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Traffic (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 27, 2000:

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

So twenty years later, how is that war on drugs going? Considering the billions of dollars and countless lives that have gone into trying to stop the intricate infrastructure of supply and demand for the drug trade, the United States has little to show for its efforts. If anything, there has been a dawning realization of the futility of playing cartel whack-a-mole, removing one leader just for another to take their place in the supply chain. There have also been movements toward treating addicts rather than incarcerating them. The country has stubbornly become more accommodating and understanding of the ravages of addiction; it only seemed to take the spread of the opioid crisis where affluent families in the suburbs were affected personally. Tragically, it seems too many Americans have to have an “it could happen to me!” moment before their empathy for another person’s struggles kicks in. These relaxing attitudes have translated into recreational marijuana being legal in 15 states as of this review. Many other states have decriminalized marijuana, and Oregon has recently voted to decriminalize all drugs. It seems that in 2020, our concept of the war on drugs has dramatically changed. Some may find these developments an admission of giving up, of retreating from some moral duty, but others have concluded that maybe we’ve been fighting all wrong for 50 years and the only thing we have to show for our blood-soaked efforts is that multiple criminal elements got much richer.

It’s an interesting social and cultural landscape for going back and re-watching 2000’s Traffic, the last film on my re-watch of 2000 cinema. Times have changed and this is felt in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning ensemble covering the globe-trotting scope of the war on drugs. Traffic won four Oscars, including for Soderbergh for Director, Benicio Del Toro for Best Supporting Actor, and for editing and adapted screenplay. The only Oscar it was nominated for that it didn’t win was Best Picture, losing to Ridley Scott’s sword-and-sandals epic, Gladiator. It was an ambitious movie and had over 100 speaking roles. Soderbergh served as his own cinematographer and cameraman, bringing a docu-drama versatility to the movie that added its own sense of realism. 2000 was the year Soderbergh hit his critical peak. He was an indie darling from 1989’s influential sex, lies, and videotape and puttered throughout the 90s with small, personal, weird movies (I loved Schizopolis as a teenager), and then in 1998 he gained a new level of credibility providing sheen and heat to Out of Sight, the movie that cemented George Clooney as a major movie star. The one-two punch of Traffic and Erin Brockovich in 2000 earned Soderbergh two Oscar nominations for director, a feat not accomplished since 1938, and after 2001’s highly successful Ocean’s 11 remake, Soderbergh had jumped to the top of the industry while maintaining his indie artistic credentials. He’s been dabbling and experimenting since (A movie shot on an iPhone!) with mixed results, but the man’s track record is hard to digest into simple categorization. He can jump from an action showcase for an MMA fighter, to a gleeful male stripper romp, to a four-hour epic covering the life of Che Guevera. With Traffic, Soderbergh was working with his biggest budget and cast yet. The decision to use different color tones is smart to easily distinguish the various storyline locations so that an audience can be immediately oriented when jumping around from place to place. It’s also extremely hard on the eyes at times. The Mexican storyline is so washed out in bleached colors that it looks like an atomic bomb just went off in the distance and is filtering the world with an excess of bright light to make you squint. Soderbergh also has a penchant for natural light coming through windows to be seen as giant blocks of white. Again, it achieves its artistic purpose but it also makes you want to avert your gaze.

The 150-minute movie is based on a sprawling 1989 BBC miniseries that totaled six hours. Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) adapted the screenplay and he does a fine job of condensing the major plot points of the mini-series into a manageable feature length. He also does a fine job of articulating the many intertwined players and motivations and contradictions of the drug trade. However, I can’t help but feel like some of the nuance and character development is lost by condensing everything into the body of a manageable American feature production. Take for example the character Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago) plays, Helena Ayala. She’s a rich southern California housewife who has her life upturned when she discovers her husband, recently arrested by the DEA, is one of the chief distributors for a Mexican cartel. Her character is in disbelief and shock at first, then she tries to make due with legal bills and mortgage payments. Things get considerably worse when the cartel threatens her children if Helena can’t pay her husband’s outstanding debts that have now fallen onto her. Her character arc goes from an ignorant, privileged housewife into a ruthless co-conspirator willing to do whatever it takes to protect her family and maintain the cushy lifestyle they have become accustomed to. Over the course of the BBC miniseries, you watch that version of the character undergo significant changes in six hours. In the 2000 film, the character undergoes significant changes in a matter of scenes. Helena goes from desperate to duplicitous in literally minutes, and the jump feels too unearned. The rushed storytelling caps some naturalism. A character can go from not trusting the DEA to providing damning evidence to the DEA in three scenes. A character can go from bored, privileged teenager to junkie prostitute in three scenes. For a movie about gritty realism, these character leaps can feel overly forced and inauthentic. There are so many characters and storylines and political points to make that the overall narrative can feel crowded, so while it’s always interesting, it can inadvertently fashion its own ceiling for emotional engagement because the many characters feel like impressions hitting their marks rather than as fully developed portrayals of people.

The storyline that has aged the worst is Michael Douglas (Ant-Man) playing Robert Wakefield, a newly installed Drug Czar learning the ropes. For the majority, he’s akin to a 60 Minutes journalist just sitting in rooms and asking various professionals about their experiences and advice from their unique positions. From there, the storyline takes up the “it could happen to me!” trapping with Robert’s private school daughter (Erika Christensen) becoming an addict. It may have been surprising for a high-profile politician to have a child as an addict, but now this kind of irony feels passe. We’re used to politicians having ironic skeletons in their closet. The ongoing plot of her descent doesn’t really humanize her even as she makes some drastic decisions to chase that next high. She’s more an ironic counterpoint to shake her father, and the audience, of their preconceived mental imagery of what an addict might look like. It feels slightly retrograde and pearl-clutching, not simply that she goes through hell but that it’s set up to register that, oh my, WHITE PEOPLE, even RICH WHITE PEOPLE, can also be junkies. In 2000, this story might have been jolting and scared some older adults into wondering if this drug menace could find its way into their hallowed gated homes too. Nowadays, it seems obvious. If the storyline of a father dealing with his addict daughter had reveled more about one another as characters it would be worth the attention, but the daughter is kept as an example, a symbol, and Robert just has to take his lumps before the inevitable conclusion that his job is a lot harder than he would have imagined. His speech at his introduction at the White House has the hallmarks of drama ready and waiting, as he chokes over the political boilerplate he no longer believes in, but he simply walks out rather than sharing what he’s learned.

The best storyline in Traffic is, no surprise, the one closest to the action with Benicio Del Toro (Sicario) playing what feels like the only honest cop left in Mexico. Obviously that’s an over simplification, but the police force and political class are heavily corrupted by the cartels and their money. The character Javier Rodriguez has to navigate this tricky world without making himself as a target for those corrupt officials who think he’s an impediment. He’s trying to do good in a deeply flawed system and maybe even he knows he’s fighting a losing battle but he’s decided to keep his integrity while trying to fight what he considers is a worthy cause. A high-ranking general seeking his services reminds him of his lowly pay as a police officer, yet Javier Rodriguez is unmoved. Del Toro made a career of playing oddballs and sleazes, so it’s interesting to watch him play a fairly noble, straight forward role and in a language he didn’t speak before production (while born in Puerto Rico, he moved early and grew up in the U.S. and knew little Spanish). I don’t know if I would have awarded him the Oscar (my favorite for 2000 was Willem Dafoe as a vampire) but it’s certainly an understated performance with real gravitas. Del Toro is the quiet, churning contemplation of this movie and I would have been happy if the whole enterprise had been devoted to his south of the border exploits. I appreciated that the moves in this storyline would have larger effects on others, like a crackdown on a cartel being a reason why they need more money and the reason they now step up the pressure on Helena to pay up or else. It best encapsulates the knotty, interconnected framework that Gaghan and Soderbergh are going for.

Traffic is one of those movies you know are good. It’s well written, well acted, and has a definite vision it’s going for that it mostly achieves. It’s also a movie that engages more intellectually than emotionally. There are some deaths and downturns but I doubt you’ll feel much regret or catharsis. The movie unfolds like an in depth journalistic article, and the leaps in rushed characterization feel like a result of a looming deadline and a hard cap with its word count. It’s unfair for me to continue comparing the movie to its miniseries when that project had almost three times the length to fill out its tale (about poppy trafficking and heroin manufacturing in tribal Afghanistan) but it’s a clear cut case of crammed plotting. My initial review back in 2000 keeps mostly to the plot and the many actors, though I think I overstated Zeta-Jones being “chilling” and I think my love of Del Toro in Way of the Gun that year transferred some extra praise for his performance here. It’s hard to remember but I was really anticipating this film my freshmen year of college. Traffic is a good movie but it’s not exactly one people get excited over. Every aspect is professional, proficient, but there isn’t exactly a lingering takeaway that changes your perception of the war on drugs. I’ll hold to the same grade and say it’s an admirable accomplishment but one better suited for a mini-series (it was adapted back into a TV miniseries in 2004).

Re-View Grade: B

Irresistible (2020)

Jon Stewart was a chief part of keeping me sane during his storied 16-year tenure on The Daily Show, and every night he helped deconstruct politics and media bias with reassuring clarity and soothing wit. I was expecting far more bite from his first writing/directing effort since leaving his show in 2015 but Irresistible feels anything but and especially toothless when it comes to political savvy. Steve Carell (Vice) stars as a Democratic strategist still reeling over 2016 and who sees a bright shining star in a local Wisconsin farmer (Chris Cooper) who could help rebrand what a Democrat looks like. Carell agrees to help the man get elected mayor, which leads to a fish-out-of-water comedy where the big city elite tries to fit in with the salt-of-the-earth folk of small-town middle America. Rose Byrne (Like a Boss) plays a shameless Republican strategist who coordinate with the opposing candidate and lives to torture Carell, and she’s easily the best part of the movie. Some of the satirical jabs land (a CNN screen divided among 24 talking heads all talking at once) but many more feel strangely outdated, like a political satire from ten or fifteen years ago and not reflective of a the seismic post-Trump landscape. The satire doesn’t feel hard hitting enough and the comedy doesn’t feel especially well constructed beyond simple quips, so Irresistible lands in a disappointing middle ground of meh. It’s not a bad movie or even one bereft of certain entertainment, but coming from Stewart, it feels too safe and too self-satisfied. There’s a late twist that re-configures the entire context of the movie and I can’t decide whether it’s clever or ridiculous. There is a potential romance being leaned upon with Mackenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate) that has the best and most knowing punchline when it comes to Hollywood’s depictions of romance. That was a joke that hits its mark with force. Too often the film seems content to nibble at the edges of larger political malfeasance. Ultimately, it becomes a lesson about the dangers of big money in the escalating arms race of politics, which is definitely a worthy issue, but in the exhausting era of Donald Trump, it almost feels quaint as the biggest target. Irresistible is a middling political satire for today and one that sadly made me worry whether Jon Stewart might have lost his touch.

Nate’s Grade: C

BlackkKlansman (2018)/ Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?

It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.

This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.

This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.

Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.

BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.

It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.

Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.

Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.

There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.

There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.

All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.

Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.

Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.

BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.

Nate’s Grades:

BlackkKlansman: A-

Sorry to Bother You: A-

Predators (2010)

For a solid 45 minutes, Predators is a fairly good genre movie. No, it’s a very good genre movie. We snap awake in freefall with a ripped Adrien Brody. A group of deadly warriors from all cultures find themselves stranded in some strange jungle. For that 45-minutes of goodness, the assembled killers (and Topher Grace as a doctor?) try and piece together their circumstances while exploring the foreign terrain. It’s a setup straight out of the Twilight Zone catalogue. And then, at minute 46, they find out they’re on a game preserve planet for the notorious alien bounty hunters, the Predators. The characters get picked off one-by-one and the patient buildup unwinds in a familiar and depressing bloodbath. Predators will work as a quick fix of junk food, but it teased a promising alternative that never came to fruition. The action is bloody but listless. The plot twists are seen from miles away (Topher Grace as a doctor?) and after all that badass macho posturing, the end credits blast the song… “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard? It’s the most bizarre element in a movie with killer space monsters in dreadlocks.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Valentine’s Day (2010)

Imagine every romantic comedy cliché and sappy platitude about love stirred together into one giant gelatinous conglomeration of hollow sentiment. That’s Valentine’s Day. Regardless of your thoughts on the holiday, this movie, which aims to celebrate our national day of love, might have the opposite effect. This movie makes He’s Just Not That Into You look like When Harry Met Sally. It?s a fairly large ensemble with plenty of mega-watt stars, but it’s too bad that nobody knows what to do. Jessica Alba’s character literally runs her course an hour into the film and yet she still makes meaningless appearances. This overstuffed Hallmark card has ridiculously safe, candy-coated storylines sanded so that there is no hint of edge or wit (Anne Hathaway is the most ludicrous PG-13 phone sex operator you will ever find). The resolutions of most of these storylines will be predictable to anybody who has ever read a greeting card. Jamie Foxx is supposed to be a bitter TV reporter popping up everywhere reporting about the ills of V-Day. Think he’ll have a change of heart by the film’s end? The cast does offer their small pleasures (there are SIX Oscar nominees/winners in this movie!), except for the kid who has a crush on his teacher (Jennifer Garner). He was insufferably annoying. So was his movie.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Spider-Man 3 (2007)

Who the hell are you Spider-Man 3 and what have you done with the franchise I loved? After the massive financial and commercial success of first two Spider-Man chapters, my expectations had been raised fairly high. The more time that passes the more I reflect on how disappointing Spider-Man 3 sadly is. Part of my dashed hopes are because the 2004 Spider-Man sequel was a wonderful follow-up to a pretty swell introduction, and I placed that movie in my Top Ten list for the year and consider it one of the best comic book movies of all time. There’s some great popcorn entertainment to be had with Spider-Man 3, but man is this film just beside itself in wasted potential, a lack of focus, and some really poor choices.

Things are going pretty well for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). He plans on asking Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) to marry him and New York City is planning a parade out of appreciation for Spider-Man. But the good times can’t last long. Harry Osborn (James Franco) has accepted his fate and become a second generation Green Goblin villain, out to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Spider-Man. But Peter also has to be on the lookout for his job at the newspaper. Eddie Brock (Topher Grace) is an unscrupulous photographer out to replace Parker and nab a picture of Spider-Man caught in a bad light. An alien substance has also hitched a ride to Earth via meteorite and sought out Peter Parker. The black goo attaches itself to Peter and forms a black Spidey suit, one that gives him intoxicating power and a slimy menace. The new Peter cavalierly flirts with bouncy lab partner Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard), hurts his friends, and loses his do-gooder ways.

Meanwhile Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) has escaped from prison. It seems the police got it wrong and now inform Peter that Marko confessed to being the one who killed Peter’s uncle. While on the run Marko happens to tumble into an open pit that is a science experiment and becomes fused at a molecular level with sand. He uses this new power to rob banks in order to save his sick daughter at home. Peter, with the power of the alien suit, hunts the Sandman to get his own slice of sticky vengeance.

The film has way too much on its plate. There are too many characters, too many undeveloped storylines, too many coincidences, too many contrivances (Amnesia? Really? Really?), and too many aborted moments of drama. Spider-Man 3 is an undisciplined mess. The film practically stumbles from one scene to the next and lacks the coherency and intelligence of the earlier entries in the series. The third film tries to do too much and please too many interests, and as a result it may end up pleasing few fans. I had some trepidation when I learned that there was going to be upwards of three villains for this movie, but I swore that it could work since Batman Begins confidently worked around a trio of big bads. Three villains do not work in Spider-Man 3. Let me dissect this rogue’s gallery and where they fall short.

1) The Sandman is kind of a lame idea from the start. His power seems to limit his available locations, and I’m surprised that he wouldn’t stick to beach areas as a means of playing to his sandy strengths. Regardless, the character plays no part in almost anything that happens, and the Sandman is given one note to play. He’s got a sick daughter and he robs to try and pay for her medicine. That’s great on paper but it never really seems to give the character any sense of urgency or frustration. If he got special sand powers why not sneak into banks through cracks in walls instead of forming as a giant sand monster? Church attempts to imbue the character with a sad soul but he just comes across as being wooden. If he was really on the hunt for money to save his daughter then why does he just slouch around all the time? Wouldn’t it be easier to rob a city not patrolled by a web slinging super hero? How can he say he’s a misunderstood victim of luck just minutes after he tried killing Peter? He seems like a dull lunkhead. The Sandman is given a tiny wisp of character detail (sick kid!) and that’s it. He doesn’t get any other characterization and is kept on the run and pops up whenever the film needs him. He becomes a token character until the very end where Church is given 2 minutes to pour his heart out to Peter. Two minutes of character at the start, two minutes at the end, and a gaping center. The Sandman isn’t so much a character as the ideal of some issue that the filmmakers want to have Peter work through.

And what is that issue? Why vengeance and forgiveness. You see, Spider-Man 3 foolishly rewrites its own history and now it was the Sandman hat killed Peter’s Uncle Ben. This revision does not work at all and actually legitimately damages Spider-Man. Just like Bruce Wayne is tackling crime to alleviate his guilt, so too is Spider-Man, who can never shake the fact that he could have prevented his uncle’s death had he done the right thing moments before. By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.

2) Eddie Brock/Venom is wasted as well. Director Sam Raimi has said before he’s not a fan of Venom and doesn’t get the character, and I feel that his contempt carried over into the film. Venom and the black alien goo are given about the same abysmal care as other half-baked plot points. Eddie Brock has about three total scenes before he gets to transform into Venom thanks to the alien substance, and none of these scenes fully flesh out who the character is or justify his relationship with Peter Parker. When we do see Venom in the finale its all too rushed and hokey. The effects make him look less like alien and more like a wax figurine (I suppose there could be intelligent wax life amongst the stars). For whatever dumb reason the alien suit has to retreat so we can see Grace’s face while he taunts and mocks with bad vampire teeth that are meant to inspire what exactly? The character is rushed and underdeveloped and should have been saved for the next sequel instead of being given lip service in this one. Venom is supposed to be the evil doppelganger to Spider-Man, not some smart-alleck with frosted hair that gets about 15 minutes of screen time. I like Grace, I really like him a lot and envision him as his generation’s Tom Hanks, but he does not work in this movie. He could, but I get the sneaking suspicion that Raimi sabotaged the Venom role on purpose or at least subconsciously. The villain goes out with a whimper and it feels like a giant, foolish wasted opportunity that becomes more maddening the more I discuss it. The presence of Venom feels like a shallow attempt to placate a younger generation of comic fans and to sell more action figures.

The alien goo suit is supposed to tempt Peter and bring out his wicked wild side. So what does he do? He acts like he’s auditioning for the lead in The Mask. This embarrassing sequence is painfully goofy and will make you cringe and shield your eyes. Peter flirts with girls and dances at a jazz club, and this is supposed to be the dark side of Spider-Man? What the hell? I acknowledge that Peter has always been an unpopular dork and would be a dork even if he ventured to the dark side, but how does this square with the more serious and edgier tone the film is grasping for? Evil Peter seems more like a broody emo kid, with shocks of black hair in his eyes and traces of eyeliner. The dark side of Spider-Man, much like the rest of the film, is given little time or thought. Peter’s trials with the symbiotic suit last about a reel or two and then it’s abruptly finished.

3) Harry should have been the main focus of this sequel and it?s a shame the filmmakers had to cram so much crap into a story already heavy with plot leftovers. Harry has the most obvious arc through the three movies and deserves better than to be knocked out of commission by amnesia. The conflict between Peter and Harry is where the film finds its emotional core and it would have been wise to expand this section and eliminate one of the other underutilized villains (my vote: both Venom and Sandman). Harry’s vow to avenge his father is far more interesting than what the other two villains have as motivation, and plus Harry requires no extra time-consuming setup to slow the pacing down. I’m glad the final battle encouraged Harry to come out and play; the film finally gives Franco the screen time he deserves, but it should have been more. The worst plot device in the film involves Harry’s all-knowing butler who has some vital information he most certainly should have shared years ago. So much time is spent on storylines that go absolutely nowhere, and the musical chairs of villains, that the film resorts to having a freakin’ butler tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me sir,” just to tie things up in the most awkwardly shrift way possible. And even if what the man says is true, how does his perspective add any clarity to the situation? Think about it. I have.

The romance between Peter and Mary Jane feels awfully trite and meandering. Spider-Man 3 lacks the tight focus of the second film. It throws contrivances to place a wedge in their relationship, like the fact that Mary Jane is fired from her Broadway gig but doesn’t tell Peter, or the fact that they never seem to answer the phone on time when the other person is apologetic. Gwen Stacy is less a character than simply a dimwitted blond tool to make Mary Jane jealous and sulk. The ups and downs in this relationship feel pretty forced and some moments defy all human understanding. At one point Mary Jane is forced by Harry to break up with Peter to spare both their lives. So she breaks the news in a park, and Peter is devastated, but why in the world does she never say anything again? Why would she not clear things up after time had passed to explain her actions? Spider-Man 2 ended with Peter finally getting the girl but also on a hint of doubt, and it was marvelous. Spider-Man 3 just sort of ends with everyone presumably in the same place they started.

Spider-Man 2 really succeeded on how focused it was and how it related its action with character. Spider-Man 3 has to resort to cheap and lazy devices to cover its storytelling pitfalls. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the film has to resort to a newscaster narrating our final battle where he actually asks, “Is this the end of Spider-Man?” This might be the end of the quality associated with Spider-Man.

After having spent a whole slew of words detailing in length where the film goes wrong, allow me to illustrate some of what the film does right. Whenever it sticks to action, that’s when Spider-Man 3 works, and Raimi has cooked up some wonderful whiplash-inducing action sequences. The first battle between Peter and Harry is intense and sets the film on the right path, but the action as a whole isn’t as closely tied to Peter’s domestic life and emotional troubles as it was in the other films. A high-rise rescue from a crumbling office building will stir some 9/11 memories but it is awesome to behold. The effects have improved and the swinging shots through New York look the best they ever have. The greatest moment in the film is perhaps the birth of the Sandman as he rises grain by grain from a pile of sand and attempts to reform himself. Aided by some lovely music, the moment takes on a beautiful and unexpected poignancy. This is where Raimi and the CGI wizards hit it out of the park. Nothing rivals the train sequence in Spider-Man 2, though.

It might be dangerous to say, but I feel jilted from this film and either new blood needs to be brought in or the filmmakers need more time and control to make a Spider-Man sequel worthy of its name. This is the gold standard for super hero movies and its been tarnished and sullied. Spider-Man 3 has moments to dazzle and excite but it also feels battle fatigued from carrying the dead weight of extraneous characters and half-baked storylines. There are too many balls in the air for Raimi to juggle. This Spidey chapter squeezes too many ideas in too short a space. After obliterating box-office records, Sony has stated that they plan on three more Spider-Man sequels. If this film is the tipping point, then I’m afraid of what will be swinging down the pipe in years to come.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Ocean’s 12 (2004)

In 2001, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a giant surprise. It was a blast of fun with an impressive collection of Hollywood royalty. It had clever dialogue, fun characters, and a gala of amusing plot twists. It was one of the breeziest, most entertaining movies in years. Now, come late 2004, Ocean’s Twelve is released with the entire cast returning, including the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones in tow. Expectations are high for another glitzy romp, but what you’re left with in Ocean’s Twelve is all glitz and no romp.

It’s been three years after the gang robbed ruthless casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) of 160 million dollars. Benedict tracks down each member of Ocean’s Eleven and gives them the same ultimatum: either pay back what they stole, with interest, in two weeks or they’ll be killed. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) leaves his attempts at normal home life with Tess (Julia Roberts) and reassembles the team, many of whom have burned through their shares of the millions. Danny and his right-hand man Rusty (Brad Pitt) figure they’re too hot stateside so they’ll need to travel overseas if they’re to steal their fortunes. Linus (Matt Damon) also wants to have a greater role in the heist this time around.

In Europe, Ocean is challenged by a French playboy (Vincent Cassel) who moonlights as the notorious thief, the Night Fox. The challenge is to see who can steal a priceless Faberge egg, and if bested the Night Fox promises to pay all of Ocean’s debts to Benedict. Hot on the heels of both thieves is Isabel (Zeta-Jones), an expert police officer that also happens to be the former girlfriend to Rusty.

Ocean’s Twelve does not work as a heist picture. For starters, the audience has no idea what’s going on for most of it. A general heist movie bylaw is to explain what the heist will entail, and then we watch the team hit it step by step. Forget that. In Ocean’s Twelve we’re never told how they are going to do their heist, and as they commence with their plan it’s not surprising to an audience, only confusing. I had to wait until the very end for some character to go into a monologue to explain how they accomplished their heist, and let me say, it was not worth two hours of waiting and scratching my head. The result seems to push away an audience instead of involving them in the fun of the scheme.

The story doesn’t utilize the talents of the assembled members. There’s a reason you hire a demolitions expert or a pick pocket, and that’s to let them work their skill. Well in Ocean’s Twelve we get none of that. Most of the cast’s skills are not ever put to use, which further gunks up a heist movie. The movie really errs by putting many of its eleven on ice for long stretches of the film. Around the second act almost everyone gets arrested. Pity poor Bernie Mac, who is in jail for near the whole movie. It seems that Soderbergh doesn’t know what to do with all his characters, and the new additions, so he stashes them away for long stages of time hoping an audience won’t notice.

Soderbergh is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. His usual narrative flourishes are present, including jumps in time and perspective; however, they don’t add up to much except unnecessary showmanship. The nonlinear leaps and shell game of information do not add to the film. Soderbergh keeps his audience in the dark for too long and then cheats us with the ending. Ocean’s Twelve is a good looking film (the vistas look beautiful), but it’s a good looking movie with nowhere to go. What’s even more frustrating is the ending to Ocean’s Twelve. You see, in the end we find out that the last hour plus of the movie was unnecessary. Yes, the movie actually makes a reveal that nullifies over half of the film. It’s cheap and unappreciated. Ocean’s Twelve, there’s a difference between tricking an audience and conning them. Maybe some day you’ll realize this.

The new storylines never really develop. Zeta-Jones doesn’t add much besides another authority figure to chase after Ocean and the boys. Her subplot involving finding her master thief father is abrupt and easy. The best new addition to Ocean’s Twelve was the prospect of a rival, but again nothing really happens with our French thief. He’s more of a catalyst for the plot than anything else, and it’s a shame, because he could have opened the door for a great film pitting two competitive teams of thieves against each other.

Ocean’s Twelve is too satisfied with itself to be that entertaining. It’s now actually reminiscent of the 1960 original film (my grandmother swears it’s wonderful, take that for what you will), starring the Rat Pack. Plot and logic are secondary to a bunch of cool characters having fun. I really enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven (the 2001 film, not my grandmother’s preferred version), but this new sequel lacks any charm and verve. I can’t even say there were many good scenes, just some good ideas that they didn’t fully actualize, like stowing Yen in baggage and then losing their luggage (nothing comes of this). There’s a fun scene involving Topher Grace spoofing his own micro-celebrity, but beyond that many of the scenes and ideas don’t seem developed. The best moment of Ocean’s Twelve, for me, was when I saw Eddie Izzard, the funniest man on the face of the Earth and then some, chat with Hollywood’s A-list on screen. God bless you Eddie Izzard.

Ocean’s Twelve wilts in comparison to its witty, effervescent predecessor. Ocean’s Eleven was fun and hip but didn’t need to coast on star appeal. It had a believable heist, engaging personalities, and it was fun because we knew what was going on and it mattered! I’m sure the cast of Ocean’s Twelve had a blast making the movie together, and their friendly camaraderie shows, but when I left the theater I felt like I had been stuck with the bill for someone else?s good time.

Nate’s Grade: C

Traffic (2000)

The war on drugs may be one worth fighting but it’s a battle that every day seems more and more impossible. Traffic is a mirror that communicates the fruition of our current procedures to stop the illegal flow of drugs.

Traffic is told through three distinct and different narratives. One involves an Ohio Supreme Court justice (Michael Douglas) newly appointed as the nation’s next Drug Czar. While he accepts his position and promises to fight for our nation’s children, back at home, unbeknownst to him, his daughter is free-basing with her bad influence boyfriend. Another story involves a wealthy bourgeois wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) awakened to her husband’s arrest. Her shock continues when family lawyer Dennis Quaid informs her of her husband’s true source of income. He’s to be prosecuted by two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) unless she can do something. The final and most compelling narrative involves Benicio Del Toro as an honest cop in Tijuana battling frustration with the mass corruption surrounding the city. Each story weaves in and out at various points in the film.

Traffic was photographed and directed by the man with the hottest hand in Hollywood, Steven Soderbergh. He uses a documentary feel to his filming that adds to the realism. Different color tones are assigned toward the three narratives as reflections of the emotional background. Soderbergh expertly handles the many facets of the drug industry and pulls out his typical “career best” performances from his onslaught of actors.

Benicio Del Toro is the emotional center of Traffic. His solemn demeanor and hound dog exterior reflect a good man trying to fight the good fight in a corrupt environment. He effortlessly encompasses determination, courage, and compassion that you’ll easily forget the majority of his lines are in Espanol. Benicio is an incredibly talented actor and one with such vibrant energy whenever he flashes on screen. It’ll be wonderful watching him collect all his awards.

Catherine Zeta-Jones also shows strong signs there may well indeed be an actress under her features. Her role is one of almost terror as you watch her so easily slip into her imprisoned hubby’s shoes. The ease of transformation is startling, but in an “evil begets evil” kind of fashion. The fact that she’s pregnant through the entire movie only makes the shift from loving house wife to drug smuggler more chilling.

The entire cast does credible acting performances with particular attention paid toward the younger actors deservingly. Don Cheadle throws in another terrific performance showing he’s sublimely one of the best actors around today.

Traffic oversteps its ambitions and aims for a scope far too large. It is based on a 6 hour BBC mini-series, so trying to cram that material into a two hour plus format is taxing. As a result we get an assembly of characters, but too many with too little time in between to do any justice. Screenwriter Stephen Gaghan (Rules of Engagement) condenses the towering impact and influence drugs have well enough, but he intercuts the stories too sporadically that attachment never builds for either of the three narratives. He does balance the Douglas Drug Czar one carefully as not to fall into the cliched vigilante metamorphosis. But the mini-series had more characterization and depth to its tale.

Traffic is a good film but it has edges of greatness never fully visioned. Soderbergh shines bright yet again and all accolades will be deserved. Traffic is undeniably a good film, but it’s one you may not want to watch a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Reviewed 20 years later as part of the “Reviews Re-View: 2000” article.

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