(On Cable TV, July 2016) As a political junkie (with acute flare-ups in election years like this one), I’m perhaps more enthusiastic than most at the thought of movies seeing political operatives as heroes. Our Brand is Crisis (adapted from a true story) follows a group of American consultants as they are hired to help during a Bolivian election pitting a few bad choices against each other. But it’s not just candidates battling it out when the operatives have their own grudges to nurse against each other. In South American politics, nearly all tricks are allowed, and so much of the movie is spent following the twists and turns of the campaign as the consultants try to outwit each other. It sounds fun, it should have been hilarious and somehow … isn’t. Too contemplative to deserve a full “black comedy” qualification, Our Brand is Crisis falls short of the potential it had set up for itself. It’s also remarkably pat, as if it didn’t know about the audience’s political sophistication. Oh, so your candidate lies, cheats, won’t hold his promises and is widely disliked? Well, start with that rather than lead up to it, or be shocked when it happens. Otherwise, there seems to be a distinct lack of energy in David Gordon Green’s execution of the material, or maybe a dearth of substance itself. Sticking too close to the true story may have been a mistake. At least Sandra Bullock is enjoyable as a genius-level political consultant reluctantly dragged into the mud of a campaign once again. (She’s particularly funny early on, not so much afterwards.) Billy Bob Thornton gives her capable repartee as a longtime rival, while Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan (captivating in a woefully underdeveloped character) and Joaquim de Almeida are serviceable supporting players. Still, Our Brand is Crisis doesn’t reach its full potential and mishandles its ending by being far too falsely outraged after its own shenanigans. Just as there have been plenty of movies about political consultants, others are sure to follow. But it may be a good moment for newer and fresher narratives than “protagonists discover that their candidate is terrible” and “protagonists contemplate the damage they’ve done to democracy” because those have been done enough times already.
(On Cable TV, December 2015) By now, a substantial number of critics have almost given up on Nicolas Cage: Despite a quasi-legendary filmography, Cage seems to have lately retreated in a succession of dull roles in low-budget exploitation films that don’t give him any chance to stretch as an actor. (His purported problems with the IRS may have something to do with this “grab any paycheck” phase.) Where is the formerly-great Cage? Fortunately, Joe may tide a few pundits for a while, given how it’s easily Cage’s best role in years. Fully bearded and dispensing with his usual nouveau-shamanic acting tics in favor of a much more restrained approach, Cage plays an ex-con with anger issues, making a meager living in a small Texas town where he has complicated relationships with the police, an ex-wife, old enemies and recurring flings. Joe’s life changes when he meets a teenager made wise beyond his years due to his father’s abuse. Becoming an unlikely role model to the young man, Joe has to choose how deeply he should involve himself in his affairs. But Cage isn’t the only one redeeming himself with Joe: Director David Gordon Green also goes back to more respectable roots after a detour in dumb comedies. Other good performances abound: Tye Sheridan is once again remarkable, while non-actor Gary Poulter gets a great role as an abusive father. The result is slow-paced, meditative, almost oppressive in its low-class small-town atmosphere, but it’s respectable and poignant, definitely the kind of movies that Cage should be doing more often.