The Little Things wants to be Seven but it’s not even half of Seven (three-point-five?). It’s a meandering movie that doesn’t quite commit to being a prestige character study or a grisly, pulpy serial killer thriller, and so it operates in a middle-ground that achieves little more than prolonged boredom. It’s far too long, far too slow, and with not nearly enough excitement or intrigue or depth.
In 1990, Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) is a LASD deputy and living out his final days on the force in the relative anonymity of the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles. He used to be a big time L.A. cop but got far too involved in series of murders, and his obsession lead him to a heart attack, a divorce, and being removed from his office. Deacon delivers evidence to Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the new chief detective on a series of murders that may be a continuation from Deacon’s days. The two men work together to untangle the details and target their primary suspect, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), a bow-legged, greasy-haired creep who maybe confessed eight years ago.
The Little Things was originally written in the 90s by writer/director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) and it’s easy to see why. The 1990s was a heyday of serial killer thrillers; it felt like any studio would greenlight a project as long as the crazed killer had a gimmick to their murders (”This guy only kills people on Friday… because you can’t eat meat on Friday?”). While the preponderance of these kinds of movies has shifted to the ever-flowing world of direct-to-video (look for The Hangman, where Al Pacino chases a killer literally playing the game hangman with victims), there is still a perverse fascination with true crime culture and serial killers to be exploited by a canny writer. We still love these kinds of stories when done well. HBO’s True Detective has also taken the serial killer formula and transformed it into a contemplative, long-form character study that looks just as much at the flawed detectives as it does the killers. Over the course of eight elegiac episodes, True Detective can take the time to immerse you in the sordid and portentous details of these people, their cases, the lingering questions, and their demons and doubts made flesh. The depth of the tortured, flawed characters and the complexities of the cases are what sustain the multiple-episode investment (exception: season two). With a movie, you must be more judicious with your precious two hours of time for storytelling. This preamble was a long way of saying The Little Things doesn’t fit as either. Its cases and characters lack the depth to justify the time dwelt, and the thrills are decidedly dimmer, denying a serial killer audience a compelling case, compelling characters, and a unique killer.
I’m going to summarize the two-hour-plus plot for you now: two cops investigate a series of serial murders. They think they have a culprit. They tail the suspect. A slightly surprising ending that lacks the shock and contemplation I think Hancock is looking for. The end. I’ll keep it vaguer to preserve spoilers but suffice to say that is not enough plot for an investigation. I recently re-watched Seven, one of my favorite films of all time and a masterpiece in its genre, and it has a natural propulsion to it where each clue leads to the next by design from its grandly clever psychopath. You know there are seven deadly sins and each new victim is another step closer to achieving that mad goal. The story engine keeps the plot driving forward. With The Little Things, there are some bodies and a whole lot of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Paired with the placid pacing, it sure makes The Little Things feel like it’s missing a big picture.
There are also some moments that ripped me out of the movie, mostly involving a disconnect between what is intended on the page and what is delivered on the screen. We’re told that these characters are so obsessed, yet they don’t come across that way. Sure, they follow Sparma because he’s so obviously a guilty-looking suspect, but we don’t witness the lengths they’ll go and the people they’ll push away in order to close their case. In the end, Hancock approaches this territory, but it feels like a stab at subversion and relevance the rest of the movie has been missing. It feels like Hancock had two hours of one kind of thriller and then in the final five minutes said, “Eh, who cares?” This climax also involves a professional detective making so many bad decisions about his own personal safety that I felt my eyes rolling out of my head. It’s like Hancock is using the character’s dumb choices to declare how obsessed he is with finding the truth, and yet we didn’t witness this obsession earlier when he was making good decisions. Baxter is supposed to be a family man and a religious man, yet Malek is playing him so devoid of emotion and the script doesn’t present anything meaningful for his domestic life, that he feels more like a robot with a flimsy back-story provided as a default setting. Then there’s Deacon’s monologuing to the corpses of the dead women. He also sees ghosts of the victims. If the movie was presenting this as a sign of his tortured psyche, it should have gone all-in. Have him converse with them all the time, have them reappear and whisper in his ear, have the new crime scenes trigger the appearances of victims from the old crime scenes, take this unique angle and take ownership of it, really separate from the glut of other serial killer thrillers. Alas, it’s just an awkward personality motif that occurs from time to time to provoke an eyebrow raise.
All three central actors have won Oscars for their acting, and while nobody is outright bad, they all seem to be delivering wrongly attuned performances. Washington (Fences) dials down that natural charisma to go full quiet intensity, and there are few actors who can be as intimidating with looks and hushed words as this man. Except he’s supposed to be haunted and the wear and tear of the man’s past lacks weight because of the performance choice. The pain and struggle seem to be suffocated in that steady steely Washington glower. Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) is too detached to convincingly play his young family man coming unglued thanks to the case. He’s playing the role like he’s secretly going to revealed as the real killer in a hasty last-second twist. Leto (Blade Runner 2049) is inherently drawn to off-putting oddballs and his appearance halfway through provides a necessary jolt for the movie. The problem is that he’s so creepy, he’s so weird, he’s so desirous of attention, that it makes the character overwhelmingly obvious. He’s not interesting so much as he’s just a neon sign flashing “Guilty,” and there are only two ways to go with this, neither exactly fulfilling given what has preceded. The best scene in the whole dirge of a movie, by far, is the interrogation with all three actors feeding off one another.
The Little Things feels like a dated copy of 1990s serial killer thrillers without anything new to offer besides the star wattage of its cast. It’s even set in the 90s for no real reason than to deny its characters access to cell phones and the Internet. The look of the movie is awash in the cool, moody style of David Fincher’s signature look, like Hancock and his technical artists were reviewing Seven and Zodiac and aiming for a fawning homage to a modern master of crime cinema. I would advise people to just watch Seven again, or even any of the many junky serial killer thrillers from the 1990s (Copycat, anyone?). The Little Things just isn’t that interesting. The main characters are threadbare, the women are either colleagues, wives, or corpses, the plot meanders for far too long, the pacing is turgid, and it lacks memorable set pieces and reveals that linger. It needed to be better, or worse, but instead it’s just imitation David Fincher visual wallpaper.
Nate’s Grade: C
Here’s the revelation of the new year: I didn’t hate Dolittle. In fact, I kind of admire it and mostly enjoyed it. Given the advertising, bad buzz, and mountain of critical pans, I was expecting very little from this movie, so perhaps it chiefly benefited from dramatically lowered expectations, but I feel comfortable going on the record in the Dolittle fan club. Robert Downey Jr. stars as the magical vet and adventurer who can speak with animals, and for the first 15 minutes or so, I was laughing at this movie and shaking my head. There’s a moment where Dolittle, a gorilla that just showed its backside while playing chess, and a duck are laughing uproariously in their own languages, and the moment holds awkwardly and it was so weird. After 15 minutes, I began to adjust to the movie’s wavelength and I began to appreciate how committed to being weird the movie was. This is not exactly a movie that aims for a safe broad mass appeal, even though it has familiar messages of family, acceptance of loss, and confronting personal fears. It takes chances on alienating humor. You could take any incident from this movie, including its finale that literally involves disimpacting a dragon’s clogged bowels, and on paper, without context, it would be the dumbest thing you could imagine. However, when thrown into a movie that never takes itself seriously, that is actively, almost defiantly being weird (a joke about a whale flipping off humans with its fin made me cackle), the things you might mock take on a new charm. Director/co-writer Stephen Gaghan has worked in Hollywood for years and given the world Traffic and Syriana, so he knows his way around working within a studio system. Dolittle at times feels like a live-action Aardman movie with its anarchic spirit. Downey Jr. (Avengers: Endgame) bumbles and mumbles in a thick Welsh accent that he may regret but he’s fully committed. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) is a delight as a seafaring antagonist, and he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s part of. The animal CGI can be a little dodgy at times for a movie this expensive and not every jokey aside works but enough of them did to win me over. I’m under no illusions that a majority of people will just scoff at Dolittle and never give it a chance, and I thought I was ready to join their ranks, but then a funny thing happened when I sat down to watch the movie and accepted it on its own silly terms. I had fun, and I know there will be others that do as well. It may be a disaster to many but to me it’s a beautiful mess.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Biopics are trickier than they appear because how best can you distill the essence, and significance, of a person into two hours? We’ve edged away from the standard cradle-to-grave biopics more in favor of stories that hinge on monumental moments in a person’s life, meant to encapsulate their life both in micro and macro. Bohemian Rhapsody favors the former approach, which causes the movie to feel like it’s rushing through the cornerstones of Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life. Even at over two hours, the movie feels like it has little time for things, often jumping into polished, well-edited montages of time progression. The creative birth of many of the band’s hits are treated as absurdly easy formations, going from a clap of hands and stomp of feet to “We Will Rock you,” or a bass line to “Another One Bites the Dust.” It’s like the movie is checking boxes for a biopic with an anxious eye toward the clock. Mercury’s homosexuality (he comes out as bisexual to his long-time girlfriend who corrects him and calls him gay) is given its due, not having been underplayed in an effort to court a more mainstream audience. Mercury’s sense of sexuality, and the struggle of his own acceptance, is essential to getting to know this flamboyant front man. Except several of these scenes feel mishandled, which is odd considering director Bryan Singer (X-Men) has often found parallels in big studio films for the gay experience. The movie seems to say if his band mates had only accepted him more then maybe he wouldn’t have fallen into promiscuity by a bad influence and thus contracted HIV. There are also some pat answers as well like a disapproving father. However, the faults of Bohemian Rhapsody are compensated by its virtues, none more so than the electric performance by Rami Malek (TV’s Mr. Robot) as Mercury. The actor struts and preens with infectious charisma, and a mouth full of Mercury’s oversized choppers, and he miraculously captures the powerful stage magic of his character. The concluding 1985 Live Aid performance is astounding to witness and a reflection of just how essential and virtuosic Mercury and company were as live performers. It’s a sustained set of several hits and the movie just sings to a close on the highest of high notes. Bohemian Rhapsody is carried by the music and performance of Mercury the character and Malek the actor. It will make you want to rock out to Queen on the car ride home.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Short Term 12 follows the inhabitants of a small foster care center in Middle America. Many of the kids have been taken from their biological parents because of abuse, neglect, imprisonment, or death. Many have never known a stable home life. And many will age out of the system at 18 and be trusted to make something on the outside by their lonesome. Grace (Brie Larson) is the lead counselor for the center. She’s dating a co-worker, Mason (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) and pregnant, unsure of where to go from here. As the center prepares for Marcus’ (Keith Stanfield) age-out departure, they welcome Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) to their abode. Jayden’s well-connected father is getting his life in order for full custody, but it also becomes clear that her home life is a danger to her well-being. Grace fights to get Jayden to open up, then she fights to keep her safe, all the while forcing Grace to deal with her own long hidden pain.
It’s so easy to get engaged in this movie. The very setting calls for plenty of drama and pain to be explored, and it will be, but that doesn’t mean that the film goes overboard with histrionics. The characters are written with such naturalistic ease, allowing an audience to understand them without judgment. These people, be they the foster kids or the counselors, feel refreshingly, exceedingly, magnificently like flesh-and-blood people. The characters feel lived in, their struggles feel real, and their responses are sincere. The foster care system in this country is grueling. A counselor needs a big heart, thick skin, and an immeasurable supply of patience. There are a lot of abused kids in the system, just hoping to find an adult who wishes to love them, to nurture them, to care. The kids don’t want pity; they are perturbed when they’re referred to as “underprivileged youth.” What they really want is respect and sincerity. Highly charged emotions are a given considering the circumstances of the characters, but what makes Short Term 12 exceptional is that they are fully earned. We don’t just feel for these kids because they’ve suffered, we feel for them because they are presented as characters instead of martyrs. I was emotionally moved throughout, tearing up several times, feeling heartbroken at turns and then brimming with buoyant hope at others. It’s a balancing act the movie masters.
Writer/director Destin Cretin (actually remaking his 2008 short film of the same name) explores these characters in gentle waves, allowing the characters to open up in ways that don’t feel forced. You learn about these characters and their history bit by bit, sometimes through creative expression where one must read between the lines. Marcus might seem to be one character, then his rap song he writes reveals an aching degree of personal pain, and then the revelation for why he wants to shave his head, which at first just seems like an average teenage compulsion, will break your heart all over again. You yearn for these kids beyond measure, wanting them to taste delayed happiness in this world, but you also understand why they’re so guarded, why the system grinds together as it does. This is no polemic overburdened with speechifying and soapboxes. It doesn’t really make any larger points about foster reform or the people who run the system. Instead Cretin gives every participant in the film complexity, empathy, and humanity. Even Grace’s supervisor, easily set up for quick blame about decision-making, is allowed empathy. You feel the man’s plight as he tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is exactly what the counselors are trying to do themselves with their charges. Cretin’s emphasis is on his characters and not necessarily on making overt political attacks. I knew within minutes that I was in for something special. You can feel it with the dialogue, how easily Cretin is shaping character without splurging on exposition. These people come alive under Cretin’s watch, and you’ll be pulled in within mere moments.
This is also fundamentally a star-making performance for Larson. The young actress has had visible roles in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and TV’s The United States of Tara, but nothing prepared me for the power of her performance. Larson’s character has plenty of personal pain and secrets and a gnawing sense of futility, but she pushes forward, trying to make a difference somehow in this world. You feel her intensity and determination but you also feel her setbacks and uncertainty. Larson never strays outside the emotional bounds of her character, staying true to her aims. Grace is no saintly and selfless figure. She’s paying a real price keeping her own pain bottled up, focusing completely on others so that she doesn’t have to assess her own damage, but Jayden forces her to examine her own history. Larson serves as the dependable emotional anchor of some very choppy waters. In a just world, Larson’s name would be bandied about come awards season, but the overall small, understated nature of Short Term 12 and its limited release leaves me in doubt. However, there is no doubt that Larson gives a deeply humane, gripping, heartfelt and marvelous performance.
The character relationships are just as compelling and provide a rich texture to this world. The dynamics within the foster center are interesting, nothing as simplistic as slotting kids into staid high school types. There are divisions within the home, chiefly between Marcus and an antagonistic Luis, but it’s also invigorating when you witness the various kids come together in solidarity and community, when they look out for one another. Jayden is surly at first but won’t let on how truly hurt she is that her father missed her birthday. Marcus leads the other kids and they all make a slew of birthday cards to cheer her up, make her feel that someone out there cares. It’s a small gesture, and yet when it plays out it hits with a wallop. The relationship between Grace and Mason is sweet and frustrating, representing a romantic coupling of two people with an obvious connection but also enough baggage to derail potential long-term success. Gallagher Jr. is a nice fit for the part. I really enjoyed how Mason is developed as the film progresses. Initially he seems like a pseudo-cool authority figure, then a scruffy screw-up, then a sincere and grateful individual worried about Grace and aggravated by his inability to help her.
There are movies that feel true in a broad sense but clumsy with the fine details, and vice versa, but Short Term 12 is that rare movie that feels so authentic that it could have been a documentary. Sure there is convenient plot developments and a tidiness that life just doesn’t want to provide, but the overall impression is remarkably genuine. The characters feel like actual people, their world feels recognizable, and their struggles feel familiar and relatable and raw. Short Term 12 doesn’t glorify the counselors, nor does it demonize or sanctify the kids under their care. Here is an unblinking look at the sheer weight of the work of trying to provide for those in need. The movie is a potent drama with several heartbreaking incidents, but I don’t want to scare people off with the impression that Short Term 12 is all artsy doom and gloom. On the contrary, the film is resolutely hopeful in the face of such dire adversity. The perseverance of the counselors, as well as the kids striving for independent lives, is what I walk away with. Not the abuse, not the systematic neglect, but the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit to transcend damage and to succeed anew. This is the long-lasting impact of this superb movie. It’s not about the pain inflicted, rather the human connections forged and the optimism of recovery. Not everything will get its happy ending, but it is inspiring to watch people put it all on the line, thanklessly. Short Term 12 is the kind of movie you bug your friends until they finally watch it. Ladies and gents, commence bugging.
Nate’s Grade: A
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.
Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.
I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.
It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.
When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.
The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.
The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?
Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.
Nate’s Grade: C