Meru – 7.5

Just when you thought you’d seen an amazing movie about three “professional climbers” (whatever they are) almost making it to the top of the previously unscaled Himalayan peak known as “Meru,” only to be foiled by bad weather, lack of food and frozen toes, you found out that – oh, no! – they’re going to try it again, despite having brain surgery and being caught in an avalanche in the interim. In the process, the concept of “acceptable risk” gets redefined. Fortunately for the viewer, the climbers were pleasant company on-screen, and we knew from the interviews they gave that they weren’t going to die; Jon Krakauer’s presence provided more perspective and credibility. Still, the wonder of how such a feat is accomplished runs close to the wonder of why, and the continuing wonder of, who is taking these pictures?

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine – 6.5

There are amazing stories in the life of Steve Jobs: how two kids in a garage took on one of the world’s most powerful companies, IBM, and came out on top; how Steve Jobs, after getting fired, came back to Apple and returned it from near-bankruptcy to the most valuable company in the world; how he led the invention of two products – the iPod and the iPhone – that revolutionized two industries as well as the leisure-time activities of not only all Americans but so many citizens of the world. These are alluded to in this documentary by Alex Gibney, but not much more. Instead, we are given a scattershot of vignettes from Jobs’s career that seem to address, not the question posed by Gibney of why Jobs was so revered when he died, but a more general point of view: “Yes, but…”

The qualifications that Gibney harps on, furthermore, are presented without much context. Sure, Apple tried to minimize its tax liabilities, but what corporation doesn’t? Yes, he wanted his compensation increased, but what ceo doesn’t? Apple products are manufactured in China in working conditions below American standards – let’s see the list of companies you can say that about. He is not a warm and fuzzy human being – well, sorry, no one is worshiping Jobs because he is a saint, and so much of Gibney’s movie seems beside the point.

More generally, I was distracted by the constant cutting and mixing of Jobs at different ages, with vastly different appearances. There was no chronology to the film, just different chapters: the daughter he denied; the prototype phones that got lost in bars; his car; dealings with journalists; backdating stock options (confusing); his health. Subjects seemed chosen based on the availability of on-camera interviewees or grainy film clips. In all, the movie was fascinating just because the subjects – Jobs and Apple – are so fascinating and so much a part of our lives. It also helped to have read Walter Isaacson’s book that covered all the same ground. But as a movie, the lack of focus, lack of organization and lack of perspective left me feeling empty, if not annoyed, as I looked back and left me wondering, was this rushed into theaters to beat the next Jobs movie due out next month?

Mistress America – 7.9

The adorable Greta Gerwig in a madcap farce from Noah Baumbach – much better than While We’re Young – reminded me of the younger Woody Allen’s movies: a charming female lead, New York locations, oddball secondary characters and real-life situations that seem real but probably occur more often in the movies. Lola Kirke is the grounded one, and although she is awfully mature for a Barnard freshman, she is equally fun to watch. Next to Phoenix this is a trifle, but it’s a fun trifle.

Diary of A Teenage Girl – 6.5

“I had sex today,” announces 15-year-old Minnie in the opening scene, and that’s pretty much all that happens. When we learn that the sex was with her mother’s slacker boyfriend, a certain uneasiness, not to mention creepiness, sets in, but even then the ultimate explosion we see coming is rather muted. Kristen Wiig is wonderful as the San Francisco 1976 free-spirit mother, but she seems as emotionally detached – drunk or stoned? – as we the viewer remain. Minnie’s compulsion to share her experiences with her tape recorder is a stand-in for the author’s urge to write this book, if not the (also female) director’s desire to make this movie.

The End of the Tour – 8

I haven’t read Infinite Jest – although now I want to – and I know nothing about David Foster Wallace, but Jason Segel did about as good a job of creating a real person out of a historical figure as I can remember. Jesse Eisenberg was brilliant, too, as a youngish reporter unable to separate an interview from a personal relationship. Although Wallace was the genius with demons that destroyed him, it was the reporter Lipsky’s ambitions, insecurities and other personal foibles that we identified with and loomed larger. “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” is the name of Lipsky’s book that the film is based on, and screenwriter Donald Margulies captures that perspective subtly but perfectly. (I just wish there wasn’t so much smoking, an acting crutch that Eisenberg doesn’t need.) Always good to see Minneapolis depicted, even in winter.

Phoenix – 8.2

An intense psychological thriller, with both leads acting up a storm in a confined space, making us think and feel all at once and constantly. Reviewers cite a similarity to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I either don’t remember or didn’t see, but I felt an echo of Gaslight in the manipulative husband-wife relationship, or even Pygmalion, as Johnny tries to mold the girl from the gutter into a facsimile wife. How Nelly grows from an Auschwitz burn victim to regain her identity is the core of the movie, and the only thing that makes clear sense.

Director Christian Petzold has brilliantly hit on postwar Germany as a fertile setting for stories of moral grays, and he has larded Phoenix with enough ambiguities of plot to make us question not only the characters’ actions and motives, but also what exactly happens. Perhaps the characters are metaphors, but for what? Who is Lene, the first character we see, and what is her connection to Nelly? Are they would-be lovers? If she is “Mrs. Winter,” where is Mr.? Is Nelly Jewish? She claims not to be, but why? If this is so obvious, what is the meaning of the scene where Lene discovers an official document that lists Nelly as a Jew? More important, did Johnny betray her to the Nazis? The evidence is strong but circumstantial, and it comes from Lene, who has her own reasons for drawing Nelly away from him.

Some internet reviewers have complained about the implausibilities of the story – that things as major as the facial reconstruction and as minor as the pivotal Kurt Weill song – are anachronistic. To me, these are beside the point, the point being the psychological struggles of Nelly and, to a lesser extent, Johnny. What does bother me immensely, in retrospect, is the introduction, late in the movie, of a paper documenting Johnny’s divorce from Nelly. Why would Lene withhold this information until her deathbed, when she is so insistent that Nelly forget him? Why does he think – and this is crucial to the story – that he will share in her fortune if he has divorced her? Maybe he is planning to remarry her and we just haven’t been told? Is no one else among their friends aware of this divorce? Would this document have survived the war, and would Lene have been able to find it? (Again, this last cries out for the missing backstory of who she is.) Maybe this is all explained in the novel upon which the film is based, and maybe some answers would be clearer to a German audience, but I felt a bit cheated: Johnny, who was introduced as a cad, was being progressively portrayed in a more sympathetic (and brighter) light before this thunderbolt came out of the blue. It seemed the director was done with the moral grays and wanted to set up a clearer black-and-white contrast to make the final scene as dramatic, and satisfying, as it was. Not that it resolved much, which in the end was another, if accidental, beauty of the movie.

Straight Outta Compton – 8

As far as I can tell, this captured the world of Gangsta Rap so well I feel I’m now an expert. I certainly learned a lot of new songs. I don’t think there was much original in the story of the friends from the ‘hood who rose through the power of their art, fighting the Establishment and money-suckers, going different routes as fame and fortune came their way. The police didn’t come across too well, but that just brought echoes of more recent events.

One unfortunate thing that N.W.A. and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson had in common was a wigged Paul Giamatti as their sleazy manager. Being miscast once was laughable, similarly miscast a second time a tragedy. A real person in the role, instead of a cartoon character, would have added some needed subtlety and depth to the story. But the power of the music kept the story going, and kept me in my seat through the credits.