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If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)

Barry Jenkins’ follow-up from his Oscar-winning masterpiece Moonlight is an affecting adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel exploring a larger picture of the African-American experience through the life of one family under pressure. It’s a beautifully tender movie that aches with human feeling, tragic and joyous. We follow a young couple where Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant and Alonzo “Fonny” (Stephen James) is in jail for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins jumps around in time, providing mirrored juxtapositions that enliven the emotional outpouring of the scenes on screen, adding a sense of dread at the hardships we know await and a extra compassion for the good times while they last. Regina King is so outstanding as Tish’s mother, who goes out of her way to gather evidence to free Alonzo, that I wished she had more to do than her handful of big Oscar moments. There’s a racist cop that comes into the picture and is easily sidelined again. Many moments follow this lyrical, free-floating structure, zipping from one memory to another, which nicely presents a fuller picture with less. However, it also makes the film feel like it doesn’t fully come together by its very end and whether all of the assorted moments and insights are as helpful. It presents a case study of criminal justice reform and reminder that this family is only but one example. The intimate cinematography is gorgeous and the use of color is spellbinding. The music by Nicholas Britell is also highly involving without being overbearing. If Beale Street Could Talk might not have the awe-inspiring power and artistry of Moonlight, but it’s a moving, compassionate, and beautiful movie that confirms Jenkins as one of the greats.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Human Centipede 3 (2015)

MV5BMzU1OTUyNjE1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjc4NjI1NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. The movie is trying so hard to be shocking and irreverent that you can see all the pained efforts. It’s tedious and boring. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”

Nate’s Grade: F

Lockout (2012)

Rather derivative and not very clever, the sci-fi prison break movie Lockout is surprisingly enjoyable, in a brain-dead sort of way, mostly thanks to a few lean suspense sequences and the deadpan glory of star, Guy Pearce. The man plays a reluctant hero sent to a space prison to rescue the president’s daughter (Maggie Grace) hiding amidst the dangerous inmates. It’s like every action, sci-fi cliché rolled into one, and yet the movie is consistently entertaining. Pearce carries the same deadpan gumption throughout; it doesn’t matter what’s happening, it will not faze him and he has a quip for everything. When the first daughter asks him if her dad had any words to pass along, he quips, “Yeah, you’re adopted.” The roguish charm of Pearce keeps the movie grounded even when it goes a little nutty with conspiracies, obstacles, and a mad rush of a climax. The movie is set only 40 years or so in the future, and as such it feels too weirdly futuristic for the minimal time jump. Would we really have an orbiting space prison and put prisoners in hyper sleep? Anyway, the movie is a lot more fun and tolerable than I would have expected, and Columbus, Ohio’s own Grace (Taken) actually gives the most mature performance of her still young career, for what that’s worth. It’s not great, but thanks to Pearce, it’s pretty passable entertainment, especially for generous genre fans.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Stoic (2009)

Until recently, it would have been unthinkable to associate Uwe Boll with the idea of social activist. This is the same man who has caused people so much pain and with his movies, ranging from bad to ridiculously bad to “You cannot unsee what you have seen” bad. The German director who has caused so many film and video game fans suffering seemed an unlikely candidate to seriously explore the suffering of others. And yet Boll’s heart grew three sizes and he directed a slate of movies with a social conscience. His movie about the genocide in Darfur is still circling around, awaiting a release date, but let me stop to remind you that Uwe Freaking Boll directed a movie about a topical humanitarian crisis. This is akin to… Eli Roth directing an Edith Wharton adaptation (“From the director of Cabin Fever comes … Ethan Frome!”). It just doesn’t seem like an organic pairing. Boll is used to blood and boobs (both of the mammary kind and of the idiot variety), not social relevancy. You don’t expect an exploitation filmmaker to shine a light on exploitation. While we await his Darfur movie, in the meantime is Stoic, a quick and cheap movie about three prison inmates (Edward Furlong, Sam Levinson, Steffen Mennekes) brutalizing their cellmate, Mitch (Shaun Sipos) when a bet goes wrong. It’s based on a true story from a German juvenile detention center, or so we’re told.

So what kind of movie is Stoic, actually? Well, for starters it’s an uncomfortable one. The movie aims to show the capability of human cruelty and how easy it is to become compliant within a group, to go along with the flow despite some murky moral hazards. The three cellmates end up kick starting a cycle of violence, each trying to top the last so as not to appear weak or to damage ego. Can this cycle of cruelty be stopped? The dehumanization leads to some rather brutal and disgusting acts of violence and degradation including forcing Mitch to eat his own vomit, dumping urine on the guy’s face, raping him, and sodomizing him with a broom handle (“Just curiosity, I guess,” explains one of his attackers). Despite all this, there are actual moments of restraint on Boll’s part, particularly during the rape sequence. The audio drops out, the edits become jump cuts stuttering ahead through time, and I thought perhaps Boll was maturing. Needless to say this thought was torpedoed a tad when Boll later showcased the inmates rubbing the bloody broom handle over Mitch’s unconscious mouth. Stoic is essentially a torture movie; it’s 80 minutes of literal torture with some extra psychological justification tagged along for safe measure.

Where Stoic comes into issue is whether or not it possesses any merits to justify watching 80-some minutes or torture. The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological insights or rich characters. Watching people become increasingly hurtful is not the same as exploring the habits that make such escalating acts of barbarity occur. Boll and the actors pound us with the message that we’re in prison and prison has its own operating system and everybody jockeys for position; Peter (Levinson) repeatedly tells us that he feels sorry but felt he had to participate or else they’d turn on him. It’s all about having somebody weaker to take the fall. I’ll give Boll credit that the amplification of events seems plausible given the circumstances, to the point that the three guys have come to the conclusion that there will be serious consequences for their actions unless they convince Mitch to go along with a fake suicide. The movie maintains believability even as things get more and more out of hand, which is commendable. But what isn’t commendable is that there seems little reason for Stoic to exist. Narratively the movie is simple: three guys pick on another guy. The characters are all slight variations of one another based upon the level to process guilt and deception. During the interviews, we’re given fleeting glimpses at denial and coping mechanisms, mainly lying (“I would’ve remembered something like that.”) to self-rationalization (“I kept saying to myself, ‘As long as it’s not me.’”). There aren’t many insights to be gleaned from the brief interviews, which serve as commentary.

Boll decided to make Stoic his Mike Leigh film, meaning that he had the basic outline of a story and told his actors to run with it while he filmed them. There was no script and all the dialogue was completely improvised. This does allow Stoic to maintain a naturalistic feel, however, it also means that the actors are beholden to tough guy clichés. The dialogue, particularly during the interrogation scenes, keeps falling back to a “you don’t know what’s it’s like, man!” mantra. Here are some examples of bland dialogue that the actors came up with:

“What choice did I have?”

“You’re either with them or against them.”

“What don’t you understand? If I didn’t seem like I was apart of it, they’d kill me.”

“I had no choice. They forced me.”

“I want to lie because I don’t want to be that person.”

“I felt like there was no way out.”

And because you knew it had to happen:

“I’m just as bad as the two of them because I didn’t do anything to stop it.”

You’ll note that most of these dialogue examples belong to the Peter, the chattiest and most remorseful interviewee. Improvisation has its virtues but it can also lead to actors falling back on stuff they’ve seen in countless other genre examples, which means that the banal, cliché dialogue all gets stirred together one more time.

In defense of Stoic, it may prove to be Boll’s finest directorial effort yet. The handheld camera, sharp edits, and close angles copy the Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93) style of visuals, and yet the docu-drama copy works. The visual aesthetic improves the quality of the film and allows Boll many opportunities for interesting compositions and smart stylistic decisions with the economical space of the set. The interviews are shot as one static camera shot to contrast with the shaky, reactionary movement from within the cell. It may not be an original style, but then again Boll seems to adopt (some might say rip-off) a new style with every film. For Stoic, Boll’s direction makes you feel in the middle of these awful incidents, and the pain feels even more real.

But is there any reason to really watch Stoic? The acting is mostly good, and maybe fans of Edward Furlong would like to see what he’s been up to since 1998’s Pecker and American History X. Perhaps the declaration of “Boll’s best directorial effort” will appeal to maybe six or seven curious, and questionably masochistic, film fans. Due to Boll’s German background, I can’t help but wonder if his country’s history influenced him to try a narrative experiment hat explores how easy it is to go along with something awful, how difficult it is to make a moral stand against the grain, and how easily circumstances can find momentum and get out of control. I wonder if Stoic is Boll’s personal act of penance, of trying to understand a nation’s actions (and inaction) and working through a lingering shroud of shame. Then again, I may be reading way more into this movie than was ever intended. It could have just been a lark for a quick buck/deutschmark. Stoic is a mildly interesting little filmic experiment from Boll. Due to its narrative simplicity and limited characterization, it can’t offer much more than another voyeuristic slideshow of human degradation.

Nate’s Grade: C

A Prophet (2009)

France’s entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is like a much more realistic version of HBO’s soapy prison drama, Oz, for better and worse. We follow a young prisoner who gets caught up in the power dynamics of the many warring factions within the pokey. This is a dense, slow-burning drama that hooks you early but then seems to stall. Early on, our lead character is given an ultimatum by a Corsican boss: murder an informant held in the jail or die himself. It’s a turbulent moral struggle with definite intrigue as he considers his dwindling options of escape and practices a routine to slit a man’s throat to save his own. After that A Prophet introduces a stream of characters inside and out of prison and it gets more complicated. The film values realism but it means that the characters aren’t as colorful, and therefore memorable or interesting, as they would be in similar crime capers. It makes it hard to remember who is who and why exactly they’re important. The story follows the steady ascent of our lead from nascent to criminal boss but it all plays out as a series of small power plays with little grand gestures. This is not Scarface at all. There’s little action, scant suspense, but mostly the movie deals with the minutia of climbing the criminal underworld. It’s like the filmmakers want to impress you with the homework they did in sociology. A bland lead and an overabundance of procedural details blunts the film’s entertainment quality. I appreciate gritty realism but after a while I’d sacrifice some of that realism for some more engaging characters.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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