PHILADELPHIA- WTXF - The idea behind Our Brand is Crisis is simple: Take one of the more acclaimed documentaries of ten years ago, put in Sandra Bullock giving a strong character performance, and hope sparks fly.
Sadly, they do not. The 2015 Our Brand is Crisis is less entertaining, less illuminating, and has much less thought-provoking than the original 2005 documentary, despite very good performances from Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.
This year's Our Brand, directed by David Gordon Green, is "suggested by" Rachel Boynton's documentary of the same name, about American political consultants working on the presidential campaign of a neoliberal political has-been in Bolivia. The documentary had something new and unique to say about politics; the feature film does not.
The 2005 documentary was the story of a group of American political consultants, liberal Democrats all, and some of them veterans of the previous documentary The War Room- i.e., the sort of people likely to be sympathetic figures for most demographics would be choosing to watch the film. And it shows these supposedly brilliant, hyper-competent people in a strange land, totally out of their depth and looking like out-of-touch idiots, who are pretty much humiliated by how things shake out in the end. One critic at the time called it "the rare left-wing documentary in which George Bush isn't the villain."
The new film takes the sketches of this basic premise, adds touches of comedy that rarely work, along with a lead performance by Bullock that, while impressive, seems like it's from a totally different movie (Bullock's character didn't exist in the documentary.)
Bullock is Jane Bodine, a veteran campaign fixer with a history of mental illness, alcoholism and various other problems, as well as a recent political losing streak. She's lured to Bolivia to help the campaign of Pedro Gallo (Joaquim de Almeida), an unpopular ex-president with shady ties to big business interests.
Her major motivation is no form of idealism or true-believerism, but rather professional redemption and a chance to best longtime rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton, called in more than 15 years after Primary Colors to once again play a thinly-veiled version of James Carville.) Also on hand in too-small roles are such cable-TV luminaries as Scott McNairy (from Halt and Catch Fire) and Ann Dowd (from The Leftovers), as well as Zoe Kazan.
Gallo starts far behind in a 7-way race, but Jane uses some old-fashioned political cynicism- namely, creating a "crisis" where one doesn't really exist- to move him towards the top of the polls.
The biggest weakness of this film- aside from its unearned, out-of-nowhere ending- is that it doesn't really have anything to say. What is this film's ultimate point? That politics are a den of cynicism? That politicians will always disappoint you- even ones who were pretty transparently sleazy from the very beginning? The film is also not particularly interested in how politics in South America differ from those of the U.S.- it seems to conclude that they're pretty much the same.
No, the 2012 film about the campaign to defeat Pinochet in Chile, was a much better version of what this movie is trying to do. So, for that matter, is the documentary.
Unlike last year's Best Picture Oscar winner, Birdman, which only pretended to consist of one unbroken shot, the new film Victoria actually does.
Victoria, a German film directed by Sebastian Schipper and which played this week at the Philadelphia Film Festival before a local release this weekend, follows the adventures of a Spanish girl (Laia Costa) in Berlin, who stumbles into a group of men who are getting ready to carry out a robbery.
The film is a sort of character drama in its first half and more action-oriented in its second. But like Birdman, it succeeds in transcending its gimmick and being enjoyable in its own right.