Blog Archives

Gladiator (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 5, 2000:

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.

We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.

Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.

Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?

This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.

Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).

This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.

The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.

The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.

A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.

Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)

Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.

Re-View Grade: A-

Parasite (2019)

Parasite is the latest from award-winning South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Okja) and it won the prestigious Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. The filmmaker has never settled down in any genre and often goes for broke when it comes to embracing whatever genre he is dabbling in and then subverting, accelerating, and broadening that territory to show an audience what a master can do with these storytelling parameters. No movie under Bong Joon-ho’s guidance is ever limited by its genre. Needless to say, I’ve been highly anticipating Parasite, even more so since the critics started bandying about terms like “masterpiece.” Simply put, Parasite is a miraculous movie.

We follow the Kim family who live in a scummy basement apartment on a filthy street known for public urination. They scam free wi-fi off their neighbor and badly fold pizza boxes for little money. They’re barely hanging by on the outer edges of society when opportunity comes knocking. A rich family, the Parks, is in need of a new English tutor for their teenage daughter, and Ki-woo Kim (Choi Woo-sik) has the connection. He will pose as a college-educated English teacher, recommended from his friend, the departing tutor. He gets the job and sees further opportunity, eventually scheming to get each member of his family hired; sister Ki-jung Kim (Park So-dam) as an art therapist for the Park’s troubled son, father Ki-taek Kim (Song Kang-ho) as the personal driver to the family, and mother Shung-sook Kim (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper and personal assistant for the family. The Kim family gains further leverage as they worm their way inside this house, but there are secrets that will force them to readjust how far they are willing to go to service this bourgeois family and keep their good lies rolling.

Parasite just unfurls with such natural ease, building and developing outward, building its characters, their problems and deceptions, and then, like that, it effortlessly turns gears toward another tone, and you weren’t even aware it was happening until after the fact. Bong Joon-ho’s film is so exact and impeccable and calculated that the pieces are move in tandem like a well-oiled machine. The synchronicity is so amazing that I often had to acknowledge how effectively the movie had surprised or satisfied me. There isn’t a wasted moment in the 130 minutes here, which begins as a fun con game between one family of shady grifters working their way inside a rich family’s trust. From there, the movie gets even darker, more mysterious, outlandish, and even more mournful and delightful. There are moments of slapstick comedy that had me howling, divine sequences of tension that felt ready to explode, and regular emotional punches to the system that reminded you that despite everything these are still people capable of great suffering and great feeling. Parasite is a rare movie that works on near every level, each facet of filmmaking operating at such precision that it blends together to create a masterwork of tone and tenor that is universally accessible, brimming with menace and glee.

There’s a simple pleasure to be had watching a con artist at play, so there’s even more amusement when we’re watching a family of con artists all spinning lies in tandem. The process of escalation is so clean and believable in the world’s universe, with the first family member using their position of influence to manipulative the family into hiring the next family member, even if that means scheming to get rid of the Park family servant already occupying that desired position. The Park family matriarch is all about personal recommendations and using a tight circle of trust; however, the Kim family exploits the obvious loophole of what if the initial link in that chain is untrustworthy him or herself? Initially I thought the movie was going to be watching this one family worm their way into the lives of the rich and powerful and take over, and while that is true to a certain extent, the movie is thankfully even more than that. Still, the con aspect alone is highly entertaining and so naturally plotted, with each new addition feeling organic from the last. There are natural complications that provide new challenges for the family of con artists to maintain their shifting covers and having to think on their feet, and there isn’t a moment relating to these antics where Parasite is not completely compelling and darkly funny even as it veers into extremes.

If you’re thinking that the Kim family is the obvious target of the movie’s parasitic titular allusion, slow down, my friend. While the Kim family is more obvious about their deceptions, the Park family too is filled with the deception of civility, kindness, and graciousness. At first, we laugh at them because of a general naivete that allows the Kims to flourish. As the Kims successfully roust different servants, they are routinely dismissed without much thought. Some of these people have been with the family for years and otherwise have spotless records, but all it takes is one whiff of impropriety and the Parks are already scrambling to cut them loose, usually very unceremoniously and immediately, with the misplaced idea that this will somehow be the “nice” and “respectful” way of handling a dismissal. They’re so quick to turn on people they feel are disloyal or incompetent, but really, it’s the disloyal aspect, that they can be manipulated so easily by the Kim family’s suggestions and assertions. Never once do Mr. and Mrs. Park ask for their servants’ side of the story; they accept the accusations with minimal evidence are gung-ho about removing their formally trusted help as if they have been waiting for these moments.

The movie becomes a parable of exploitation and the consequences of avarice, and I’m going to do my best to dance around some significant spoilers that reshape the film in its second half. At one point the Kims have all made themselves at home in the luxury of the Park estate while the family is away on a camping trip. It’s carefree wish fulfillment, lapping in the excess, and then over a drunken family dinner, Mrs. Kim says that if she had this kind of money that she would be as nice as Mrs. Park (appears). For her, money is like an iron and irons out all the problems of life, and as a family that has constantly been hustling for their next dollar, to be free of cares and worries would be the ultimate luxury. However, there is naturally more to this estate and the Park family, and the movie takes some dark turns into a battle over status and how far people will go to protect what they feel belongs to them. This is acted out in very personal ways and also in larger metaphorical waves, which adds to the overall class warfare satire. What starts off as a spiky little con comedy becomes something deeper and more challenging, expanding its targets to indict everyone jockeying for position in a system that seems corrupted to a fault.

Even as the Kim family is scheming and conniving, there are still moments that remind you that they aren’t these smooth, amoral con men of the movies and are real human beings with real feelings and real insecurities. There’s one moment Mr. Kim overhears his boss casually talking about him, and it’s very complimentary except for one admission. Apparently, Mr. Kim has an odor to him that the rich man finds to be rather unpleasant (he describes it like an old radish). No matter the suits he puts on, no matter the politeness and charm he manifests, no matter his skills when it comes to being a dutiful driver, no matter the gaps that Mr. Kim feels he is surpassing, there will always be something innate to him that stops him from being accepted and integrated in this cherished, cordoned-off land of the rich. His very smell is offensive to the noses of the rich, and this is something so personal, so nasty, that it genuinely wounds the man and we feel for him. Bong Joon-ho asks his audience to embrace all sorts of uncomfortable positions, taking characters you found despicable and asking to see them as real human beings capable of great loss and shame. It stops the movie from feeling like it’s treading into cartoon territory even as its violence and physical comedy ramps up in the second half. It never loses a sense of its soul.

Ki-woo Kim asks his father, after several setbacks, what their plan is next, how they will persevere against the latest setback. Mr. Kim answers that his trick is to never have a plan, because plans will inevitably fail. This is a nice character moment but also an insight into a perspective that leads to what I would argue is the emotional climax of the movie, where Ki-woo pledges to save someone through an elaborate and years-in-the-making plan. In that moment, is he rejecting his father’s philosophy and driving forward on what will be at minimum years of hard work to reach his goal, which is motivated through reclamation and salvation rather than personal gain? Or is the very fact that he is committing such an elaborate plan an act of folly he knows will never materialize because that is the nature of plans? I love that the film leaves you, the viewer, to determine whether this assertion is optimistic or pessimistic and how that paints the film’s message.

From a technical standpoint, the movie is another showcase of how Bong Joon-ho is brilliant at visually communicating his wonderful stories. The editing is so tightly precise to maximize tension and comedy, and sometimes both simultaneously. The photography is gorgeously composed with the use of space in the frame excellently communicating character relationships. The geography of the home is nicely utilized to ratchet up the tension of escaping around corners and hiding around furniture. There are moments that just made me want to applaud the filmmakers for their top-level craft.

Parasite is an effortlessly impressive movie that blends tones, insights, and entertainment to create one of the more unique and pleasing film experiences of the year. Bong Joon-ho once again shown himself to be a masterclass filmmaker who can tackle just about any subject and any genre and make it sing. I’d advise to avoid specific spoilers to maintain the surprise factor; however, this movie is so well executed, so astonishingly developed with precision and attention given to each of the characters and their individual whims and problems, that even knowing every single plot beat in this movie will not diminish the enjoyment factor. That’s because Parasite is a rare movie that is so sumptuously put together, so seamlessly calibrated, that to watch the movie is to simply sit in awe of how talented the filmmakers are at weaving their tale. Parasite is definitely one of the best films of 2019 and worth tracking down where able.

Nate’s Grade: A

Green Book (2018)

Green Book plays like a twenty-first century rendition of Driving Miss Daisy, a well-meaning and relatively gentle movie about race relations where a prejudiced white person comes about thanks to their firsthand friendship with an African-American male. It’s reportedly inspired by the true story of Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a nightclub bouncer, driving around a famed pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), as he performed throughout the South in 1962. The best part of the movie is the character interaction between this odd couple, and you’ll get plenty of it too. The actors burrow into their very distinctly conflicting characters, so it’s a natural pleasure to watch them eventually bond and learn from one another. This is the kind of racism that doesn’t make people feel too uncomfortable, and you could say that about the film as a whole. It’s a bit safe and has its intentions set on being a big, inclusive crowd-pleaser, and it plays like one. There are moments to make you laugh, moments to make you cheer, and moments to make you tear up. Morstensen and Ali are terrific together and find dignity and humanity in characters that could have easily become one-note stereotypes. The more we learn about Dr. Shirley the more interesting he becomes, a man used to feeling like an outsider no matter the company he keeps. Watching the two men grow and open up to one another can be heartwarming and deeply satisfying. Remarkably, the film is directed and co-written by one half of the Farrelly brothers, the pair responsible for ribald comedies like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. It’s an easy movie to fall for, with its winning formula and enjoyable actors, but there’s a little nagging concern I have that Green Book is too safe, too straight, and too pat in its life lessons. Despite its Best Picture win, it’s not like Driving Miss Daisy has any lasting cultural impression, and I wonder if maybe Green Book is destined for the same. Still, the acting and writing is enough to bring a smile to your face and remind one’s self about the power of kindness.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Shape of Water (2017)

You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.

From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.

The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.

The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.

The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.

While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.

Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.

When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Moonlight (2016)

moonlight-posterWhat Moonlight achieves is both something different and familiar and amounts to nothing less than watching the birth of human identity on screen. The film chronicles three formative experiences at three different times of a man’s life, each serving as its own one-act play examining our protagonist and his tortured sense of self. The results are breathtaking and deeply immersive, allowing the formation of a human being to take place before your eyes in such magnificent artistic strokes. This is a sensitive, sincere, beautiful movie that serves as an indie coming-of-age tale sliced into three significant parts. I was completely under its sway within ten minutes, finding its perceptive perspective and nuances to be convincingly naturalistic. I felt like I was watching a documentary of a young black man’s life told with ferocious realism, or at least a loosely fictionalized version of a life informed by fully authentic personal experiences. It’s a somewhat ineffable quality for slice-of-life movies but they live or die on whether the film carries an unforced sense of realism, telling larger truths with small details, each piece coming together to make the world and the character feel fully formed. Moonlight pulls you immediately into its orbit thanks to its authentic drama and observations.

The three segments compliment one another as they build toward a young black man’s understanding of his homosexuality. We’ve seen movies before where characters undergo sexual awakenings and from gay perspectives; it’s practically a cottage industry unto itself in independent film. However, rarely have we seen this story from people of color. The expectations of accepted masculinity are entrenched at a young age, where “Little” (Alex Hibbert) is chided by, among others, his own mother Paula (Naomie Harris) for the “swishy” way he walks. It goes without saying that being gay is not exactly widely accepted in the Miami projects of the 1980s. This conflict of what makes a man is wonderfully symbolized with Juan (Mahershala Ali), an unexpected father figure that takes “Little” under his wing along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). The kid wants to know how he can know if he’s gay because it’s certainly something he doesn’t want. Juan doesn’t pressure the boy or make big speeches about what it means to be a young black man in America. Instead, he tries teaching him to accept himself and provides an alternative home that serves as a refuge during his mother’s long absences and crack-withdrawal tirades. There’s a lovely moment where Juan teaches “Little” how to swim, and it’s touching in how recognizably father/son the activity is, how much trust is involved and vulnerability, and how the film doesn’t need to oversell the subtext. Juan definitely becomes the father figure that Chiron lives up to for the rest of his life. This first segment is dominated by their relationship but also Juan’s sense of responsibility. He’s making a living through selling drugs, including to “Little”’s own mother. In a very memorable and heated moment, Paula angrily calls out Juan for thinking he would make a better parent given the moral culpability of his own actions to her habit.

moonlight1The second segment zooms ahead to when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a teenager in high school and subjected to hostile bullying. The schoolyard taunts from his youth have morphed into something more ferocious and toxic, as a collection of bullies torments Chiron and looks to rob him of his personal connections to others. The central focus on the middle segment is about the growing relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the childhood friend who Chrion crushes on. Their closeness takes a leap one fateful night that Chrion will always remember. It’s an awakening and a confirmation of self, and it’s only after having this fulfilling outlet cruelly taken from him that Chiron finally lashes out, with lifelong repercussions. It’s an explosion we can see coming and one that feels fully set up. The second segment feels more familiar because of the age range and it’s the one with the dawning of sexual realization, a story situation we’ve seen before. What elevates it is that it’s a fairly direct carryover from the beginning segment, which means the personal issues have magnified for Chiron. His relationship with his mother has become even more frayed as he’s grown, and what once was name-calling and questions over his maturation has become confirmed. Her addiction has become even stronger and she’s harassing her own son for whatever meager money he’s given from Teresa, his surrogate mother figure. Chiron is struggling to make sense of his feelings in an upbringing lacking support and clarity. You could examine the conclusion of this segment as an empathetic cautionary tale, as we see the years of abuse and measured choices that lead to that confrontation.

The final segment is where Moonlight transforms into a late blooming unrequited romance that should steal your heart if it’s still functioning. “Black” (Trevanta Rhodes) is a fully-grown adult that has seemingly followed in the footsteps of Juan in a life of low-level crime. He’s hardened both emotionally and physically. The muscles will provide an intimidation factor missing during his youth if anyone questions his sexual leanings. He’s burrowed into himself and the role he feels he must accept, but all of that changes the instant he gets an apologetic and searching phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland). Now working as a chef at a diner, Kevin reaches out to his old friend though even he can’t fully explain why. This reawakens “Black”’s longing and he works up the courage to travel back to Miami to surprise the friend who meant so much to him. Their reunion is treated like the culmination of a romance that you may not have realized had you completely. After two segments of setup and years apart, you may find yourself projecting your thoughts to the screen, trying to compel these two men together. It’s an extended sequence that moves at a gradual pace, a fitting tempo for a character racked by insecurities and suppression. By going forward he’s taking a big risk, putting himself out there, and we desperately hope “Black” finds a sense of support. It’s the segment where “Black” finds resolution with the major conflicts that have defined his life, and the climax of the movie is a deeply tender moment where an emotionally reserved man reaches out to another and lets his firmly fixed guard down in the process.

moonlightI don’t usually go into such a detailed plot synopsis with my reviews because I like to hit the basics and let the readers experience the story for themselves, but the pleasures and artistic triumphs of Moonlight are in how fully immersed and felt the movie becomes. By telling the story in three noteworthy sections, Moonlight provides an impressionistic statement about the formation of personal identity, specifically a young man growing up black and gay in a hostile environment to both. The movie also blows apart the argument made for 2014’s Boyhood about how truly necessary it was to watch one young actor play the same part for 14 years. Here we have six different actors playing two different characters at three different points in time and the impact is no less great. Here is a movie that doesn’t need a gimmick to have a larger emotional impact on its audience.

Director/co-writer Barry Jenkins has a marvelously fluid and natural feel for his camera, swinging around the parameters of a scene to make the world feel more charged with energy. Jenkins is a born filmmaker and knows how to squeeze the most out of his scenes with gorgeous cinematography and an eclectic musical score that feels traditional with classical orchestration like churning strings layered and rearranged into something arrestingly new and yet still personal. There aren’t many overly stylized choices, rather Jenkins tells his story with uncommon poise and treats one man’s life like an opera, like the greatest story never told on film, like a life of complexity worth the deep dive. There’s a classical lyricism to the presentation that reminded me of the works of Todd Haynes (Carol). There’s one scene where Paula is strung out on crack and finds her son in the middle of a joyous high. Her face fills the frame, absorbing all of Chiron’s world, and her euphoria is inter-spliced with jarring speed ramps in editing, meant to convey the mania and peace that pumps through her veins in this fleeting moment. It’s a stylistic device that isn’t overplayed and has genuine purpose. Jenkins is restrained from self-indulgences and keeps every aspect focused on reflecting the inner life of his lead.

The very talented company of performers makes the movie even more powerful. Ali (Hidden Figures, Luke Cage) is creating serious awards buzz and it’s deserving, though every actor in this movie is deserving of notoriety. Ali plays a man trying to do right by his own sense and he lets you see the troubles that wash over him. Should he insert himself into this young boy’s life? Is he in a position to set an example? Ali has such paternal strength and tenderness while still displaying doubts and regret, hardly deifying this found father figure. Harris (Spectre) is wonderfully horrifying and heartbreaking in her role and has some big moments that convey her given completely into desperation. She’s offended that others would deign replace her but does little to reclaim her title of mother and provider. Holland (Selma) has a world-weary smooth sense of wisdom to him, and his unassuming charisma helps unlock his friend’s true feelings. The three actors who portray “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are each exceptional, giving different performances and interpretations, further supporting Jenkins’ artistic thesis.

MoonlightMoonlight is a beautiful film told with such delicate care and a resounding sense of authenticity and personal detail. It swallows you whole and leaves you with the impression of a human life observed with tenderness, intimacy, empathy, and grace. It’s about the people and experiences that help guide us onto the paths we take, and while there’s a sense of heartache as we think of what might have been, there’s also the serenity of accepting what has been and what can still be. Jenkins proves himself a superb talent who doesn’t lose sight of his artistic goals with extraneous artifice. There’s a lilting, lovely lyricism to the movie that elevates Chiron’s life into feeling like poetry. This is a life we so rarely get to see given such an artistic and honest examination without condemnation or judgment. It’s the story of a man embracing his identity and overcoming isolation and suppression. This disadvantaged young man is worth your emotions, your sympathies, and your attention. Moonlight is an alluring and heartrending film that manages to be deeply personal and universal at the same time. It’s sublime.

Nate’s Grade: A

Spotlight (2015)

2B89064B00000578-0-image-a-25_1440115471750Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman-PosterExpecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.

hr_Birdman_16It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.

Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.

It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.

birdman-movie-poster-4Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.

I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.

Nate’s Grade: A

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave-posterIn 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could  be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.

12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):

Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”

12-years-a-slave-trailerThis brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.

There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.

With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.

12-years-a-slaveFrom a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.

The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.

Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.

twelve-years-a-slave-michael-fassbenderTo criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Artist (2011)

Ever since it charmed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, The Artist has been one hot commodity. The Weinstein Company snapped up the film rights though they have a bit of a hard sell. The movie takes place in the era of silent movies and it also happens to be a silent movie itself. Ignoring Mel Brooks’ unsung efforts, asking paying customers to sit through 100 minutes of silence, albeit accompanied by a musical score, may be a risky financial bet. That’s where the appeal of being an award-winner comes into play. The Artist has been racking up awards since Cannes and has been tagged by many as the favorite to take home a Best Picture Oscar. This celebration of the Hollywood of old is a nostalgic trip through the ages, but I’m doubtful that the film is deserving of the gushing admiration. I think this would have been better had it been one of them new-fangled talkies.

In 1927, the biggest star in Hollywood is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). His latest spy caper is knocking them dead. He’s prancing before a sea of photographers when he bumps into Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). He graciously brings her into the act and the two pose for pictures. “Who’s the new girl?” demands the newspaper headlines. Peppy is given her big break as George’s co-star in his spy series. Peppy is a natural and over the course of two years she becomes a bona fide star. Also over those two years Hollywood has undergone a drastic makeover. New “talkies” are all the rage with the public, who now demand to hear their favorite actors speak. George is adamant that talking pictures are only a fad and he plunks his personal fortune to bankroll his directorial debut. The movie is a flop. George is viewed as a has-been; yet Peppy has been keeping a watchful eye on her old friend and waiting for the time to reveal her love for the fallen star.

The Artist is a completely silent movie except for two key sequences; one of them a nightmare where George hears objects make noise. The film is an unabashed love letter to old Hollywood, and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius makes witty use of the storytelling techniques of the silent era. Much relies on editing and reactions for shaping the narrative. The story, therefore, is broken down to its simplest incarnation. Peppy Miller’s star rises, as George’s grows fainter. Still, The Artist has many recognizable pieces for fans of the silent era. George even has a trusted Jack Russell Terrier at his side, a clever pooch with keen mimicking abilities. There’s a cute moment where Peppy slips her arm into George’s coat hanging on a coat rack and pretends to caress her self as him. It’s a small yet slyly tender moment. It’s not a prerequisite to be well versed on silent cinema, though it helps. While a French film (a foreign designation seems superfluous when it’s silent), the movie was shot in Los Angeles and is stocked with English stars like John Goodman (TV’s Treme) as a film director, James Cromwell (Babe) as George’s dutiful butler, Penelope Ann Miller (Flipped) as George’s unhappy wife, Missi Pyle (Big Fish) as a silent film co-star, Beth Grant (Donnie Darko) as a maid, Ken Davitian (Borat) as a pawnbroker, and Malcolm McDowell (Halloween II) as a dismissive old man in a chair (the role he was bon to play). It almost becomes a side game of cameos.

It’s a sprightly, charming, sometimes enchanting little experiment, but in the end an experiment is all the movie turns out to be. The Artist is no great story; in fact it’s pretty much the 80th rendition of A Star is Born. The transition between silent films and talkies is a subject rife with drama, and a lead character who sees his fame and fortune crumble by being left behind in a changing society, well that should be interesting. What’s surprising to me the most about this film is how little you invest with it. I don’t know if it’s the silent gimmick or just the idle characterization, but I found myself never really engaging with the movie, always a step removed. The characters were nice but I neither celebrated their triumphs nor bemoaned their hardships. The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here. Praise Hazanavicius for his dedication to silent filmmaking techniques, but let’s be reasonable here because The Artist is a pleasant experiment but nothing more. The characters and story do not bear scrutiny. This story would have been more interesting had the movie been a traditional talky. Alas, we are limited to a handful of title cards with single lines of dialogue and extreme amounts of pantomiming. If you took away the central gimmick, would anyone be interested in this movie? I wanted to be swept away by The Artist after reading all the fawning accolades, but I wasn’t. The commitment of the artists on screen is commendable but the finished product is little more than an amusing trifle of a movie.

Dujardin (OSS: Lost in Rio) and Bejo (Modern Love) look like they stepped off the screen from an old Hollywood movie, al la Purple Rose of Cairo. Dujardin is a suave presence with great comedic physicality at his disposal. There’s a poignant moment where George, broken down and washed up, looks into a tuxedo store window, seeing his reflection appear above the neck of the tuxedo. He gingerly smiles, wistful of times gone by, and in that sad, face crinkling little moment, Dujardin reveals more about the man behind the flashbulbs than the script ever will. Even without a word spoken, you can tell that Dujardin and Bejo have great chemistry. Bejo, the wife of the director by the way, matches Dujardin note for note in terms of star wattage. She’s got a terrific smile and one of those classic faces for an Age When They Had Faces. It’s a shame that the characters don’t have more interaction.

The Artist is a fine film but ultimately disappointing given the hype. The saddest part about my reaction to The Artist is how little I find myself having to say about this much-ballyhooed silent film. It’s an exercise in nostalgic back-patting, but if you strip away the silent movie gimmick I feel like there’s so little at heart here. I walked away liking the movie, being charmed by the actors but feeling unengaged and mildly indifferent. The threadbare story is too familiar, the characterization is slight, and the movie ultimately becomes light, airy, and insubstantial. The novelty eventually does wear off and you may find yourself adding a mental commentary to the film to fill in the blanks. You’d have to be a Scrooge to resist the film’s whimsy and the talents of the charismatic performers, but I’m scratching my head at the adulation give to The Artist. In a year heavy with reminiscence, The Artist overdoses on feel-good Hollywood nostalgia, and in a down year at the movies, perhaps that’s enough when it comes time for awards.

Nate’s Grade: B

%d bloggers like this: