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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Gone Girl (2014)

121808_galRest easy fans of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, because Gone Girl the movie is pretty much exactly Gone Girl the novel. There were rumors that Flynn and director David Fincher had drastically retooled the controversial ending, but this was only premature speculation. Fun fact: it’s easy to tell the people who didn’t read the book in your audience because they will more than likely be the ones who groan once the end credits kick in. The fealty to the book is a relief because, as we book readers know from those late nights compulsively turning Flynn’s pages, the real star of the movie is the story, which was ready-made for a grand, pulpy thriller, and that is Gone Girl the movie. Whether it’s anything more than an exceptionally well made thriller is up for debate

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her supposedly perfect life. Her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), starts off as the tortured, grieving husband. He comes home one day to find his home wrecked and his wife missing. The police (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) are worrisome about Nick’s abnormal reaction to his wife’s disappearance. He doesn’t seem to know much about his wife. He seems like he’s hiding something. Even Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) has her doubts that Nick is telling the full truth. Amy’s diary paints a different portrait of her husband, a man prone to increasing anger, mostly stemming from the loss of his job and a relocation from New York City to Missouri. Most of Nick’s anger is focused squarely on Amy, enough that she fears for her life. As various clues keep piling up and Nick’s public behavior appears suspicious, the media spotlight transforms him from victim to prime suspect.

c097ea2f2748e58d9724a50331c5aa24971c6506c673cd3195a8f5f62353b5ff_large-590x360No question having an artist of Fincher’s caliber raises the quality level to its highest degree, but it’s the perfect marriage of filmmaker and material that allows this movie to soar. Both Fincher and Flynn have a cold manipulative streak that twists an audience into knots. It’s a terrific whodunit with several booby-trapped surprises that only make you dig in more. It seems like every few minutes we’re learning more about Nick and what he’s been hiding from others. Flynn, who also adapted the screenplay, does a terrific job of playing with our loyalties, getting us to doubt what we see and who these people really are, and she does this even to the final minute, leaving us with no clear-cut answers to wash away our reservations. Flynn’s strengths as a writer are how she reveals her tale over time, how she makes us rethink the past and the characters and their sincerity. It’s a patient film, and just under two and a half hours perhaps too patient, but it’s not the least bit lackadaisical. Flynn’s story is wrapping a web around Nick and watching him get caught, and every perfectly timed reveal only widens that web. Gone Girl is a film bursting with intrigue. It snares you and then fiendishly plays with your expectations.

Affleck (Argo) was an obvious choice for the role of Nick Dunne, the charming man whose self-effacing smile rubs people the wrong way. He’s rarely been better onscreen, giving strong life to all the conflicting parts of Nick, from his calm aloofness at his wife’s disappearance to his cunning way with his own truths. He gets way in over his head, and watching Affleck navigate the tenuous situation is one of the film’s many twisted pleasures. Pike (The World’s End, Pride and Prejudice) is going to be an unfamiliar face to most American audiences but not for much longer. This is the biggest role of Pike’s career and much like Fincher’s other “find” Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo, she knocks it out of the park. In just a look she conveys Amy’s upper-class upbringing, her icy demeanor being interpreted as disdain. Through Amy’s journals, the character opens up to us, becoming better defined, making us fear for her, and Pike sells it. Hers is a performance of layers; it’s like she gets to play several Amy’s in this movie. Her demeanor is always so composed, so modulated and controlled, so the big moments that draw out her anger and horror register even more. It’s too early to determine what kind of awards buzz Gone Girl will have through the season, but if anyone has a chance, it’s her.

From top to bottom, the supporting cast adds great value to the film. Most surprising is Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) as Nick’s high profile, slick, morally flexible defense attorney. It is no stretch to say this is Perry’s finest acting ever put to film, in or outside a dress. I wanted more of him, and that’s not something I’ve ever said before. Dickens (TV’s Treme, Footloose) would ordinarily be the best performance in most movies; smart, empathetic but no-nonsense, and wryly funny. In an ordinary crime thriller, she’d be our lead character. Coon (the breakout actress from HBO’s The Leftovers) is the audience’s voice of sanity, providing necessary gallows humor to punctuate all the discomforting dread. Casey Wilson (TV’s Marry Me) is a suburban housewife send-up and provides some laughs too. Even Emily Ratajkowski, otherwise known as one of the topless models in the “Blurred Lines” video, is pretty good as a naive coed. Thus is the power Fincher wields as a director of actors, a quality often overlooked by his technical prowess. The one casting question is Neill Patrick Harris (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) as Desi, Amy’s creepy ex-boyfriend who still very much clings to the notion they should be together. Harris tries too hard to be creepy, concentrating too much that his style becomes mannered and halting.

o-GONE-GIRL-TRAILER-facebookWith Fincher’s name attached it’s almost redundant to talk about the technical superlatives of the movie; it goes without saying. One of the finest visual stylists of his generation, Fincher impeccably composes his shots. The man finds a kindred spirit with Amy and her color-coded meticulous organization. The cinematography is crisp and suitably eerie and dreamlike (or nightmarish), the mood always pulsating with a beautiful dread to tap into the unsettling unease of Nick’s dire situation. The editing is rock-solid, keeping the audience guessing with the balance of Amy and Nick perspectives. There is a chilling sequence late that involves a mass amount of blood, but it’s made even more unnerving thanks to the judicious edits and fade outs, heightening the horror. The only technical aspect I found wanting is the same with Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, namely the score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Twice now I’ve labored through musical scores of theirs that could best be described as ominous ambient noise. You keep expecting it to build but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the change of material, as it’s also been two films in a row based upon dark and grisly crime paperbacks, but consider me disappointed yet again. There’s nothing memorable here and that’s a shame considering how buoyant their Oscar-winning score was for the still amazing Social Network.

But even with that Fincher polish and the sinister snap of Flynn’s plot, I can’t say that Gone Girl the movie rises to the level of its lofty ambitions. Much like Dragon Tattoo, this is a skillfully made crime thriller, but is it anything beyond that description? That’s not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with being a skillfully made thriller; Fincher’s Seven is one of my favorite films of all time, and yet despite its end-of-times philosophy about the dark hearts of man, it’s really nothing more than a exceptionally made thriller, and that’s fine because that movie is near perfect. With Gone Girl, the stabs at deeper analysis and social commentary feel just out of grasp. The tabloid news fixation, a landscape littered with missing wives and presumably guilty husbands, is ripe for satire, but it feels always on the peripheral, like Fincher is checking in to take the temperature and then going back to the muck. There’s much more that could have been done, but that’s fine. The larger missed commentary is with marital relationships. This is not, as some critics have labeled, a How We Live Now kind of film, a jarring wake-up call that human beings more or less suck. Nick and Amy are far from being relatable analogues for the masses, and that’s fine. They are allowed to just be interesting characters, which they are, rather than stand-ins for searing social commentary. The fact that five years into their marriage they’re both still strangers says something about them, but does it say something novel about marriage itself or human relationships in the twenty-first century? The idea of people wearing false masks isn’t exactly new. The average couple is not probably going to go to bed thinking, “Who is the real person I’m with?” The average couple is just going to go along for the ride and think, “Wow, these are some messed up characters.”

gone-girlAnd now some spoilers as I delve into Gone Girl’s ending, so if you choose to remain clean please skip to the next paragraph. The ending is unsettling and disappointing for people because the only person who gets what she wants is our main antagonist, Amy. The final shot, a replay of the opening image but with clarifying context, is her triumph, staring coldly, head atop her husband, as if she were a cat purring. She has won. And this ending pisses people off. For my money, this is the absolute perfect ending for a story about toxic relationships and a morass of a marriage. Nick is rescued by Amy’s reappearance, engineered through some canny media manipulation by Nick, but now he’s stuck, and stuck with his lovely psychopathic wife. The police know she’s guilty but won’t proceed further thanks to looking inept on a national stage. Nick can’t leave because then his child will be raised by Amy, twisting him or her into mommy’s little psychopath. The only way he saves that child is by staying, by sacrificing his own freedom, to become prisoner to his wife, to play the part she has wanted him to play, and he does it. He is condemned. I find that to be poetic and darkly satisfying, and it’s very true tonally for this sort of sordid tale, but I understand why people hate it. I just think a happy ending or one where the villain is vanquished would feel trite.

Gone Girl is a toxic relationship movie, an involving and pulpy suspense thriller, a rewarding character study that plumbs some pretty dark depths, and most of all a sickly entertaining movie with excellent craftsmanship. It is everything fans of the novel could have hoped for with Fincher attached. As our tormented husband and wife, Affleck and Pike deliver career-best and career-making, in her case, performances. The ending will divide audiences sharply just as it did readers but I consider it the correct denouement. The movie doesn’t provide much in the way of stinging, applicable social commentary or media satire that hasn’t already been covered by the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But does it have to be anything more than a terrific thriller? An exceptional thriller can be entertainment enough, and Gone Girl is definitely that.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Non-Stop (2014)

non-stop-posterKnow that I love contained thrillers, and I love suspense stories where we think alongside the characters step for step, and know that I love Liam Neeson in his career’s second life as our buttkicker in chief, and it looks like Non-Stop was the kind of film made exactly for me and my ilk. And until the final twenty minutes or so, Non-Stop kept me in the throes of entertainment.

Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an Air Marshal still getting over a lingering personal tragedy. On a flight from New York to London, he receives a text message on his secure Blackberry. Someone onboard is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million dollars is deposited into an offshore account. When the bodies start piling up, Bill must find the killer but first he has to discover whom we can trust onboard.

Nobody is going to mistake this as a groundbreaking movie of any sort, but it sets about a very specific mission and executes it with vigor. You would be surprised all the different ways the film is able to squeeze out suspense in the meager confines of one airplane cabin. Just when you think you got the film figured out, it throws another twist and complicates matters in a way that is nicely escalating. I loved the fact that the killer essentially uses Bill to commit the first murder. It’s in self-defense, yes, but it also directly ties to his actions, which leaves an air of uncertainty attached to Bill. He now has to keep his own deadly actions a secret, lest he lose more trust with the airplane crew he so desperately needs to assist him. As the passengers start to become suspicious and unruly, it’s a rather plausible scenario that Bill will be subdued and arrested, if not worse. It finds ways to make the outlandish conceivably plausible, at least during the confines of the movie theater before you pick apart the plot holes.

NON-STOP1-master675And let’s talk about that for just a moment. I’ve said before that plot holes only really matter when you’re not enjoying the movie, because then they consume your attention rather than the story and the whole thing falls apart. As long as I’m satisfied, I can excuse the stuff that doesn’t make sense to an extent. With Non-Stop, the movie contorts its mystery in such a way that you know it will never fully deliver on an ending that will perfectly snap together all the pieces and clues as well as satisfy. I went along for the ride already accepting the ending would more or less blow it, but beforehand I just wanted to be ably entertained, and I was thusly. In the end, without delving into too murky with spoilers, the evil plot by our onboard killer relies on such a perfect execution of so many variables that there’s no way this money grab would work. Well, there’s a reason for that, but I won’t elucidate on the details, but suffice to say it is a plan that does not make sense, would not have the intended impact, and you question exactly how somebody got parachutes onto an airplane as their carryon. Does that not strike TSA security as weird?

The screenplay by John M. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle (two of those gents are an editor and executive producer for the reality show, Big Brother) does just enough right to please without offending when it gives in to the inevitably stupid reveal. In fact, this screenplay could be a prime example of the “Save the Cat” plot formula that has arisen to prominence in Hollywood: the opening scene/image tells us about the character’s metaphorical journey, he does something kindly early, this time helping a child who lost her stuffed animal, and the plot beats are all there in lockstep. The key scenario where a death emerges every 20 minutes provides a potent sense of urgency, with a payoff that comes fast. Each escalates the stakes, adding a personal element with Bill being pinned with the blame and the news leaking to the passengers via rumor and the media. Then Bill’s supervisor adds another level of conflict, and it’s enjoyable to watch all the screws turn against our hero. It’s also fun to watch Bill have to use what limited means he has to suss out the killer, and each makes him more vunerable to a passenger revolt. It’s a well-constructed thrill ride that produces enough jolts, twists, and payoffs to wholly condemn it after the third act crash and burn.

liam-neeson-non-stop-movie-2014Neeson (The LEGO Movie) has been carving out a niche for himself ever since the first Taken movie, and as my friend George would say, a movie with Neeson punching things equals his ticket bought. While the man has other great acting skills, it’s just a pleasure to watch someone of his dignity and stature, as well as with his natural sense of gravitas, bark at bad guys and punch them into unconsciousness. Would you rather watch the aging class of 1980s action stars still doing their thing, or Neeson? America has spoken. With Non-Stop, Neeson is again a solid anchor for the film and our interests. I like that his character isn’t portrayed so starkly heroic, like his concealing of personally harmful information. It gives a sense of fear to the character that we don’t ordinarily see. Then there’s the fact that Neeson has to act a third of the movie against nifty floating text subtitles, and the man still outshines others. It’s also nice to have a supporting cast of solid actors like Julianne Moore (Carrie), Corey Stoll (TV’s House of Cards), Scoot McNairy (Argo), Nate Parker (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), Shea Whigham (American Hustle), Michelle Dockery (TV’s Downton Abbey), and a blink and you’ll miss her role for new Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave).

Packed with twists, escalation, and squeezing as much suspense out of its premise as possible, Non-Stop is a contained thriller that invites you to play along for fun. It’s an entertaining ride that weaves its various characters and conflicts together in a satisfying manner that simmers with rising tension. The great supporting cast, and the unbeatable Neeson, sell the silliness, up until the end. By that time, I’ve already been having too much fun to quarrel much, though I’m sure you at home can figure out a dozen more probable and better endings. Non-Stop is an above-average thriller that makes great use of its unique location and the realities of this space to up the stakes. Premise-alone, you already know whether or not this movie is going to be your kind of film. Action fans should find enough to whet their whistle, and there are enough surprises and well-wrought suspense that I would recommend Non-Stop as the perfect antidote to a rainy day. Idea for a new action film… Liam Neeson versus the weather. Just wait.

Nate’s Grade: B

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12-years-a-slave-posterIn 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could  be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.

12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):

Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”

12-years-a-slave-trailerThis brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.

There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.

With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.

12-years-a-slaveFrom a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.

The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.

Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.

twelve-years-a-slave-michael-fassbenderTo criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Promised Land (2012)

1909Actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski co-wrote Promised Land, which has been labeled as the anti-fracking movie. I wish. While it does take a suspicious view of the practice of extracting natural gas via high-powered underground water jets laced with chemicals, the movie feels too timid to really land home its points, settling on a familiar narrative of the redemption of one man working for The Man. The character development feels like it happens overnight rather than through a gradual process. Damon begins as a corporate raider, a guy selling false hope to the economic downtrodden, and ends up an altruistic environmental fighter. I mostly found him to be a pompous jerk. The scenes with Damon squaring off against Krasinski, an environmental activist, are easily the best, giving the movie a bristling energy it otherwise lacks. Krasinski provides a fine foil and some snappy competition until a late preposterous plot turn muddies everything up. I feel like the writers, as well as director Gus Van Sant, wanted to lure in wary moviegoers with something more broadly appealing (the evolution of one man) versus a more alarmist, message-heavy movie. That’s fine, but at least give me a better story. Promised Land even falls into the trap of having he Damon/Krasinski competition come down to a woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) they both fancy. Because otherwise it wouldn’t feel serious, right? It’s a solidly acted movie, with some nice turns by veterans like Frances McDormand and Titus Welliver (TV’s Lost), but the movie just doesn’t live up to the promise of its potential.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Killing Them Softly (2012)

1894A funny thing happened while watching Killing Them Softly, the latest film from writer/director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). After an hour, I noticed a couple people stand up and leave, never to return. Then another and another like permission had been communally brokered. I counted ten walkouts at my showing, which was more than I had at Cloud Atlas, a film that I can at least understand the possible exodus. But this? It also got a rare F grade from CinemaScore, joining the ranks of The Devil Inside, Wolf Creek, and The Box. Before you put that much stock in what is essentially a movie going exit poll, Alex Cross was given an A grade from audiences. But why all the venomous hate? I can only theorize that the mainstream audience feels it was sold a bill of goods, a crime thriller with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The audience did not want to go on the lengthy talky detours. They wanted people to get dead. Whatever the reason, Killing Them Softly has killed its audience, who choose not to go softly in their disapproval.

Set amidst the economic meltdown of 2008, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Frankie (Ben Mendelsohn) are two lowlife thugs hired to rob a mob-affiliated card game. The trick is that local gangster Markie (Ray Liotta) had previously paid a group of guys to rob his own card game, fleecing his own customers. In his drunken revelry, Markie admitted as such to his pals. Now the situation is ripe for exploitation. Because any future robberies will have their suspicions pinned firmly on Markie, whether he had anything to do with them or not. As a result, no one is gambling, the public has lost confidence in the markets, and the mob needs to get things back to business. Jackie (Brad Pitt) is called in to make that happen. He’s a professional killer, who prefers to kill at a distance, without all those messy emotions. He has to trace the culprits responsible and give them the reckoning they have coming.

93862_galFrom a plot standpoint, Killing Them Softly is pretty thin. It’s just about the ramifications of two nitwits robbing a card game. This lack of narrative depth will rankle most filmgoers, but I didn’t mind it so much because Dominik uses the crime thriller veneer to examine the sheer ugliness of a criminal lifestyle. This is a pretty character-driven crime flick, and it has to be when there’s a malnourished plot. It takes some lengthy sidesteps, notably with James Gandolfini’s (Zero Dark Thirty) character, Mickey. He’s supposed to be a professional, but the man is a complete wreck. He’s belligerent to those in service positions (waiters, prostitutes), chronically drunk, and weirdly empathetic for his struggling wife, yet seemingly powerless to change his life’s downward slide into self-medicated self-destruction. Mickey is the ghost of Christmas Future, the vision of what this lifestyle does to people who make a living out of it, who actually live into their retirement age. The two young crooks, Frankie and Russell, are idiots yes, but even when they have money their lives are so empty. Russell is so disgusting, sweating profusely, that you can practically taste his stank. Frankie is a little more cognizant of the danger he’s in, and yet the moron doesn’t leave town after his big score. I’d think that’s the first thing you do when you rip off the mob. The day-to-day anxiety of a life of crime is just not worth the effort. You constantly have to look over your shoulder, a life dominated in paranoia, where every stranger or furtive glance could have sinister meaning. Even when you make money, you’re theoretically taking money away from someone else’s profit, and these are the kind of people that don’t take kindly to friendly competition. This is no enviable, glamorous life.

I think Killing Me Softly would be a better, easily more satisfying movie had it eschewed the attempts at extra weight and commentary. It’s no surprise that the scenes that follow a more traditional crime thriller route are the best. There’s palpable tension when Frankie and Russell are in over their heads. The conflict is prevalent and the suspense is nicely stretched out, notably during the card game robbery. Being neophytes, you don’t know what they’re liable to do but you can bet it won’t be smart. This is when the movie is most alive, most engaging, and most entertaining. When it plays it straight, and explores the sliding power plays at stake in a world of cash and guns, it can be a nasty but taut little movie. I’m just sorry that Dominik took a functional crime thriller and gave it an extra sheen of Important Things to Say (”America’s not a country. It’s a business.”). The political parallels never feel more than tacked on attempts to grope for deeper meaning. Oh I get it, I understand the comparison of mob enforcers and corrupt Wall Street execs, hoodlums and crooks in different casual wear, but that doesn’t mean the parallel is that meaningful. It’s on-the-nose and a bit in your face (really, people are watching C-SPAN in dive bars?).

93859_galGiven Domink’s last film, I expected there to be some visual flourishes, though I’m unsure of whether they added much to the proceedings. Dominik sure can make violence entrancing, setting a slow motion slaying in the rain with stirring beauty to ironic Motown music. But he can also make the violence feel brutal, like a beat down on Markie that uses choice sound effects and editing to make you feel the punches. Even the opening seconds feel like an artistic assault to the senses, the loud static of noise interrupted by bursts of Obama’s sound bytes. The extreme camera angles, the visual felicities, the ironic music selections, they all seem to underscore the movie’s subtext-as-text approach.

Pitt (Moneyball) doesn’t come into the movie for the first thirty minutes. You’re welcome to see him, especially since he has such a coolly threatening demeanor, but also because here’s a character that will mix things up. I found myself rooting for the guy, partially because he was an accomplished professional but also because I wanted there to be consequences for idiots doing dumb to powerful enemies. I enjoyed the slow-burn intensity of Pitt when he was turning the screws on the screw-up. Richard Jenkins (Cabin in the Woods) is also enjoyable as a mob shill left to communicate the wishes of his higher-ups. McNairy (Argo) gives a performance that screams desperation, as he realizes the depth of trouble he finds himself into. And even Liotta (Charlie St. Cloud) does a fine job as a lout who misjudges the friends he keeps, discovering the costs of bragging.

In many ways, I feel like Killing Them Softly is akin to last year’s Drive, a more meditative crime thriller with bursts of gruesome yet beatific violence. Likewise, many filmgoers will be sore thinking they were catching straight crime thrillers and been given arty genre ruminations instead. And like my ambivalent feelings toward Drive, I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for Killing Them Softly either. It’s certainly got more ambition than most crime flicks but I’d rather it concentrate on telling a more engaging story. Dominik’s film is a bit too indulgent for its own good, given to visual flourishes and a narrative routinely sidetracked. And yet, I found it fairly interesting at just about every turn, well-acted, and intensely suspenseful and effective at different points. But it doesn’t add up to enough to recommend. The political allegory probably rubbed the walkouts the wrong way as well. The political allegory is too obvious, too pat with its “they’re all crooks” broadside. I wish the movie had abandoned the squalid, nihilistic art house ambitions and just kept things straight. When it has less on its mind, it works best. But for many, Killing Them Softly will be too tedious to see to the bloody end.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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