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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
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Movie Reviews

Jorge Ignacio Castillo
Published Thursday October 29, 06:13 pm
Sandra shines in a flawed film about Bolivian politics

 Our Brand Is Crisis

Cineplex

3/5

The persona of bitterness and disenchantment that Sandra Bullock has developed in the last few years of her career serves her well in the political satire Our Brand Is Crisis. Based on the 2005 documentary of the same name, the film takes several dramatic liberties (Bullock’s character was originally male and to be played by George Clooney, for example), but it remains a bleak depiction of political manipulation at its most naked.

Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is a disgraced campaign strategist barely hanging onto her sanity. Both disposable and expendable, Bodine has no choice but to accept a job as head consultant for a presidential candidate in Bolivia. The election is a particularly important one for the deeply indebted country; the International Monetary Fund wants to call in its debts — at the expense of Bolivia’s social programs and natural resources.

The politician Bodine’s tasked with helping doesn’t make her job any easier — Pedro Castillo (no relation to me, heh) doesn’t even register on the charisma-meter, and is trailing in the polls by a considerable margin. Jane considers throwing in the towel until realizing the frontrunner’s campaign manager is her arch-enemy Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, channeling James Carville), the guy who triggered her nervous breakdown years ago. Suddenly, this is personal.

Jane soon discovers that pride brings out the fighter in Castillo, who may not be the most appealing candidate, but he’ll throw a punch if he’s prodded. As for the message to be found here, it’s a Hollywood classic: Crisis!!! If voters don’t pick Castillo there’ll be doom all around! (Everybody conveniently forgets that to really know what a politician wants you have to follow the money, but oh well.)

Directed by perennial up-and-comer David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), Our Brand Is Crisis does a very good job at skimming the surface of presidential campaigns. Kissing babies doesn’t work anymore; contenders must appeal to the electorate’s fears and most basic emotions. (Sound familiar, Canadians?)

The problem with Our Brand Is Crisis is that it doesn’t dare go far enough down the rabbit hole. Outside of a campaign based on fear, “going negative” and candidate-coaching, there’s nothing here that even mildly well-informed people don’t know. It also doesn’t bother to tackle Bolivia’s biggest political issue: Candidates live and die on promising access to the Pacific Ocean, and demonizing Chile. None of this is in the film.

The movie works better as a character study. Bullock’s Bodine is disgustingly good at her job, even though her methods are questionable and her scorn for people with ideals and principles is palpable. Eventually, it becomes clear Jane’s cynicism comes from an old emotional wound, which prevents us from entirely hating her.

What really hinders Our Brand Is Crisis is the saccharine ending, which is sadly inconsistent with the tone of rest of the movie and feels more studio-ordered than organic. For a Hollywood-ending-free experience, check out Rachel Boynton’s documentary of the same name. It’s both horrifying and coherent.

 

Burnt

Cineplex

3/5

Burnt is like food from an decent chain restaurant: Good enough to enjoy, but so calculated that it’s difficult to take seriously.

The movie stars a ridiculously overqualified cast and wonderful-looking gourmet cuisine, and revolves around a carefully disheveled Bradley Cooper as a bad boy looking for redemption. And it’s all shot around London’s most emblematic sights. Sweet.

Because it’s been designed by fairly competent people to be a crowd-pleaser, Burnt is undeniably effective. Cooper is Adam Jones: Once the most exciting chef in Paris, his many addictions drove him out of the City of Lights with little more than his clothes. Three years later, he’s ready for his comeback — but first he has to repair the many bridges he burnt along the way.

Jones’ “white whale” is a Michelin three-star review. Unfortunately, during his time away, modern cuisine has moved forward, and the troubled chef is forced to rely on newbies to catch up. This vulnerability allows him a modicum of humanity — not a small thing for a man who could make Gordon Ramsay cry for his mama.

As long as the film focuses on the food, it sizzles. The preparation, protocols and kitchen politics of a top-tier restaurant are fascinating to watch. (Ramsay and Mario Batali are credited as consultants, by the way.) But the questionable decision of introducing a romantic subplot, and the perfunctory involvement of the mob, dilute Burnt’s strongest storyline.

Cooper is on point throughout, although the role is hardly a stretch. The real problem is all the underutilized actors around him. Emma Thompson barely registers as the chef’s therapist, but that’s nothing compared with Alicia Vikander. Arguably the actress of the year (Ex-Machina, The Danish Girl, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Vikander is limited to three minutes of screen time as Jones’ ex-girlfriend. Horrible decision.

This is a potentially great meal, but it’s undercooked.

 

Labyrinth of Lies

Roxy (opens Friday 6)

3/5

Post-WWII Germany is coming under increasing scrutiny from a new generation of filmmakers — especially when it comes to former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s many oversights regarding the prosecution of former Nazi officials. (This lack of zeal, for example, allowed noted war criminal Josef Mengele to live to old age in South America.)

Labyrinth of Lies may not be the subtlest of movies, but it brings attention to the true heroes of the period — like attorney general Fritz Bauer and a small team of lawyers who managed to locate the officers who ran Auschwitz and bring them to trial.

The film doesn’t focus on Bauer, but rather straight-arrow attorney Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling, Homeland). Radmann comes across the uneasy reality of former Nazis working in the public sector: If you didn’t have a position of responsibility during WWII you were likely to avoid prosecution, and many people preferred it that way.

Then, Radmann does what nobody else would: Some light research. Turns out many of these “subordinates” were actively involved in the Final Solution, a crime against humanity of such magnitude that the “following orders” excuse doesn’t cut it.

Labyrinth of Lies tries valiantly to cover a vast amount of material here, but falls predictably short. There is the prosecution itself, the victims, the war criminals and the political intrigue (the German Federal Republic and its Western allies would rather let sleeping dogs lie, given the threat of the USSR). For some reason, director Giulio Ricciarelli thought it would be a good idea to also incorporate a romantic subplot, further straining the proceedings. Silly.

Still, Labyrinth of Lies is a necessary film. It brings up the costs of amnesty and puts into question the idea of reconciliation without justice.

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