It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.
Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).
Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).
The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.
I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.
This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.
The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.
Nate’s Grade: C
Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!
UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.
After eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.
Doctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.
After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.
I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.
The acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.
With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Sometimes the most upsetting movies are the ones that have a glimmer of promise and then never take advantage of that promise, instead falling upon staid genre clichés and predictable plotting that makes you wonder how a good idea was smashed into a boring and formulaic product. Triple 9 falls into this category of film disappointment. It has a great premise: a group of corrupt cops (Chiwetel Ejiofer, Anthony Mackie) are in debt to an Israeli mob matriarch (Kate Winslet) and owe her one last score, and their solution to ensure they can get away with their crime is to arrange for a new cop on the beat (Casey Affleck) to be killed, thus providing a major distraction. The problem here is that none of these characters are at all interesting. They all have conflicts and the movie does a fine job of providing each one with some kind of pressure and general motivation, but outside of the forces against them, you can summarize them in a scant few words apiece (drug addict, war vet, single dad, etc.). The plot events also just seem to coast around until a pile-up of climaxes, all of which lack satisfying closure as the body count mounts. It’s hard to care, and the only character that seems worth following is Affleck’s newcomer sniffing out the dangers that are closing in on him. Woody Harrelson feels like he’s making a special guest appearance from a separate movie from Oren Moverman as a drug-addled and angry detective. Too often the characters feel out of orbit from one another, the storylines rarely coalescing. It feels like everyone was given the same acting note of being dour and harried. Winslet’s hammy turn as an Israeli mob boss allows her to reuse her accent from Steve Jobs. Director John Hillcoat (Lawless) provides a certain charge with how he stages the robbery sequences but it’s not enough. Triple 9 is a movie that wastes a great cast, a fine premise, and a talented director. It’s not terrible by most accounts but it’s resoundingly mediocre, and sometimes that can be even worse than bad.
Nate’s Grade: C
Based upon Andy Weir’s nuts-and-bolts scientific “what if” tale, The Martian is the movie equivalent of Apollo 13 crossed with Cast Away. Just far less personable volleyballs. But there are potatoes. Space potatoes.
After a powerful storm on Mars forces NASA’s crew to flee, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead and left behind. He wakes up hours later, shrapnel in his gut, and retreats back to the Mars mission base. He has to survive close to two years before he has any hope of being rescued on the hostile world. Before that, he has to establish some kind of communication with NASA, and even before that he has to somehow grow food in the arid Martian soil. Back at home, NASA is debating their limited options to bring back Watney and whether or not they should tell his crewmates that he survived.
In conversations with my friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey, he said that The Martian was the opposite of Gravity, a film he subsequently loathed, because it was smart people making smart decisions. There is an inherent enjoyment watching intelligent people tackle and persevere over daunting challenges, and this sets up The Martian for lots of payoffs and satisfaction. We see both sides of the problem and it provides even more opportunities for challenges and payoffs. Naturally the stuff on Mars is more compelling because of its extreme dangers and isolation, but the Earth scenes are also enjoyable as the NASA determines the soonest they might reach their lost astronaut. Just like the similarly themed Apollo 13, there are challenges to be overcome and the solutions are not without risk themselves. I enjoyed how the screenplay kept throwing out new obstacles; just when you think you can breath for a while the status quo is upset again. The slew of new obstacles doesn’t feel contrived either but rather realistic setbacks. It’s a wonderful storytelling structure that constantly keeps things moving forward and ramps up the urgency. As a result, we don’t ever feel safe right until the climax, and even then you’re still sweating it out because of all the complications and adjustments.
It’s revitalizing to watch a movie that treats science with a sense of reverence. Mark Watney endures in the most hostile of environments through his ingenious use of the resources he has because of his understanding of science and math. Just as MacGyver proved there was something satisfying about watching a guy make a bomb out of a toilet paper tube, some chewing gum, and a bobby pin, it’s entirely enjoyable watching Watney think his way out of problems, and this starts early on. Watney’s first problem after he regains consciousness is to remove an embedded piece of shrapnel in his gut. The scene plays in a methodical fashion without any obtrusive edits, allowing the full task to settle in with the audience. The man has to perform surgery on himself and dig inside himself, and if he doesn’t get this done soon, sepsis might set in (no doctors without borders here). From there, the situation only gets more serious as Watney’s food supply, even when generously rationed, will only last a fraction of the time it would take NASA to send a rescue team. He has to grow food on an alien planet. That itself could be its own movie, a glossy crossover special from the SyFy Channel and the Home and Garden network. This is a survival story that doesn’t rely upon coincidence or some sort of divine intervention but on the understanding and admiration of science and its possibilities. Though America’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that in this movie universe, all the science decisions are being made by science professionals rather than, you know, politicians who adamantly open ignorant statements with, “I’m not a scientist.”
Another aspect I wasn’t quite expecting but took hold of me is how uplifting The Martian turns out to be. It’s a celebration of human endeavor and particularly cooperation, as the United States reaches out to other nations for assistance. Watching the determined souls risk their lives to retrieve one fallen man is the kind of thing that represents the best in us. Sure, there’s something to be said about the fact that it’s one prized American life that countries are spending billions of not trillions of dollars to rescue and perhaps that money would be better spent helping more lives on Earth. There’s also the curious fact that the world has spent a ton of money rescuing Matt Damon in movies. From Saving Private Ryan, to Interstellar, and now The Martian, we seem to value Damon above all else.
This isn’t exactly a one-man show with half of the running time flashing back to Earth but Damon’s star quality and acting chops makes it so you don’t mind being marooned with this man. Watney’s recorded messages are a slick way to deal with the internal thinking of its protagonist while giving the character more opportunities to charm thanks to a rich sense of gallows-level humor. At no point is Mark Watney flippant about his unique predicament but his sense of humor goes a long way to further engender the audience’s good will. He’s not moping and having existential crises; he’s getting to work, and it’s through the problem solving that we get to know this character, his ingenuity, his personality, his fears, and his distaste for disco music. Damon steers clear from playing the character too large and bearing his soul as the metaphorical representative for all of humanity and its place in the cosmos. He’s just one guy who happens to be lost millions of miles from his home planet, and he’s making the best of it.
Being a Ridley Scott film, naturally the film is downright impeccable from a technical standpoint. The photography is great, communicating the frightening and awe-inspiring scope of the alien topography, especially when compared to maps for scale. The visuals find ways to further help communicate Watney’s dilemma and diminished resources. Scott’s visual sensibilities are so naturally attuned to developing tension. I was holding my breath at times from the suspense of certain sequences even though I long assumed that Watney would make it back home safe and sound. A scene with a desperate need for duct tape was a real nail-biter. There isn’t a bad performance among the star-studded cast of actors who must have been grateful for even a tiny morsel of screen time. I have no idea what Kirsten Wiig really does in this movie as the NASA PR person besides fold her arms in rooms, but hey, she’s there, along with Donald Glover as a socially awkward physicist. Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) gets to pour over the regret of leaving a friend behind, Jeff Daniels gets to once more practice his skill of being an authoritarian blowhard he honed from The Newsroom, and I even was able to tolerate Kate Mara (Fantastic Four), so that’s something.
The Martian is a natural crowd-pleaser. It’s engineered from the start to engage an audience with its survival thrills, present a series of increasing payoffs with new challenges and solutions, and by the end of our journey we’re treated to a rousing finish that carries a poignancy and sense of inspiration about the best in all of us, what can be accomplished through grit and cooperation and sacrifice. It’s a movie that let’s the science of survival be the ultimate star, with Damon serving as a handsome host to guide us through the marvels of the universe and duct tape. When dealing with the vastness of space and the vulnerability of human life, it’s easy to feel insignificant in comparison, but that’s where the human will to endure and to work together comes in and reconfirms the possibilities of the collective inhabitants of this giant blue orb. The Martian is a sci-fi thriller, a potent human drama, and one of the best times you can have at the movies.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In 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.”
This 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.
From 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.
To 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+
Congrats to the Columbia marketing team for what is by far the most imaginative advertising campaign ever. Weeks before Salt was going to open nationwide, the most bizarre story broke this summer. A dozen American citizens were revealed to be deep cover Russian agents. Apparently, their purpose, as given in the mid-to-late 1980s, was to infiltrate American society and get cozy with policy makers (and yet not one became a lobbyist). Instead they mostly raised families and lived in the suburbs of New Jersey. It’s unclear exactly what they accomplished. This hearkens back to a simpler age where we had clearly identifiable “enemies” that existed as nation states. Things are just too complicated in the post-9/11 age of the War on Terrorism. The dozen Russian spies were deported to Russian in an exchange for three American spies. I feel somewhat sad for these dozen Russian spies, especially Anna Chapman, the red-haired femme fatale that became the face of the scandal. These people grew up in the United States and for many that’s all that they know, and now they have to live in picturesque Russia. I wonder how long before they themselves defect back to the States.
Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who?s just about to go home after a long night of CIA stuff. An old Russian agent has defected, and Salt is the best interrogator they have to separate the real from the nutso. As she?s about to leave, the Russian talks about a plot to assassinate the Russian president, and the killer will be a Russian spy posing as an American, Evelyn Salt. Her superior (Liev Schreiber) wants to clear things up with nervous government officials, but Salt bails. She’s concerned that her German national husband (August Diehl from Inglorious Basterds) has been abducted. She races to find her husband, outrun U.S. agencies on her trail, and maybe assassinate the Russian president as foretold.
Believability is a fluid reality. When it comes to action thrillers, if they’re hitting the right numbers hen you give them a bit of a pass. What might normally kill a mortal can merely incur a flesh wound. Salt is packed with thriller absurdities, especially toward the end, but I posit that this movie is no less believable than most of what we see in the Bourne trilogy. The trick with Salt is that the pacing doesn’t ever let up; as soon as she?s slotted as a potential Ruskie spy, she goes on the run and the movie doesn’t slow down. It hops from action sequence to chase sequence to real-life Frogger sequence on a busy highway, all the while Evelyn performs miraculous feats of derring-do, impervious to normal rigors that would severely injure the rest of humanity. But you see, she’s a trained spy, and therefore can handle it all with aplomb. She can create her own missile thanks to an office desk and a fire extinguisher and some ordinary household chemicals (don’t try this at home, kids). In the opening seconds of the movie, Evelyn is being harshly tortured and interrogated in a North Korean prison (in her bra and panties for extra exploitation value). If she can survive that, surely this Superwoman Spy could survive escaping a batch of really lousy guards and National Security agents who seem bewildered by such art of deception like the masterful Putting on a Hat, or the more dangerous Dying One’s Hair a Darker Color (that can stain, you know).
Let?s briefly talk about the entire premise of Salt. Before this summer, naturally, this Cold War holdover plot device would seem ludicrous. Such deep cover Manchurian Candidate-like operations that take decades upon decades of time seem like a crapshoot. As proven by this summer’s most bizarre story, people who go deep under cover for extended periods of time are rarely able to snake their way into the corridors of power. It’s not like these people are planted to marry ambassadors or up-and-coming politicians. It’s essentially like a horse race, except you have to bet on which pony 25 years down the line will be the winner or spawn the winner. The odds of success seem remote at best and a waste of resources. This Cold War program also stipulates that these sleeper agents would still hold allegiance to Mother Russia nearly 20 years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. It’s this same mistaken idea of delayed national allegiance that surfaces when Chinese politicians try and justify how they will solve the guy/girl population disparity in their country. The Chinese politicians feel that the men of their country will come to America and find all those Chinese orphans that were adopted by American parents. Somehow these former Chinese orphans who have grown up in a different culture, in a different family, and with different gender rights and freedoms, will suddenly say, “Of course I will go back to the country that gave me up as valueless!” It’s this same basis at work for the Russian sleeper agent plan. But yet these super sleeper agents have miraculously found their ways in high positions of power. Maybe that’s the secret to educational reform. Students are more likely to be self-starters when they’re determined to bring down the infrastructure of another country.
What saves Salt is that the action sequences are good. Director Phillip Noyce has extensive experience in Hollywood and working with large stars. Noyce directed the stellar Jack Ryan thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger; he even has experience with Jolie, having helmed 1999?s boring Bone Collector. Noyce has a great presence of mind and knows how to fill the frame up to please the senses. He knows how to compose a nice action sequence and, here?s the shocker given modern action cinema, allows the audience to fully understand what is going on. The chases have genuine excitement and the escapes come across as organic instead of contrived, which is something of a compliment for a spy film. Evelyn Salt hopping from car to car across a highway is cut together into one smooth sequence to rattle the nerves. There are some spectacular car crash images in the film, particularly when Salt escapes from police custody by driving off an overpass. Noyce finds a way to make the screen both frenetic and oddly pretty, without being self-conscious about its popcorn purposes.
Jolie has proven herself to be more than capable when it comes to handling action. She doesn’t look as spookily thin as she did in 2008’s Wanted, which is good when you want to believe that she can be a world-class brawler. She’s tough as nails and plenty easy on the eyes. The role doesn’t require much of Jolie’s exceptional sex appeal. In fact, she’s rather maternal and her driving motivation is to rescue her husband. There are all sorts of needless flashbacks to her wedding day, little snippets to remind you that she loves her husband, in case you forgot. Jolie’s character is a bit of an enigma by design. Obviously given the star power and the fact that it?s a summer movie, you expect Jolie and her character to be in the right by the time the end credits roll. And yet the movie and screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (Thomas Crown Affair, Equilibrium) spends about half of its running time letting you fully believe that Evelyn is a turncoat (though if she was originally Russian, would she be a turncoat?). The most interesting aspect for me regarding Salt’s character was when we flashed back to the 11-year-old version (Cassidy Hinkle) of her after a car accident. Her head is bandaged, and because the girl is the younger version of Jolie, her lips look like those wax novelty lips to match Jolie’s signature pillowy pout.
Salt is a rather nuts-and-bolts thriller that balances absurdities with efficient action. With pacing so swift, you don?t have time to start nit-picking the small things, and the big things you just swallow as part of the overall package. Salt needs you to be caught up in the moment, in the chase, and not second-guessing all the plot fallacies. The film pretty much follows Jolie’s lead and is straight-faced nerve. It provides the thrills you’d want in a summer popcorn blockbuster without getting too serious. As a spy thriller it goes down like a shamelessly entertaining beach read. After all, what are the odds that your friends and neighbors of twenty years could actually be decades-in-the-making Russian sleeper agents? Well, do they look like Anna Chapman?
Nate’s Grade: B
Alfonso Cuaron is a master filmmaker and a gifted storyteller. He excels at telling entertaining stories whether they be about kids or adults. His Harry Potter film is still the most watchable and imaginative, and his earlier children’s movie, 1995’s A Little Princess, has enough power to still get me misty. Even when Cuaron sets his sights on a sex comedy (Y Tu Mama Tambien) he can’t help but turn it into an affecting art movie. This man just knows how to tell a good story. Children of Men, a bleak science fiction thriller, is just the latest example of how effortless Cuaron makes it all blissfully appear.
In the year 2027, and the world is on the brink of annihilation. It’s not plague or rampant warfare that are the obvious culprits. The reason for mankind’s end is something more natural and depressing — women have stopped being able to make babies. England seems to be the lone country with some fraction of stability. Illegal immigrants are rounded up and housed in refugee camps for deportation. Cages full of crying and pleading foreigners are on many street corners. In a world of danger and hopelessness, always count on the kindness of xenophobia.
Theo (Clive Owen) is a bureaucrat that combats the future with cynicism. He can barely escape getting blown up for his morning coffee. Theo used to be an activist and married to Julian (Julianne Moore), the current leader of the Fishies, deemed a terrorist group by those in power. She finds him and asks for one last favor. Her people need transit papers to get Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee, and Miriam (Pam Ferris), a former mid-wife, to safety. Then Theo discovers the importance of his assistance. Kee is eight months pregnant. The government would never admit that that the first baby in 18 years belongs to a refugee, and political groups would like to use Kee and her baby as a rallying point for an uprising. But first Theo must get her out of harm’s way.
The idea of a world of infertile women is fascinating and full of big questions. This dystopian future must confront its own mortality in a very real way. Theo asks a friend hoarding classic art why he bothers. There will be no one alive in 100 years to even see them. Miriam says strange and heartbreaking things happen to a world that forgets the sound of children’s voices. Plenty of heady discussion is generated from a premise that affects every person on the planet. Why can’t women have babies? No explanation is given and none would seem credible. A religious faction believes this is the punishment of a vengeful God. People forget what babies even look like and what is commonly done for their care. The film also has a stark and timely portrait about the treatment of illegal immigrants. Children of Men is an intellectually stimulating movie that never rubs your nose in it. It trusts the intellect of the audience enough to leave many unanswered questions left to chew over and debate long after the movie ends.
The answers Children of Men finds seem reasonable and appropriate. Home suicide products exist for people that want to take back some control over their life, or at the least, are sick of waiting for the even more inevitable. It also seems entirely likely that this future world would turn the youngest living person (“Baby Diego” at 18-years-old) into a celebrity worthy of incredible mourning upon his untimely demise. These coping elements feel dead-on and only enhance the realistic tone of the film.
The film is a beguiling think piece but it also succeeds magnificently as a straightforward thriller. The majority of the second half is built around chase scenes and navigating to perilous outposts of safety that eventual crumble. Cuaron has a dizzying sense of believability as he puts together his world, and his roving camera feels like an embedded reporter on the front lines of chaos. The gorgeous cinematography and realistic set design contribute to the visceral sensation Cuaron sets alive with his visuals. There are long stretches where the camera continues rolling for nine minutes uninterrupted. I was left spellbound and felt trapped in this world just like the people onscreen. I was also wondering how much planning it took to coordinate and choreograph these long takes.
There are two very memorable scenes to quicken the pulse and both of them involve Cuaron’s mobile unblinking camera. The first involves a car chase perhaps unlike any I’ve ever seen before. Theo is leading an escape at dawn and robs the other cars of their keys. However, his own escape car refuses to start and the bad guys take notice. The sequence seems to last forever as Theo is forced to literally roll the car down a hill to outrun his pursuers who continually catch up with him. The second sequence follows Theo making his way through a refuge camp in the midst of a violent uprising being put down by heavily armored government troops. We watch every excruciating second of his survival as he navigates past gunfire, tanks outside a hotel, and then climbs through the different levels of the hotel being bombarded until we see, at a distance, where Theo’s trek all began. Exhilarating might just be the best word to describe Children of Men.
But nothing feels cheap or too sentimental in this world. This is a harsh and dark world where anything can happen, so the audience is left in constant peril worrying about the fates of every person onscreen. Like Casablanca, it strips away idealized notions of bravery and duty and just shows humanity for what it is and what it can be. That is gutsy but then that’s Cuaron as a filmmaker.
Speaking of Casablanca, Owen seems like a modern-day Bogart in this role. He’s ruggedly good looking but also a sly charmer. I’ve stated before my undying man-crush on Owen and Children of Men has only added to it. Owen has a remarkable way of playing detached but still noble and conflicted. He has the best slow burn in movies. The moments of wonder for him become our moments of wonder and worry. The rest of the actors appear in limited functions but provide good work. Michael Caine practically steals the movie as a crude yet philosophical hippie.
This is science fiction at its best. Children of Men is stark and realistic and truly immersive; you really feel like a member of this tumultuous future. It works simultaneously as a thought-provoking what-if scenario and as an exciting thriller. Simply put, this is a highly engrossing movie that separates itself from the pack. Cuaron has created a disquieting and entertaining sci-fi think piece that succeeds on its numerous merits. I knew half way into the movie that the newly minted wife, Mrs. Me, was only going to want a baby more from what we were watching. At least she now has a new argument: “It’s for the good of humanity.”
Nate’s Grade: A
Spike Lee is one of the most recognizable names in film. Usually, the edgy, pointedly opinionated director sets his sights on racial strife, human relations, and satire. So what is Lee’s name doing attached to the Hollywood heist flick, Inside Man? For starters, it’s his most commercial film of his career, a sharp, engrossing thriller that doesn’t blunt his distinct voice.
Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) has set forth the perfect bank robbery. He and a handful of associates, dressed as painters with their faces obscured, have locked down a bank in downtown Manhattan. They’ve rounded up everyone inside, robbed them of their trusted cell phones, and ordered them to wear identical painter suits and masks. Detective Keith Frazier (Denzel Washington) is tasked with resolving this standoff, which the media is all too eager to cover in its escalation. What could the crooks be after? Well, bank owner Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) is certainly nervous about a key document he has inside a safety deposit box, a document linking him to scratching the backs of Nazis. He pits Madeline White (Jodie Foster) to retrieve the document at any cost, and she has the tenacity to wedge herself between her political contacts and the police. All the characters keep their cards held close and try and outfox the other, while figuring out what exactly is going on inside that bank.
This movie is a born crowd pleaser. The heist and ensuing complications really grab an audience early on. There’s a certain thrill watching Dalton, so cool and clam, plot out his bank robbery like the script is still in hand. The crooks are always one step ahead of the police as well as the audience, and I mean that in the best terms. It’s great fun just wondering how Dalton’s team is going to get out of their many jams, and the results are rarely unsatisfying. Inside Man knows exactly when to tantalize with intrigue, inject humor (“Penalty of code 36DD?”), or tighten the tension. The filmmakers know exactly what button to press and at what time. For a two-hour plus film, Lee keeps the film at a swift pace and smoothly weaves his characters in and out. The draw of Inside Man is watching the tit-for-tat game between Frazier and Dalton, too stone-faced pros trying to outsmart each other. Lee smartly allows his characters and story to take center stage and refrains from goosing a strong genre flick with some annoying, superficial artistic artifice.
Inside Man is a heist that’s refreshingly grounded in reality. Nothing is altogether too out there or complicated to the point where you’d need a score sheet to follow along. Dalton is the movie’s star and Inside Man gives him the center stage to draw us in and keep us guessing. In fact, the flick is so grounded in the plausible that mainstream audiences might be put off by the fact that there isn’t any super twist saved for the end. I think the same audiences Inside Man is so fine-tuned to entertain will discover the lack of a last-second twist as underwhelming. I hope we’re not to the point, as an audience, where we’d rather have an illogical, forced twist ending than something that closes our story with satisfying maturity and finesse. The biggest plot hole you’ll have to swallow with Inside Man is that a businessman would keep a document that linked him to the Nazis. What’s that about? Sentimental value? I’m also still a bit hazy on the motivation of our crooks.
Even though this is a crowd-pleaser, the film is not without its missteps. Inside Man has one of the worst scores I have heard for a movie, ever. Allow me to explain why I feel so brutally, and I do. The score flashes inappropriate mood all throughout the film, robbing many sequences of drama and calling attention to itself. Take for instance a phone conversation between Frazier and Dalton; we cut back and forth between the two and each actor has a different music score. Frazier’s is a jaunty jazz riff, while Dalton’s is the more traditional brooding orchestral number. Because of the schizophrenic musical score this moment becomes funny. The best example of how this score is dreadful is during a scene late where SWAT storms inside the bank. The camera takes their point of view and creeps through the bank lobby, and then you hear a horn (trumpet?) reverberate. It gets louder and then quieter in beats, like a high school brass orchestra just whizzed by in a race car. Then it keeps going but in another direction. At first I was confused, and then I thought, “Did Dalton actually set up a horn section to distract the police?” No, it’s just the awful Inside Man score that totally takes you out of the movie. Scores should enhance the movie, not turn drama into comedy.
Lee also doesn’t help his story by including so many flash-forwards in time. They mostly rob Inside Man of key suspense points. Now we know the bank robbers get away, we know their identities are still unknown, and we know no one died. Luckily, the charisma of the leads and the clever storyline can survive Lee shooting the movie in the foot. The movie also has what feels like the longest denouement since 2003’s Return of the King 20-minute hug fest.
The quality cast definitely gives Inside Man a boost. Washington is on autopilot but is still charming as ever while being intense and intuitive. Foster is like a female version of Mr. Wolf (Pulp Fiction) but full of steely determination. It says something when really talented actors like Willem Defoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor take tiny roles. As it should be, Owen is the standout. He’s so menacing and composed that you not only want Dalton to get away with the bank holdup, you want him to humiliate and embarrass his opponents even more. I?m convinced that in the world of film there’s no cooler actor than Clive Owen at this point. He adds a touch of badass to every role, with the notable exception of Derailed. At this point, I would pay to hear him recite the phone book and walk away going, “Wow, I didn’t know Aaron A. Anderson of 1200 West Avenue sounded so kickass!” Clive Owen is that cool.
Inside Man is a sharp, intelligent, mostly satisfying heist flick with a terrific ensemble. Lee’s most mainstream picture ever is a born crowd-pleaser, despite some missteps here and there (flash forwards, a poor score). The acting all around is top-notch, and the flick works as a tight and mature genre piece, simultaneously covering all its genre bases and playing up the smarts. I hope audiences appreciate the sense of believability with the film and don’t walk away irked that there is no super last-second twist. Inside Man isn’t anything groundbreaking but it knows how to tease an audience and tell a good guessing game of a tale.
Nate’s Grade: B