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February 17th, 2014 — movie reviews
Ellen DeGeneres has nothing whatsoever to be nervous about. The show will spillover past midnight and nobody will be completely happy with the overall results. Oh, and somebody will dare to tell a Seth MacFarlane joke that dies a horrible death with the audience – which didn’t hate him last year nearly as much as some of you did. So much for what I’m sure will happen. What follows is what I suppose will happen. (Predicted winners are in bold.)
“12 Years a Slave”
“The Wolf of Wall Street”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
It’s axiomatic that whatever the Producers’ Guild goes with as best-in- show grabs the Big One at the end of Oscar Night, no questions asked. But this year’s producers’ vote ended with both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity in a dead heat. In case you’re wondering, or scoring, that’s never happened before. So in at least this case and, maybe, one other below, there’s some genuine suspense invited to this year’s barbecue.
At times like this, Past History is your only guide. And what Past History tells you, with its arm around your shoulder and an avuncular, if apologetic intimacy, is that given the choice between voting its hopes or its fears, Hollywood always – always – chooses hope.
Those who insist on seeing moviemakers as unilaterally hard-core liberals have good reason to suspect 12 Years a Slave will be awarded Best Picture if for no other reason than as a corrective to decades of demeaning, evasive depictions of antebellum slavery in American cinema. I’d like to think so, too, even with my own guarded enthusiasm for the movie itself.
But for those who believe Hollywood carries an impregnable missionary spirit either to right historic wrongs or to reward scathing socio-political criticism, I give you, from many available and appropriate examples, 1976: A year that submitted for the academy’s approval the following Best Picture nominees: All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Rocky and Taxi Driver. Quite a list, you’ll agree, even from this vantage point; each of these movies, even the still-relatively undervalued Bound for Glory, can be viewed today as exemplars of what American movies can do when they reach beyond convention, which is why they all have lasting value almost 40 years later.
So given the choice between, in order, a recapitulation of a newspaper’s role in bringing down a U.S. President, a biopic of a leftist troublemaking troubadour, a scathing (and, in retrospect, prophetic) takedown of the commercial television industry, the feel-good story of a South Philly leg-breaker who wills himself to the threshold of boxing immortality and a feel-bad (and, in retrospect, prophetic) story of a sad little New Yorker who enlarges himself into a deluded would-be assassin…well, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you either know or already guessed how this turned out. Rocky was the eventual and (as Past History will acknowledge with a melancholy nod) inevitable winner.
You know what that means this year? I do. I’m pretty sure I do, anyway.
Granted, both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave feature protagonists who eventually survive, if not exactly triumph, over seemingly hopeless odds. Both movies are, in their respective manner, harrowing, riveting, well conceived and wonderfully acted. But few, if any, have accused Gravity of turning history into a horror movie as some have criticized 12 Years for. Moreover, as much as Hollywood constantly yearns for a do-over on its historic mistakes, it doesn’t always like to stare directly at what its evaded or shortchanged. It knows, Lord, how it knows what needs to happen – and sooner rather than later. But does it have to be, like, right now? This minute? The movie’s out there; it’s had an impact. We’ll do more. We promise. And next time, we’ll have a full-scale blowout and really celebrate…
Blah. Blah. Blah…
I should add that a Gravity win wouldn’t break my heart at all. It was an even better, braver movie in terms of narrative tactics than most critics have acknowledged. Its director (see below) has been one of the world’s best for some time now and the movie’s anointment would be a worthy acknowledgement of his previous best. And besides, the movie’s theme — that somehow, no matter how scary things get for us when there’s no air or weight or light, we’ll figure something out – is the kind of bolstering we can use in this present-day miasma we call The New Normal. So fine, Hollywood, vote your hopes and we’ll gladly take them to heart, too. But you’d better greenlight Nat Turner and Kindred, like, yesterday. A promise is a promise.
Steve McQueen — “12 Years a Slave”
David O. Russell — “American Hustle”
Alfonso Cuaron — “Gravity”
Alexander Payne — “Nebraska”
Martin Scorsese — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Whether his movie wins Best Picture or not, Cuaron’s had this one sewn up since last summer when the world first beheld Gravity through 3D glasses. I could spend a few seconds of my allotted time complaining that he should have received such recognition for Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Children of Men and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But I wont. Virtue and virtuosity are usually their own rewards. And, for a change, both of these are given proper acknowledgement at the right time in a director’s career.
Bruce Dern — “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor — “12 Years a Slave”
Matthew McConaughey — “Dallas Buyers Club”
Leonardo DiCaprio — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Christian Bale — “American Hustle”
What looked at the outset to be this category’s widest-open race in decades has by now nestled into a predictable groove. Oh, there were scattered scowls let loose into the digital ionosphere because of McConaughey’s loopy Golden Globes acceptance speech – which ultimately was, in Ralph Kramden’s deathless expression, “a bag of shells.” Dallas Buyers Club is the kind of Oscar candidate whose virtues are best absorbed through the small screen. (See Argo, if you can remember that far back.) However dazed-and-confused McConaughey comes across off-screen, you can easily imagine how his touching, physically invested on-screen rendition of a shabby-hustler-turned-impassioned-crusader captured voters’ hearts on all those DVD screeners. As Hollywood prefers to see itself as a mob of hustlers-with-hearts-of-gold, do you really think its citizenry will bypass this opportunity to pay tribute to its own self-aggrandizing heroic fantasies? It never has before, and it wont now.
Amy Adams — “American Hustle”
Cate Blanchett — “Blue Jasmine“
Judi Dench — “Philomena”
Sandra Bullock — “Gravity”
Meryl Streep — “August: Osage County”
By contrast, what seemed a mortal lock in this category, even as early as last summer, has within the last few weeks morphed into something terribly, even poignantly vulnerable. The re-energized furor over Farrow-v-Allen may have subsided for the time being. But no one can really know how it affected voting until The Envelope is opened, which all of a sudden makes this disclosure worth staying awake for on Oscar Night. I’m going to presume that nothing changes — mostly because, whatever academy voters feelings about Dylan Farrow’s open letter and/or Woody Allen in general, they don’t like to be put into a corner. My onetime Entertainment Weekly office mate Mark Harris’s spider-sense is strong enough to intuit what might contribute to these voters’ collective grievance – and resentment:
“Oscar voters are, ludicrously, being asked to serve as jurors in a trial by op-ed: Is a vote for Blanchett to be treated as de facto indifference about the nightmare of child molestation, since Dylan Farrow has publicly contended that for a long time, she felt that any awards for Allen’s films “were a way to tell me to shut up and go away”? More to the point, is there any conceivable way to ask or answer that question without acknowledging that something horrible is being inappropriately trivialized and something trivial is being inappropriately transformed into a crisis of situational ethics? (ITALICS MINE) I’ve heard people say they think this controversy is useful because it opens up a larger discussion. I hope that who should win Best Actress isn’t the discussion they mean.”
To repeat, I’m betting it isn’t Still, the foofaraw went on just long enough for many pundits to pose the heretofore unthinkable question: If not Blanchett, then who? Given my own misgivings towards Blue Jasmine and, to a lesser extent, Blanchett’s performance, I would lean towards Adams if I had a vote. There’s even been some chatter about Dench’s crafty (in all senses) work in Philomena. But I suspect if anyone would benefit from a backlash against Blanch…I mean, Allen, it would be Bullock since she’s so widely beloved, and so was her movie. It’s still Blanchett’s to lose. But not by as much as was once believed. Whatever happens, it’ll be a chew toy for all media to deconstruct and, quite likely, dismember.
Best supporting actor
Barkhad Abdi — “Captain Phillips”
Bradley Cooper — “American Hustle”
Jonah Hill — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Jared Leto — “Dallas Buyers Club“
Michael Fassbender — “12 Years a Slave”
Always the wildest card on the table, unless there’s a veteran involved who’s never received his due – and none can be found anywhere in this quintet. Leto was the early favorite and despite what some believed to be a more inappropriate Golden Globe acceptance speech than McConaughey’s, still owns the edge. (Again, think of how easily his movie hums into a living room with a home video player.) Still, there’s always a chance a newcomer like Abdi will repeat the precedent set by the late Haing S. Ngor in 1985 for The Killing Fields. (In both cases, there was a sense of heroism above and beyond the movie itself.) BAFTA did surprise Abdi (and us) with its own Supporting Actor prize. Then again, I’m not sure Dallas Buyers Club has crossed the pond yet. Fassbinder, for whatever it’s worth, would have been my pick. But if DiCaprio’s sadistic slaveholder in last year’s Django Unchained didn’t win (and it was a more magnetic performance than Christoph Waltz’s winning turn as the sympathetic bounty hunter), then neither shall this far more unhinged variation.
Best supporting actress
Jennifer Lawrence — “American Hustle”
Lupita Nyong’o — “12 Years a Slave“
June Squibb — “Nebraska”
Julia Roberts — “August: Osage County”
Sally Hawkins — “Blue Jasmine”
J-Law, a.k.a “Our Brando”, retains the post-position, and it’s well deserved. Nyong’o’s poised, yet assertive campaign, however, appears to have wowed academy members and watchers alike. And I’m starting to get the vague feeling that, whatever good will it carried at the season’s start, 12 Years a Slave could very well walk away from this thing empty-handed – and she’s lately been the most visible beneficiary of whatever love remains for the movie.
Best original screenplay
“American Hustle” — David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer
“Blue Jasmine” — Woody Allen
“Her” — Spike Jonze
“Nebraska” — Bob Nelson
“Dallas Buyers Club” — Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Even before Dylan Farrow’s letter landed in the New York Times’ website, it was apparent that Allen ‘s script had little chance in this crowd of worthies; the most “writerly” of which is the romance between a man and his machine, which is kind of how writers see their lives these days. To repeat what historic precedent suggests: When in doubt, always go for the one that most aligns with its voters’ self-image; besides which, there happens to be some gorgeous passages in Her…so to speak.
Best adapted screenplay
“12 Years a Slave” — John Ridley
“Before Midnight” — Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater
“The Wolf of Wall Street” — Terence Winter
“Captain Phillips” — Billy Ray
“Philomena” — Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
As we do not live in a perfect world, Delpy, Hawke and Linklater will be unacknowledged by the academy for fashioning the most corrosive and incisive dialogue of any romantic comedy of the last twenty years. The Writers Guild has already rewarded Billy Ray, which makes him the logical favorite. But here, as elsewhere, I’m going with my gut and insist that in this instance, the writers who vote in this category will want to make a statement, if not a stand, by rewarding an African-American writer for delivering a bleak, trenchant and hauntingly effective script about antebellum slavery. It’s more hope than prophecy, but then so were black American civil rights once upon a time. (Oh, wait…)
Best documentary feature
“The Act of Killing”
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“Cutie and the Boxer”
In what it risked and how it succeeded, Act of Killing was, as far as I was concerned, the Movie of the Year. In an era more open to broad adventure and intellectual range than ours, it would have been a cult classic. It’s done well enough during awards season. But I guess we had too many other things on our minds to pay close attention to the repressed memories of Indonesian death squads. I’d be delighted if it won here, but somehow I’m thinking the academy, as with the rest of The America, is looking for something to feel good about itself, even the long-deferred emergence of backup singers from the shadows of time and neglect.
Best animated feature
“The Wind Rises”
“Despicable Me 2″
“Ernest & Celestine”
How I wish Hayao Miyazaki would be able to have a Mariano Rivera retirement moment on Oscar night and receive the award (and the standing ovation) he deserves for both his valedictory feature The Wind Rises and his lifetime achievement! But Frozen’s success, creative and fiscal, is like one of those large obstructions on a narrow road that you’ll just have to endure before being waved along.
Best foreign feature
“The Hunt” (Denmark)
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Belgium)
“The Great Beauty” (Italy)
“Omar” (Palestinian territories)
“The Missing Picture” (Cambodia)
Since I’m almost always wrong about this category, I figure, WTF, I may as well go with my heart on this one. I loved La Grande Bellezza for both rational and irrational reasons and will entertain the even crazier hope that its success in this venue will jump-start American appetites for discursive, leisurely and philosophical storytelling. Once more with feeling: WTF.
Best music (original song)
“Frozen”: “Let it Go” — Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”: “Ordinary Love” — U2, Paul Hewson
“Her”: “The Moon Song” — Karen O, Spike Jonze
“Despicable Me 2″: “Happy” — Pharrell Williams
“Alone Yet Not Alone”: “Alone Yet Not Alone” — Bruce Broughton, Dennis Spiegel
No idea whatsoever. The dart lands on Frozen. Any of the others could win. I guess. How did they come up with five nominees anyway?
Best music (original score)
“Gravity” — Steven Price
“Philomena” — Alexandre Desplat
“The Book Thief” — John Williams
“Saving Mr. Banks” — Thomas Newman
“Her” — William Butler and Owen Pallett
Isn’t Saving Mr. Banks sort of leaning on an older musical score and…No matter, because it won’t win anyway. Her’s music was as lyrical as the rest of its soundtrack.
“Gravity” — Emmanuel Lubezki
“Inside Llewyn Davis” — Bruno Delbonnel
“Nebraska” — Phedon Papamichael
“Prisoners” — Roger Deakins
“The Grandmaster” — Phillippe Le Sourd
Each of these boasted striking visual conceptions. But as my faculty club friends often say to each other at odd hours of the day: “Duh.”
December 25th, 2013 — movie reviews
Top Ten? Worst Ten? Ugly-But-Brilliant Ten? I don’t know. Like…why?
There’s more than one way to sum up a year. I should start this off by saying that, contrary to what some may say, this was one of the better overall years for moving pictures and I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, given the way episodic TV has been routinely eating cinema’s gourmet lunch for at least a decade. With TV having one of its more mediocre fall seasons in decades, it was inevitable that the movies would get better at about the same time.
But I don’t need to give you a list to tell you that. There are many more of these lists to argue with from people who are even busier (if not smarter) than I am. What I prefer to submit is a potpourri of impressions, observations and pronouncements that will give you a general idea of how I reacted to the movies I saw this year. I’m not fond of the role of critic-as-magistrate (which may explain partly why no one’s now paying me to do it.) I like to think about what I’ve seen and talk it over with others. Don’t you? I’ve already rambled about 12 Years a Slave under what one would call a separate cover. And you can probably figure out what I liked a lot from what you see when you scroll down.
One other thing to say at the outset: Women will likely dominate the forthcoming discourse, but that’s because women gave me more to talk and think about in the dark this year than men. Or children. Or aliens. I’m not necessarily making a point here. Just saying…
The Incredible Shrinking Bullock
Because movie reviewers tend to a.) be pressed for time and/or lazy and b.) not take science-fiction all that seriously as a literary genre, it was inevitable that most of the comparisons they made to Gravity, positively, negatively or otherwise, were to other “in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream” movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. These aren’t inept or in-apt analogies, given all the heavy-breathing spacesuits floating and crashing through all three movies. They just seemed too obvious. The first movie I thought of as I tossed my 3D glasses in the bin outside Gravity’s screening room was The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose visual effects wouldn’t make anybody gasp now, but were pretty cutting-edge for 1957. Both that Jack Arnold classic (which holds up better than you’d think) and Gravity have protagonists forced to deal with overpowering, inexplicable forces squeezing them in tighter spaces and erasing their options for survival. The telling difference (maybe I’d better flash SPOILER ALERT here) comes at the end when, though both heroes are literally stripped down to almost nothing, Shrinking Man somehow feels larger and more consequential as a human being despite his rapidly-diminishing state while astronaut Ryan Stone, though out of immediate danger, staggers off into a world that somehow feels bigger than she is. And this, you ask, is significant because…? Think of the difference in calendar years: In 1957, we integrated Little Rock’s Central High and, weeks later, Russia launched a beeping toy into orbit. This year, as I write this, there are barely enough astronauts working on Christmas Day to patch up an ailing International Space Station. And don’t even ask how voting rights did in the High Court a few months ago. We’re a lot better at special effects, but as for the rest…As I say, think about it.
Movie Critics of the Year
I only this year discovered the HISHE Network on YouTube and I have now become their stalker, looming at their door in anticipation of their next animated shot at a studio franchise. (No Desolation of Smaug, yet? No Catching Fire? You guys slacking or what? I’ve got other things to not do, OK?) The acronym, BTW, stands for How It Should Have Ended and, as you wits have likely discerned, the site’s proprietors do their own version of a blockbuster’s ending that makes you laugh and often makes more sense than the “real” thing. Because the guys and gals who work the controls of this site are knowledgeable fans of these genres, their send-ups are mostly affectionate. And it’s this admirable deficiency of snark that only magnifies their impact. It’s like having emissaries of Geek Nation sending out dispatches to the major studios and telling them, in essence, “We love this stuff, but we’re not idiots!”
Meh Dancing, Amazing Dance
I may be biased in favor of Frances Ha over other Noah Baumbach movies (most of which I’ve liked) because the title character’s struggle to make it as a modern dancer in post-Millennial New York City hits close to home these days. Also, because I’ve been exposed to different forms of choreography, I tend to see the movie as a kind of extended dance piece. Not that Greta Gerwig’s actual dancing is anything special. (It isn’t.) But I love the way she moves throughout this movie whether she’s leaping for the hell of it through Chinatown to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” or trudging warily along Parisian streets to Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner.” That’s what made me happy about this movie, which is something audiences and critics didn’t expect from a Noah Baumbach movie. Maybe he needed the dancing element to take the weight off. Maybe he needs to do it some more.
And the Oscar Wont (But Should) Go To….
It’s still early but I’m not hearing a lot of people throwing around Adele Exarchopopolos’ name as an Oscar prospect despite her sharing a Palme d’Or at Cannes and winning a Los Angeles Film Critics Association prize for Best Actress. Nothing whatsoever from the Golden Globes, even though she is every bit as riveting and dominant a presence in her movie as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchet are in theirs. The first and, often, last things people think of when they think of Blue is the Warmest Color are its NC-17 lesbian sex scenes. As lyrically enticing and obliquely suggestive as the movie’s English-language title may be, the literal translation of its French title, “The Life of Adele,” tells you everything there is to know about the story – which, prosaic as it sounds, is of a young woman’s education; sensual, yes, but also emotional and intuitive. She begins the narrative as a live wire who’s shy, moist and voracious at the same time. She comes out the other end, feeling…well, at the very least, drier. Sex may be explicit in Blue is the Warmest Color, but personality is not. And the beauty of Exarchopopolus’ performance is the way she instinctively gearshifts her character’s sensitivity, allowing us to infer what’s going on in her head while keeping us engaged with the unguarded emissions from her heart. Exarchopopolus will likely acquire greater dimension and skill as an actress. But I doubt she’ll ever again deliver anything as poignantly raw as this, and she at least should get something nice from Hollywood for her trouble.
And speaking of 20-something actresses…
Squares and aesthetes may have perfectly good reasons for decrying Jennifer Lawrence’s I’m-such-a-goofball talk-show appearances with their haphazard disclosures of butt-plugs and other adorable lapses in decorum. But I think these fluffernutter turns deepen her mystique more than shatter it. Public appearances are as much a performer’s art as screen acting and Lawrence is as foxily good at both playing to and subverting the hoary hype machine as she is at withholding her characters’ secrets in movies. Whether on the small or big screen, Lawrence keeps you on-edge. On the small-screen, you don’t quite know where her mouth is going next; on the big-screen, you don’t know what her face is going to do next. In neither case do these impulses feel calculated, though Lawrence is sure as hell is smart enough to know how to play both games better than anybody you can name at the moment. And that’s the real mystery: How does she know? How does any 23-year-old have the poise, the self-possession, the inner power to carry the multimillion-dollar tent pole that is The Hunger Games trilogy playing a teenage badass while simultaneously putting out back-to-back dynamo turns for David O. Russell as emotionally damaged older women? One imagines a similar frisson for audiences a half-century ago when Marlon Brando kept topping their expectations in movie after movie. The only difference is that Brando could never bring himself to create a user-friendly public persona the way Lawrence can. The more he ran away from celebrity’s power to diminish his artistry, the worse things got for him whereas Lawrence doesn’t seem to give a shit. She’s taking charge of her celebrity in ways that previous generations of actors can only envy and such confidence could help her dominate her era of movie acting as Brando, Nicholson or any male icon ever did. J-Law: Our Brando AND Our Cary Grant? Is that so hard to imagine? Forget the shticks with Conan and Dave. Watch the movies again and get back to me.
I haven’t seen this movie come up in anybody’s Ten-Best Lists.
Or this one either.
three four five favorite lines quotes from 2013 movies:
“I feel like you’re breathing helium and I’m breathing oxygen.”
“Everything is not everything. There’s more.”
“When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.”
–Stories We Tell
“We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?”
–The Great Beauty
“Welcome to Heaven, mothafuckas!”
–This is The End
December 20th, 2013 — movie reviews
Can anybody make a serious, imaginative movie about slavery without being either ignored or picked at? Quentin Tarantino spent almost as much time shaking off flak for his flamboyant genre goof Django Unchained as he did taking bows and counting money. When Jonathan Demme made Toni Morrison’s Beloved into a far-better-in-hindsight movie in 1998, not even the Great and Powerful Oprah’s approbation of, and involvement in its production could make black people assemble en masse to see it when it was released. (Or anybody else. The cost was about $58 million; the movie made about $23 million, at best.)
At least, nobody’s ignoring 12 Years a Slave. It’s at or near the top of just about everybody’s year-end list of best movies. As of the second week of December, it’s made more than $35 million in American ticket sales with more expected around the bend in advance of Oscar season. Still, the movie has attracted its own high-visibility flak from such critics as Armond White, who believes Steve McQueen’s often-graphically violent rendering of Solomon Northrup’s testament as “torture porn” and “less a drama than an inhumane analysis.” David Edelstein, though he believed the movie “smashingly effective as melodrama,” is less fond of McQueen’s “cold, stark, deterministic” approach to the material.
For the record, I admired 12 Years a Slave far more than I loved it. An American/Hollywood director, no matter how smart or savvy, wouldn’t have trusted as much visually as McQueen does here. (In case you didn’t know, he’s black and British.) He isn’t afraid of stillness, of the tension and energy that reside in the act of waiting, as in the first frame, which in just showing the barely contained anxiety in the faces of slaves, gets the movie moving. That said, I doubt very much I will want to see it again. Do I need to watch, once again, a thin young woman getting whiskey tumblers thrown at her head and then having her back stripped of her ebony skin the way you strip a tree of its bark? I do not – and part of me wonders who would, or who needs to.
Still, because the movie is directed by a black man and is written by another (novelist John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave doesn’t get the same mauling Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) received in some precincts for making ciphers of its mutinous African slaves and using their rebellion as a vehicle for white nobility. And I doubt very much the contrarian attacks on McQueen and his film will keep it from winning more awards; any more than Django’s critics kept Tarantino from collecting a screenwriting Oscar.
But no amount of gold statuettes will stop the haters from jumping on the next filmmaker who wants to take yet another hard, idiosyncratic shot at America’s Original Sin. The only solution: Take more shots, make more movies, go as odd, off-base, strange, funny, stern, cold, hot or heavy as the market can bear – and then, if you’ve got the gall, go further than that. There’s no dearth of material to draw upon, from the still largely undiscovered country of slave narratives to contemporary fiction by African American writers who are claiming autonomy over their ancestral experience through daringly imaginative means.
You like lists. Here are places to go for such material:
William and Ellen Craft – True story: They were married in bondage in 1846 and escaped two years later from Georgia to Philadelphia in disguise; she (above) as an invalid white man and he as “his” valet. It would take someone with an equally attuned ear for both injustice and comedy, but it could be done.
The Good Lord Bird – Being this year’s surprise National Book Award winner, James McBride’s picaresque comic saga of a young slave boy mistaken as a girl by abolitionist John Brown has likely attracted a few cautious glances from Hollywood. Sophisticated historical satires aren’t exactly meat-and-potatoes fare for multiplexes, no matter who’s involved. But it would be funny, again, if the right tone is struck.
Flight to Canada – An Ishmael Reed seriocomic pastiche that’s never received the credit it deserves for initiating a wave of black novelists claiming imaginative autonomy over their ancestral past in daring, often incendiary fashion. I can’t begin to imagine who would make a movie out of it or what kind of movie it would be. But whenever or however it’s done, it’ll be different from anything that came before.
Robert Smalls Steals a Rebel Ship– Another true story; this one about a slave (above) who in 1862 commandeered a cotton freighter with a crew of 17 fellow escapees and managed to hide his identity from Confederate checkpoints, even Fort Sumter, towards the open sea until he was able to raise a white flag to Union blockaders. That alone would be a good movie, though it was just the beginning for Smalls, who later became one of the few African Americans to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. (Speaking of which, don’t you think that by now, some great movie about black folk during Reconstruction could be made to counter that damned Birth of a Nation? Just add it to the wish list.)
The Known World – Edward P. Jones’ award-winning novel about blacks owning black slaves already made readers’ heads spin off their necks. A movie version could magnify the shock-and-awe and I’m being REALLY optimistic when I say it could be done. But I’m betting it wouldn’t cause nearly as much trouble as…
The Confessions of Nat Turner – And, yes, I mean William Styron’s version, which has been cherished and despised in near-equal measure by black and white readers alike. America wasn’t ready for Turner in the 1830s and they still aren’t ready for him in whatever form he’s presented or imagined. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.
Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale – A pair of thinking-person’s ripsnorters by Charles Johnson; the former, as with 12 Years a Slave, puts a freed slave in harm’s way as he finds himself aboard a raucous slave ship heading back to Africa to pick up more “chattel.” The latter chronicles the adventures of a half-white-half-black slave negotiating his way through both worlds with philosophic insight and canny resourcefulness.
Kindred – Let me quote from an Amazon review of the late Octavia Butler’s breakthrough SF novel: “Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles in 1976, is inexplicably transported to 1815 to save the life of a small, red-haired boy on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It turns out this small boy, Rufus, is one of her white slave owning ancestors, who she knows very little about. Dana continues to be called into the past to save Rufus, and frequently stays long periods of time in the slave owning South. The only way she can get back to 1976 is to be in a life threatening situation.” How is this NOT a movie waiting to happen? Why hasn’t it happened by now?
And on and on and…
October 1st, 2013 — family history, movie reviews
At the hinge of the 1960s and 1970s, “Cabin in the Sky” embodied just about everything we young, gifted & solemn black college students thought we were fighting against. All we blinkered baby cultural-nationalists could see back then in those idyllic depictions of small-town African American folk life were unhealthy levels of honeysuckle and hambone. Away with those rolling dice and eyeballs, all that cornball piety & undignified shucking…Is that really what we wanted our collective profile to look like after King and Malcolm and countless others had died for our advancement?
It’s a measure of how much time has passed that I can’t even LOOK at that previous sentence, much less write it, without wincing; the same kind of wincing we aforementioned Children of the Movement were doing whenever “Cabin” poked out from TV’s wee-hour wilds or was screened at collegiate film societies. Exaggerated nose-turning-in-a-vertical-direction is at least as embarrassing as pronounced eye-rolling – and not nearly as funny. Give me the choice between retroactive scoldings from what some new-jack pundits have come to label the “soul patrol” and the to-be-or-not-to-be anxieties displayed by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and I know whose party I’d rather go to.
The distinction no longer needs raising, much less stressing. Several years ago, I’d hosted a screening of “Cabin” for a Wednesday-night Lenten supper at our predominantly black Episcopal church in lower Manhattan. It was a small audience, mostly older and just about all of its members had seen the movie before and loved it without predisposition or qualifiers (even though the DVD released three years ago opens with Warner Home Video’s contemporary disclaimer apologizing about “stereotypes” that were “wrong then and wrong now.”) The tiny audience appeared to appreciate the concern, though it didn’t need to be told what was or wasn’t appropriate. They just wanted a warm black-and-white memory bath. Even the sole 20-something in the room, recruited to help with projection, was caught up in a movie old enough to be his (grand) mother.
Each time I see the movie, I’m more galvanized by the sheer magnetism of its performers. Even in the reproachful seventies, it was hard not to be waylaid by the glory that was Lena Horne in her twenties. What she was then and what she remained throughout the sixties and beyond was so legitimate & enduring to young black fogies like us that we gave her quick dispensation for “Cabin”; the kind of pass that that didn’t easily go to, say, Ethel Waters (about whom, more later),“Rochester” Anderson or John “Bubbles” Sublett, whose song-and-dance recital of “Shine” is at once the movie’s most glaring anachronism and its most flamboyant affirmation of poise and skill.
Which in no way slights everyone else in the movie, though you wish Louis Armstrong got to do even a little bit more than set off a few elegant licks while wearing those ridiculous devil’s horns. You also wish you could see more of Duke Ellington’s orchestra at work beyond flashes of its suave, imperturbable leader. (That IS Johnny Hodges in the front with the alto, right?) But first-time director Vincente Minnelli was too caught up in the dancing and singing – and rightfully so. His own eye is so greedy and avid for movement and energy that you can almost feel him sitting next to you as you’re looking for the next big moment.
Almost all of which moments are owned by Waters. Donald Bogle has elsewhere noted how often contemporary audiences are drawn to screenings of “Cabin” by the promise of seeing the young, cat-like Horne, yet leave those screenings dazzled by Waters’ charisma. If younger moviegoers had easy access to Waters’ recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, they’d be better prepared for her vocal agility. (Critics and historians, not that anyone pays them any mind, argue with conviction that Waters’ chops as a singer were the equal of Armstrong’s – and that her influence on jazz singing was just as emphatic & far-reaching.) But hardly anyone at any age is prepared for the moment when Waters’ Petunia, backsliding into “sin” to “save” Anderson’s Joe from the Devil’s clutches, sashays into a startlingly graceful jitterbug with Sublett’s Domino. One has read in books about both women of tension between Horne and Waters throughout “Cabin’s” shooting. (In her own memoir, “His Eye is On the Sparrow”, Waters doesn’t go into detail about the friction except to say that she “won every battle” and that her scrapes kept her away from the movies for another six years.) Whether Waters ended up dominating “Cabin” by fair or foul means, her triumph endures just as Dilsey, the character she played in her last film, 1959’s “The Sound and the Fury,” endured.
After the church screening was over, I asked the audience if there were still aspects of the movie that offended or seemed out-of-date. No one could think of any – and I honestly couldn’t come up with any that mattered. I do wish, in retrospect, that I’d asked them if it seemed as though the folks who were either in hell or engaging in “sinful” partying had a better time – and heard better music – than those who stayed close to Petunia’s righteous path. I decided against bringing that dilemma up in a Lenten discussion, though it now strikes me that there were folks willing to talk it over.
I did, however, bring up the closest present-day corollary to “Cabin in the Sky’s” blend of low comedy and Manichean melodrama: The films of Tyler Perry, especially those featuring Madea, Perry’s pious, pistol-packing alter-ego. Since I knew that all those assembled had seen more than one Perry movie more than once, I asked if there was any real difference between the depictions of black life in “Cabin” and those in, say, “Madea Goes to Prison.” They said there were none; a surprise to me since I expected them to mention the relative rawness of Perry’s depictions of single motherhood, class animus and teen pregnancy. “Cabin’s” dichotomy between Petunia’s milk-and-honey world view and the temptations of the flesh embodied by Horne’s duplicitous Georgia Brown seem like old school Disney by comparison. But in both cases, a simplistic (as opposed to simple) solution to mortal weakness and moral sloth is submitted to audiences for whom broad laughs and big emotions are perhaps the only justifications for entertainment.
Perry continues to astound the mainstream (white) world with the bushels of money he reaps for his movies. And his entrepreneurial moxie serves as a reminder that, unlike the 1940s (or the two decades subsequent to or preceding them), it’s possible for African American artists to have some control over how they’re depicted on screen, for better or worse. I still wonder whether future generations of black people will someday accuse his work of, at best, being too over-the-top or (so to speak) too black-and-white in their moralistic aims. I doubt it somehow. But of one thing I have no doubt: Madea, whatever her own martial skills or swaggering mojo, is no Ethel Waters.
September 4th, 2013 — movie reviews
If you were to ask me which of this receding summer’s movies I’d be happy to see again tomorrow, next week or even a year or two from now, they would be In a World… and Frances Ha. I’m not trying to be trendy here, even though any day now I’m expecting some renegade financial pundit to suggest that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are on to something and that historians may regard the summer of 2013 as the beginning of the end of the popcorn tent pole era (or whatever other euphemism suits you.) I doubt the all-powerful global market has exhausted its fascination with action-hero extravaganzas and neither have I. But the omnipresence of big, noisy Hollywood franchises has aroused in me – and I suspect many more – an appetite for the smaller stuff. And I’m not in any way suggesting that “small” equals “good” or that “big” equals “mediocre” or even “predictable” or….
Never mind. Just go see In a World… while it’s still hanging around. (And it is, amazingly enough.) It made me happy in so many ways, not least for raising writer-director-star Lake Bell’s profile – and about time! I’ve been a fan of hers ever since I saw her pilfer the otherwise dreary 2007 romantic comedy, Over Her Dead Body, out from under Eva Longoria, whose TV stardom gave her top billing in what was essentially a supporting role as a bitchy ghost trying to keep Bell’s character away from the ghost’s ex-fiancée (Paul Rudd). Bell’s lanky grace and astute timing outclassed everything else in the movie, except, maybe, Rudd, with whom she was so perfectly matched that you wished they could have been airlifted to a better story, if not an alternate universe.
It could only be in that time continuum that Bell’s impressive showing would lead to bigger roles afterward. But my review of Over Her Dead Body lamented that a wry, incisive talent such as Bell’s would have a tough time finding Hollywood comedies sophisticated enough to appreciate, even showcase it. Inevitably, as a kind of consolation prize, she got to do support work in such big-studio rom-coms as 2008’s What Happens In Vegas, 2009’s It’s Complicated and 2010’s No Strings Attached. Each time, more than a few of my critical brethren were moved to remark that Bell was funnier, more authentically human than most of the pre-cooked star turns in those movies. I would tell them if they wanted to see Bell really show her stuff, they should turn to where most of our best actors are these days: Television, where she was Doctor Cat Black on the very dark, very coarse and (thus) very funny Adult Swim series, Children’s Hospital.
As for the movies, Bell was likely smart enough to realize that the only way she was going to get a big, decent role in a romantic comedy was to build one of her own. Hence, In a World…, which, though it’s ostensibly about professional voice-over artists, gently, but firmly jabs at hidebound Hollywood attitudes towards women – and, implicitly, anybody else who doesn’t fit its generic career cubbyholes; just as In a World… doesn’t fit any of the accepted variables for contemporary American comedies. It doesn’t shout, pander or broadly contrive things. It has people you enjoy spending time with, even at their worst. And it has a central character who, though an adorable mess, is also capable of the kind of inspired, attentive improvisation that keeps our best jazz musicians working and hoping for the best.
Briefly: Bell’s Carol is part of the inner circle of Los Angeles-based voice-over specialists fiercely competing for gigs to intone promotional copy for movie trailers. Their demigod (and the movie’s guiding spirit) is the late Don LaFontaine, from whose all-but-trademarked line, “In a world where…”, the movie derives its title. She comes by her profession from her father Sam, depicted here as being the closest voice-over professional in legendary stature to LaFontaine. Sam’s played with sauntering arrogance by A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed, who evokes a sexy-bear Phil Silvers bulked by gamma rays and self-centeredness. Carol’s curriculum vitae, saying the least, doesn’t glow in the dark as Sam’s does and Sam, re-married to a blonde (Alexandra Holden) who’s a deceptively ditzy contemporary of Carol and her sister Dani (Michaela Watkins), thinks that’s just the way the industry wants it. “I’m not sexist,” Sam insists, even though he’s the first to complain about women stealing men’s jobs when one of his friendly competitors (Ken Marino) loses a high-profile audition to some…girl. And yes, unknown to Sam or his friend, it’s Carol. This is one of a handful of misunderstandings zipping blithely through In a World… Not all of them have to do with Carol, Sam or even voice-overs, though at least one of them submits a delicate reminder that you can’t believe everything you hear.
I don’t want to get you guys too excited. Bell still has room to improve some of her staging and at least a couple of her visual transitions. But her greatest assets as an actor, her timing and her ear, are filtered into both her direction and her writing, the latter of which got its props at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Anyway, I’m a sucker for movies that have an informed appreciation for their capacity for sound, as opposed to noise. . I’m an even bigger fool for funny women such as Bell who can not only hear the subtleties in other people’s voices, but in their personalities as well. There isn’t a malicious streak anywhere in this movie. And it says a lot about Bell’s generosity of spirit that the movie includes amusing cameos from both Longoria (playing herself in self-deprecatory mode and looking even better than usual because of it) and What Happens in Vegas’s Cameron Diaz (barely recognizable as an action heroine in a grainy faux trailer). I want to see In a World… again, not just because it’s such a pleasant, stealthily profound lark, but because I still can’t believe it’s out there. I mean, in This World, anyway.
August 27th, 2013 — movie reviews
As of this week, a half-century will have passed since the March on Washington took place. As of today, a black man is president of the United States and the number one movie in America is about a black man who spent most of his life as a White House butler. You’d have to be some manner of lunatic to claim this doesn’t show that things have changed mostly for the better since the summer of 1963. You’d also have the mind of a rock to assume that this means the game is over, the Dream is Reality and some other uptight ninny wont decide to stalk Forest Whitaker in an upscale grocery store again.
Whenever stuff such as the incident obliquely referred to above pokes into view, some fluffernutter in public office or on TV uses it as an opportunity to encourage bemused spectators to engage in a “conversation about race”; you know, as in: “Just talk amongst yourselves about this race stuff so that we can keep a dialogue going and somehow that dialogue will keep us from being embarrassed when more prejudiced people are caught in the act of being themselves, etc. etc. etc.”
Just so we’re clear: “Race” is, at best, an abstract concept. Abstractions, at best, make people uneasy because abstractions are difficult to grasp as tangible subjects for whatever it is we humans consider “conversation.” Huge abstractions, such as “peace,” “war” or “race,” aren’t topics for conversation so much as occasions for speaking, mostly in public forums such as legislative chambers, TV studios or glandular discharges on the Web, whether as status updates or blogs like this.
In other words: You don’t “talk” about “race.” You “speak” about it. When you “talk,” it’s mostly about your parents, your jobs, your kids; the stuff they learn (or don’t); the stuff you read (or misread). You “talk” about what you overhear, or pretend not to hear. You “talk” about the shabby way you’re treated in a checkout line, or on an airplane or during an otherwise normal workday. Then you “talk” about imagining such things happening to you. If whatever is meant by “race” never ever comes up in these conversations, then somebody’s either hiding or avoiding something because “race” is as unavoidable a subject in American life as it is a vacuous concept. And we’ve always been good at tabling the subject, if not the vacuousness, when it suits us.
That said, Paula Deen and George Zimmerman, along with the build-up to that aforementioned 50th anniversary celebration of the March have helped create an unusual spike in race-related interaction on and off the Internet this summer. So, for that matter, have two movies by African-American filmmakers, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Both have provided plenty of opportunities for “speaking” about race. Yet I’ve noticed that when people “talk” about these movies, they do so acknowledging or, at least, suspecting that there are deeper, more complicated aspects to identity and history than whatever shorthand is deployed by popular culture for “race” or even “class” distinction
Fruitvale Station and The Butler go for the gut more than the head in stimulating their responses. But I think both movies achieve their best effects in what they choose not to do to arouse their audiences’ emotions. In Coogler’s case, it’s his resistance to make his doomed protagonist Oscar Grant III (Michael B. Jordan) either a hapless victim or a sanctified martyr. He’s just a serial screw-up making a one-day-at-a-time effort not to leave messes behind wherever he goes. The slivers of hope that are weaved into the last 24 hours of Oscar’s life are made to seem almost as random or as arbitrary as the circumstances leading to his death You could wish or hope he could be more conscientious about the process. But he’s not you or me. He’s a person confronted moment-to-moment, like the rest of us, with options that don’t always reveal their likely outcomes. So when he’s shot to death at the movie’s eponymous BART station on New Year’s Eve 2008, it stuns us more deeply and intimately than it would if the movie were a more overt indictment of racism and police brutality. A symbol or a martyr wouldn’t leave us feeling as devastated at the end as does this movie’s persuasively human Oscar Grant, especially given Jordan’s thoughtful, composed rendering.
The movie’s tough-minded approach is likewise reflected in its portrayal of Oscar’s mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer), who comes across less as the long-suffering black matriarch of predominantly white imaginations so much as a pragmatic working-class woman who is in constant negotiation with her own heart as to the best way of dealing with her son. Portent and shadow threaten to upend the movie’s levelheaded tone. But that tone wins out; the film’s soft-pedaled humanism maximizes the impact of Coogler’s penultimate blow, reminding everybody who sees the movie that making a sanctified abstraction out of real people like Oscar (and Trayvon Martin and many others like them) is as heinous a crime as what happened to them in the first place.
If Lee Daniels had made similar choices in directing 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, I might not have carried as many qualms about The Butler into the multiplex with me. I was one with the critics who believed that earlier movie to be yet another grim variation on Dem Black Pathology Blues that mainstream audiences have too often and for too long accepted as definitive, comprehensive proof of African American dysfunction. Daniels’s baroque curlicues and smudges (e.g. that Fellini-esque parody popping up on Precious’s TV set) didn’t mitigate the bleakness so much as help mark the whole enterprise as an overwrought extravagance, coated with sociological grease from somebody else’s skillet. I was even less inclined to give Daniels slack a year ago when he’d turned Pete Dexter’s best novel, The Paperboy, into another, even more sodden indulgence.
So I didn’t expect Lee Daniels’ The Butler (What is the huge hairy deal with this guy and titles?) to be a cool, dry model of artistic decorum and to that extent, it matched anticipation. This is one of those movies that starts off moist and stays that way throughout. Even the colors on the screen bleed into another the way they did in The Paperboy as if the whole movie were pre-soaked with salty tears. It’s an unwieldy farrago of elbow-nudging history lessons, domestic (in every sense of the word) tension, bell-ringing uplift, senseless violence and besieged nonviolence. (Question for further study: Which made you cringe more? The out-of-nowhere shooting death in the cotton field or the ascending levels of abuse visited upon the SNCC lunch-counter brigade?)
Still…while I might have wanted something far subtler, less overbearing than what Daniels has put forth here, I found myself giving in to The Butler’s old-school Hollywood storytelling. This is the kind of period melodrama where the periods pile into each other heedlessly and impulsively. Denying the primal power of the movie’s cluttered dioramas is pretending I wasn’t enraptured by any number of Warner Bros. or MGM biopics on the afternoon black-and-white TV sets of my childhood. The historian in me was all too aware of how Daniels’ movie conflated and in some cases blithely ignored the actual chronology of the events sweeping by Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and his family. But I believe The Butler’s main order of business is to convey emotional, rather than accurate history. And it manages to do so without any lurid, excessive flourishes – that is, unless you count the flaccid caricatures of the First Families, which though not quite the alleged Saturday Night Live routines, aren’t terribly resonant either, save for Jane Fonda’s brief-but-effective depiction of Nancy Reagan as a brittle empress packing concealed paradoxes.
But do I mind commercial movies whose black characters are more fleshed-out and central to both theme and action than the white ones (as opposed to the reverse)? I’ll let you ponder that as I finally get around to talking about Oprah Winfrey’s surprisingly saucy and limber performance as Gloria Gaines, Cecil’s wife. As with Spencer’s Wanda, Winfrey’s Gloria appears poised to have a neon sign blinking, “long-suffering”, with her every on-camera appearance. But she turns out to be far too nuanced and complex to neatly embody such a cliché. She drinks too much, cheats on Cecil with Terrence Howard’s trifling next-door neighbor (who at least looks as if he earns a paycheck, too) and harbors deep-rooted, but inchoate resentments that not even Cecil’s devotion and achievement can dispel. Nevertheless, the narrative envelops sufficient time for the mercurial Gloria to grow out of, if not entirely overcome, her flashes of bitterness. Neither absolute paragons nor soapy contrivances, Cecil and Gloria seem more lifelike than the melodrama that surrounds them.
I hear some claim that such characterizations are only possible with an African American director or writer. I remain unconvinced, mostly because of the lingering memory of 1964’s Nothing But a Man, which, though directed by a white man (Michael Roemer) who co-wrote it with another (Robert M. Young), set a high standard for realistic, humane depiction of African Americans in love and trouble. And I’m a little bugged that Cecil’s resentful activist son Louis (David Oyewolo) does come across as something of a cliché; at least to those who may have forgotten that there were reasons why nonviolent activists like Louis got tired of turning the other cheek. And why oh why does the movie decide to transform Louis’s gentle, soft-spoken Movement girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia) into the sullen, Afro-headed demon of both white and black middle-class imaginings? “Low class bitch”? Really? That’s our takeaway from this beautiful young woman who had earlier strained so painfully hard to keep her resolve during the sit-ins? That’s a vulgarization I can’t easily forgive, no matter how many ambivalent feelings I may now have towards the Black Panthers and their fellow travelers.
Nevertheless, I’m glad to see The Butler get over for one reason above all others: For once, a Hollywood movie about black civil rights doesn’t have a white surrogate hero for whom African-American struggle exerts some manner of soulful transformation. Its box-office success (so far) has tempted pundits to believe that black American cinema may have at last achieved its crossover moment. Excuse me if I don’t join the choir on this one, because I’ve heard this tune many times before now. Maybe what can best be said about this summer of Fruitvale Station and The Butler was uttered fifty years ago this week in a speech better remembered for other phrases: It’s not an end. But a beginning. (It’s always a beginning….)
August 14th, 2013 — movie reviews
I never knew before seeing Blue Jasmine that so many people in San Francisco talk as though they lived in Bensonhurst all their lives. Nor, for that matter, did I know there was anyone under the age of, say, 50, who at this point in our history needed to go to something called “computer school” as a step towards taking on-line interior decorating courses. Then again, I bet I could tell Woody Allen a lot of things he doesn’t seem to know from watching his latest movie; for instance, that living in Brooklyn these days isn’t such a comedown from living in Manhattan. I mean, has he even noticed what a two-bedroom-one-bath apartment now goes for in Park Slope? Or even Bed-Stuy?
I’m aware that I now sound like all the knee-jerk Woody bashers who love finding fault with everything he does, inflating their contrarian capital off a reputation that hasn’t been nearly as impregnable as it was in 1979. What I mostly find admirable about Woody Allen these days (and it’s no small thing) is his tenacity in stepping up to the plate every other year just to see if he connects — and how far he can take the ball, whether the critics or the public like it or not. Don’t like that metaphor? How about the old saw of throwing a pile of you-know-what against the wall to see what shape it makes? However you look at it, this is what Allen chooses to do with his life now and if what sometimes results from his habit can be as satisfying as Vicky Cristina Barcelona or as haphazardly diverting as Midnight in Paris, then I’m thinking there are far less salutary ways for a 77-year-old man to spend his time.
Blue Jasmine has been wildly hailed, even by a few habitual Woody bashers, as being one of his best. I wanted to agree, partly because I prefer to cheer Allen on, but mostly because of what’s been proclaimed the movie’s principal asset: Cate Blanchett, playing a lapsed socialite driven to a slow-motion breakdown by the fiscal and marital cheating of her ponzi-scheming husband (Alec Baldwin)., Blanchett borrows much of the Day-Glo manic intensity she brought to her legendary stage rendition of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to make her Jasmine a moist, quivering tower of jolting mood swings and ruined dignity. You stare at her face the same way you can be hypnotized by a wall-sized relief map of the world. All that’s familiar about her is every bit as exotic and mysterious as the places you didn’t know existed. Though she’s more formidable a physical presence than anybody else on-screen, Jasmine still teeters on the edge of sanity like a china figurine on the ledge of a shelf. You just want to be able to keep her from shattering when a fresh trauma jostles the ground beneath her.
It was only after the movie was over and she’d succeeded in breaking down my emotional defenses that I began to wonder whether Blanchett’s virtuosity amounted to a thinking-person’s special effect; something to “ooh” and “aah” over as you’re watching it block out the relatively threadbare thinking that went into the rest of the movie. Once Blanchett’s spell had dissipated, I even began to wonder how clever it really was for Allen’s movie to crib from the Tennessee Williams playbook to evoke the present-day reverb from the post-Millennial bust. It may flatter the professional and amateur spectators in the house to notice how Chili (Bobby Cannavalle), the earthy, volatile fiancée of Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) does or, mostly, doesn’t resemble Blanche’s bête-noire Stanley Kowalski. But that’s a lot different from responding to him as a human being. Even when he’s crying, Chili’s more a narrative device than a person. And this in turn places every other character’s humanity, even Jasmine’s, in doubt.
I’m willing to entertain the possibility that the artificiality of Allen’s tactics may be his point; that crises make us all, either wittingly or not, helpless characters in melodramas scripted by somebody else. However awkward or unearned the San Francisco milieu seems here (even the creepy-crawly dentist Jasmine fends off seems like someone whose office would more likely be based on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights), it’s drawn out Allen’s better technical instincts. His cameras get more moodiness out of Ginger’s cluttered apartment than a less-experienced filmmaker would have dared. But the discordances in the storytelling, including the ones cited at the start of this piece, detract from such graces. I’m still not sure what to make of Jasmine’s harrowing rant in front of Ginger’s children beyond being another occasion to be riveted by the chromatic map of Cate Blanchett’s face. I’m mesmerized by the spectacle while wondering what it’s doing there at that moment.
There’s another performance in Blue Jasmine that’s just as transformative, maybe more so, than Blanchett’s. It belongs to Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, whose marriage and life fell apart from investing his own modest fortune into a ponzi scheme. In his relatively few scenes, Clay conveys all the conflicting emotions of helplessness, bewilderment and unfocused rage common among those of us living in the aftermath of the burst economic bubble. I never thought I’d say this about anything to do with Clay, but I would pay to see a whole movie about that guy and I could even imagine Woody Allen making it – that is, if he could burst through his own bubble and see how the world beyond the East End and the Upper East Side truly lives now.
July 26th, 2013 — movie reviews
The creepiest, most phantasmagorical movie I’ve seen this summer has no zombies, vampires, aliens or mutants. Unless, that is, you wished to apply any or all of the above to characterize Anwar Congo, the Indonesian gangster and wannabe moviemaker profiled in The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s true-life chronicle of how Congo tried to make a glorified cinematic re-enactment of his country’s mid-1960s massacre of thousands of men, women and children suspected of communism. This enterprisingly deadpan inquiry into the banality of evil has slithered its way into our season of sun-and-fun to announce that not only is fiction dead, but so is black (as in absurdist) comedy. Why even bother trying to outgun Nathaniel West when Real Life can hand off an acrid fungus of a storyline such as this?
It helps not only to have reality be so obliging, but to have the collective vanity of killers comply with Oppenheimer’s audacious request. Then again, what is viewed as atrocity almost everywhere else in the civilized world is still embraced as glory by many Indonesians, especially the far-right paramilitary group Permuda Panacasila whose members swarm around the edges of this saga like mean orange hornets. This cluster of baby martinets owes its existence, apparently, to Anwar Congo, who before the failed 1965 coup that led to the Suharto regime, dealt in black market movie tickets and other relatively petty thuggery. For two years, Congo led death squads throughout North Sumatra in a bloody purge of those suspected of being communists, including several hundred ethnic Chinese from whom he and his goons extorted money in lieu of death. Of the estimated half-million-to-a-million murdered throughout the country in 1965-66, Congo figures he personally killed roughly a thousand, mostly by garroting.
In the here-and-now of Oppenheimer’s film, Congo seems less a monster than a foxy grandpa, a leathery coot who clearly loves movies, especially the American musicals and action films that he claims to have been prohibited from showing in theaters by those reform-minded folk briefly in power between Sukarno and Suharto. To the adoring delight of Permuda Panacasila’s younger zealots, he constantly translates the word, “gangster”, as “free man,” which, one supposes, is Congo’s way of justifying wholesale slaughter as a type of cowboy heroism, a celebration of freedom without democracy. (The latter of which is viewed by a paramilitary leader, while whacking golf balls, as a nuisance getting in the way of progress. With such sentiments still holding sway in Indonesia’s government, you understand why most of the movie’s credits, including a co-director, are accompanied by the name, “Anonymous.”)
Congo, our (Scot-)Free Man of Indonesia, is not only willing to put together staged re-enactments of his violent, terroristic acts, he’s anxious for the chance to show posterity the valor and glory of his murdering, torturing brigands, complete with song-and-dance numbers. One of his larger, more menacing henchman even agrees to pose in drag-and-makeup as a gang-rape victim. He reminds you so much of the late great Divine that you think there has to be somebody in this outfit who’s got some sense of irony here. But they’re as serious about their entertainment in contemporary Indonesia as we are about our own reality TV indulgences. (Irony, I guess, is something you can better afford in more democratic realms.)
Other citizens seem just as happy to perform as victims, predators or rabble in this historic epic. He even gets one of his ex-associates to fly in to help, though this associate looks as if he’s already been weighed down through the years with self-recrimination – a warning, unheeded by Congo, of what’s in store. The only things that seem, at first, to bother Congo, on viewing rushes of his movie, have more to do verisimilitude e.g. fashion. (He says he wouldn’t have worn white pants while garroting a victim as shown in one scene. Always dark pants. He never says why…and why should he have to?)
But a pall seeps into the process as one actor, who boasts about turning in his girlfriend’s Chinese father to the death squads back in the day, is helping re-enact a brutal interrogation. At first, he can’t quite get into character as a trussed-up victim who knows he’s going to die no matter what he tells his inquisitors. After a few takes, he starts weeping and sobbing as convincingly as the child performers who were earlier directed to wail over the brutal capture of their grandfather in their living room. It isn’t long before Congo, who casts himself as a movie exhibitor beaten by gangsters for refusing to yield to the autocracy, starts to feel a little queasy himself. By the end of this movie (not the one Congo’s making, but the one he’s abetting), this nausea literally erupts into an ugly, savage retching that, oddly (and perhaps appropriately), leaves no visible residue.
It’s possible that viewers will demand from The Act of Killing more emotional residue; or at least a less abstract approach to such wanton and still-unpunished mass murders. And yet, in being forced to take a more indirect approach to an historic atrocity, Oppenheimer’s film somehow manages to slice your nerves as deeply as any series of gruesome testimonies from survivors. Watching the way deformed memories deforms society is infuriating. Yet this movie’s outcome represents one of the most perversely satisfying of any muckraking documentary of its kind; because The Act of Killing reminds you that no matter how much denial is embedded in a nation’s collective culture, imagination somehow manages to step in as the mind’s own truth squad, the crafty, elusive enemy of anybody’s Thought Police – even our own.
July 10th, 2013 — movie reviews
IMMEDIATE REACTION: What does it mean that while only 26 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes’ scale approved of this movie, 68 percent of audiences have so far liked what they saw? Probably nothing. Maybe everything.
It’s way too long – as are so many big-studio blockbusters intent on showing every single dollar spent on screen. It’s at times a tad too pleased with itself, especially in the way it blatantly samples from so many other (better) movies from Little Big Man to The General (lots and lots from The General, in fact, given all those intersecting locomotives) to the collected works of Sergio Leone, Steven Spielberg and even its own director Gore Verbinski. And while it’s far more respectful towards indigenous Americans than you might believe, you still wonder why they all…well, I wouldn’t want to give too much away even if you have no intention whatsoever of seeing The Lone Ranger. And a lot of you don’t, I’m sure, based on its overwhelmingly negative reviews and its underwhelming box-office results thus far.
That bad odor followed me into a bargain matinee of Lone Ranger this week. I couldn’t help it, being of a certain age wherein I cut my teeth on the 1950s Clayton Moore-Jay Silverheels TV series, devoured the legend’s crudely captivating mid-1960s animated TV version and was as recently as a year ago pulling people’s coats about Brett Matthews and Sergio Cariello’s controversial graphic (in every sense of the word) novel which steeped the creaky old mythos in oily western noir. I had to see for myself how bad the movie was and as I watched, I kept waiting for it to start getting as irredeemably awful as everybody warned me it would. It never happened.
In fact, for all of its problems, The Lone Ranger turns out to be a buoyant, insouciantly subversive ragbag epic. As only a few others besides me have noted, even the aforementioned samples from other movies contribute to Lone Ranger’s fun-house distortions of both frontier mythology and popular culture. Yes, it conspicuously takes on the trappings of a gimmicky action blockbuster with a campy Johnny Deep star turn jury-rigged to draw in those who unconditionally loved the last couple of gimmicky action blockbusters with a campy Johnny Deep star turn. But the movie subjects its own motives and methods to constant scrutiny and, in hit-and-miss fashion, weaves this self-awareness into the narrative with goofball nonchalance. It’s every bit the arch, intricately designed feature-length cartoon that the Verbinski-Depp collaboration, Ringo (2011) was, only with more flesh, blood and gore, so to speak. If this version had come out back in 1981, instead of that misbegotten, deservedly forgotten The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it might have been seen as a genre-transforming breakthrough. Now, it’s just a big fat Hollywood summer movie that seemed destined for cautionary-tale status even before it opened.
I wonder why. Just about every summer preview I’d seen this past spring seemed to be spraying Lone Ranger with bad juju. And, as always, the pundits were more concerned with the packaging than with whatever was inside the box. Why, they wondered, dredge up an eighty-something-year-old radio serial that no one under 50 (maybe, more like 55) knows or cares about? The fact that Disney brought back the “team” that gave a grateful world the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy – which, to this viewer, was at least a movie-and-a-half more than the world needed – seemed to some more like a cynical money-grubbing gesture than a calculated gamble; as if the Giant Mouse was desperately reaching back to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” for its theme parks’ Next Big Thing (though, having seen the movie, I’m damned if I can figure out what thrill ride the company’s going to get out of this one.)
There was also an undercurrent of Depp Fatigue in these advance warnings. In this age of gnat-wing attention spans, the air was buzzing with whispers that Johnny Depp’s high-concept dress-ups were getting thin and (more to the point) less lucrative. Last year’s Dark Shadows applied a coup de grace to the idea of Depp’s outrageousness carrying a movie along. His Barnaby Collins was a blissfully, sometimes poignantly realized reboot. But you kept waiting in vain for the rest of the movie to get better – or get moving. So one imagines the long knives were unsheathed for this Depp turn, especially since he had the cheek to assume the role of Tonto, the title character’s Native American companion. Geez, why not the Lone Ranger? After all, he’s…you know…and you’re…like…and Tonto…He’s…Oh jeez, this is SO awkward….
I’m not going to spend too much time and space here unpacking this issue in all its historical and cultural permutations – and don’t you start with me either. But in the first place, why in the name of John Reid WOULD Depp choose to play the Lone Ranger? Even in the graphic novel, Reid is a decent, dashing fellow who, despite his patrician polish and random knowledge of small firearms, science and anatomy, is the biggest cube in the icebox. Arnie Hammer’s been taking knocks for being a bland, toothy cipher. But that’s what the Masked Man essentially is – and also what Verbinski’s movie chooses to emphasize. Hammer’s just fine in the role; though he does at times betray a level of embarrassment with the hissy fits the movie requires him to toss, especially at Depp’s Tonto, whose reinvention here as both sham and shaman, as trickster and bumbler, as sleazy sidekick and alpha dog, should be lauded rather than castigated. It’s certainly an improvement over the kind of routine abuse Bill Cosby once cited in the second all-time best Lone Ranger shtick by a stand-up comic. (This, of course, is the first.)
And sure, it would have been wonderful for Disney and company to seek out a Native American actor who could bring to this Tonto the kind of comedic timing, deadpan agility and glam-rock swagger that made Depp a star. But we don’t live in that world now. (We should, but we never did and likely won’t in the foreseeable future because trees are smarter, braver and more imaginative than most of the bean counters running the movie industry these days.) As he did with Barnaby Collins and, to a lesser extent, with Willy Wonka, Depp inhabits not just a pop-culture figment of somebody else’s imagination, but our own tangled presumptions about that character to the point where he can upend, shatter and remake those presumptions to his own eccentric specifications. Put another way, it’s hard to think of Depp’s Tonto as red or white (not even with that threadbare makeup cracking and peeling before our eyes.) He’s the stone-faced imp in our collective memory bank, rewiring a hallowed, if anachronistic pop myth so emphatically that even that Kemosabe cube has to rethink his heretofore tidy value system. Also, how can anyone say this Lone Ranger maintains the hierarchical status quo when just about every one of its pale male characters, especially its eponymous hero-savant, comes across as some variant of a “stupid white man”?
This won’t mitigate the carping and it shouldn’t. Just like it shouldn’t have taken 145 minutes to make an entertaining western adventure-spoof. (Blazing Saddles clocks in at 93 minutes; even The Mask of Zorro managed to maintain a brisk, eye-filling pace at 136 minutes, complete with set pieces.) Half the plot strands, even the slingshot-wielding kid who is maybe the Green Hornet’s grandfather, could have been dispensed with. But more not less is, as noted, the profile Hollywood insists upon for action movies. Verbinski’s movie can’t help but resemble a mammoth popcorn spectacle given the global market demands. The real fatigue Lone Ranger represents isn’t with Johnny Depp or even with westerns, though this movie’s perceived failure may have further pushed back the genre’s dim prospects for resuscitation. It’s with the hidebound hot-air chatter over summer tent-poles and trillion-dollar spectacles. If the two guys most responsible for initiating this era of movies now foresee its demise, then the timing for Lone Ranger Redux is even worse. This version should have been made at least thirty years sooner. It could be another twenty years before we can say for sure whether it’s bad or good.
June 16th, 2013 — movie reviews
This really shouldn’t have surprised anybody. I’ll go out on a very slender limb and predict that the 71 percent drop for Man of Steel will be even more precipitous over the next few weekends. Summer blockbusters eat each other like the savage carnivores they are and it’s more than probable that by Bastille Day (or, maybe, the Fourth), Clark Kent will join Tony Stark and Mister Spock at the rickety refuse-truck stop on the outskirts of Hype City wondering where the buzz went. The latter two shouldn’t worry too much about coming back. But Superman? He’s in a vulnerable spot. The last time they tried to retrofit him into a new movie franchise, they did it with a movie with an impressive cast, a generally favorable critical consensus (though hardly an overpowering one) and the requisite big-bang set pieces. But for whatever reason, Superman Returns (2006) collected a indecipherable odor that kept it from re-igniting the franchise. In retrospect, Hollywoodland, the neo-noir biopic probing the mysterious death of George Reeves, was the Superman movie that more people talked about that same year. Maybe because it had a better lead actor? You be the judge. I think it may have had something to do with where the world now places its collective memory of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s 75-year-old creation…and whether it believes it can now do without the myth of Krypton’s Last Son.
Some of this tangled feeling poked through many of the reviews for Man of Steel (a less impressive consensus this time around, but deceptively so) which moped about Zach Snyder’s reboot having few of the “fun” trappings of Superman’s earlier TV and movie incarnations. These pundits lamented what they saw as the heavy hand of producer Christopher Nolan imposing upon their Superman (whomever that may be) the kind of murky shadows and psychological depth that informed his Dark Knight trilogy’s re-framing of Batman. I found most of these complaints inane and ill-informed. Anybody who grew up reading DC comics at any point in the last 50 or even 60 years knows that there is not now and never has been a life story of Superman that wasn’t subject to revision or tweaking short of making him a refugee from somewhere other than Krypton who landed somewhere other than Kansas.. (Remember all those “what-if” issues of the late 1950s and early 1960s? “What If Lex Luthor Was Superman’s Friend?”, “What If Superman’s Real Parents Came to Earth With Him?” and my all-time favorite, “What If Lois Lane Were Black?” You can look that one up yourself.) For what it’s worth, I always preferred the animated versions of Superman above those with Reeves and even Reeve. Look here and here….and, what the hell, even here.
Ah, yes, that reminds me…Remember the first “teaser” trailers they were showing for Man of Steel, the ones that started running sometime during last summer’s political conventions? They were a gauzy montage of images; a butterfly on a swing, some farmland shrouded in morning fog, a fishing boat with grimy bearded men, a little boy playing with his dog amidst backyard clotheslines with some big red towel or blanket trailing behind him…
At the time, I thought: “Smallville Mon Amour”? I’d be up for that. I figured if Nolan, Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer were REALLY serious about dialing everything down to zero and rebuilding the myth from there, they could do a lot worse than take things sideways and make it a more intimate and, thus, more daring species of superhero movie. Sure, you would have bewildered more mass circulation critics, spooked the global distributors and angered the carny rabble. You might even risk flopping worse than, say, Breakfast of Champions or Gigli. Good or bad, you wouldn’t have left anyone indifferent. And what’s more: People would have been talking about your movie beyond opening weekend and (maybe) kept the buzz going all summer long.
As it is, Snyder’s reboot – though, as others have pointed out, it’s as much Nolan’s picture as it is the director’s, if not more so – manages to broaden the myth’s expressive possibilities while fulfilling the corporate mandate of blowing things up, literally and figuratively speaking. (More on this later.) Up till now, the romance of being Faster Than…, More Powerful Than…, Able to Leap…, etc. emitted such a powerful hold on our imaginations, at whatever age, that it rarely , if ever, occurred to us to ask what should have been the myth’s most pressing question: How do you adjust to life among other humans if you’re so drastically, even cosmically different from everybody else? A lot of us ran to comic books looking for heroes who were empowered, rather than diminished by being different. What’s best about Man of Steel is its willingness to drink deep from that dilemma. I loved the whole subplot about Clark (and, later, the other Krypton survivors) reeling from the sensory overload caused by being able to see through and hear everything around them. It’s the last thing the lazier savants want to hear: That being super is just another way of being seriously fucked.
There was one moment that chilled me more than anything else in Man of Steel or any other superhero movie in recent memory. It came when Kevin Costner, in his most striking big-screen performance in decades as Jonathan Kent, is reminding his adopted son to resist disclosing his powers, even if they were needed to save his schoolmates from drowning in a waterlogged school bus. “Should I have let them die?” Clark asks. A pause from Pa seems to last forever before he finally mutters, “Maybe.” There’s a web of weary, conflicted emotion enveloping that reply and if the rest of Man of Steel managed to modulate its gaudier impulses in the same manner as Clark struggled to rein in his hearing, it might have been something major, instead of…just big…
…and loud…and messy…I mean I hate being predictable, but count me among the wet blankets who left the theaters grousing about the ringing in their ears and metal shavings in their mouths from all the concussive property damage, the bloodless (and thus, ultimately, numbing) carnage and the multiple rounds of false climaxes that are supposed to let everybody know how much Warner Bros. has spent to keep you distracted. (At least that last Dark Knight movie tried to be clever with its post-traumatic red herrings.) I think I also agree with this writer that there was something especially unnerving about the last of its climaxes — and not in a good or even terribly imaginative way; while I can’t believe I’m still not trying to spoil anything at this point, that climax also looked as if the movie makers were trying to extricate themselves (literally) from a corner & copped out with the least fuss possible.
To sum up: Rather than open new ways to expand or interrogate the Superman myth, this movie turns him into just another action hero who, though he may indeed be hotter than any other (at this point, the only thing people keep talking about after the show’s over is Henry Cavill’s off-the-charts eye-candy quotient) doesn’t exactly make you curious to see where he goes next. And maybe that’s the movie’s biggest problem. But it may also be a problem with our first true superhero, the template upon which all others have been fashioned. The novelty of seeing a man fly faster than sound has worn off, though we’ll never get tired of seeing him surprise others with his feats of strength. (Those vignettes of Clark wandering from one grimy outpost to another, leaving shock and awe in his wake, make up what genuine charm the movie carries.) However Man of Steel ultimately fares in the marketplace, I don’t think they’ll leave the story hanging this time. But rather than whatever the movie’s detractors claim to miss in wit and charm, I’d settle for the simple pleasures of the unexpected next time around.
For instance — and this is in no way a knock on Amy Adams, to whom I remain avidly (avidly) devoted — but, I mean, what about…I mean…why not:
As I said, a sense of wonder….