No (Pablo Larraín, 2012). In Chile in the late nineteen-eighties, the dictatorial government of General Augusto Pinochet orchestrated a public vote to give the populace a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’d maintain control for another eight years after a decade-and-a-half of bludgeoning rule. With various systems under tight control and the people largely cowed by governmental forces, it was expected to be a mere formality on the way to maintaining continuity, a show of phony democracy to appease the international community. Instead, Pinochet was ousted. In this consideration by screenwriter Pedro Peirano and director Pablo Larraín, the employment of marketing campaigns transferred almost directly from cola commercials is what shifted history. That’s undoubtedly a reductive evaluation, but it makes for a fascinating film. Larraín maintains tone beautifully, giving the film a scruffy anxiousness as the squabbling factions within the “No” campaign struggle to determine the right balance of substance and flash, tactic and truth. If the film is more exploratory than pointed in its thesis, it examines the challenges of politics merging with media in a consistently committed fashion. Gael García Bernal gives a characteristically strong performance as an adman at the lead of the “No” campaign.
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932). A pair of romantically intertwined con artists (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) insinuate themselves into the life of a Parisian perfume magnate (Kay Francis) with an end goal of getting their hands on a wad of cash squirreled away behind a wall safe door. This pre-Code comedy views morality as an especially slippery thing and has no particular problem with that as the way of the world. As always, Lubitsch brings a remarkable panache to the staging of the film, finding ways to accentuate gags without ever underlining them. The whole cast snaps in a manner blessedly common in that area, with Hopkins making an especially strong impression through her nicely barbed portrayal of a woman with well-founded suspicions and the skills and wherewithal to look out for herself.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016). Thuddingly stupid, Zack Snyder’s latest abomination can’t even rise to the level of cinematic car crash, stirring lurid interest in its levels of disaster. As opposed to the better crossover moments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no wit or inspiration to the character interactions. Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck, terrible in the role, just as any sentient filmgoer would predict) are simply flung at each other, like clacking mallets. The returning actors come across as desperately bored and the newcomers all seem pained, especially Jeremy Irons, who plays Bat-associate Alfred like he’s moments away from chucking it all and heading out on a bender in Gotham City. At least disgruntlement in a reasonable response to the material. Jesse Eisenberg is nothing but wired affectation as Superman foe Lex Luthor. At the time this was released, there was some praise for Gal Gadot’s turn as Wonder Woman, presumably for little other reason than she occasional appears to be actually having some fun. She’s certainly the only one.
Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015). In addition to his status as the actor who, more than any other individual, transformed the craft of acting in the twentieth century, Marlon Brando was an endlessly intriguing human being. He restlessly invested himself in social justice issues and swelled with internal conflicts over the inherently superficial aspects of the professional field he commanded. Employing private audio tapes recorded by Brando, in addition to miles of supporting film clips and interview footage, director Stevan Riley stitches together a portrait of the man. Though commendable for its attempting something new and different than a standard documentary approach, Riley’s technique is more likely to get it its own way than it is to provide unique illumination. Brando is worth watching under almost any circumstances, but Riley puts that assertion to the test.
Freeheld (Peter Sollett, 2015). In dramatizing the true story of the trying attempt by a dying New Jersey police officer (Julianne Moore) to secure survivor benefits for her same-sex partner (Ellen Page), Peter Sollett’s film is noble and sadly drab. Most problematically, it’s lacking in passion, resulting in a movie that plays like an earnest book report. Page is initially very strong, playing her part with a character actor conviction that suggests sharp new possibilities for her career moving forward. Even she’s eventually drawn into the eddy of convention that defines the films. By the closing scenes, she, too, could be anybody.