Monday, September 22, 2014
When the original series of Star Trek premiered in 1966, it was a landmark for diversity. The multi-racial cast explored the galaxy and covered important social issues with more depth than you might expect from a ‘60s TV show. I caught little of these achievements when seeing it as a kid in the ‘80s; the outer-space setting and alien worlds drew my attention. Viewing it today, the series is sillier than I remember but has an added relevance because of the cast and subject matter. One of the key players was George Takei, who piloted the Enterprise through the final frontier as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu. He remains known for this iconic character, particularly following the success of the Star Trek feature films. There’s a lot more to his story than his time playing Sulu, however.
When many people think of Star Trek, their minds understandably go to Kirk and Spock. Even so, few actors from that show have developed a following like Takei. He’s gone beyond the typical fan and built an online fan base through Facebook and his frequent appearances on the Howard Stern Show. He’s also become outspoken for social justice and coming out as gay in 2005. The different sides of Takei’s personality are chronicled in Jennifer Kroot’s warm documentary To Be Takei. She presents the actor with his husband Brad, who’s been in a relationship with him for more than 25 years. The film jumps around chronologically to offer an interesting portrait of a man who’s becoming more popular every year.
It seems fitting with Takei’s hectic life that Kroot avoids a straightforward telling of his background. She spends a good deal of time on his childhood experiences at internment camps during World War II. One segment that cuts between many versions of the same speech for various organizations is very effective. Takei has clearly found his niche as a public face for important causes apart from his acting career. His descriptions of growing up in those camps are stunning even to someone with some knowledge about them. Kroot returns to this topic several times, and the jumps to different themes don’t always connect so well. Even so, it’s easy to follow around a guy like Takei wherever the movie takes him.
What makes this film about more than Takei is the participation from Brad, who doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in front of the camera. The opening scene involves a minor squabble between the couple, who are completely endearing. Brad runs the show at a later autographs signing and is a no-nonsense manager at these events. It’s his persistence that allows the star to be so relaxed for his fans. What’s unfortunate is how long Takei stayed in the closet because of fears that it would hurt his career. It’s a testament to Brad’s love that he was willing to stay behind the scenes for so long. It could not have been easy to watch from the distance and keep their relationship a secret. It’s a telling reminder of our recent progress but shows that our culture still has a long way to go before there’s no stigma.
An interesting subplot is Takei’s strained relationship with William Shatner. We see footage of the roast of Shatner, which includes some vicious swipes that seem to be in good fun. However, there is a slice of truth to everything Takei says about his former co-star. Shatner appears in the film and seems to be joking about their feud, but it becomes clear that animosity is still there. Was Shatner invited to Takei’s wedding? Who’s telling the truth? I expect the reality is somewhere between their stories. I admire both guys yet recognize that some big personalities just don’t mesh. I would have enjoyed more time on this topic within this movie, but I realize the feud wasn’t the focus.
Howard Stern also has a significant presence in this documentary, though he’s supporting Takei. Given the radio host’s reputation, their friendship shows a refreshing meeting of the minds between kindred spirits. They have an easy chemistry that you can’t fake, and Takei has appeared many times on Stern’s show. Clips from their interviews help to reveal why Takei’s built such a following beyond the Star Trek fans. It isn’t easy to move beyond the role of typical genre stars that are locked into certain characters.
An ongoing part of To Be Takei is the attempt to make Allegiance, a musical inspired by his time in the internment. While parts of this passion project remind me of the fictional William Shatner’s attempt to do a musical of Julius Caesar in Free Enterprise, it ends up being a success. Takei may not be a great singer, but it’s easy to make an emotional connection because of his personal history. This engaging film shows how that experience as a kid shaped everything his entire life. It’s a little disjointed and messy, yet that seems appropriate when you consider Takei’s hectic existence. He’s throwing himself into everything, and the late-career renaissance is a testament to this persistence.
Friday, September 19, 2014
Last Friday night, I ventured to a warehouse-like club and re-ignited my fandom for the Afghan Whigs. Greg Dulli and the guys brought the power and showed they are still as fresh as ever. Their raucous 100-minute set included some old favorites from the ‘90s but a bunch of new songs that went over well. This was hardly a greatest hits performance. I should note that Dulli and John Curley are the only original members that remain in this group. Even so, this wasn’t Bruce Springsteen playing without the E Street Band. This concert got me thinking about what attracts me to the Afghan Whigs. Dulli’s characters are guys that venture into the dark sides of the human psyche. It’s aggressive music that isn’t always my thing, yet I’ve been a consistent listener since Gentlemen arrived in 1993. There’s just something about their mix of soul and intensity that captures my attention.
I mention this concert because we spend a lot of time explaining why we liked a movie or TV series. It isn’t always easy to describe why a certain piece of art speaks to us, even if it seems to differ from our mentality on the surface. I’m on the far left side of the political sphere, yet I’m still drawn to the jingoistic “good vs. evil” tone of 24. That side of the show isn’t the real connector for me, yet it’s hard not to at least enjoy part of it to stick with the show. Neflix may use a crazily intricate algorithm, but the recommendations usually seem a little off base. The reason is that few of us fit inside a box of certain likes and dislikes. Sometimes it’s okay just to roll with it and enjoy the ride. If it means singing at the top of my lungs to “Going to Town” or “Fountain and Fairfax”, I can get with that program.
Here are some interesting blogs and videos that are worth your time:
Speaking of Netflix, they’ve found a way to sell the idea of materials at your fingertips while offering pretty limited content. Sam Adams of Criticwire effective presents this concept with his post “The Availability Gap: What We Lose When Netflix Wins”. He pulls an example from Jon Brooks at KQED Arts and uses it to discuss the unfortunate side of the streaming culture. We may have access to certain movies quicker than ever before, yet plenty of others are becoming harder to locate. I have the benefit of several great library systems plus a few video stores in St. Louis, but it isn’t that way in a lot of places.
There have been some interesting examples this year of ways that smaller films have bypassed the traditional model. Snowpiercer is the type of film that you’d expect to see in theaters, but it received a very limited run. This was by design and helped The Weinstein Company and Radius to avoid the huge marketing and distribution costs. Dorothy Pomerantz at Forbes describes the importance of the way VOD and worldwide sales helped them to earn profits. Theater owners will not like this trend, and it continues to grow in the future.
I’m a fan of pro football, but it’s been hard not to wonder if the sport has crossed a new threshold in recent weeks. It’s always been a violent sport that rewards brutal players, and the news about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson puts a spotlight on that fact. There have been plenty of intelligent pieces written about this topic, but I was struck most by a short commentary from Hannah Storm. She’s been in the business for a long time and is finding it hard to sell the sport to her three daughters.
This next item seems a bit less consequential compared to the previous one, but it still means a lot to me. Disney recently announced that they’re replacing the EPCOT attraction Maelstrom with a ride themed to Frozen. Building an attraction centered on such a popular film is a no brainer and totally understandable. However, there has been an uproar among fans because it’s going in the Norway pavilion in World Showcase. The hubbub may feel silly if you’re not a diehard theme park fan, but I’ll admit that it’s really struck a chord with my feelings about the direction of one of my favorite places. This post from the EPCOT Explorer does a great job summarizing the thoughts of many about this announcement.
I’ll close with a fiery piece from Sofia at Film Flare about her anger at shallow criticism. “Film Criticism? Count Me Out, Folks” describes her weariness at much of the process of analyzing a film. I don’t agree with all of Sofia’s points, but it’s still interesting to think about why we spend so much time digging into movies. I still love discussing a film and what worked or didn’t, but I understand that there’s another side to spewing nasty comments to get noticed. I also have little patience for this approach and can sympathize with Sofia on that front. Here’s a brief quote from a piece that you should check out in full:
“Discussion is crucial, and film analysis is immensely interesting, even beautiful, but it's also rare: what most commercial and amateur "critics" want is not discussion, they're probably not even ready for it (it may actually be a blessing that they seem to be facing extinction). All they want is to throw the hate in your face and see if it sticks, because more often than not, it does. And that's extremely profitable for them — no such thing as bad publicity, right? Well, for me there is. The minute you do this, you lost me. I'm not coming back.”
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
“We're not supposed to be there, sir. These are the wrong people, in the wrong place. And as a group, they're just not qualified.” – Colonel Young
We open in the vast reaches of space, with just a glimmer of an object in the distance. As it moves closer, we realize that it’s a massive ship. The camera pans across the gorgeous vessel and tracks inside towards a large room. It reveals the Stargate, a familiar device for most viewers. The gate begins dialing, and we expect the typical humans or humanoid aliens strolling casually through the gate. Instead, a solider falls brutally through the event horizon. He looks around and clearly has no idea where he is. There’s a brief moment of quiet, and then the chaos begins. People start arriving violently into the ship and sustaining injuries. The final arrival barely makes it and flies spectacularly above them all. It’s a crazy introduction to an unknown environment for people totally unprepared for it. As an audience member, we’re right with them in having no idea what’s in store in this place.
One man stands on a balcony and smiles while the mess continues below him. This is Dr. Rush (Robert Caryle), and he’s located a place that he’s been seeking for a long time. The collateral damage is secondary to this discovery. This moment sets the stage for a different type of Stargate series. Beyond the shooting style or set design, it’s the more complicated people that show the change. Rush isn’t evil but has different goals than soldiers like Colonel Young (Louis Ferreira) and Lieutenant Scott (Brian J. Smith). Those guys would do anything to find home, while Rush is content to stay right where he is. The ship is called the Destiny, and it’s a treasure trove of material about the Ancients. The conflict between finding this knowledge and a safe return to Earth will be a key part of the season.
Stargate Universe (SGU) premiered with “Air”, a three-part episode split across two weeks. The first two parts aired on the opening night, with the conclusion arriving on the following week. The DVD release includes them in a single extended version that works best in presenting the material. It’s essentially a feature-length story that packs so much plot and character introduction into just more than two hours. It’s easier to digest with the extra 10 minutes, which aren’t essential but provide more room to breathe (no pun intended). Without the burden of meeting all the characters, the premiere works much better. The first part does include too many shifts in time, which stall the momentum from the past scenes. Opening with the arrival on the Destiny makes sense, but so many leaps feel like overkill.
Highlights for the diehard SG-1 fan include appearances from Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks, and Amanda Tapping. They may be a painful reminder of past glories to others, but I never get tired of seeing the originals on my screen. It’s too bad that Christopher Judge couldn’t join them; I expect Wright and Cooper didn’t feel the Goa’uld fit within this show. Anderson gets fewer chances to have fun as Jack O’Neill, though his dry delivery to Eli (David Blue) at the start is pitch-perfect. We do get a video conference for the shippers between O’Neill and Tapping’s Samantha Carter that’s a nice gesture. Shanks only appears in an instructional video as Daniel Jackson, but it still works to remind us of his presence. Who else would deliver the Cliffs Notes version of Stargate history? Anderson has scenes in all three parts, but he’s most present in the first hour. It’s important to remind us that SGU does exist in the same universe as past shows.
“What if we are not supposed to be here?” - Eli Wallace
Our entry point in this story is Eli, and even the cynics loved him. He’s the regular guy who can say “wow, that was cool!” while the soldiers and scientists remain serious. David Blue was a longtime Stargate fan, and he’s perfectly cast as the brilliant audience surrogate. His laid-back demeanor stands out even more on a repeat viewing, and Eli’s a necessity in disrupting the somber tone. They may be about to die, but he’s still going to explore the ship. His discovery of the Kino gives the filmmakers another route for presenting the ship and the characters. These miniature orbs can float through the hallways and allow them to check out planets before going through the Stargate. It functions like the M.A.L.P. on SG-1 but also works like a handheld camera for capturing interviews and other random moments. Eli finds a clever way to use them, which also helps as a story telling device.
Much of the SGU criticism focused on its depiction of women, and there was definitely a boys club behind the scenes. Only three of the 40 episodes had female writers, and there was just one directing credit. The characters are written from a male perspective, but that doesn’t mean they’re one-dimensional. “Air” doesn’t have much time to know the characters, but several stand out from the start. The most interesting is T.J. (Alaina Huffman), who’s forced to take charge because of her medical background. Huffman expands what’s on the page and has a confidence that makes T.J. interesting. Chloe (Elyse Levesque) took a lot of vitriol, but she works as a young character who’s completely out of her element. Fans wanted Samantha Carter and instead received a young woman with little experience for this trip. Elyse Levesque does a good job selling Chloe’s angry reaction to losing her father (Christopher McDonald), and standing up to Robert Carlyle is no easy feat.
There are some characters that don’t feel as strong, however. Julia Benson gets little to do as Vanessa James, and her introduction while having sex with Scott is a surprise. This moment serves a larger purpose than setting up their connection. Wright and Cooper are proclaiming that SGU will rest on a different plane from its predecessors. We aren’t in HBO territory, but the characters won’t be the nearly chaste saints of the past. It’s unfortunate for James that we don’t get more dimensions to her character at this point. We learn more about Scott in part three while he struggles on the desert planet. Those flashbacks are really effective in showing his tragic past. The final hour is the strongest and essentially functions like the show’s first regular episode. The Destiny takes them to a planet with the resources to solve their problem, but finding them won’t be easy. There’s a ticking clock that will be familiar to fans, but we get a real sense that people could die on this mission.
This mission also reveals a different approach to aliens than the humanoid Go’uld or Wraith. The swirling desert sands are a mysterious presence that isn’t explained, and that’s so refreshing. I love Carter and Dr. McKay and their skills at delivering loads of exposition, but it’s okay not to know everything. These sand aliens will play a role in the future, yet their origins remain unclear. They don’t speak English or any language we can understand, and that lack of clarity makes them a lot more intriguing. Another interesting aspect is the mutiny from three crew members, who nearly kill them all. Greer (Jamil Walker Smith) must shoot one of them to keep hope alive, and it’s telling about the obstacles to this journey. Confict within the group is just as dangerous as any external threats. There's also a real sense of scale to this desert planet. The grand shots of the party as dots on a horizon create a believable new world. Their chances of success are slim among the vast sameness.
“In the past dozen years or so, we've sent hundreds of teams through that thing. I think the bottom line is, none of us are qualified.” – Jack O’Neill
SGU has a different style and tone from the previous shows, but I still consider it an essential part of the franchise. It represents a natural progression that offers more creative freedom than the episodic adventures of the past shows. Wright and Cooper are still finding their way with “Air”, but the foundation is set for an excellent sci-fi series. The expanded cast gives them more flexibility to focus in on different characters and avoid the “villain of the week” structure. Having actors like Robert Carlyle, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Ming-Na on board doesn't hurt either. They’re able to bring depth to complicated people that often make the wrong decisions. The obstacles will only keep increasing, and no one is safe in this foreign environment. “Air” closes with a music montage with Alexi Murdoch’s “Breathe” playing while characters do just that. It’s a bit on the nose, but the editing does a nice job closing out the first chapter. The perilous journey’s only getting started, and no one knows where the next jump will take them.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Let’s journey back to the distant TV past of January 2009. It was a time of the “Sci-Fi” Channel, and the great Battlestar Galactica (BSG) was beginning its final run. It also saw the end of Stargate Atlantis (SGA), which aired its last episode following a cancellation that angered many fans. It had been 12 years since Stargate SG-1 premiered, and there had been no breaks for the franchise. What would the future hold? A new series had been announced, but it didn’t sound like the shows fans knew and loved. Brad Wright and Robert C. Cooper were moving on to a new frontier with Stargate Universe (SGU). Although it would be set in the same world as the previous series, the tone would be very different. The past shows sprung from the episodic action series model of the ‘90s. They’d expanded on that format but felt like throwbacks compared to popular shows like BSG and Lost.
It’s easy to see why Wright and Cooper were ready for a new challenge with SGU. Although they’d led a legendary sci-fi show that ran for 10 seasons and a successful spin-off, the medium was changing. Why not take a chance and stretch their creativity with a new style? A vocal group of fans weren’t ready to accept this different approach, however. They blamed SGU for the loss of SGA, and they rallied against it after every subsequent cast announcement before the show even aired. This was before the days of Twitter, so I can’t imagine how ugly it would be in today’s online landscape. Regardless, the series premiered on October 2, 2009 with the first two parts of “Air”. It was an ambitious story of a mismatched crew stranded in space on board a mysterious ship. The premise was an old-school idea, though the approach was very different.
The most obvious influence on SGU was BSG, and there’s no doubt it played a role in shaping the style. Even so, it’s too simple to call it a copycat. Wright and Cooper evolved the Stargate formula into something that had slices of the past shows but a raw freshness to it. Despite that success, I’ll admit to having concerns about the approach during the first season. There’s a deliberate pace to the early episodes and a serious tone that didn't always work. It took a while for the writers to gain their footing in this new universe. That was my impression originally, at least. I’ve been meaning to go back and explore SGU apart from the preconceived notions of what a Stargate series would be.
This series of posts will reconsider SGU by digging further into the episodes five years later. I’ll separate them into small groups and do more than rate their effectiveness. The first entry will explore the three-part premiere "Air". The storytelling is very ambitious, but much of that was lost because it arrived so closely after SGA. It only lasted for 40 episodes, but they offered plenty of time to explore the key themes. SGU will probably work better on DVD since it’s more of a serial than the previous franchise incarnations. Separated from commercials, long waits between episodes, and other baggage, it could play much differently. Of course, there’s also a chance that SGU is exactly the show we thought it was. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Regardless of the result, I’m excited to revisit Dr. Rush, Eli, and The Destiny in the upcoming weeks.
Monday, September 15, 2014
We all have an artistic drive within us. It could be painting, photography, woodwork, or even writing about movies. There’s something that must come out to keep us alive. That doesn’t mean we’re all looking to get discovered. Some take the opposite approach and have little interest in showing their work. Vivian Maier was one of these people. She took thousands of photos and had a unique talent for capturing the human experience. Her pictures are more than just attractive images; they have a rare soul. Maier was also an eccentric personality that hoarded newspapers and had few friends. Working as a nanny, she chronicled others’ lives while having a limited one. Despite all we’ve learned about her life, Maier is still an enigma with so many questions surrounding her work.
If it wasn’t for random chance, we’d know little about Maier and her remarkable photographs. John Maloof was a young real estate agent in Chicago looking for pictures to document his neighborhood’s history. He purchased Maier’s photos at an auction for that project and discovered something quite different. It seems fortuitous that they fell into the right hands since Maloof was curious to dig further into Maier’s work. Finding Vivian Maier depicts his efforts to learn more about her background as a photographer and a person. Maloof co-directed the film with Charlie Siskel, and it plays like a detective story as they uncover new clues about her past. Maier was a private person but still connected with enough people to give a solid perspective on her life. We may not fully know her, but their recollections allow us to build at least a limited understanding about Maier’s persona.
There’s a danger in accepting too much of what we see in this type of documentary as the actual events. It’s clear that Maloof had to get pretty far before filming his efforts. Examples like Searching for Sugar Man have revealed the ways that filmmakers can skip over some truths to tell a better story. That doesn’t seem to be the case with this film, however. From all accounts, Maier was an unknown artist and hadn’t been discovered until this point. Beyond its success as a film, this story provides a great introduction to her impressive work. The challenge is keeping us engaged in something beyond the initial surprise. Maloof and Siskel tackle this obstacle by looking into the person behind the photos. The families where Maier worked are open to recounting their tumultuous experiences with the unusual nanny. We slowly uncover her background along with Maloof as he digs further into the mystery. The pace is helped greatly by the excellent score from J. Ralph (The Cove), who keeps the momentum flying towards the next discovery.
It’s easy to be cynical and think that Maloof has pursued this project solely for commercial gain. He does own many of the photos and benefits financially from Maier becoming known. That interpretation seems too simple, however. There was no guarantee of any benefit when he spent countless hours digging through boxes of photos. That great diligence rarely happens if the person isn’t engaged by the material. There’s little sense within this film that his interest in Maier’s life isn’t real. We shouldn’t be too naïve, though. Maloof stumbled upon a gold mine with that first box of photos. However, he still had to do the work and locate the families to uncover her past. This film often plays like a personal diary with Maloof speaking directly to the camera in close-up about each step in this journey.
Finding Vivian Maier premiered in 2013 at TIFF and has become one of the most prominent documentaries of the past year. We’ll never know why Maier was so driven to take photos yet had little interest in publicizing them. That compulsion drove her to create amazing work, and the fact that she made prints indicates her understanding of their value. It’s an intriguing story with plenty of different layers to uncover. Maier was a difficult person and could be an unkind nanny. There was a touch of insanity to everything she did. She seems like a being from another place and time dropped into our universe to document it. How could that kind of person have a normal life? Maier was too manic to connect with people, but that same eccentricity drove her to surprising heights.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
“Every episode that we were on television was kind of a miracle.” - Madchen Amick (Shelly Johnson)
There aren’t too many network dramas from 1990 that still inspire viewer marathons and high-quality Blu-ray releases today. Of course, calling Twin Peaks a “drama” is like saying Orange is the New Black is a comedy. The label feels slight and fails to do justice to the original qualities of the series. Several decades later, I’m still thinking about Bob, the Log Lady, the Giant, and the Black Lodge. I want to know what really happened to Josie and still hope that Agent Cooper can escape his tragic fate. If you’re like me and obsessed with these topics, Brad Dukes’ Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks is the book for you. Nearly all the major cast and crew members speak warmly and openly about the experience of making the classic series. It was a true television landmark, and we’re still feeling its impact today.
Dukes provides a chronological history that does a lot more than just restate the well-known stories. The 310-page book feels like it could have been twice as long, and that isn’t just hyperbole. The reason is the wealth of untapped material from nearly every participant. It was a remarkable cast with veterans like Piper Laurie and Russ Tamblyn alongside new faces like Sheryl Lee and Sherilyn Fenn. They bring plenty to the table, and hearing from so many of them is a treat. While most had great experiences, there were some exceptions. Fenn speaks openly about frustrations with her character’s direction in the second season, and her candor is refreshing. Once Audrey’s relationship with Cooper was nixed, they didn’t have a great idea of what to do with the character.
Lee also describes the turmoil in portraying Laura Palmer and how the distress made a permanent impact. Along with playing a dead body, she also shot one of the most terrifying death scenes in TV history. I can still remember watching Maddy’s final scene as a 14-year-old in 1990 and having an awful time with it. Plus, they shot the same sequence three times over an entire day. How could anyone experience this brutality (even as an actor) and not be affected? Lee calls it “probably the most difficult day of work that I’ve had in my whole life”, and that’s totally understandable. Laura was her first role in front of the camera, and that’s quite an introduction. She’ll always be known for this character, and it wasn’t an easy part to play given all the nastiness towards her in the show and the prequel film.
It’s no huge surprise that we don’t hear from David Lynch in this book. He isn’t the kind of filmmaker that gives detailed interviews about the creative process. Thankfully, Mark Frost fills in many of the blanks from our understanding of Twin Peaks. Lynch gets most of the credit, but it’s clear it was more of an equal collaboration. Both guys brought their own skills, and the combination led to such a unique series. It’s too bad that both drifted away in the second season, and you can feel their absence when certain story lines go off the rails. There’s a clear shift in tone between the sections on the pilot and first season with the final episodes. We hear a wide array of different theories on the reasons for the quick downfall. Many blame the network for moving the show to Saturdays and not believing in it, and that certainly played a role. However, maintaining the momentum was also challenging on the creative side. This a show that could run for 10 years.
Given the continued interest in Twin Peaks, it’s remarkable to realize how few books exist about it. There were several tie-ins during its run, including The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. A compilation of critical essays, Full of Secrets, was released in 1994. There was a definite need for this type of oral history from the people directly involved in the show. It reminds me of just how many brilliant artists were involved in just 30 episodes of television. People like Ray Wise, Lara Flynn Boyle, and even Don S. Davis have found success in other projects, but plenty have barely appeared since that time. A guy like Eric DaRe was chilling as Leo Johnson but has few acting credits. Many will appear in a guest role here and there, but few are as memorable as they were on this show. This book provides a family reunion of sorts by connecting all their interviews into a smooth conversation. It’s a must-read for the countless fans of this continually spellbinding show. The clever mix of laughs, scares, and flat-out weird moments has never been seen again on television.
If you're interested in this book and Twin Peaks, you should also check out Joel Bocko's great interview with the author at the Lost at the Movies blog.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Jesse Eisenberg is known for playing manic, fast-talking characters that can’t help to reveal how much smarter they are than everyone they meet. Despite a wide range of performances, he’s still Mark Zuckerberg on first glance. One reason for this impression is because Eisenberg’s really good at playing an arrogant intellectual. His confident doppelganger in The Double shows how far he can stretch that persona. He’ll certainly bring that style along for his version of Lex Luthor next year. I mention this perception because of how much it varies from his subdued role as Josh in Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves. Looking rough behind facial hair and mundane clothes, he brings a different intensity to the environmental activist. Josh is our entry point, but he’s hardly a likable connector.
Eisenberg joins Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of activists planning to blow up a hydroelectric dam. They aren’t stupid kids with no concerns about going to jail. The slow process of setting up the act shows their patience to ensure no surprises occur. We know little about these characters beyond their willingness to break the law to make a point. There’s a lingering question of what they’ll really accomplish, however. The frustration of watching so much misconduct from corporations and the government is too much to bear. They’re passionate but seem to recognize the grim obstacles in their way. Sarsgaard’s Harmon lives in a trailer far apart from civilization, and this feels like another day at the office for him. He’s a little older and has seen enough to recognize the limits of their efforts.
Reichardt co-wrote Night Moves with Jonathan Raymond, and their script takes its time in showing the lead-up to the bombing. We watch the trio get the boat, buy fertilizer, and set up for the big night. Despite the attention, we learn very little about these characters. It’s more of a procedural than a character study, and there’s a sense of foreboding around everything. What makes it work is the remarkable look to the film. Meek’s Cutoff was even slower, yet Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and the spare landscape kept it riveting. His camera sits inside vehicles and remains static while characters ponder their actions. When the vice starts constricting on Josh, the lens pulls closer and traps him within the frame. In a key late moment, all we see is his face as horror occurs off-screen. It’s a fitting way to capture a brutal act that pushes the story in a shocking new direction.
Fanning plays Dena, who’s younger and seems to come from money. Determination to rock the system is one thing, but dealing with the aftermath is something else entirely. These aren’t best friends that will have each other’s back no matter what happens. They’re skeptics that wonder if the others are worth their trust. When the inevitable challenges arrive, how will they deal with these suspicions? Sarsgaard’s characters always have some tricks up their sleeve, but it’s Josh that looks willing to go further. What’s lost in the mess is any excitement about executing their plans. It’s just a drop in the ocean, and the move does nothing to stop the corporation. They may succeed yet still feel like a failure.
It’s easy to look at Night Moves as Reichardt asserting the futility of environmental activism. That interpretation feels too simple, however. She does like these characters, who are risking their lives to make a statement. They try to avoid hurting anyone, so collateral damage is a consideration. What Reichardt and Raymond aren’t doing is letting the trio off the hook because they’re liberals and concerned about the environment. In an early scene, Dena asks a documentary filmmaker what they should do. The answer is noncommittal and reveals the limits of activism. When the overlords control everything, can anyone make a difference? It’s important to stay informed, yet that approach only goes so far. Blowing up a dam is an attempt to change the game, but it only leads to greater damage.