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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)/ One Night in Miami (2020)

Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.

In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.

The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.

The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.

While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.

The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.

With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.

The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.

The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.

The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).

The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.

Nate’s Grades:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-

One Night in Miami: B+

Fences (2016)

fencesThere’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+

August: Osage County (2013)

august_osage_county_ver2This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.

Nate’s Grade: B

A Dangerous Method (2011)

At first glance, the movie seems like an odd fit for director David Cronenberg, that is until you realize that, as Freud himself might approve, the entire movie is bubbling with sexual repression and kink. The movie showcases the friendship between the two titans of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and the strange patient (Keira Knightley) who brought them together and tore them apart. This is a very intimate chamber drama, confined to lots of men in suits talking in great detail about psychology and philosophy and desire (there are three separate scenes of dream decoding and lots of letter correspondence voice over). Knightley is superb as a hysterical patient torn apart by her socially inappropriate desires. It may be a tic-heavy performance but my God can the woman act. She’s like a feral beast at points. The majority of the film follows Jung’s affair with Knightley and his friction with the single-minded Freud, who incidentally is never without a cigar clenched between his teeth. Jung wants to expand their field of study to include paranormal activities; Freud wanted to stay within the realms of science to give their movement credibility. Cronenberg’s period drama can be a bit too sedate at times given its aberrant sexuality. You don’t really empathize with either Freud or Jung, and thus the drama is a robust and intellectually stimulating exercise but only an exercise. For people who do not share an interest in psychoanalysis, they’re in for a long slog. A Dangerous Method is a rather short film, only 99 minutes, and would have benefited from being a bit more dangerous with its subdued subject matter.

Nate’s Grade: B+

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg and war seem like a dynamite combination. The popular director puts away his childish things and becomes a much more mature, thoughtful artist, with the obvious exception of 1979’s 1941. War Horse is the adaptation of a children’s book-turned-Tony-Award-winning play, where the title star was brought to life on stage via skilled puppeteers. And lo, did people weep for that puppet horse on stage, and lo will they likely weep for the flesh-and-blood version on the big screen. However, I’d hardly call this movie a mature examination on the horrors of World War I. It’s more of a touchy-feely, stodgy, vignette-heavy drama that brings out the worst in Spielberg’s sentimental side.

We’re introduced to our young horse early on, where young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) spies the colt and forms an instant bond. Albert’s father Ted (Peter Mullen) buys the horse on a whim, even though the family could really use a plow horse. Albert names the horse Joey and is determined to prove everybody wrong who doubts the both of them. Together they indeed plow that rocky field and Albert’s family keeps their farm. Then World War I breaks out across Europe and the family ends up losing the horse. Joey is confiscated by the English cavalry and goes on a fantastic journey, switching sides over the course of the war (and allegiances?). Albert enlists in the military so that he can find his long-lost horse. I guess they’ll be no “Dear John” letter when your beloved only has hooves.

War Horse is a throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood epics. It’s like John Ford took control of this movie from beyond the grave (note to self: premise for a supernatural comedy). My theater was filled to the rafters with old people. It was like the nursing home emptied out for the Greatest generation’s couples night. It’s easy to see why the movie would appeal to such an older crowd. It’s a simple story told with its emotions squarely on its sleeve like a badge of honor (mixed metaphors!). It’s so unflappably earnest and sentimental that it can occasionally fall into cornball territory. There’s the greedy landlord who wants to kick the poor family off their farm. Being a Spielberg movie, no expense is spared in milking as many emotions as possible. Spielberg demands tears and you will deliver them, or so help him. It’s all about Joey the horse prancing through people’s lives, touching hearts, bringing enemies together. The movie is primed for mass (older) audience appeal; for God’s sake there is a sassy goose that Spielberg can’t help himself but continue to include. Sassy goose equals money in the bank. This is the only movie I can imagine where plowing is treated as a point of dramatic catharsis. Suffice to say, War Horse is a stodgy war drama that won’t offend anyone with delicate sensibilities.

I wasn’t expecting War Horse to be the equine version of The Red Violin (if you unfamiliar with the masterful 1999 film The Red Violin, go see it immediately instead of watching this flick). We see the horrors of war through a series of vignettes as Joey passes from owner to owner, each befalling some unfortunate fate, though I don’t think the horse is to blame (or is he…?). The vignettes run about 15-20 minutes or so apiece and because the one constant is the horse, that means we have to feature characters talking out loud explaining everything they do and feel. The horse just kind of takes in everyone’s secrets, probably wishing these people would stop their yapping. The characters are drawn rather broad so we get the German brothers who desert their posts, a French girl wanting to learn to ride a horse, and a noble English cavalry marshal, amongst others. It’s hard to get attached to such disposable characters that fail to leave a modest dent. I thought maybe all these characters would converge in the end for an emotional climax, but then I remembered that many of them were dead, so nope. It’s a strange screenwriting shortcoming when the most engaging character for most of the movie is on four legs and never says a word.

It’s hard not to emote when Spielberg lathers on the sentimentality with aplomb. But if you took away John Williams’ earnest score, Spielberg’s sappy staging, and all those close-ups of animals, would you feel anything for this story or these characters; would you feel anything without all the reminders to feel? I doubt it. Don’t count me heartless, for I’ll have you know I bawled like a baby who just watched another baby hit with a shovel at Marley & Me, but does the life of one horse matter so much more than the millions of lives lost at war? We watch all those boys, many not old enough to be called men, run into the unforgiving gauntlet of war, but someone the life of one horse is supposed to outweigh the countless death. I understand a tight narrative focus so that large, unfathomable horrors can feel personable and better felt. Shindler’s List is that kind of movie. War Horse is not. This isn’t even Black Beauty or National Velvet. One of the English soldiers chides the sobbing Albert with a sharp quip: “It’s not a dog, boy, it’s just a horse.” I felt sad when the horse was in danger; I’m not a heartless bastard.

And oh does this horse seem to be Spielberg’s symbol of purity, mankind’s ultimate accomplishment, or, you know, something Big and Important. At one point, Joey gets tangled in a mess of barbed wire and the English and Germans all come to some sort of uneasy truce to work together to free this beautiful animal (if only more hapless horses had gotten lost in No Man’s Land maybe the war would’ve been over sooner – now I sound heartless). The horse is supposed to represent some messianic cost of war, where we destroy nature, turning majestic creatures into weapons of war, etc. I don’t really know what the message/symbolism is striving for but it’s constantly grappling, looking for a suitable sticking point. Honestly, if Joey was supposed to represent purity, goodness, nature, then that filly needed to get turned into glue by film’s end (spoiler alert). I erroneously predicted War Horse to be the “Marley & Me of war pictures.” The horse lives, rejoice America. Never mind the millions of people who died horribly. You can’t have a messianic symbol without martyrdom. If Spielberg wants to drive home the loss of innocence that many underwent thanks to the War to End All Wars (oh, if only), then the horse, a symbol of innocence and nature, needed to die at the machines of war. Otherwise the movie becomes an episodic journey of a single horse, an equine Forrest Gump. I can’t imagine that’s what Spielberg had in mind. I envisioned an M. Night Shyamalan-esque ending wherein the horse does eventually die, get turned into glue, and that glue is sued to construct a bomber plane for World War II. That plane? The Enola Gay. Cut to end credits. War Horse!

This movie has deteriorate in my mind the more I think back, picking away its cornball earnestness and stodgy sensibilities. When the horse is your greatest character then your war drama has some problems. War Horse is not a bad movie by most counts. It looks swell, the emotions are big, and hey horses are pretty aren’t they? But for any discerning moviegoer looking for a strong narrative, incisive commentary on the war, or even moderately appealing characters, well I hope you like looking at horses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Doubt (2008)

You know you’re in for some intellectual and moral ambiguity when the opening sermon covers the nature of doubt. Doubt follows a New York head nun (Meryl Streep) in 1964 that suspects one of the new parish priests (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a young male student. The acting by the four principal actors is phenomenal. This is a showcase of stellar acting. Streep is ferocious and unwavering, a one-woman wrecking ball, and yet she still manages to make an antagonistic character empathetic: she’s doing what she feels is right to protect her students. Are unethical deeds acceptable in a righteous pursuit? Does she truly believe her convictions, or is Streep striking back against an entrenched hierarchy that diminishes her value? There is a clear resentment between some of the nuns and the array of priests with all the power and all the say. Naturally, in a he-said she-said molestation case, the audience is more likely to side with the funny, caring, progressive priest than the scary nun who detests ballpoint pens and Frosty the Snowman. In the end, the accusations aren’t cleared up and the film lets the audience debate the results. Director/writer John Patrick Shanley adapts from his acclaimed stage play and does a mostly fine job bringing it alive on screen, though he has a penchant for relying on really simplistic visual metaphors. The supporting cast rises up to Streep’s level, notably Viola Davis as the mother of the boy accused of being mishandled. Note to future students of acting: study Davis’ 10 minutes of screen time to see how a truly talented thespian displays a range of conflicted emotions, none of them feeling inauthentic or cheap. Doubt isn’t just one of the best-acted films of the year but also one of the best, period, and I have little doubt to that.

Nate’s Grade: A

Frost/Nixon (2008)

The adaptation of the hit stage play, with its original leads, is an intellectually stimulating experience and a fluid adaptation from stage to screen, thanks to director Ron Howard. The acting is top-notch; Frank Langella may not readily resemble President Richard Nixon but he inhabits the man completely. In a surprising twist, Frost/Nixon is not a heavy-handed story that merely beats up on an antagonist that can no longer defend himself. Nixon’s faults are not excused but the man is presented in a deeply humanistic portrayal. This isn’t a mustache-twirling rogue but a man who came from abject poverty, who rose above his critics who dismissed his humble beginnings, and who has regret and shame for what transpired while he was in office. And he’s funny. Nixon is a funny man. Characters are not just political punching bags here. Peter Morgan’s screenplay, based upon his stage play, brings tremendous excitement to the art of debate, framing it like a boxing match. The sparring side notes present some of the more fascinating details between the series of four interviews between Nixon and British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen). But here’s the thing. Frost/Nixon is an entertaining movie but once it’s over it completely vanishes from your brain. It leaves little impact. The movie tries to make Frost’s coup a bigger deal than it was. The film is constantly trying to convince you of its importance. It’s a swell time for two hours but after that, what? Obviously the grilling of the president for getting away with crimes in office is supposed to be a statement on the outgoing President Bush, but what? Should we hope that an unassuming figure much like Frost will be able to get Bush to open up his soul? Get Regis Philbin on the phone.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Closer (2004)

A funny thing happened to me when I sat in a theater to see Closer. It was packed, surely due to the film’s heavy star power. As the film played out I began to notice that my audience was laughing consistently, at moments that weren’t necessarily meant for humor. I don’t think they were laughing at the film, instead I think it was a defense. You see, I’m sure the majority of those couples read Closer to be a much different film than it is. They saw the pretty faces of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts. They were expecting something, let’s say, lighter than the cruel savagery of Closer. When America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts compares the taste of two men’s semen, you know this isn’t any Gary Marshall movie (forgetting Exit to Eden, and please do).

Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer planning to pen a novel one of these days. He locks his eyes on Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper from the States, while walking one day. She gets hit by a car and Dan takes her to a hospital. Flash forward and Dan and Alice are dating but his eyes are already wandering. During a photography session with Anna (Julia Roberts) he kisses her but is spurned. He takes his revenge on some soul in cyberspace, pretending to be Anna and arranging a meeting. That sap turns out to be Larry (Clive Owen), and they actually do start dating. Then things get messy. Couples leave one another, get back together, swap lovers, and come crawling and begging for forgiveness or punishment. The rest of Closer is like a long game of relationship Red Rover.

Director Mike Nichols has a definite affinity for his four actors (they are the only ones in the film with speaking parts). He shoots Closer as an actor’s showcase, with constant close-ups and no handheld camerawork. He places the emphasis on his actors. The results are more familiar to Nichols’ early films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. However, Closer isn’t as insightful as it thinks it is. It presents cruel characters doing dastardly acts, but this is stuff that wouldn’t impress Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men). There is intelligence to the film?s dialogue but it’s wasted on a ramshackle story.

The acting of Closer both helps and hurts the film. It seems that the two primarily wronged characters (Larry, Alice) give the better performances.

Owen is the standout performer of the ensemble. Playing the Dan role onstage has given him an intimate feel for the story’s characters. He’s the most decent of all four until the weight of circumstances finally pushes him to the limit. He’s the character the audience sees themselves in, so it helps that Owen gives a great performance of quiet dignity and slow self-destruction. He expresses more emotional turmoil in his eyes than most actors do with their whole body. Portman is having a breakthrough year for herself. First she showed pluck and grace in Garden State, and now with Closer she has graduated to the adult table. She radiates a fragility that makes you want to hug her. Portman will probably always look like a little doll (which works for her role as a stripper).

The beauty of Roberts and Law hurts the ugliness of their characters. I make no bones about my general dislike of Roberts as an actress. Her acting in Closer is like a soft-spoken, pouty child. She jumps from man to man, looking sullen or pensive, but comes off more petulant. Law is better, but his handsome devil is not in the details. Dan is a womanizing cad but we never get any understanding for why he acts as he does. Law can be hypnotizing, but like Roberts, his pretty facade takes away from the impact of Dan’s ugly behavior.

Despite the title, you get no closer to getting to know or understand the characters. It’s really almost a stretch to call them characters because they’re more accurately different positions in an argument. The only characterization Closer has to offer is suffering and inflicting suffering. Closer really has one voice coming out of the mouths of different pretty actors.

The film has the annoying habit of skipping ahead in time and not telling the audience. We’re left to catch verbal asides that time has passed. After a while you’ll get the hang of it simply by assuming that the beginning of every new scene is the start of a new date in time. Closer is nothing but a string of uncollected scenes, usually involving people leaving a lover or starting a new fling. The actors come on, do their part, then they leave and we move on to a different scene. This is not staged as a movie.

The trouble with Closer is that it never really feels like it’s going anywhere. There’s no progression. Sure, couples swap, people get revenge, but the connection of sequences is lacking. The way it is, Closer could have gone on forever. It’s a series of scenes smashed together, not a story that rises and falls and builds to a climax.

Closer is an exploration into the darkness of human behavior starring some of the prettiest actors Hollywood can spare. The story goes nowhere, the ending doesn’t accomplish much, the characters lack convincing depth, but some of the acting is good and there is a ray of intelligence to the film. Fans of the above-the-title actors should enter Closer with caution. It’s a dark film with little to feel good about. Closer is brooding, moody, and probably the first and last time we?ll hear Julia Roberts talk about the taste of semen. Unless, of course, Gary Marshall starts pre-production on Exit to Eden 2: Rosie O’Donnell’s Bondage Boogaloo.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Haiku Tunnel (2001)

Josh Kornbluth plays Josh Kornbluth, super temp in the world of office politics and incompetent corporate superiors. He’s a working man’s hero (well, a secretary’s hero) as a round ball of puffy passive-aggressive professionalism. When asked to go permanent for a tax attorney (“We’ll even cover your… psychotherapy”) is when Josh’s world begins to enter into comedic haywire. He’s more adept at creatively finding ways around work then at actually accomplishing it. Kornbluth is a terrific comedic and a truly memorable figure. He co-wrote and co-directed the film with his brother from their stage play. Haiku Tunnel often channels the spirit of the wicked satire Office Space (a film that only gets funnier every time I watch it), but has enough of a feel all its own to be distinguishable. The film has some great lines and some imaginative characters to boot. Haiku Tunnel is witty and often times hilarious, not to mention dead-on with its precision like satiric strikes. Kornbluth is a definite entertainment find and Haiku Tunnel is a gem of a film worth looking for.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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