It’s been a long time since director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) has directed a movie, a whopping nine years since Black Book (my favorite title is the original Dutch – Zwartboek). In fact Elle is only the second movie of Verhoeven’s since 2000’s Hollow Man. Cinema needs more movies from men like Verhoeven. He’s famous for his penchant for camp and over-the-top violence and sex, but it’s his subversive streak, dark satire, and willingness to push an audience into squirmy situations that are missed most. Elle is a hard movie to describe and a hard movie to sell. It’s an uncomfortable viewing and that’s much of the point that Verhoeven wants to push the viewer into an uncomfortable world of a woman who makes others uncomfortable.
Michele (Isabelle Huppert) is a middle-aged professional woman who, in the opening scene, is raped on the floor of her home by a masked intruder. She tries to brush off the attack, refusing to report it and go to the police. She returns to her normal routine, which involves berating the employees at the video game company she runs, having an affair with her best friend’s husband, and asserting barely passive-aggressive control over her ex-husband and her adult son. Once Michele starts receiving taunting messages from her assumed attacker, she assess who in her life’s orbit may have been her rapist and how best to unmask their identity. There’s also the matter of vengeance.
Elle starts as a sneaky who-dunnit mystery and then blossoms into an engaging character study. Our first image of Michele is lying on the floor and being sexually violated by her attacker. It’s harrowing and upsetting and your sympathy instantly allies with the victim. However, the rest of the movie does not portray Michele with even the faintest glow of a halo. She’s a venom-spewing bully who sabotages the happiness of others around her and is having an indifferent affair with the husband of her best friend. Michele also runs a video game company that profits from the exaggerated sexual violence of the video game industry. She even lectures a programmer that the distressed cries of a rape victim should be louder and more orgasmic. Everything after the initial rape scene makes us question whether this character is worthy of our sympathies, and then that makes us question whether we should be ashamed to deny a rape victim sympathy at even a basic human level of empathy. There’s a happy moment where everything appears relatively settled, and she just can’t help herself and has to sabotage it with real ramifications with someone she genuinely cares for. It’s just her nature. It’s a complex crucible of self-reflection and it makes the movie an intriguing a unique experience to sit through.
About the half-hour mark, Michele becomes even more absorbing, and that’s when it’s revealed she’s the daughter of a notorious serial killer. As a young girl, she “assisted” her maniac father dispose of bodies into a large fire, and a picture of her looking dead-eyed and covered in ash is famous in French culture. There’s a lingering question of what her culpability was. As soon as this connection was revealed, my interest in Elle increased two-fold. It explains why she felt she couldn’t go to the police because she didn’t want the exposure, and certainly there would be a bitter few saying she got some sort of cosmic justice. Her relationship with her elderly and ailing father becomes its own mystery, and I started looking for parallels between Michele’s relationship with her father and her relationship with her screw-up adult son. Was she manipulating him like her father had done to her? Is her son’s penchant for not fitting in the adult workforce a sign of something more troubling? Is his temper and possibility for violence a hidden bomb thanks to grandpa’s DNA? I was even more observant and looking for connections.
The problem Verhoeven’s movie is that its story engine only takes you about two acts forward. From early on, the two things hanging over Michele are the prospect of finally coming face-to-face with her father one last time and discovering the identity of her rapist. Verheoven plays into the mystery thriller elements by populating Michele’s world with suspects that could secretly be her attacker. There’s the guy at her job that seems to loathe her and find her unworthy of her position. There’s the guy at work that has a little too close of an affection for her. There’s her friend’s husband, angered by being rebuffed when Michele ends their unfulfilling affair. There’s her neighbor’s husband who Michele covets and fantasizes over, who seems aware of Michele’s feelings. As the plot progresses and her attacker sends more messages, we get clues to the identity and who among our band of suspects is eliminated from contention. Then we find out and the movie has like a solid half hour left. That’s because the movie goes in an unexpected direction but one that makes enough sense knowing Michele as a character. Not all of the storylines hold the same level of interest, like Vincent’s one-note baby mama (Alice Isaaz), though you do understand why he might be attracted to abrasive women. The same with Michele’s mother (Judtih Magre) who seems too comically wacky as a sugar momma. Not all of the characters in the story’s sphere are worthy of the attention they receive, however, how Michele responds to them is worth our attention. The other storyline, a sense of closure with her father, is resolved around the same time in another unexpected manner. It’s a bit deflating and after both mysteries are resolved the movie feels like it’s abandoned its sense of direction. You’re waiting for the film to wrap up any moment but it keeps going, a tad too long at 130 minutes. It’s a small grievance but I definitely started feeling a sense of impatience during the final twenty minutes.
There’s a surprising amount of dark humor to be had with Michelle’s caustic view of other people and her genial manipulation of others. There’s an award and dark comedy that comes from the interactions, which seems counterproductive or downright tonally unforgivable given the above admission of how rape-y the film comes across. It’s a squirming comedy, the kind that makes you laugh under your breath to break the tension of people behaving badly. Even the prospect of laughing given the serious subject matter somehow makes the film even more uncomfortable. The older ladies behind me in my theater were already chattering about how Elle was not one of the better movies they’ve come to see. To be fair this was after like the fourth rape scene.
Huppert (Amour, The Piano Teacher) is in every scene of the movie and she unleashes a performance destined to leave you talking. She’s 63 playing 50, which is usually the opposite of how Hollywood movies operate (if the women are even allowed to get to 50). Michele is a beautifully flawed and complicated canvas and Huppert seems to relish in her brusquely dismissive demeanor. She’s constantly testing the people in her world, mostly men, and sizing up the women. There’s a reason that she seems to revel in stomping out the happiness of the men around her whether it be an ex-husband, her oafish son, the husband of her best friend she’s having an affair with. Michele refuses to be defined by her trauma but she is still processing that, and Huppert is agile at showing the cracks in Michele’s armor to provide clues as to what is most important. She doesn’t care what we think of her and that adds a thrilling quality to an already bracing performance.
Does the movie cross a line into being tawdry exploitation? Because of the nature of its storyline and the past films of its director, it would be easy to slap the title of high-dross exploitation film onto Elle, but I don’t know if it applies fully. I cannot think of a more rape-y movie that I have ever seen. Full trigger warning to those out there, there are like six different rape scenes in the movie, though some of them are fantasy and some of them are violent role-playing, but all of them are disturbing. At its core, Elle is about power and even though our opening impression of Michele is one of victim it’s a title she does not want. She is seeking to punish her rapist, and when the identity is revealed, she transforms the power dynamic and reclaims a sense of her sexual autonomy. Does consenting to abuse and enjoying it undercut the abuser’s power or reconfirm it? I can’t say whether this is any less exploitative than say 1974’s The Night Porter, another movie about trauma where the victim and victimizer indulge in an unhealthy sexual relationship that blurs the lines between sadomasochistic role-playing and fetishizing personal abuse. I feel like there’s enough substance in the characterization and the wide berths that Verhoeven allows free of judgment to classify Elle as more than exploitation, or to classify it as a reclamation of the exploitation film, an exercise akin to what it feels like Michael Haneeke (The White Ribbon, Funny Games) does that I inevitably can’t stand.
I can’t quite grasp what about Elle spurred Verhoeven out of a nine-year absence from filmmaking (he experimented with a 53-minute farce in 2012 whose script was crowdsourced, so I’m discounting that). On the surface, I would make the connections to the film’s extreme sex and violence, staples of Verhoeven’s Hollywood career. But that’s too easy, and there’s no shortage of extreme sex and violence in other stories. What was it about Elle that drew the Dutch filmmaker out of seclusion? I think it was another opportunity to be subversive, this time in the realm of art-house French cinema. Verhoeven has always enjoyed proving people wrong, exploring our baser instincts, and telling damn fine entertaining movies for adults. His subversive streak is renewed with a rape thriller that also happens to be an incisive character study of a very nasty woman who had something very nasty done to her. Audience loyalties and sympathies are consistently in tumult, shifting and being tested by new information and the mounting evidence of Michele’s treatment of others. Huppert gives a calculated, fierce performance right down to the end, pushing the audience into more uncomfortable reflection and uncomfortable laughter in the face of despair. I think this is why Verhoeven hopped back into the director’s chair and even re-learned French so he could communicate with a French film crew. He wanted to push an audience, upending their expectations about power, sex, and subjugation. Elle is downright elegant as it goes about its business, the business of forcing viewers to think critically and question their personal discomfort. It’s not exactly an easy movie to watch at times but it is a hard movie to forget.
Nate’s Grade: B
What 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Moonlight 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
Spellbinding during every one of its mammoth 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary is the definitive journalistic examination on the nexus of sports, media, race, privilege and celebrity that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It’s also one of the greatest documentaries I have ever seen. This is a monumental artistic achievement that seamlessly blends many different story threads to present a psychological, relevant, and compelling case as to how this notable flashpoint in race relations was inevitable. Consider the eight hours a searing and engrossing psychological study of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous cultural icons. The first part introduces us to O.J. the sports hero and you too may be surprised just how charming the man is, which along with his naked ambition allowed him to crossover into a primarily white business world. It’s important to know the full picture of O.J., the natural star, the narcissistic showman, the jealous and cruel monster trading on his sense of entitlement and the adoration of others. Part two follows O.J.’s grievous relationship with Nicole Brown and includes haunting audio clips of her frantic domestic abuse 911 calls, which were often downplayed by an appeasing and star-struck police force. As O.J.’s career soars he shuns larger responsibility to the black community, which is routinely rattled by shocking police brutality and a sense of institutional injustice, best typified with the controversial Rodney King acquittals. Part three begins with the 1994 murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, goes into the Bronco chase, and then O.J.’s assembly of his Dream Team of lawyers. Part four is devoted entirely to the criminal trial and part five the aftermath, including O.J.’s arrogant attempts to live business as usual after becoming a pariah to millions. Edelman assembles an impressive coalition of interview subjects with startling personal revelations and sometimes shocking admissions. They all masterfully come together along with the narrative threads of the systemic history of Los Angeles police corruption and abuses, the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity and its shamefully easy tendency to forgive the famous and horrible, and racial identity to form a complex, interwoven, and mesmerizing larger picture that feels like its own multi-media academic textbook with full annotations. It feels like a five course meal. This is the kind of powerful and ruminating documentary filmmaking that illuminates our understanding of the past and our greater connections to the wider world. O.J.: Made in America flies by effortlessly, packed with rich detail and archival footage, and serves as a terrific compliment to the brilliantly entertaining FX miniseries. This is a towering achievement in documentary film and rightfully earns the title of best movie of 2016.
Nate’s Grade: A
There’s something about plays turned into movies that bring out the best in actors. Usually they provide meaty characters with flaws and big personalities, which lend themselves to big performances that touch upon every emotion in an actor’s kit. Fences is based upon August Wilson’s Tony-winning play set in 1950s Pittsburgh. It follows the fractious household under the indomitable influence of Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, also serving as director). He’s a complex man prone to bold protestations and morally righteous fury, but he’s also deeply imperfect, hypocritical, and consumed with self-doubt over whether or not he has done right by his family. He’s a man trying to still assess his place in the world and what is owed. Troy’s older brother (Mykelti Williamson) has been mentally incapacitated from his war service and Troy has been living off of his brother’s wages. Troy’s oldest son doesn’t feel like he ever had a father, Troy’s youngest son wants to devote a future to sports, which Troy adamantly refuses, still nursing a grudge over his failed potential that was never capitalized in his mind. Then there’s Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who tries to keep her blended family together though Troy’s actions will test the boundaries of her devotion and affection. As expected, the performances are outstanding, lead by Washington and Davis reprising their Tony-winning roles. When these two sink into roles worthy of their caliber, it’s a pleasure just to sit back and watch the high-class mastery. Washington lights up the screen with the overwhelming power of his performance; you feel like your ears are pinned back by the sheer volcanic strength of his acting. Davis has her moments and she tears your heart out when she lets loose on a life of compromises to sustain her husband. The characters are so multi-layered with such plentiful history and generational conflicts. Every actor gets his or her moment to shine and do an excellent job under Washington’s direction. The movie is little more than a filmed version of the stage play, and the pacing is a bit loquacious for being almost two and a half hours, but Fences rises on the sheer power of its performances with expert actors giving all of their considerable skill to bring these fascinating people to vivid life.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Trauma and grief are common colors in the palette of screenwriting. Wounded men and women overcoming loss and sorrow allow us all an opportunity to learn and heal through someone else’s personal pain and suffering. It’s the movie theater as therapist’s office with art serving as catalyzing event to help those in need. When 2006’s United 93 was released many critics thought it was too soon for a dramatic recreation of the events of 9/11. First, there’s never a right estimation for how long the world of art should wait to respond to shared tragedy, but I argued that United 93 could function as a facilitator for healing for select moviegoers. It helps to be able to live vicariously through fictional characters on screen, and it makes us smile when they overcome those obstacles and give hope to the rest of us. Two new movies have taken very different paths to explore responses to trauma onscreen. Collateral Beauty is a star-studded affair built from a screenplay that sold for an estimated three million dollars. Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance film Festival and blew away audiences with its understated and unsentimental portrait of loss. One of these movies goes big and miscalculates badly and the other delivers one of the better, more emotionally involving films of the year. I think once you hear the premises it’ll be clear which is which.
In Collateral Beauty, Howard (Will Smith) is an advertising guru still reeling two years later from the unexpected death of his six-year-old daughter. He’s become a hermit who furiously rides his bicycle into traffic to tempt fate. He shuns his old friends and minority partners, Whit (Edward Norton), Claire (Kate Winslet), and Simon (Michael Pena). He also writes angry letters to the concepts of Death, Time, and Love to note his general displeasure. Major accounts are lost because of Howard’s seclusion and now it looks like the whole company might go under unless they accept a stock buyout. Howard refuses to sign off on the purchase, which forces his trio of friends to hire struggling actors to play “Death” (Helen Mirren), “Time” (Jacob Latimore), and “Love” (Keria Knightley). These three personified concepts will converse with Howard to provide an unorthodox therapeutic breakthrough. The actors will be paid handsomely and they relish the challenge. If that doesn’t work, they will record his public feuds with the actors, digitally erase the actors, and make it seem like he’s gone crazy with grief. Along the way, Howard gets closer and closer to talking about his loss in a support group run by the saintly Madeleine (Naomie Harris), a woman also suffering the loss of her child. If the universe is all about making connections, Howard is on a collision course with the fates.
Few films have dropped in estimation so precipitously in my mind as Collateral Beauty. To its credit, while you’re watching the movie you don’t notice as many of the misguided manipulations from prolific screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, Just Go with It). You’re aware of their presence but they don’t remove you from the movie, that is, until you extend further thought on the full implications. Allow me to simply vocalize in print the Christmas Carol-esque premise of this “feel good” holiday movie.
“A group of wealthy advertising executives scheme to get their grieving mentor and friend declared mentally incompetent so they can sell their company. They hire duplicitous actors to pose as metaphysical concepts, engage with Howard in public, and then they will digitally erase the presence of the actors, making it look like Howard fits the lazy man’s definition of crazy. And these people are the heroes.”
The characters give plenty of rationalizations for why they’re forced to set up their supposed friend, mostly about saving the company and saving jobs. Simon especially needs the money and medical insurance with where he’s headed. Howard is spiraling and they worry that he will take down everyone with him. That’s fine, but why do they resort to the outlandish and ethically dubious practices that they do? The hiring of actors seems like a helpful therapeutic exercise on the surface, unless you stop and think about a grieving man badgered by an antagonistic universe. Howard is already exemplifying mentally unsound behavior so I don’t know why the public spats are required. The digital erasure constitutes explicit fraud and it feels so much grosser. It’s an expensive step to provide visual evidence of a man having a nervous breakdown. They could have simply recorded Howard in his office for a week while he builds elaborate domino structures just to watch them topple (symbolism!). Even the characters call-out one another for this gaslighting trick. On another note, won’t Howard eventually find out? What if some enterprising digital effects editor has a moral crisis and confesses? This is the equivalent of false documents forged to push the rich old lady into the booby hatch so her scheming relatives could abscond with her vast fortune. It’s even more egregious when Collateral Beauty presents these characters as the heroes. Yes they have different degrees of guilt but that is tamped down by their moral relativism justifications. It makes it a little harder to swallow all that outpouring of cloying sentiment later. These murky and misguided manipulations will symbolize much that is wrong with the movie.
I hope the audience is prepared for Smith to be sidelined for much of the movie because Howard is more a supporting character in someone else’s story. Howard is really more a catalyst than a fully developed character. He grieves, he suffers, but his point is how his grief and suffering affect others, which is a strange tact to take. His journey is quite similar to Casey Affleck’s in Manchester by the Sea. He must come to terms with loss, accepting the cruelty of that reality in order to move forward and let others in. Moving on doesn’t mean we forget, especially when that trauma is a loved one’s loss, and Howard holds onto that pain for so long as a means to still feel his daughter’s presence. It’s an acceptable character conceit but it flounders in the movie because EVERYONE simply talks at Howard. Smith’s asked to be teary-eyed and mute for most of the picture. Any significant breakthroughs, developments, or even passing of information occurs from others applying meaning to this sad silent man who must not remain sad.
As a result, the movie pumps up the supporting characters and pairs them with one of the actors. “Death” relates with Simon for him to accept his declining health and to allow his family to know. “Time” relates with Claire over her worry that she’s sacrificed starting a family by prioritizing her career (this is another film world where nobody puts serious consideration into adoption). I need to stop and question this particular storyline. Doesn’t it feel a bit tacky and outdated? It’s also, by far, the storyline with the least attention; we literally see Claire glance at a sperm donor brochure and website for a scant few seconds and that’s it. Then there’s “Love” who relates with Whit to try and get him to repair his relationship with his rightfully angry young daughter after Whit cheated and broke up his marriage. “Love” literally just goads Whit to actually try being a parent and accept some responsibility for his failings. That’s it, and she has to use the incentive of a date to convince him to try and be a better father (Whit sloppily hitting on “Love” definitely lays a plausible peak into why exactly he’s divorced). “Death” and Simon play out the best mostly because Mirren is impishly amusing, and also benefits from naturally being Helen Mirren, and Pena’s character is given the most sincerity. He has the most at stake personally and setting things right for his family is taking a toll. Loeb has given each actor something to do, and the talents of the actors are enough that I was distracted from the overall machinations at least until the very end.
For most of its relatively brief running time, Collateral Beauty has kept to its own form of internal logic and avoided blatantly manipulative calculations for heightened drama. Sure Pena’s first instance of movie cough is an obvious telegraph to more astute members of the audience, but it makes some sense since this is less our real world and more the well-sculpted Movie World. Then the final ten minutes play out and the movie doesn’t just skid, it steers into this skid of counterfeit sentiment. I’ll refrain from spoiling both of the major reveals but they both serve to make you rethink everything. It’s not one of those eye-opening twists but more something my pal Eric and I were dreading in our seats, mumbling to ourselves, “Please please don’t.” These final two reveals are completely unnecessary. They disrupt the tenuous reality of the movie and the balance of tones becomes a mess. It also divulges how overly constructed the screenplay really was, designed to lead an audience to these chosen end points that don’t engender catharsis. It’s about pointing out how clever the screenplay was rather than the emotional journey, a movie in service of its twists. Neither twist serves strong narrative purpose other than to be out-of-the-blue surprises.
Let’s get to that ungainly and clunky title. It’s a nonsense pairing of words that’s meant to sound profound but is really just confusing and remains so even though the characters repeat this clumsy phrase like eight times. There’s a conversation where it appears in every sentence, as if repetition alone can make this phrase/idea successfully stick. It doesn’t. I think I understand what it means, or at least what Loeb was going for, but I’m not sure. Madeleine talks about making sure to see all the collateral beauty in the universe, but is this merely a more obtuse way of restating Wes Bentley’s floating plastic bag declaration in American Beauty? Is it a more pretentious way of saying to stop and smell the roses? Here’s where I thought it was going with its meaning: “collateral” in this sense means accompanying and instead of accompanying damages we’re focused on the accompanying beauty, therefore a contemplation of the possible unintended helpful ramifications. This was going to make sense for Madeline since she uses her personal tragic experience to reach out and help others heal through their own tragedies. It’s the long ripples of human kindness reaching out far beyond our initial actions. And maybe, juts maybe, Howard and Madeleine would become romantically linked through coping with their similar heartache and find one another. However, the movie’s real ending torpedoes this interpretation. What we’re left with is a clunky pairing of words that still makes little sense by film’s end.
Collateral Beauty is probably the best-looking Hallmark movie you’ll see at the theaters this holiday season. It’s a gauzy and manipulative endeavor packed with movie stars doing their sad and redemptive best before hopefully cheering you up. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a good group of friends who only want what’s best for you while they take part in a criminal conspiracy to defraud you of your business stakes. That’s because even the most nefarious of behaviors can be forgiven with the right actor to provide a twinkle of the eye, a little swooning musical score to tell the audience how and when to feel, and the backdrop of lightly swirling snowfall. It’s a universe that refuses to allow Will Smith to stay sad and so it intervenes. Collateral Beauty has its draws, namely its core of great actors who each find some point of emotional grounding to their character’s plight. The finest actor in the movie is Harris (Moonlight) who radiates tremendous empathy and a bittersweet serenity. I’d watch the movie from her perspective. To Loeb’s credit, the movie is more grounded and less fanciful than its premise could have lead. It doesn’t sink to the depths of a Seven Pounds (“Do not touch the jellyfish”). Waterworks are shed all around, hugs are evenly distributed, and I’d be lying if I didn’t feel a lump or two in my throat by film’s end. However, its emotional journey doesn’t feel anywhere as revelatory as Manchester by the Sea.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is living out an ordinary existence as a Boston apartment complex maintenance man. His routine is rudely interrupted when he receives news that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has fallen deathly ill. On the car ride north to Manchester, Joe passes away. Guardianship of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is entrusted to Lee much to his shock. “I was just supposed to be the back-up,” he says to himself to little avail. Lee wants to move back to Boston with his new ward but Patrick refuses, pleading that he already has a life in town he enjoys. Lee is itchy to leave because of his painful associations with his hometown, tracing back several years to a fateful night of tragedy he shared with his current ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee takes on the mantle of parent while trying to ignore the trauma he’s doing his very best to ignore with every fiber of his working-class Bostonian being.
The first impression from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s movie is just how achingly authentic it feels. We drop in on the lives of these hardscrabble folks and glean important details as we progress, better forming a clear picture as to why they carry such pain with them as penance. In simplistic terms, it’s a two hour-plus journey to reach a point where the main character can openly cry. It’s also much more than that. It’s an incisive character piece on grief and tragedy, a surprisingly funny movie, and an effortlessly engaging movie that swallows you whole with its familiar rhythms of life. There is no formula here for Lonergan. Each fifteen-minute sequence opens the movie up again for further re-examination, especially a middle passage that is truly devastating. It provides compelling evidence why Lee has decided to become a recluse drifting through life. It’s not that Lee is lonely; he’s actively disengaged from all communities and connections. There are three different potential openings with women who seemed flirty and interested that Lee could have capitalized upon, or at least pursued, but he does not. A woman spills a beer on his shirt and squeezes closer to apologize, pleading to buy him a drink. He coolly looks away, ignoring her, and instead chooses to wait until closing time so he can get into a drunken fight instead. Lee would rather feel pain than momentary pleasure.
The movie is also a poignant father/son relationship told in waves, with as much humor as emotional breakdowns. Lee is trying to fix the situation the best way he can as if it was another clogged drain. He’s thrust into a parental position that he doesn’t feel fits. It’s not that he’s actively evading responsibility as he does try to accommodate his nephew, even driving him back and forth and covering for one of his two girlfriends to sleep over. Lee cannot work in his hometown because of his own lingering pain and also because nobody will give him a job thanks to the reputation he carries. For a long while it feels like Patrick isn’t even registering the death of his father except for his distress at the thought of his father’s body remaining in a freezer until the ground thaws for a burial. He’s trying to live a normal teenage life filled with activity like band practice, hockey practice, and juggling some alone time with his two girlfriends. He seems like a normal teenager with a normal teenage attitude, and that flies in the face of our expectations. Hedges (Kill the Messenger) provides a nice dose of awkward comedy to keep the movie from drowning in sadness. The burgeoning relationship between Lee and Patrick takes on new familial elements and dynamics and each is feeling out that new role. This movie is more than an elegant bummer.
Lonergan has only directed two movies prior to Manchester, both of them insightful, complex character studies with meaty parts for game actors. 2000’s You Can Count on Me cemented the wide appeal and remarkable talents of Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo. Then his follow-up, the criminally underseen Margaret, ran afoul with producers who wanted to trim its near three-hour running time. It was kept in limbo for five long years until 2011 where it met with a degree of fervent critical fandom, including yours truly. Manchester began as a starring vehicle for producer Matt Damon, but when scheduling conflicts got in the way, the project was reworked with Affleck in the lead and Lonergan told the story his creative impulses desired without studio interference. As a big fan of his previous directorial outings, I’m not surprised by the gripping results. He lets an audience draw conclusions from the impressions and pieces he offers, notably with Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) who he refers to as “not an alcoholic anymore.” There isn’t one big obvious scene but we’re given enough pointed clues about Patrick’s history with his mother and why Lee is adamant that his nephew does not live with his mother. The history of characters and their relationships follow this model, layering in further meaning as we continue at a safe distance in our seats. Things aren’t spelled out as they are allowed to breathe, the furtive connections becoming perceptible in time like a message written in the fog of a window. Lonergan has great affection for his characters and their flaws, insecurities, and struggles. This was evident in Margaret where the title character (vividly played by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) was a teenager exploding with emotions, opinions, and thoughts and Lonergan celebrated her for this fact. I appreciate Lonergan’s refusal to paint in broad strokes with all of his characters.
This is Affleck’s (The Finest Hours) movie and while good the more extroverted performers around him overshadow him. Affleck can be a gifted actor as evidenced with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He has a quiet intensity and a habit of burrowing inside himself to discover something raw and different. His performance feels like he’s trapped in a PTSD shield that saps the life from him. He’s drifting through his life and waiting to die, simply put. Because of his taciturn nature he doesn’t garner any sizeable monologues to spill out all his feelings. He has to use little moments and the nuances of choosing his words carefully. When he tells Patrick “I can’t beat it” those words are loaded with meaning that he can only convey in subtext. When he stops to process that Randi has gotten pregnant from another man we notice the subtle registration of pain and regret, a twinge of memories he’s trying to hold back. Affleck’s performance is very subdued for most of the movie but it’s in the final act where he cannot maintain his well-manicured bubble of resistance to the outside world. When Lee does start to cry, it will earn every ounce of your sympathy.
Williams (My Week with Marilyn) is more presence than character in the movie, but when she does stay long enough she leaves an emotionally gut-wrenching impression. I understand that “gut-wrenching” is a pejorative term but it’s really one of the more uplifting moments in the movie. That’s because her character’s reunion with Lee isn’t one of enmity but reconciliation, allowing her to make amends and say plenty of things that she’s been holding back for years. It’s an unburdening and once Williams starts it’s hard not to feel the flow of tears coming from your own eyes. She is a one-scene wonder, reminiscent of Viola Daivs in 2008 for Doubt, nominated for Best Supporting Actress and well deserving a win for one brilliantly acted scene. Fitting then that Davis looks to be Williams’ chief competition for Supporting Actress this year. I invested even more in this scene because the power of Randi’s emotional honesty almost pulls Lee out. He’s shaking, his voice cracking, and trying to stick to saying the customary conversational tokens that have gotten him through to this point. He’s avoiding confronting reality but the sheer emotive force of Randi almost pushes him to that genuine breakthrough.
If there is one noticeable drawback to such an exquisitely rendered film, it’s that it follows the narrative structure of real life perhaps a bit too faithfully. Life doesn’t normally follow a three-act structure with clearly defined character arcs and a carefully orchestrated system of measured payoffs. While Manchester by the Sea isn’t exactly an automatic entry in mumblecore paint drying, it’s certainly less indebted to familiar story structure, which does affect the overall motor of the story. You don’t have a strong sense of its overall direction, an end point, and while the pacing isn’t glacial it can start to feel bogged down in those wonderful New England details of everyday mundane life (how many times do we need to see Lee driving?). There are also probably more flashbacks than necessary to flesh out the characters in an implicit manner. If the movie wasn’t 137 minutes I might accuse it of padding its running time. It doesn’t take away from the overall enjoyment of the film but you feel a certain loss of structure and payoff. In contrast, Collateral Beauty is entirely reliant upon plot machinations and a formula serving a very Hollywood-styled ending. Sometimes maybe an audience would prefer a little more of a driving force and a little more oomph for an ending. While certainly lacking in just about every factor, I’d say that Collateral Beauty does feel more climactic with its conclusion than Manchester, which sort of rolls to a close that makes you say, “Oh, I guess that’s it then.” Sometimes realism can profit from a judicious nudging. Then again with Manchester it’s more the journey and Collateral Beauty is all about the destination.
While ostensibly being about two men overcoming the loss of someone close to them to function in everyday society once more with meaningful personal relationships, there’s quite a wide divide between Collateral Beauty and Manchester by the Sea. One represents a more calculated and morally dubious reflection of trauma as a theatrical game leading to Big Twists that are meant to leave an audience swooning from the magic of reconciliation. While fairly grounded on its own terms for a far majority of its time, Collateral Beauty can’t help itself and steers into a ditch of bad plotting, made even worse by the fact that it puts so much significance on its preposterous final destination. It manages to cheapen the movie as a whole in retrospect as an elaborate parlor trick that rivaled what the ethically challenged heroes of the tale were perpetrating. On the other side, Manchester by the Sea is a carefully observed and intimate portrait of grief and the consequences of self-destructive detachment from a larger world of compassion. The acting is terrific and lived in, authentic to its core and stuffed with meaningful details that Lonergan leaves to his audience to formulate. However, some of its indie auteur sensibilities do have a somewhat negative impact on the pacing and ultimate conclusive nature of the movie. It’s not that the film is open-ended; it’s just a “life goes on” kind of ending that doesn’t exactly inspire the strongest feelings of satisfaction. Grief will always be a topic that attracts filmmakers and especially actors because of its inescapable drama, stakes, and general relatabilty. I only implore any readers that if you’re trusting filmmakers with two hours of your emotion, make sure they earn that privilege.
Collateral Beauty: C
Manchester by the Sea: A-
Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.
We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.
Eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.
There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.
The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.
This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.
Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.
Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.
Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “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.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?
Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.
Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.
The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.
The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) are a young couple deeply in love in the late 1950s. The only problem: he is white and she is black. The laws in their native Virginia forbid marriages to different races. The Lovings traveled to Washington D.C. to be married and then had to live as fugitives before ultimately getting caught and exiled under threat of jail time. Eventually an ambitious ACLU lawyer (Nick Kroll, broadening his range) challenges the legality of the miscegenation law, which will lead to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court ruling striking down laws barring interracial marriage.
The ordinariness of the Lovings betrays the kind of movie moments we expect from great historical turning points, namely moral grandstanding and stentorian speechifying. We’re so used to accentuated versions of history because, deep down, that’s what our storytelling impulses crave because the real thing is often less streamlined and usually more boring. We want Daniel Day-Lewis as President Lincoln admonishing his fellows with the power of his oratory. We don’t necessarily want to watch President Lincoln rewrite his speeches for grammatical mistakes. With all that being said, I appreciated the approach that writer/director Jeff Nichols took with Loving because the very point at the heart of the movie is just how powerfully ordinary Mildred and Richard Loving are. Their love is meant to be ordinary, their relationship relatable. They’re meant to be just like you or I. This thematically taps into the message of the movie about the fundamental human rights of American citizens to love who they love regardless of what others may think. There is nothing dangerous or subversive about their marriage. There is nothing radical. The rationale for why the state would care so much about a marriage can be flabbergasting, including one judge’s written opinion that God created separate races and placed them at separate points on the globe thereby never intending for them to mix. This was considered acceptable legal justification for discrimination in the 1960s and it’s absurd. The other argument against interracial marriage is that biracial children are a harm to larger society… somehow. It’s easy to look back to the past and shake our heads with a fury of moral indignation and say “How could they do that?” but some of these exact same legal arguments have been used in the twenty-first century to justify denying gay citizens the same equality. In that sense, Loving shows us how far we’ve come but also how far we have to go to make sure that human beings are simply considered human.
If that wasn’t enough the movie also makes a powerfully compelling case about how the state’s miscegenation laws were an offense to human decency. The Lovings are given the legal ultimatum to separate or be exiled from the state, their families, and the home they were making for their family. They have been banished for loving the “wrong” person. Mildred and Richard try living out of the state in a D.C. suburb but it’s not the same; Mildred misses the quiet and relative safety of the country as well as the warmth of her immediate family. They decide to sneak back into Virginia and lay low, and you get a genuine sense of the day-to-day anxiety of having to constantly look over your shoulder and fly under the radar lest someone throw you in prison for loving another race. The degradation and dehumanizing effect of the miscegenation laws is on full display with how Mildred and Richard must act like criminals afraid of their country of laws. They may be used to the glares and hateful comments from intolerant onlookers but it’s another thing when the power of the state is employed to enforce that same hate. The wear and tear of their love perplexes some of the Loving friends and family. Mildred’s brother and sister each take turns blaming Richard for knowingly bringing this heap of trouble upon their beloved sister and for taking her from them. Her brother confesses he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just divorce her and stay together, satisfying the definition of the law. It’s a pertinent question that asks what is the value of marriage? He could readily be with Mildred and save themselves the persecution, but why should they have to settle for something less with their love? Why should they have to be second-class citizens?
This is very much a duet of a movie and Negga and Edgerton deliver admirable, understated work that cuts deeply. I was most impressed with Edgerton (The Gift) who has the more private and insular character. He’s not seeking the spotlight and doesn’t want to be a civil rights crusader. Richard Loving isn’t exactly a man prone to those speeches we crave and he’s certainly not a man to blurt out his feelings. Edgerton has to play within a tiny frame of emotional reference and he makes it work. When he does start to break down, his stoic defenses melting under the pressure and soul-killing compromises, the moments carry even greater emotional weight. Negga is the more emotive of the two but even much of her performance lies in her large, expressive eyes, taking in the collective injustices and triumphs. Using approximately the same Southern accent from her plucky performance on AMC’s Preacher, she radiates warmth and goodness and a sense of indomitable perseverance. It’s a performance that speaks in small gestures and small moments. Much of the film is Negga and Edgerton working together and each lifts the other up, providing the right space needed. There’s a physical intimacy that says much as each member of the relationship seeks out the other’s touch, grip, presence for comfort. It’s a delicate and understated duet of performances that bring the Lovings to faithful life.
Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is the kind of filmmaker that astonishes me with every new movie. He reinvents himself with every picture and he takes genres and redefines them, shaping them to his needs, while never losing sight of tone and characters and narrative payoffs. He’s already delivered one of the best movies of the year with Midnight Special and now he impresses yet again, this time turning toward awards-friendly Important Stories of History. Nichols’ sense of place is implacable. He’s also superb at developing characters and giving them the time to properly breathe. He keeps the spirit of the story linked to his subjects, Richard and Mildred Loving, and makes sure we understand their plight and the larger issue at hand. This isn’t a film that’s going to hit you over the head with its message; in fact you could make a claim that perhaps the movie is too insular. As presented, the Lovings are relatable but we’re only given a fraction of insight into who they are as people and what makes them tick. There’s much subtext here to unpack. It does feel like we’re fighting through the defenses of Mildred and Richard to better know them. This specific approach allows the movie to keep in spirit with the ordinariness of the Lovings and their unknowing place in the history of civil rights, but it also caps the potential emotional impact. We’re invested in them as people but not as completely as characters. It’s a minor criticism perhaps but it’s really the only one I have for Nichols’ movie.
Given our recent turbulent political environment, Loving is an even more significant film. Jeff Nichols has crafted a poignant and affecting movie that passes over easy histrionics for a better representation of history and its characters. These people didn’t want to change the world; they just wanted to live out their lives. Mildred and Richard Loving are regular people living regular lives and that’s the ultimate message of the movie and their love. Having won their Supreme Court battle, the couple returns home to their original plot of land Richard bought in Virginia with the purpose of building his wife a house. Somber text appears in the sky to inform us that Richard would die in a car accident a mere six years later. It left me with a pall thinking about what a short span of time this man had to cherish the woman he loved without recriminations before it all came to a tragic end. It doesn’t seem fair, and I hope that’s a message other audiences take with them. When demagogues try and use religion in place of civil law to justify state-sponsored discrimination, saying the love others share is inferior and somehow a danger to their own lives, that’s when people need to remember the Lovings. This life is too short to harangue others about whom they choose to give their love to. Here is a beautiful, gentle, and restrained film that reminds us that the power of love is in its superhuman perseverance.
Nate’s Grade: B+
There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
Sold for a record $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival, there were big expectations for the Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation. Writer/director/actor Nate Parker was the toast of the town and the studio had its sights set clearly for a fall release and a big Oscar push. Then came the revelation from Parker’s past linking him to an accusation of sexual assault (it should be noted he was acquitted of the charge, though it should also be noted the woman declined to continue pressing charges during the second trial). Suddenly the Oscar hopes for Birth of a Nation were put into a tailspin and journalists were wondering if this salient news would provide older Oscar voters just the excuse they needed not to watch the movie. After having finally seen the film for myself, I can attest that this movie wasn’t going to go far into the Oscar race anyway. My friend Ben Bailey said it best as we walked out of The Birth of a Nation, making an apt comparison to the 2013 Best Picture Winner: “12 Years a Slave was a better movie made from a less interesting story; and this is a more interesting story but given a much lesser movie.”
In 1830, Nat Turner (Parker) is earning extra money for his friendly slave owner (Armie Hammer) as a preacher, convincing slaves on other plantations to work harder and obey their cruel masters. He reaches a breaking point and organizes a revolt, violently killing the same plantation owners that kept them in bondage. Nat felt his revolt could be the catalyst for slaves all over, but it was put down by overwhelming forces two days later.
Nat Turner is a historical figure extremely deserving of a big Hollywood spotlight. The problem is that Parker’s movie feels like the arthouse version of the Hollywood Martyr Blockbuster, a field popularized by director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond). This thing checks just about all the formula boxes you’d expect by showing the arc of a character called into action, forced to take a stand against an exploited people and series of injustices, and the eventual death for the cause. It’s meant to be inspirational but that sense of inspiration can be capped when you see the machinations. All storytelling at some level is about pulling the strings of an audience, but the storyteller must do their best to make this as nonobservant as possible so as not to disturb the experience. Parker doesn’t have that skill quite yet, either as a director or as a screenwriter.
His movie kept my interest but I felt oddly removed from it, unable to fully absorb the characters, which should never happen in a revolt against slavery. Case in point, we know how the movie is going to end so Parker needs to engineer something of a win for Nat, and that’s where Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley), nasty slave catcher, comes in handy as a conquerable antagonist. He ends up being the man responsible for chasing Nat’s father away, so it’s even more personal. During their final fight, Cobb implausibly wrestles atop a struggling Nat (this guy has to be at least 60 years old and it’s Haley, not Stallone). Parker even includes the knife that’s just… out… of… reach. I rolled my eyes. Parker shouldn’t have to resort to these tactics to rouse his audience, and as stated above, they’re just too nakedly transparent in their formula machinations. I wanted more suspense sequences like during the opening when Nat’s grandmother has to think on her feet to conceal contraband, smart uses of dramatic irony and ratcheting up the tension. The movie is structured too narrowly as Nat’s call to action, but Parker seems preoccupied with hitting all these other checkmarks to fully open him up as a human being.
Structurally, this movie is amiss because we don’t need 90 minutes to justify why slaves would violently revolt against their masters. The best part of Birth of a Nation is its final act when the revolts come and the slave owners get what they have coming. Some will equivocate that not all slave owners abused and terrorized their slaves to the same degree of abject cruelty, but the very nature of owning another human being is an assault on fundamental morality. 12 Years a Slave had an excellent 15-minute section where it disproved the notion of the “good slave owner” with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character. Even he too was corrupted because the institution of slavery is a corrupting agency. What that movie was able to communicate in 15 minutes is what The Birth of a Nation takes 90 minutes to do the same. The entire movie should have been the slave revolts with some choice flashbacks interspersed to give the movie even better context for the personal animosities against specific slave owners. That way we can better explore the emotional side of Nat Turner and his company without resorting to extended degradation. Parker deserves some credit for being very tasteful in his depiction of the brutality against slaves and the heavy heart of aiding and abetting an unjust system. It doesn’t whitewash, so to speak, the horror of slavery but also refrains from exploiting tragedy for easy gains. With that being said, and I may be alone in this observation, but I found it a bit peculiar that the sexual violence committed against women seems to be primarily framed as how it impacts the male characters, making them sad or angry at the mistreatment of their women. I may be over-analyzing this but it happens twice and stuck out to me. The structure of the movie does a disservice to the emotional power it demands, and Parker should have shown us the bloody campaign rather than the lead-up to the campaign.
Parker also shows some noticeable shortcomings when it comes to directing his fellow actors. His performance is a highlight and his moments where he’s trying to hold back the tide of mixed emotions working for the slave owners and using Scripture to justify the worst of the worst. This is a great showcase for Parker as an actor of suitable range. It’s not a great showcase for any other actor. The performances are a bit big when needing restraint, and a bit broad when nuance would be required. There’s no character that even comes close to the deeply wounding impressions left by the brilliant Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender from 12 Years a Slave. Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is given one note to play after the first act and that is aspiring drunk. I don’t know if there’s a scene where he isn’t accompanied by some bottle. It’s meant to communicate his increasing sense of shame he has to excuse, but it’s also a fairly facile acting crutch. The women in the film come across as angelic (there’s even a vision of an actual angel in the film) or maternally strong as steel. The lack of variance becomes frustrating, as it seems that Nat Turner is the only character, and by extension actor, allowed depth. You’ll enjoy the actors on screen but be scratching your head to recall anything memorable.
The Birth of a Nation is very purposely meant to evoke the title of the famous 1915 D.W. Griffith movie, the world’s first film blockbuster and also virulently racist to its core. It’s about the formation of the Klu Klux Klan in a Reconstruction era to save all the honorable white people from the new hordes of wanton free slaves. It’s deeply offensive though an undeniable touchstone in the history of narrative filmmaking. I was looking for some kind of larger thematic connection beyond slavery but it seems that Parker’s movie is meant to be a reclamation of the title. There’s a moment at the very end that made me think that there was another possibility (spoilers). As Nat Turner is executed, one of the last images is a close-up on the face of a young teenage slave who witnesses his death. The camera then pulls out and that boy has aged into a man and is fighting with a battalion of other black soldiers during the Civil War (the movie literally becomes Glory!). I was wondering if we were going to continue skipping forward in time, next to the Civil Rights marches, next to protests against police brutality in the modern era, so that Parker was drawing a direct line from the experiences of old and how they have shaped the America of today, the birth of our current national racial injustices. This doesn’t happen, unfortunately. The Civil War flash forward is the only jump in time.
I’ve been critiquing Nate Parker’s movie for the majority of this review and I don’t want to leave you, dear reader, with the false impression that this is a bad movie; overrated and slightly disappointing, yes, but not bad. If it didn’t sound like faint praise I would say that The Birth of a Nation is a perfectly fine movie. It held my attention though I kept thinking of other ways this movie could have improved, from a restructured plot that begins with the slave revolts, to more attention to the supporting characters, to less fidelity to the patented formula of the Great Martyr Biopic. This was a passion project for Parker and took him over six years to complete. Walking out of my theater, I simply didn’t feel like that same passion was evident on the screen.
Nate’s Grade: B-