Tag Archives: Peter Sarsgaard

TIFF19: Human Capital

Drew is an ex-gambler who has borrowed money he doesn’t have to invest in a hedge fund. When it tanks, he’s pretty desperate, with bills piling up and not one but two babies on the way. Drew (Liev Schrieber) also happens to be the father of a teenage daughter, Shannon (Maya Hawke), who is dating Jamie (Fred Hechinger).

Jamie’s parents are rich, which gives Drew a lot of envy. humancapital_0hero-hr__1_2Jamie’s dad, Quint (Peter Sarsgaard) just happens to be the manager of that hedge fund I was talking about, and he’s super stressed, selling assets to stop the bleeding. He’s not a particularly nice guy, it probably goes without saying. His wife Karen (Marisa Tomei) is fairly pragmatic about their flawed marriage, but she cries a lot. She recently bought a theatre to renovate and run, but with the hedge fund having a coronary, she’s about to lose it.

Jamie and Shannon are actually recently broken up because Jamie is gay and Shannon has a new boyfriend, a bad boy with a record. But for now, both families are together for a high school fundraiser, after which there will be a hit-and-run, and one of them will be responsible.

Human Capital is a tale of guilt and innocence, and how much they’re worth, and to whom. It’s about greed and compromise. It’s based on a novel, and another movie besides, and ultimately fails to justify its own existence. It’s moderately interesting and the performances are fine, but there isn’t a single aspect of this movie that distinguishes itself. Even the whodunnit feels beside the point.

With nothing to uplift it, it may as well have stayed on the page.

Night Moves

Josh and Dena are passionate about their cause: the environment. Tired of small measures, they team with Harmon, a shadier character who can help them pull off an act of eco-terrorism, the bombing of a hydroelectric dam.

Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) are idealistic and young. They figure this revolutionary act will prompt people to think about what they’re doing to the environment, which you and I know is almost never how it works. What happens in real life is that we’re angry about the disruption to our lives. In the movie, however, what happens is even messier. The greatest impact they have is on themselves.

MV5BMTY1NDIzODA2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTE4Mjk0MTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Night Moves isn’t so much about the environment as it is a character study between these three individuals trying to make a statement, and then living with the consequences. It’s slow, almost plodding. There’s no flashiness, just a creeping sense of guilt and paranoia.

The thing is, Jesse Eisenberg is a one-note actor and I’m damned tired of that note. He wears this grimace that tells us the world is just painful to him, like how can his pinched little rat face be expected to live in a world with us plebeians? He got lucky once with a role whose neuroticism suited him perfectly. Everything else has been derivative, and while it might have been slightly funny to watch Mark Zuckerberg get chased by zombies, I just don’t buy him as an eco-thug, bless his entitled little heart.

Otherwise I think Kelly Reichardt puts together a uniquely character-drive film that defies classification. It pushes us to challenge what we think of as “natural” and ratchets up the tension with increasing themes of alienation. What Reichardt doesn’t do is decide for us.

The Magnificent Seven

magnificent-seven-2016-castThis is a western where the good guys wear black. Where you cheer for the outlaws, where a woman shoots better than most of the men, and where a black man can be the unquestioned leader of the posse. It is a more multicultural west than we are used to seeing, and it feels natural, like this is how it always should have been.

And why not? If you have Denzel Washington in your western, then he should be in charge.  He’s the lead. He takes command here and it’s clear right from the start that what Denzel says goes. haley-bennett-magnificent-seven-2016All the outlaws he recruits fall into line and work with him and for him, to save a little town that a gold baron has taken
by force.

Chris Pratt is the first to sign up and it’s great to have him along for the ride. His brand of comedy is welcome and he also manages a convincing quick draw.

The other five join up quickly thereafter, from Ethan Hawke’s shellshocked southern sniper, to Byung-hun Lee’s soft-spoken knife expert, to Vincent D’Onofrio’s nigh-unstoppable hick
who’s been in the sun too long.  Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Mexican outlaw and Martin Sensmeyer’s kick-ass Comanche warrior sing up as well. I would have liked to see more opportunities for the last two to contribute, as the movie was at its strongest when the entire crew was riffing off one another while preparing for the final showdown against Peter Saarsgard’s gold baron and hundreds of his henchmen. That’s an indication of the strength of the cast, from top to bottom.1461168127-the-magnificent-seven-trailer

We seem to be in the middle of a western revival over the last few years, illustrated by the fact this was not my first western this month. The Magnificent Seven is not an instant classic like Hell or High Water, but Antoine Fuqua delivers an enjoyable popcorn movie that earnestly serves up a high noon showdown. Feeling like a throwback already, catch it as a matinee for extra authenticity.

Naturally, the Magnificent Seven gets a score of seven rootin’ tootin’ gunslingers out of ten.

 

 

TIFF: Jackie

Jackie is a beautiful film by Pablo Larrain that focuses on Jacqueline Kennedy in the minutes and days following her husband’s assassination.

Larrain is a Chilean film maker, which makes him at outsider to American politics. He poured over documents and was fascinated to read about this day that every age-appropriate American remembers so vividly: when the car turned, the location of the grassy knoll, the flag-wavers lining the street, the bullet’s trajectory – and always sitting beside the president, his wife, Jackie. e02adc223bf38b822b3e250330bde15cLarrain thought to himself, what if it was the other way around. What if he was sitting beside her? And in that thought was born a beautifully conceived film that puts its female character front and centre.

Larrain thought the script was good but sent it back with a note to cut every and any scene that she wasn’t in. The camera would be on Jackie the whole time. Obviously a film with such unerring focus would need an actress who could carry it, and Natalie Portman is that actress. This is her best role since Black Swan and honestly it may be her best role, full stop. She inhabits Jackie like a second skin. She doesn’t get caught up in the trappings of impersonation, she just embodies the grace, the thoughtfulness, and the mystery of one of America’s most beloved and glamourous first ladies.

Despite being a favourite in the press, Jacqueline Kennedy is perhaps unknowable. She was always careful about her public persona and was closely guarded when speaking on record. The film makes this abundantly clear through scenes with a journalist (Billy Crudup) about a week after tragedy has struck. She edits her remarks, strikes things from the record, and demands final approval before a single word is printed. Noah Oppenheim’s script is 14996precise and offers up tantalizing looks behind the closed doors of Camelot.

Peter Sarsgaard, as Bobby Kennedy, is a charming lurker. Greta Gerwig in her most un-Gerwig role to date is restrained and almost unrecognizable. I’d heard that Natalie Portman gave a stellar performance in Jackie but I was unprepared for how good the film would be as a whole. This isn’t just a candidate for Best Actress but I believe, for Best Picture. It’s so well-orchestrated, each piece comes together perfectly to make a very satisfying picture. JFK, one of the world’s most recognizable politicians, is a mere shadow in this film. Jackie gets her moment in the sun, which makes Natalie Portman the star at the centre of this movie’s universe.

She deserves all the acclaim she’ll receive. She’s brave and courageous here, mixing grief and poise in an intoxicating cocktail that you won’t be able to tear your eyes from. She’s magnetic. She shimmers with loss and outrage as she protects her husband (and more importantly: his legacy) from the vultures already climbing over his coffin. Jackie feels very much like an insider’s peek-a-boo on what has to be an iconic yet little-understood moment in history. Finally we experience JFK’s assassination as Jackie felt it – as the gruesome murder of her husband and the father of her two young kids. She sat beside him, scooping his brains back into his skull, calling to him even as she knew he was already dead. His blood is still fresh on her dress as LBJ is sworn in just 43 minutes later, Kennedy’s body resting just a few feet away. What to tell the children? What to tell the nation? It’s absolutely fascinating. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography allows us to get very close to the grief, while also appreciating its context: Air Force One, the White House, the Lincoln convertible. Jackie manages to be both historic and quite personal, and Larrain ushers us ably into both worlds. Both Portman and Larrain resist the temptation to over-emote. Like the former first lady herself, restraint, control, and self-possession are at its heart.

Experimenter

As you may have noticed, we recently caught The Stanford Prison Experiment in a Bytowne double-bill.  As you also may have noticed, we are at the New Hampshire Film Festival this weekend taking in a ton of films and discovering we may not be festival-ed out yet!  It helps that the NHFF, in its 15 year, is a complete change of pace from the frenzied, big city, line-up centric, atmosphere of TIFF.  Here, you show up ten minutes before each movie and walk right in, and the program/map included with your pass (which I’ve looked at about a thousand times already) makes clear that at most it will be an eight minute walk between theatres, and so far we haven’t even had to go that far to catch four movies yesterday.

One of those four movies was Experimenter, which tells the story of Stanley Milgram, who will be familiar to anyone who has taken a post-secondary science course or two.  Dr. Milgram was the genius behind the obedience experiment.  To refresh your memory, or bring you up to speed, the experiment on its face purported to test the effect of negative reinforcement on learning.  Two subjects came in together, with one being randomly assigned the role of teacher and the other being the student.  Put in adjacent rooms, the teacher spoke through a one-way microphone and gave multiple choice questions to the student, who then got an electric shock for every wrong answer, with the strength of the shock increasing every time.  To give the teacher a taste of the effect, the lowest-level shock (of 45V) was given to the teacher before the test began.  Every teacher thought even that low-level shock was painful.  Throughout the test, the teachers could hear the student through the wall, howling in pain and begging to stop.  Though all teachers were visibly uncomfortable with the students’ anguish, 65% of them proceeded all the way through the test, with the last shock being administered to an unresponsive student (as a lack of response was considered a wrong response).  The teachers were never forced to administer a shock though they were told it was a necessary part of the experiment and asked to keep going.  And they did, even though the last shock was 450V!

Then the curtain was pulled back.  This was not a test of the student, it was a test of the teacher.  The student was always the same person, i.e., one of the experimenters.  He was not being shocked but instead had been recorded making anguished noises. The experiment was designed to examine why humans are so willing to give in to authority, as demonstrated particularly by the Holocaust.

It was a controversial study at the time and still remains so to this day.  For me, I think it’s fascinating and necessary.  The deception has to happen in order to get past the natural instinct that we all have, namely that if we were put in that scenario we would not shock the person.  But over and over this experiment and its successors have proven that more than half of us are lying to ourselves.

Experimenter is worth seeing for that experiment alone.  It’s a brilliant illustration of our latent defects and brings to light the evil even “good” (/normal) people are capable of, and what we need to fight against when we are subjected to authority, in order to keep our humanity.  That experiment is rightly where Experimenter puts its focus, but unlike The Stanford Prison Experiment, Experimenter looks at a lot of Dr. Milgram’s other work, which was equally brilliant (Six Degrees of Separation!).  That extra material was welcome to me but it’s just a taste of it, as there simply isn’t enough time to give the other experiments much attention.  Still, I think their inclusion was a good choice in order to show us Dr. Milgram was not a one hit wonder, and also give us a sense of the extent to which the obedience experiment monopolized Dr. Milgram’s professional and personal life despite his best efforts to move on.

I had some issues with the manner in which this story is delivered to us, though.  There are quite a few uneven parts of Experimenter, and some distracting choices made here in bringing the story to screen.  Two items stood out the most to me.

First, Dr. Milgrom speaks directly to us, which I think sped up the delivery of a lot of material to us but took me out of the cinematic experience and turned me into a student rather than a moviegoer.  Perhaps that was the intention but I think it detracted from the experience for me.

Second, there are several scenes with roughed-in backgrounds that clash directly with our foreground characters (e.g., a visit to a mentor’s house where our protagonists sit on furniture that has inexplicably been placed in front of a black and white 2D living room backdrop).  I could not figure out why this was happening during the movie and trying to figure out the reason distracted me throughout the movie (and that was not the only scene that had me thinking similar thoughts).  Afterward, Jay mentioned that maybe it was roughed in for the time being with the intention of being replaced, and I hope that is the case.

Despite those minor issues, this movie is so worthwhile.  I think you will find it fascinating and it does a great job of capturing the effect of the obedience experiment on everyone that it touched, whether directly or indirectly. and as a bonus gives us a bit of insight into a brilliant scientist who opened our eyes to a truth that is hard to for us accept, but an integral part of our nature that we need to know about in order to resist.

I give the Experimenter seven dangerous shocks out of ten.