 when she first broke out,” Forbes wrote.

Still, that Oscar has allowed Bullock, who’s an executive producer on “Crisis,” to pick and choose her roles, and she has, for the most part, made strong choices since. Leather jacket-clad Cooper tooling like a Top Gun stand-in can be hard to swallow, but Burnt’s excellent supporting cast, including Sienna Miller and Daniel Bruhl, elevate the film to cinematic comfort food of the highest order.

She’s appealing as ever as Calamity Jane, who is eventually rewarded with a bit of redemption that might seem endearing, though if you’re a cynic, you might not think she’s deserving. Even though it still stings given that it’s a film that, as Post movie critic Stephanie Merry points out, had all the ingredients for an awards-season favorite, from big names to an all-star producing team. Still, Bullock is considered enough of a draw (and has built up enough goodwill over the years) that her star status can be forgiven for a critical failure. Sometimes the portrayal is satirical—Robert DeNiro’s spin doctor in Wag the Dog, the assassin-like Dylan McDermott in The Campaign, the sex-addicted Kathryn Hahn in television’s Parks and Recreation. Sometimes it’s melodramatic—think the sinister Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Ides of March, or most notably, Kevin Spacey’s snaky Frank Underwood, the master strategist and politician bundled into one on House of Cards.

She’s also attached to a movie with “Proposal” director Anne Fletcher, which Variety reports is “said to combine elements of ‘An Unmarried Woman’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever.’” All the stupid tricks are here, the ones people laugh at onscreen in the context of a film like this but fall for in spite of themselves on their TVs during football games. Although Castillo’s populist opponent doesn’t seem to have much integrity (the character does in the documentary), we still know that Castillo has less, that he’s a dreadful man.

As their late-night walking tour takes an ominous turn, the unbroken cinematography keeps the tension high, while the largely improvised script leaves room for expressive moments. We’re not supposed to earnestly admire any of these people, but we are supposed to guiltily admire their unfailing ability to guide impossible undertakings, such as the practice of politics, to victory through whatever means.

Some of her pranks, specifically one ploy to feed her candidate’s unsuspecting competitor a Nazi quotation during the campaign’s final debate, are good for a laugh. And while the role of Calamity Jane smacks of Sandra Bullock’s branding—the smart but painfully self-conscious klutz who’s also a depressive—it’s a complicated, maybe even feminist shtick.

That’s the problem with focusing a story on the diabolical strategist, the one mythical figure in this godforsaken political system who’s got it all figured out. It’s yoked to an impoverished Bolivian teenager who believes—despite the angry effusions of his brother and friends in their hillside slum—that Castillo is sincere in trying to bring about economic equality.

Among the many achievements of HBO’s Veep is its discovery of a new, post-Carville political consultant character, one that’s just as cuttingly entertaining but truer to reality. (Vice) President Selina Meyers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) has a stable of advisers including Dan Egan (Reid Scott) and Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) who have internalized and aspire to the Carville cult; it’s just that reality interrupts to remind them that things don’t work like that. There just aren’t enough cigarettes or bottles of Scotch in the world to give any political consultant the power that we, in our fits of frustration, guiltily wish they had. Here’s my idea for a Hollywood ending: People are inspired to seek out Boynton’s great documentary, which throws a spotlight on one of America’s least-known but most consequential exports.

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