Show Me a Leader

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.

 

How to Get Away with a Stinker

Many people have asked my opinion on what I consider a bad movie, or what makes a director bad. The answer to these two questions could have been simple: Michael Bay and his entire filmography, Zack Snyder and his superhero fascination, M. Night Shyamalan and a big chunk of his last few movies, but in this case my answer is different. My answer is based on the simple concept of ‘bad’. What makes a director ‘bad’? Take M. Night, for instance; he has made some very good movies (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense) as well as some very, very, very bad ones (The HappeningAfter Earth). Fine. That is fine. Why? Because the man has his own vision, and as distorted and trashy as it can be at times, it is still his vision. His movies have a trademark Shyamalan tag attached to them, meaning no one else could have made them that way. Even in his biggest flops he showed character and style, like in The Village, where the story misses, but the character and gothic genre filmmaking do not. Then who do I consider a bad film director if not the ones I already mentioned, who are infamous for releasing well below mediocre films every two-three years? It is someone who is never mentioned in the conversation, and yet someone who is so mediocre and whose movies are so average in their attempt to be great that I cannot ignore the dismissal of this name: Scott Cooper.

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Scott Cooper directing Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Who is Scott Cooper? Well, for starters he emerged in 2009 and got Jeff Bridges his first, well deserved Oscar, with the movie Crazy Heart, about the life of a failed country musician. Four years later he returned with Out of the Furnace, supported by a stellar cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and the late Sam Shepard), in order to tell the story of a steelworker in small town America who seeks to avenge his brother’s violent death. Then, 2015’s acclaimed and presumed ‘return to form’ by Johnny Depp, with the tale of Bostonian crime lord ‘Whitey’ Bulger in Black Mass, and finally, last year’s neo-western, Hostiles. Now, if someone unfamiliar with this man’s movies, looks at what I’ve just written, looks at the acting credits, the titles, the fact that I described some of these movies as ‘acclaimed’ and Oscar nominated, will think I’m out of my element calling Scott Cooper one of, if not the worst director working in Hollywood today. However, I stand by my opinion and here is why…

All those movies I just mentioned are average. Yes, they are average. From an objective point of view they are average and nothing can change that. Cooper has directed some of the best actors working today and helped one of the most iconic ones (Bridges) get his first Oscar, sweeping all major awards ceremonies. But… is he the one to congratulate? First of all, Crazy Heart is your typical Hollywood redemption story. A middle-aged failed country musician, struggling with alcohol, women and money, all at the same time, tries to make ends meet and taste what could turn out to be his last bittersweet drop of happiness and love. This story has Jeff Bridges written all over it, country legend, known for his heavy Southern accents and the walk of a man of the West, he is perfect for this part. And here is where the movie ends. Cooper limits himself to dressing up Bridges in country boots, putting him on a stage and letting him sing country tunes in a sleazy bar. When it comes to emotion and showing Bad Blake’s true colors (Bridges’ character), Cooper is helpless, lacking any sort of creativity, drive and understanding. It is all Bridges. Him and his deep, bear-like voice take over the character of a miserable drunk and elevate him to a protagonist for the ages, a man afraid to let go of his guitar and keep on with the rolling times.

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The misery of Bad Blake.

Out of the Furnace, Cooper’s following feature film, could not even be saved by the multi-dimensional cast he was offered to work with. What could have been a thrilling experience, perhaps similar to No Country for Old Men, quickly turns into a vague, lifeless, predictable attempt at genre filmmaking. Cooper desperately tries to tell this simple revenge story as if he was handling a much more complicated project. The potential of this movie lies in its simplicity. Many indie movies have been capable of telling simple revenge stories (Blue Ruin for example, a brilliant indie effort from 2013) by sticking to the basics and focusing on what can be improved, instead of what can be changed. Cooper doesn’t get it, and it’s not even a proof of his ambition (there isn’t any to speak of), when he tries to combine multiple storylines and merge them into one (the steelworker brother, the soldier brother, the drug lord and the investigating police officer). Instead of creating an eerie, atmospheric thriller, Cooper gets away with a very shallow modern-day drama that fails under every aspect: action, emotion, suspense, timing and delivery of any sort of message. The film is not about brotherhood, it is not about corruption in America nor about the basic human instinct such as the art of survival. The only spark Out of the Furnace has to offer is a few sequences of bang-bang bloody action which don’t result in plot development. Once I was done watching this movie I suddenly realized what Scott Cooper is getting away with in broad daylight: a career in filmmaking; a career in shallow, B-type, empty and mediocre filmmaking, that specializes in pleasing the easily entertained crowds of viewers and leaving the critics with an average yet satisfied score.

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What could have been a good thriller.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace wasn’t Cooper’s defining hit. No. His supposed masterpiece of mediocrity was released in 2015, carried by Johnny Depp’s deadpan, make-up covered, pale face and blue eyes – Black Mass is the title (which I also wrote about here). After failing in delivering a story of violence and crime set in present-day America, Cooper dives into the grimy, filthy underbelly of 1970s Boston, a city ruled not by the authorities, but by the omnipresent hand of a man named ‘Whitey’ Bulger, a ruthless killer who got caught in 2011 aged 81, after almost 20 years of being listed as one of the top most wanted men by the FBI. Now, one would think, here is a chance for Scott Cooper to prove his worth and redeem himself by turning to the gangster genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case as Cooper has no sense of balance between the documentary side of the movie, where we follow fictionalized testimonies and confessions from associates, friends and Bulger’s family members, and the blue-collar, cold, thriller side of the movie, where Whitey is simply presented as a dumb, irrational monster who relies on violence as a means of expression in his daily life. Cooper loses any sort of control over the outcome of his film, twisting and turning and desperately trying to make this gangster story look interesting. ‘Look’ is the right word, since the movie is the opposite of interesting in storytelling terms, therefore, only the ‘look’, the design, cinematography and production come off as decent. Unfortunately, Black Mass is not an arthouse film, which means it cannot solely rely on the saying ‘style over substance’ as it sets out from the get-go to tell the story of who Bulger really was. And it is here that Cooper fails miserably, perhaps intimidated by his predecessors in the gangster genre such as Scorsese’s Goodfellas and  De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, he directs his movie with the attitude of a timid, shy twelve-year-old in awe of his biggest idols, and rightly so, but this causes the movie to lack character and identity. Critics raved about this movie, with Peter Travers leading the way, naming it a top 10 movie of 2015, but clearly failed to see that Cooper’s mob drama is nothing but a plotless Superbowl commercial, meaning this 2-hour long movie could have been limited to its teaser trailer, which in contrast had a certain energy to it, a tempo and character. Black Mass on its own is a mediocre showing disguised as a good rendition of a long-gone time period in American history, and another piece of evidence that indicates that Scott Cooper is not a good film director, although continuously hailed as one.

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A snapshot that sums up Black Mass: empty, violent, ugly to look at.

Last but not least, last year’s Hostiles could have been special. It should have been special and yet again, Cooper created a work of such mediocrity that even his biggest fans had to point out the major flaws of this preachy neo-western. In the hands of a more skilled director, the story of an Army officer escorting a dying Cheyenne war chief back to his tribal land could have turned out to be a major cinematic sensation, drawing inspiration from John Ford’s The Searchers, and considering westerns are quickly fading into oblivion in today’s world of Hollywood cinema. However, in Cooper’s hands this film becomes yet another phony attempt at selling a product instead of making a movie for people to watch and learn from. The director does, in fact, try to convey a message of some sort, related to the inherited violence and the insanity of war and destruction as well as man’s constant need of fighting for his own little piece of land, but the finished product is nothing but a mess of well shot images that amount to nothing other than a conclusion about the evil that lies in the heart of every single white man involved in the history of the making of the Wild West. Cooper’s eternal fascination with blood, gore and meaningless violence is what brings this movie down and prevents it from being a good directorial effort; it is not all about technique – it is about the ideas that spark the technique. Clearly, Cooper does not see anything beyond the simple act of violence. It is not fun (like in Tarantino’s films, or even Shane Black’s), it is not cold blooded (like in Scorsese’s pictures), it just is, for the sake of being.

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Not a good Western.

So what is my major takeaway from this post? A bad director is someone who directs films without a purpose, without an idea of some kind, without belief. A bad director is someone who tries to pass his own movie as good, who makes it look pretty but does not look deeper and refuses to adjust its evident flaws (Nicolas Winding Refn is another one, although with a couple of good movies under his belt) not because of too much pride, but because of a critical lack of self-awareness regarding his/her own work. When I watch a film directed by Scott Cooper, I don’t feel anger nor satisfaction. I don’t feel suspense nor excitement. I don’t feel frustration. I feel nothing. And that is the worst feeling one can have when experiencing a film.