Entries Tagged 'movie reviews' ↓
April 16th, 2013 — movie reviews
If you retold Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by moving it several hundred miles upriver, replacing Huck with an older, craftier version of his friend Tom Sawyer and making Jim a younger, more articulate family man, you might well have the true-life, mid-20th-century’s Greatest Story Ever Told: How Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson engaged on a perilous two-man odyssey to force racial integration down major-league baseball’s throat and make America like it. The difference being that Huck, in refusing to turn Jim over to slave hunters, only thought he was going to hell. Jackie Robinson, throughout that trailblazing 1947 season of triumph and torment (mostly the latter), came as close to an earthbound purgatory as any mortal should have endured.
It’s a story that, much like Huck’s, never loses its power to simultaneously unsettle and inspire. And as with Twain’s masterpiece, no feature film could adequately do it justice, though at least one, The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), made a crude, earnest attempt with the genuine article sportingly, if woodenly, starring as himself. (It’s still interesting to see as a curio of its time and for watching two of our greatest actresses, Ruby Dee and Louise Beavers, on-screen even if they’re only playing silhouettes of Robinson’s real-life wife and mother respectively.)
42, the freshest rendition of the Jackie Robinson parable, is shinier and more authentic than its predecessor – which doesn’t mean it’s any less earnest or doggedly elemental in its execution. I would have no trouble whatsoever exposing a young girl or boy to Brian Helgeland’s digitally enhanced diorama. (It should probably come with one of those labels Milton Bradley used to put on its board-game boxes saying, “Ages 7-14.”) As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman emits the same smoldering intensity as the genuine article while suggesting, at times, some of the prickly-heat feistiness the major leagues would see once he no longer had to turn the other cheek. His scenes with Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson have a genuine ardor and unassuming sweetness rare in any movie with an African-American romantic couple. I’d be tempted to say it was a breakthrough for black movies if I thought the movie was all about them. And it isn’t.
For what the story of Jackie Robinson’s trial-by-fire has by now become (in ways that Huckleberry Finn never could) is an occasion for America in general and white people in particular to congratulate themselves on their capacity for change. Boseman’s Robinson may have more dimensions than the version Robinson himself enacted sixty-something years ago. But he is still less a fully fleshed character than a stoic presence, sustaining unspeakable punishment for his country’s sins. This doesn’t in any way mitigate his heroism or importance. But much as America’s astronauts, however fearless, were basically instruments of their country’s scientific and political will, Robinson was the instrument of one man’s far-sighted version – and determination to overcome his own shame for his beloved game’s racial myopia .
We’re talking, of course, about Branch Rickey, 42’s true protagonist, the man who pulled the strings for this “great experiment” and made sure none of them were clipped. There sometimes seemed almost as many leading men in Hollywood yearning to play Rickey as there were wanting to play Chet Baker, though a far more motley group in the latter queue. Harrison Ford makes the most of his rare opportunity to go big, broad and hard. I hear some gripes about Ford going too far over the top – which discloses nothing so much as the complainers’ ignorance of baseball history. Outside of, say, Bill Veeck, Larry McPhail and George Steinbrenner, Branch Rickey is the only baseball executive whose larger-than-life presence is worthy of a movie. If anything, Ford seems at times a little too conscious of Rickey’s many facets (which, in Red Smith’s immortal turn-of-phrase, were all turned on). But it’s such an endearing performance throughout that you even enjoy Ford’s straining to get it just right.
The rest of the actors pretty much carry out their roles in this parable as expected, though history would have been better served by showing that Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (the admirable, under-appreciated Alan Tudyk) wasn’t the only one in that team’s dugout ragging Robinson so viciously. (The late Richie Ashburn was one of the few players on that team in that era who owned up to such taunting and expressed his deep regret for it.) Poor old Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) must once again be properly humiliated for trying to whip up his white Dodger teammates in opposition to Robinson – though in later years, he pleaded for forgiveness from the press and public. As for Christopher Meloni’s Leo Durocher, he’s such a magnetically funny and vividly rendered character in his precious few moments onscreen that when he’s compelled to leave the team (and the movie), you wish you could follow him out the locker room door to watch what happens to him – and, of course, Laraine Day (Jud Tylor). There’s another movie waiting to be made, and if they’re smart, they’ll let Meloni continue in the role.
As for 42, it may not cut as deep as most of us would like. But it may say something about my own diminished expectations of Hollywood that I doubt we’re going to get a better movie version of this story for some time to come. Dioramas and comic books are what sell in the multiplexes these days and as long as the outlines and colors are reasonably aligned and the proper emotions are aroused, then I’m willing to settle for harmlessness as a virtue; just as long as nobody tries to sell 42 as genuine progress. Popular culture as a whole still can’t accommodate the complexity of a real-life Jackie Robinson who in the years since his arduous rookie season was fueled by unceasing rage and uncompromising passion for justice. Indeed, Hollywood movies in general still can’t adequately deal with emotional complexity of any kind — and may have stopped trying.
February 25th, 2013 — movie reviews
Here are some things I didn’t have time or space to squeeze into this CNN thingee. (I had to sleep sometime after all):
1.) Watching some of “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last night & noting how the post-Oscar cast was more enjoyable, and a tad funnier, than what it followed (& that includes Your Local News), it occurred to me that all awards shows, except maybe the Tonys, will have to become desk-and-couch affairs if they expect to survive as annual broadcasts. I know historians now regard David Letterman’s turn-at-bat as a cataclysmic whiff. But imagine how he’d have done if he’d been in his comfort zone with Paul pouring the necessary smarm over everything. It may be another ten years or so before that happens, by which time desk-and-couch shows will be as obsolete as analog phones.
2.) If this year’s producers were so damned anxious to have a Broadway feel to this thing, why didn’t they just call Neil Patrick Harris to the captain’s chair & let him go nuts? He & Billy Crystal may be the only two people alive who know how to go meta with this glitz while still respecting it as glitz. Good luck boosting next year’s ratings.
3.) You know what was even more enjoyable than Kimmel or the Oscars? Cruising Facebook & Twitter for immediate reactions to last night’s awards. Maybe the future will really involve people showing up on red carpets in fancy clothes before heading into chat rooms to tap out the individual impressions through their FB pages or shoot their own video. The Academy will take care of the rest by mailing out the statuettes in advance. In Anne Hathaway’s case, at least, I though they did, anyway.
4.) I wasn’t surprised that both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty got relatively shut out, even though I thought right up to the end that the hacks respected Tony Kushner’s ability to effectively dramatize difficult material. Instead, the hacks got theirs by raising a middle finger to those who slapped Quentin Tarantino upside his head for turning slavery into, if you will, pulp fiction. (As I told CNN, wait twenty years…)
5.) Paraphrasing Oliver Stone, there’s the way America is & the way we ought to be. Argo, as I wrote in my CNN piece, was the way Hollywood & America prefer imagining themselves while Lincoln, The Master and Zero Dark Thirty reflected, in different ways, what they, and we, really are. That the Academy voters let controversy (or at least its prospect) get in the way of acknowledging those movies suggests that even the opposite edges of the continent are as polarized & tied-up-in-knots as the rest of America.
6.) People ooh-ed and aah-ed over Michelle Obama’s hook-up with Jack “King” Nicholson. (She has that effect on people, especially after she did the hippy-hippy-shake with Jimmy Fallon last week.) What I was hoping for, ever since last summer, was an excuse to put Clint Eastwood on stage last night and have Michelle’s husband show up in a chair off to Eastwood’s left. “Did you have something to tell me?” the president would have asked in, of course, the nicest possible way. A braver world than this would have allowed it to happen. As last night awards made clearer than ever, we do not live in a brave world, except when we’re tossing snark through our keyboards. In the meantime, I love you, Amy Adams & wish you better luck next time.
February 17th, 2013 — movie reviews
Not to press the point too hard, but for those who’ve seen Django Unchained and still wonder, or even care, about its relative closeness to historical authenticity, there is this much about which they can be reasonably assured: Most white folks were as serious as cancer about not letting black people ride horses. Didn’t matter if they were free or not. After all, if slaves see other colored people on horses, they may start getting…ideas. Livestock wasn’t supposed to have ideas. And livestock wasn’t supposed to be riding on top of other livestock either. Silliest damned thing a southern planter with any wits about him could bear to imagine. Like having a goddam goat riding a pig! Now don’t that sound wrong as hell?
Livestock: Let’s be emphatic, shall we, as we “observe” yet another Black History Month. It didn’t matter way back when whether the black people looked like Kerry Washington or Oprah Winfrey, like Jamie Foxx or LeBron James, like the incumbent president of the United States or his stunning wife or their two lovely daughters. If they were in the American South before 1863, they were all livestock and not even papers claiming their freedom could ensure that they wouldn’t be arbitrarily tossed into a corral, roped, branded, chained and treated only a feather or two better than the chickens.
If you’re livestock and leave the corral, they’ll put you in a cage. And you don’t ride anywhere unless the cage somehow rides with you – or you walk behind any white man on a horse, even if that white man is stupider than you, or his horse.
A movie, I say with mild embarrassment, first placed this gross disparity before my callow sight line. The Scalphunters, released in 1968, was the third feature film directed by Sydney Pollack, a name I’d recognized from some quirky television work as well as a feature he’d directed three years before, The Slender Thread with Sidney Poitier and Telly Savalas as psychiatric caseworkers trying to save Anne Bancroft from suicide. This particular movie was a western with another intriguing interracial star pairing: Burt Lancaster as a fur trapper and Ossie Davis as an educated fugitive slave he’s forced to acquire as compensation for the pelts he loses to a group of cagey, sybaritic Kiowa.
The trapper, Joe Bass, rides off after the tribe while making the slave, Joseph Lee, stumble along the trail after him, mostly on foot. Joe is, after all, a man of his times and those times dictate that he should eventually sell off Joseph Lee to whomever offers the best price. To his credit. Joe does let Joseph Lee ride the horse just long enough for the latter to attempt a getaway. One whistle from Joe and the horse tosses the disconcerted slave from the saddle. (Bass: “You seem to have an uncommon prejudice against service to the white-skinned race.” Joseph Lee: “I don’t mean to be narrow in my attitude.”)
When they catch up with the Kiowa, they’ve pretty much emptied Joe’s whiskey supply. “You ever fight twelve drunk Indians?” Joe Bass asks Joseph Lee. “No, sir,” the latter replies, “but I’d like to see it done.” But before that show can start, it’s pre-empted by marauders roaring and slaughtering and relieving the tribesmen of their scalps and of Joe’s purloined furs. Joe Bass considers the genus of outlaw making money off dead Indians’ hair to be “the wickedest, crookedest trade to ever turn a dollar.” Joseph Lee, who intimately knows an even more wicked way of making money, can only stare back in what seems to be incredulity. We’re not quite sure how long before the Civil War this tale is set. (I’ve read some accounts that place it in 1860.) But we know by this point that Joseph Lee’s smart enough to keep his counsel here.
Still, for the first part of the movie, you wonder how Ossie Davis maintains his own composure. At the time this movie was made, Davis had achieved international esteem as both an actor and a writer with a successful play, Purlie Victorious, in his resume. He’d also established considerable credibility as an activist and was the principal eulogist at Malcolm X’s funeral in 1965. One was used to seeing Davis by the late 1960s, in varied roles on-screen – save for a leading one, despite his magnetism and warmth. But even though he shared top billing with Lancaster, a man of greater intelligence and deeper liberal conviction than Joe Bass, Davis must have thought at least a little harder than usual about the idea of playing in an antebellum comedy-western in which the only role available to him would be that of a runaway slave, albeit one who spent most of the movie choking down rage and humiliation with foxy erudition and oneupmanship.
Keep in mind, also, that the year this movie was released (the same week that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis), Davis was in the vanguard of a wave of African American writers publicly chastising William Styron for writing what they believed to be a facile (at best) novel about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave revolt. At the time, many of these writers, including Davis, were asked why they hadn’t written a novel or play about slavery. Davis, I seem to recall, at least acknowledged that he hadn’t written his own work challenging Styron’s vision — though he would in 1969 appear in a movie, Slaves, memorable, if at all, for being Dionne Warwick’s first — and last — starring role in a motion picture.
Davis didn’t have to perform in that silly, overwrought movie or write his own play or book to contribute to the culture’s evolving view of American slavery. If he wanted to make his own response to Styron’s Nat Turner, either as correction or counter-text, his Joseph Lee was more than enough. Within minutes of his appearance on-screen, Davis lets you see his character’s cultivation, grace and instinctive ability to tame the savage white man. You also see his wit, dignity and, as noted, his slyness. The joke of a black slave being smarter than the he-man white hero made for a nice gimmick in the years when multi-racial casting in westerns was still a relative rarity; westerns themselves now being relative rarities. Indeed, the white male characters in Scalphunters, including the marauders’ bonehead ringleader Jim Howie (Savalas) are nowhere near as smart as Joseph Lee, the crafty Kiowa chief Two Crows (Armando Silvestre) and Howie’s sassy significant-other Kate (Shelley Winters, sultry and kittenish in what was likely her last sex-bomb role).
But there’s a point in the movie – a sharp, glistening point – when Davis emerges as much more than a clever plot device. It comes as Joseph Lee, having accidentally fallen into the marauders’ camp and then finagling his way into accompanying them to the Mexican border, goes back to where Joe Bass has been a one-man guerilla force in pursuit of his pelts. He greets Bass’ hostility with both a supplicating smile and a bottle of whiskey from Jim Howie’s private stock. “I thought,” Joseph Lee grins, “you could maybe use a drink about now.” Bass takes the bottle with contempt for the way Lee accommodated himself with the gang, not even bothering to acknowledge Lee’s facility for survival – or his urgent need to go to a country where there is no slavery All Joe can say of Joseph’s resourcefulness is: “Throw you in the pig pen, you’d come out vice-president of the hogs,” he spits. (See? Livestock…)
When Joseph then asks if he could have a sip, Bass snarls back, “If I was to give you a drink of this whiskey, it’d be like pourin’ it out in the sand. This is a man’s drink. And you aint no man. You aint no part of a man. You’re a mealy-mouthed shuffle-butt of a slave and you picked yourself a master. So don’t go askin’ to take a drink with a man.”
At that dreadful moment, all of Joseph Lee’s canny defense mechanisms vanish, exposing a bewildered, wounded and somewhat volatile visage. It’s as if Bass’s cruel words yanked away the slave’s shirt to expose the scars of several dozen lashings, not all of them physical. Davis makes his face register a host of warring emotions before it changes into something harder and tougher than what the audience, up to that point, had been accustomed to seeing. (As with the greatest actors, he does this before you’re even aware that it’s happened. And Davis, make no mistake, was one of our greatest actors.)
Joseph, recovering his voice, lowers it. He tells Joe Bass just how small and stupid he really is, without using either of those words. And then he says, “You know how long you’d last as a colored man? Ten seconds.” That single line does the work of several-hundred words of steamy, hopped-up rhetoric by Leonardo DiCaprio or Christoph Waltz in Django about the ingrained distortions of humanity that remain the principal legacy of America’s Original Sin. Before long, the two of them will end up slugging each other in a mud hole, only to ultimately be left behind yet again, with one horse, no furs and no passage to freedom. The difference is that, this time, they both wear brackish, grayish coatings of caked, wet dirt. With no color distinctions between them, they’re just another pair of wayward desert flotsam.
Back in 1968, there were some who likely believed such an ending rubbed the audience’s faces in social consciousness, so to speak. Yet I’m willing to bet if any contemporary Hollywood movie tried the same approach, some would say they were being too subtle. A movie like The Scalphunters could take its time, keep things light, make its points by stealth. Now some would wonder if it’s being too frivolous. As the many Joseph Lees in history who made up their beings as they went along would tell you, there are as many ways to be tough and resilient as they are to telling stories. This crafty little movie, which somehow got lost in an emergent wave of boundary-busting Hollywood films, deserves our attention for making that deceptively simple point.
January 29th, 2013 — movie reviews
IMMEDIATE REACTION: I know what you’re thinking. At this late date, who am I to put twigs on a fire that’s dying out anyway? After all, nobody cares a fig what I think about torture. I’m not sure I care either. It’s like what Randy Newman said about the Spanish Inquisition that “put people in a terrible position/I don’t even like to think about it/Well…sometimes I like to think about it….”
1.) I’m just going to throw this out: The Hurt Locker is a better movie, though there are stretches of righteous filmmaking in this one; not surprisingly, they all come as the movie approaches the precipice of shattering violence. (The build-ups to both bombings, especially the Christmas morning attack; the whole climax, etc.) It’s not entirely Kathryn Bigelow’s fault any more than it’s Jessica Chastain’s fault that she’s stuck playing not a character so much as a state-of-mind. (More on this in a minute.) To me, doing this story so soon is like someone making JFK in 1966 — and something tells me if Oliver Stone were able to do so back then, he would have. Even before the movie was released, I was wondering what the rush was to get this story on-screen, irrespective of the controversy over torture. (More on THAT in a minute, too.) If I chose to practice armchair psychology (& since it’s just us talking, why not), I’d guess that K.B. was drawn to the idea of a brilliant, ballsy young heroine whom no one — no MEN, specifically — takes as seriously as she demands to be taken. (I’d love to see K.B. someday do HER side of James Cameron’s The Abyss, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the same story.) I think Zero Dark Thirty is taking a beating mostly because its narrative is still current enough to be mistaken for journalism where if it were made and/or released ten or twenty years from now, the movie would be viewed correctly as historic events filtered through imagination. It may take twenty years for that to happen anyway.
2.) By now, I’ve read & heard just about every attack on Zero for its depiction of torture; that it glorifies or misrepresents torture as being key to getting a lock on Bin Laden’s whereabouts or is shilling some kind of thinking-person’s version of “USA! USA! USA!” triumphalism. (For balance’s sake, I shall include both Greg Mitchell’s measured dissent of the movie in his Nation blog and Glenn Kenny’s elegant and thorough skewering of the movie’s attackers.) As I’ve already said, I think the movie kind of asked for the pummeling it’s getting by throwing all this stuff out there unmediated by time’s passage & the intervening revisions & disclosures that could broaden understanding of the whole War-on-Terror era. But if the leftist pundits out there truly believe that the movie’s audiences are going to watch these waterboarding-and-boxing-in scenes & feel in any way ennobled or roused by the CIA’s savvy, then it sounds to me as though they’re not only underestimating people’s intelligence (to say nothing of their capacity to be grossed-out), they’re sort of buying into the blinkered bullshit about the Power of Movies without any real knowledge, intuitive or otherwise, of what that Power really is. (Getting back to JFK, do you really think that movie changed anybody’s mind about whether or not Oswald acted alone? If anything, that movie bullied people into thinking, “Who cares anymore who killed Kennedy?” — just as, it could be argued, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X swallowed or exhausted whatever public acrimony or controversy remained about its subject, too.)
3.) And as for the triumphalism, I REALLY don’t get where that criticism comes from. You most emphatically do not walk away from Zero Dark Thirty feeling cleansed, cathartic or especially patriotic. If anything, it comes across as an anti-revenge revenge movie, if that makes any sense. From the very beginning when you hear the wailing of the soon-to-be-dead woman in the soon-to-collapse Twin Towers to the very end when you see Chastain’s Maya, isolated on a transport plane she has all to herself, weeping & desolate & not quite sure anymore who she is or where she goes from here, Zero Dark Thirty resounds as nothing so much as a melancholy dirge on America in the ten years between the raids of both 9/11 and 5/1; of what we became or compelled ourselves to become in the wake of a heretofore unimaginable trauma. (This review, from what seem like eons ago, puts it better than I just did. )Maya is the embodiment of that mind-set, a blank space upon which we’re supposed to project our own seething desire for closure or payback. She doesn’t have any past except the one we’re supposed to conjecture. (Did she have some connection with the woman on the phone in that 9/11 prelude? I haven’t read anything that suggests that, though I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.) That Chastain makes this enigma substantial enough to carry this movie is, I suppose, reason enough to give her an Oscar nomination. Still, a blank space is no substitute for a real person & not even that moist coda she delivers is enough to make me believe in her. She likely had less to work with in The Tree of Life & she somehow evoked everything about that mother’s past, present & future. I guess if Zero does anything for her, it’ll make her a convincing starship captain in some Star Trek sequel, assuming she ever wants to go where no method actress has gone before.
4.) So little does Zero troll for patriotic cheers that I think it hurts its own chances for collecting any Oscar whatsoever. Argo. Now THERE’S a movie that makes you stand up and go “USA! USA! USA!” at the end. It’s the principal reason the Academy now regrets not giving Ben Affleck a director’s nod & why it now looks as though his movie’s poised to eat everybody else’s lunch, even Abe’s. Just as Rocky trounced All the President’s Men & Network in 1976 & Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the movie that makes Hollywood feel better about itself will likely clobber the movies that feel too much like Homework. (Remember: I’m forcing myself not to care this year who wins what…)
January 8th, 2013 — movie reviews
NOTE: I’ve also written a piece for CNN.com covering most of the same ground here. If you want to compare or contrast, click here.
IMMEDIATE REACTION: If loving Django Unchained is wrong, then I don’t…well, let’s see. What is it exactly I don’t want to be? That is the question. One of many…
Let’s tip off with a question that may not have an immediate or easy answer: Which movie better empowers black audiences? An historic drama, more or less factually-based, in which white men argue over and eventually move towards ending slavery – if not racism? Or an historic fantasy, rife with vulgarity, anachronism and impropriety, in which a freed black slave lays waste to every white southerner impeding his reunion with his wife — and gets away with it?
I am not asking which is the better movie, Lincoln or Django Unchained. Both have their problems. But it’s possible, despite their flaws, to enjoy them both for what they are, while accepting what they are not. I did not expect Lincoln to be much different from any other Steven Spielberg movie (though, until the ending, it is) and I certainly didn’t expect Django to be anything other than a Quentin Tarantino movie (and it is, only more so, for better and worse.)
For whatever it’s worth, my issues with the movie have more to do with craft than substance. I think Django talks too much, even for a Tarantino movie; and I also think that many of its scenes go on for too long, almost as if the movie’s afraid to let go of whatever effect it thinks it’s making with those people in the dark. It occurs to me, as well, that Tarantino’s been ripping himself off too cavalierly. I watch the set-pieces of wholesale slaughter and think, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was watching Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Japanese have been turned into southern whites.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. I laughed at Don Johnson and his night-riding stooges throwing hissy fits over whether to keep their masks on. I was almost touched by the slave girl’s impromptu bon mot aimed at Django’s baby-blue fop’s outfit. “You’re free…and you want to dress like that?” I didn’t buy any of it. But I was into it. And part of me hates myself for it. But I’m not sorry I saw it.
All right, then. So what am I asking? Get comfortable. I’m going to digress.
Back in 2006, I reviewed Blood Diamond for Newsday, giving it the two stars I routinely doled out to generic Hollywood mediocrity. I acknowledged the importance of the movie’s theme, which was the exploitation and wholesale murder of black Africans for the sake of the pink diamond trade. But I found myself chafing over the way this movie, along with so many of its kind, depicted its dark-skinned characters “as wholesale cannon fodder, doomed-but-noble ciphers or sneering bloodthirsty sociopaths.” I also lamented how the always-exemplary Djimon Hounsou, cast as a fisherman from Sierra Leone searching for his captured son, was used mainly as a vehicle through which the morally indolent white mercenary played by Leonardo DiCaprio Finds His Humanity (or something like that). At one point, Hounsou’s character even wonders aloud whether his people’s black skin constitutes some sort of curse “and [that] we were better off when the white man ruled.” No one, certainly not DiCaprio’s character, bothers to engage, much less contradict, this query. And, of the movie’s critics, I recall only the Nation’s Stuart Klawans calling the movie on this odious hogwash.
This is how I ended my own review:
“I suppose we should be grateful that there have been so many commercial features in recent years (“Hotel Rwanda,” “The Constant Gardener” among them) that pay attention to Africa’s woes. But even the best of them seem to writhe from hopelessness to despair and back again. Maybe what the continent needs are some empowering pulp myths far beyond the hoary model of Tarzan. A good start would be to cast Hounsou as the lead in a movie about the Black Panther, Marvel Comics’ first superhero-of-color. An African king who’s both a world-class physicist and a supreme martial artist may not be plausible, but he could broaden moviegoers’ sense of what’s possible.” (ITALICS ADDED).
Some readers, at least those who got that far, seemed to have a problem with this notion. One used the word, “infantile (which over time I’ve accepted as a back-handed compliment). But what is so childish about African American audiences wanting their on-screen counterparts (or surrogates) to be more than merely victims? I believe even white audiences get excited when conventional expectations, especially in race and cultural matters, are upended, if not exactly transcended.
This is the excitement I hear from people after they’d just seen Django Unchained. I doubt whether any of these viewers bought their tickets with the expectation of seeing some historically faithful saga of antebellum life, and neither did I. They were buying a comic book. Many people have a grievance against the very notion of comic books, but I don’t. I understand that comic books as a medium are limited in what they offer their clientele. So are the movies, especially those who cruise the multiplexes for loose coin. Expect a movie or a comic book to explain everything about anything and all you earn is surplus sadness in your life that you don’t really need.
Even with the narrowest expectations about historical veracity, however, things get complicated when the subject matter is American slavery, European Holocaust or any number of similar assaults upon humanity. Hence the reaction to Django, after less than a month of swimming in the mainstream, ranges from sheer exhilaration to outright hostility, with the usual gradations in between.
Much of the resentment seems aimed exclusively towards Tarantino himself; a visceral dislike which I think has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s outright refusal to see the movie, tossing grenades at it all the way. Ishmael Reed, writing in the Wall Street Journal, believes Tarantino shows willful, if not willed ignorance of history, both American and cinematic. He writes: “To compare this movie to a spaghetti western and a blaxploitation film is an insult to both genres. It’s a Tarantino home movie with all the racist licks of his other movies.” Reed aimed this laser shot at the Oscar-nominated actor who plays the treacherous “house slave”: “Samuel L. Jackson…plays himself.”
I doubt Jackson felt the blow. He has, in fact, further provoked the movie’s antagonists by running straight at an interviewer asking about the movie’s prolific use of the “N-word,” refusing to answer the question unless the reporter, who is white, actually says the dread epithet aloud. (He didn’t.)
Though I disagree with Reed’s conclusions, I think everyone who saw Django should read his piece for its flying shrapnel of loose insight and, most important, its disclosure of what has always been a relevant source of disquiet: The debate over whether white artists have the right to tell any part of the black American story – which, as Reed writes, is as old as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
It is also as recent as 1967 when the white southern novelist William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel told in the first-person voice of the brilliant-but-doomed leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. The outcry from African American novelists was so intense that a collection of essays, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond was published a year later. When I was a credulous, anxious-to-please teenager, I was so in thrall to the authority exerted by those black writers that for decades afterwards, I refused to even go near Styron’s book.
I still haven’t read it. But I plan to, because I now believe that James Baldwin, a friend of Styron who was one of the few African American authors speaking out on the book’s behalf, had the right take from the beginning: “I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours.”
It’s still sound advice – and in the intervening years, black authors have taken it. Indeed, if anyone’s earned the right to rail at Django, it’s Ishmael Reed since, unlike Spike Lee, he’s actually created his own antebellum thriller that’s as funny, provocative and calculatedly anachronistic as Tarantino’s. I can almost hear Reed erupting with outrage over the sheer notion of my comparing Django with his 1976 book, Flight to Canada. But as I insisted to friends and fellow readers at the time (and continue to do so), even with all its musical-comedy interludes, burlesque elements and television cameras, Reed’s shrewd take on the slave-narrative genre had more trenchant, telling and useful things to say about the Peculiar Institution than Alex Haley’s Roots, which was ascending, that same year, to the rare stature of pop-cultural phenomenon. When Haley’s book became a television mini-series, it affected America’s racial attitudes as nothing of its literary kind since…Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No one’s bothered to do anything with cinematic Flight to Canada. Or, for that matter, with Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage, two other antebellum satiric adventures written by an award-winning black author.
In 1987, there was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which did get adapted for the big screen eleven years later by Jonathan Demme. But even with Oprah Winfrey’s imprimatur as producer and co-star, the movie earned about $26,000,000, roughly half of its $50,000,000 budget. And while all I have is anecdotal evidence, I remember many of my African American relatives and friends who told me they were not going to see Beloved, no matter how good it was or who was in it, because they simply did not want to watch a movie about slavery, or its legacy.
This reluctance to engage with the subject of slavery is duly noted in Jelani Cobb’s ruminative take on Django:
“In my sixteen years of teaching African-American history, one sadly common theme has been the number of black students who shy away from courses dealing with slavery out of shame that slaves never fought back. It seems almost pedantic to point out that slavery was nothing like this. The slaveholding class existed in a state of constant paranoia about slave rebellions, escapes, and a litany of more subtle attempts to undermine the institution. Nearly two hundred thousand black men, most of them former slaves, enlisted in the Union Army in order to accomplish en masse precisely what Django attempts to do alone: risk death in order to free those whom they loved. Tarantino’s attempt to craft a hero who stands apart from the other men—black and white—of his time is not a riff on history, it’s a riff on the mythology we’ve mistaken for history. Were the film aware of that distinction, Django would be far less troubling—but it would also be far less resonant. The alternate history is found not in the story of vengeful ex-slave but in the idea that he could be the only one.”
Cobb’s ambivalence approaches my own point-of-view, even though I still liked the movie better than he did. As with other critics, he laments Django’s lapse into revenge-movie mode. I lament the fact that almost EVERY big-studio film is built for revenge, even romantic comedies. (What, after all, is Skyfall but the mother-of-all-revenge-fantasies with different agendas for vengeance overlapping and colliding into each other like a freeway pile-up?) No matter. If Django Unchained did nothing else but arouse re-examination of “the mythology we’ve mistaken for history,” then all the trouble and fuss it’s caused will have been worth it.
December 18th, 2012 — movie reviews
This is what I have instead of a Top-Ten (or Not Top-Ten): A handful of oddities that I’d wanted to bring up sooner rather than now. Chances are that, except for number two on this list, none of them will be in play during awards season. (And I’m already getting fed up with awards season even though it’s barely started.) So before this year ends (and it turned out to be a better overall year for movies than I thought it would be at midpoint, though still not as great as fifty years ago), here’s some surplus babble about stuff you’ve already forgotten about.
Moonrise Kingdom – Full disclosure: I was, as is the hero of this movie, 12-going-on-13-years old in the summer of 1965. I was so hopeless at making and keeping friends that I was bullied by boys even geekier than I. This may partly explain why I was drawn to this Wes Anderson movie more intimately than any of his others. I didn’t have an off-shore island at the edges of northern New England to escape to, except for whatever zone of solitude I was able to create for myself in the middle of southern New England. And I didn’t know then that what I really needed to deliver me from my pre-adolescent miseries was a gangly, brooding girl my own age with a violent temper, a yen for Benjamin Britten and a protective instinct towards fellow outcasts. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve felt nostalgic for a past I never had. It is however the first time I’ve been genuinely touched by a Wes Anderson movie with real people (as opposed to the animated Fabulous Mr. Fox, which I also liked a lot despite the perpetually grandstanding, self-aggrandizing hero-figure all too typical of the Anderson c.v.) The guess here is that Anderson’s experience with making Mr. Fox helped tighten his narrative flow and keep his own gangly-ness under control. There’s a generosity-of-spirit towards his characters here that one associates more with Renoir or even Preston Sturges than with Wes Anderson; even the mean kids don’t seem so bad once you know them a little better. It doesn’t exactly make me want to go back to Rushmore or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou for a visit. But I might give The Royal Tenenbaums or Darjeeling Limited another try after the New Year.
Beasts of the Southern Wild – This one still gives me trouble and I’ll try to keep the reason why as simple as I can: As much as I wanted – and waited – to be transported by this movie, I wasn’t. I keep wondering if this was my fault since Beasts has landed on the Top-Ten lists of critics I respect (and a few more of those I don’t). Yes I am as captivated as the rest of civilization by Quvenzhane Wallis and I believe Dwight Henry’s performance as her tormented, but ferociously loving father was itself a masterwork of empathy – and not bad at all for a man whose day job is baking. I also am all in with anybody’s efforts to coax magical realism from beneath the topsoil of American folklore using recent trauma (e.g. Katrina) and potential catastrophe (e,g. global warming) as psychic sources. But all the while I watching it, I felt as though I were willing the movie to become what it was trying to be instead of being drawn into its dreamy phantasmagoria. And just so you know, I hold no brief with those who find the movie in any way condescending towards its characters, especially when they’re as doughty as Wallis’ Hushpuppy or as complicated as Henry’s Wink. I suppose that even in a dreamland such as this, you can’t afford to find yourself drifting along for as many stretches as you do here. By the time the Aurochs finally got to the Bathtub, or vice-versa (go ask somebody else), I felt more detached from the dream than I should have been. The father and daughter were the only reasons I still cared. And that might have been enough in other movies. But not for one as ambitious as this.
Looper – Some of my friends, even those who claim to like science-fiction, contend there wasn’t much more to Rian Johnson’s thriller beyond a premise fitting more comfortably in an hour-long episode of The Outer Limits. I’d have watched such an episode several times over and I still wouldn’t have found the cunning verisimilitude Johnson sustains throughout this spirited chase through time. Ideas are what set off a science-fiction story. Plot is how you roll with it. But atmosphere, especially in an SF movie, is what keeps you staring at it. The way telepaths stuck at the bottom of the world off-handedly show off their kinetic skills, either from boredom or for drinks, makes you recognize a future you’re not sure will ever exist – or, on the other hand, doesn’t exist in some form right now. When an SF movie is really bad, there’s nothing worse. (Ask my old pals, Servo and Crow.) But when it’s as supple and smart as this, few things are better.
The Avengers –I have fonder memories of this comic-book movie than those of The Amazing Spider-Man (which had its own arcane charms) and The Dark Knight Rises (which had Marion Cotillard). Mostly, I just thought, pound for metallic pound, this had more antic energy being pumped into our collective foreheads. I also think it’s unfortunate that Mark Ruffalo’s shrewd, incisive performance as Bruce Banner, The Hulk’s alter-ego (or, to be more clinically accurate, super-ego), is destined to be overlooked for awards because of all the popcorn butter sticking to its surroundings. His quietly magnetic evocation of a lost intellectual struggling to contain his bone-deep fury stole the movie from all the buff physiques surrounding him. Somehow with all the other super-heroes and double-dealing villains looking either too anachronistic or too sleek, Ruffalo’s tweedy-but-wary reticence seems more above and beyond its immediate environment. He’s almost too good for the movie he’s in – and yet the movie would be even more disposable without him.
Robot and Frank – If Looper’s science-fictional premise seemed to skeptics custom-made for hour-long television, then Robot and Frank’s could fit into an installment of a half-hour series comprising unsold sitcom pilots. (I mean this as a compliment, because I grew up as a fan of those old summer anthologies — or of what Robert Klein once swept beneath the rubric, “Failure Theater.”) It’s a small, decorous movie that maybe needed to sublet some of Looper’s or, for that matter, The Avengers’ insurgent energy so it could leave deeper resonances. Frank Langella plugs up the more fallow aspects of this story with a beautifully enacted portrayal of a retired second-story man with creeping dementia who bonds with a talking appliance. You come away remembering him – and carrying at least one cutting irony: That an old man with an active grudge against a billionaire seeking to replace the printed page with all-digital texts uses artificial intelligence to carry out his vengeance. Those of us who roughly share a certain age might leave this movie wondering how much time we have left to pull off our own capers against a future we didn’t ask for – which constitutes as much heft as this lighter-than-air movie can take.
December 9th, 2012 — movie reviews
Flight (IMMEDIATE REACTION: By the way, who was that kid playing the cigarette-smoking cancer patient on the stairwell? Let’s see…James Badge Dell. He’s really, really good in this. Wonder if he’s as good with hair as without?)
Gene Siskel told anyone who brought up the matter that he believed Roger Ebert, his longtime TV tag-team partner, to have been a better writer than he was. That he was right only underscores how he may, by only a few millimeters, have been the better critic. I wish there were a published collection of his reviews that buttresses that contention. All I have instead are memories of his off-the-cuff insight on the old At the Movies programs. For instance, I remember when Siskel tossed into the broadcast his suggestion that if any contemporary movie actor was best suited to play James Bond, it was Denzel Washington. This seemed at the time (late eighties, I’m guessing) such a daring leap of imagination that one wasn’t sure it was allowed to ooze through a TV set. But not that daring since, by the first Bush administration, Denzel Washington had proven that he was cool enough to carry a movie, even if it wasn’t necessarily his movie to carry. (See Glory or, for that matter, Philadelphia, which he pilfered, fair and square, from Tom Hanks.) And much as I love defending Pierce Brosnan from undue criticism because it makes some white people I know very angry, the Bond franchise couldn’t have done any better or worse in the intervening years by taking Gene up on his modest proposal.
If anything, playing Bond would have held Washington back. He never needed anybody’s franchise to establish his own lucrative brand because he can not only carry a movie, he can open one – which was, as recently as the nineties, historically unheard-of for an actor-of-color who wasn’t named Bruce Lee or Sidney Poitier. Early in Washington’s career, I remember a colleague claiming that if anything held him back from being a major star, it was his innate sweetness; a quality she believed drew audiences in while making them incredulous that he could ever be totally malicious or crazed. I knew what she meant. Washington could keep you off-balance, but he never entirely scared you, not even in his Oscar-winning role as a deeply bent cop in Training Day. But keeping you off-balance is good enough to keep you interested without putting you off – a perfect formula for drawing total strangers to the nearest multiplex for repeat visits. What people expected from a Denzel Washington movie was a really competent guy (with an edgy, somewhat remote exterior) capable of handling highly combustible circumstances, saving a bunch of people — and, often in the process, teaching hard lessons to younger (usually white) people.
The pre-release trailers for Flight led audiences to believe they were getting the same thing; Denzel at the controls of a mortally-wounded airliner, barking out orders, seeming to have it all together, waking up apparently surviving, saving lives and…and…well, what’s all this about finding excessive alcohol in his bloodstream? Hey, it’s not a Denzel Washington movie without rough edges, right? Those trailers made it seem as though Washington’s character was being unjustly accused of something and hinted that somehow he would find a way to clear his name.
You don’t see those trailers anymore. Flight’s cover has been fully blown. Washington’s Whip Whitaker may be as supremely proficient as many of his archetypical roles. But that alcohol in his blood is not exactly a red herring and he most assuredly does not have it all together. Put plainly, Whip’s a sick bastard, a functioning alcoholic with razor-sharp instincts for both handling heavy machinery and denying his disease. The same cues of cool audacity audiences expect from a Washington performance are positioned here to make his character smaller, even wormier, than usual.
Which sounds like a gi-normous risk for a movie star of Washington’s stature to take. But Washington isn’t just a big star, but a great actor. He punches up Whip’s fighter-jock arrogance with a knowing swagger that leaves the scenery bereft of bite marks. But he also lets you see, in still moments, the puffy, baffled ruins of a proud man’s self-esteem. Watch Whip’s eyes as he faces two of the surviving crew members, imploring them to help him stay out of jail. “I really need this,” he tells chief flight attendant Margaret (Tamara Tunie) and he looks as needy and vulnerable as any lost junkie grubbing dollars for a boost. (He’s scarcely less feral at such moments than Kelly Reilly’s waif-ish addict Nicole.) Oddly, that innate sweetness mentioned earlier as a detriment to his star power remains within the audience’s reach as a safety valve for its sympathy. Deep down (all right, really deep down), there’s a happy little boy that used to love his life and his calling before his drinking hit the nightmare stage.
You wish the rest of Flight were as conscientious and adventuresome as Washington. The reviewers are correct in proclaiming it the best film Robert Zemeckis has directed since Cast Away back in 2000. But the movies in between, 2004’s The Polar Express and 2007’s Beowolf , were motion-capture experiments that never get past the point of being, at best, merely interesting And yes, that crash-landing makes for a damned harrowing set piece. But it’s not as though Zemeckis hasn’t made a plane crash before – even though in retrospect Cast Away’s disaster-at-sea emits the keep-hands-in-the-car-at-all-times aura of a sensory thrill ride. Flight’s central catastrophe, though its details are more scarily accessible to our nervous systems, has its own issues of razzle-dazzle to overcome – and, just maybe, some plausibility problems as well.
What bothers me most about the movie can be summed up with the depictions of the characters played by John Goodman and Bruce Greenwood. The latter’s portrayal of Whip’s old Navy buddy and union rep is fashioned with a quiet dignity and persuasive empathy while Goodman brings to Whip’s boyhood chum and dealer the leathery brio and seedy flamboyance of a Sons of Anarchy supporting player. They’re both fine at what they do, but just suppose the two characters had switched roles, but not temperaments? If Greenwood had been a quieter, more reasonable-seeming enabler of Whip’s self-destructive habits and Goodman a more antic, less circumspect defender of Whip’s civil liberties, the movie might have seemed less conspicuously a pure product of Hollywood and more like something that challenged expectations as decisively as Washington’s performance. (The minute Goodman, with dark-glasses and ponytail, sashays into view with “Sympathy for the Devil” pumping into his ear buds, you can barely keep yourself from yelling back, “We get it, OK? He’s fracking Satan! You don’t have to flash the semaphores and sirens!”)
This isn’t meant to denigrate anybody’s performances, least of all those of Goodwin and Greenwood, both of whom I’m always delighted to see on the big screen. Everybody in the movie, in major and minor roles alike, is first-rate. It’s just that the movie’s overall vision can’t or won’t match Washington’s capacity to transfigure both his heroic aura and the addict-in-crisis subgenre Flight ultimately represents. Washington not only carries this movie. He is the movie. He’s the only reason you stumble out of the theater, blinking, groping and checking your own judgment for leakiness. It’s the crowning glory of everything he’s done thus far – and it’s too bad he wont get a third Academy Award for it, even though there was maybe a week after the movie’s release during which he was considered, more or less, a shoo-in. He’ll still get nominated (and after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?) But as much as I love Lincoln and its titular , titanic peformance, Denzel Washington would have had my vote if I still had one to give at the New York Film Critics Circle. Gene Siskel, I like to think, would have understood why.
November 14th, 2012 — movie reviews
Lincoln – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: And what if last week’s election had gone the other way? Would that 13th Amendment have been repealed? Oops. Spoiler…Sorry about that, those-of-you-who-slept-through-high-school-history….)
Race prowls, growls and snaps along the edges of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as it never could throughout the recent political campaign. And to briefly digress, the evasions have only gotten worse since last Tuesday. So far, no one in what Sarah Palin and I love to label the “lame-stream media” wishes to acknowledge the specter of racism in these calls for secession by spoilsports in Texas and elsewhere. I’d like to believe, as Lincoln widens its presence in the Great American Multiplex, that the neo-Victorian lummoxes now wasting their energies on the Petraeus-Broadhurst Misadventures will be compelled by the movie to see this neo-Confederate furor as the maypole-dance-for-bigotry that it is. But as a good friend of mine sadly reflected today, it would have been nice to think that last week’s election results meant we’d finally put away all our childish things.
As vital as I think Lincoln is to generating a more perfect discourse on race and union, I think the movie’s gradual release better facilitates such maturity. A more big-footed nationwide bust-out of any Spielberg movie conditions audiences to expect pyrotechnics and razzle-dazzle, if not dinosaurs and aliens. This is a deliberately-paced, serious-but-not-altogether-solemn epic that needs all of its 150 minutes to convey the urgency, languor and ultimate viability of the democratic process. If Steven Spielberg’s showmanship can’t make compelling cinema from material as multi-layered as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, nothing can. It can, and does.
(And, for the record, boys and girls, there are plenty of dinosaurs and exotic beings in this one as well, if only metaphorical ones. You’ll see what I mean.)
As with Amazing Grace, Michael Apted’s handsome, relatively neglected 2006 movie about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t about African American rights so much as it is about politics itself, and how time, personality, and the velvet-fisted power of persuasion can converge to bring about epochal, seemingly miraculous transformation. Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery (little noted and not as long remembered as the Emancipation Proclamation) provides a surprisingly wide lens for viewing the contradictions and complexities of both the Republic and its haggard-but-dauntless leader in the final months of its greatest crisis. Among the many small miracles wrought by Tony Kushner’s script (and the movie is as much Kushner’s as it is Spielberg’s, maybe more) is its seamless compression of the personal travails of its protagonist with the brilliant calculation of his maneuvering. You’d have to know going into the theater that, however much the movie is packaged as civic education, you’re not going to visit a stone edifice. You’d also have to know that Daniel Day-Lewis, whose preparation is so diligent and fertile that it can sometimes spill onto the scene, nails down everything there can possibly be about Lincoln’s voice and physical movement, even the way he nestles against his sleeping youngest boy, to leave little or no doubt that this is how “our one true genius in politics” (vide Robert Lowell) really behaved in sorrow, anger and, most tellingly, in jest. (Would it really ruin things for you if I disclosed that Lincoln tells a dirty joke in the movie? Or would it make you more curious? Either way, I’m not sorry. At least I didn’t tell the joke.)
As good as Day-Lewis is, it’s not as dominant a performance as you might expect — or dread. Tommy Lee Jones, that proud son of the once-and-future Republic of Texas, dines robustly on scenery as the Pennsylvania abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, treated so shabbily by D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation and here given some of the better lines not assigned to Lincoln himself. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, though nowhere near as edgy as Mary Tyler Moore’s version in the 1988 TV mini-series version of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, is as persuasively grounded as she is borderline hysterical. Everyone else, from Bruce McGill and David Straithairn as cabinet stalwarts Edwin Stanton and William Seward, respectively, to a near-unrecognizable James Spader as ringleader of Lincoln’s back-ally lobbyists, makes vivid use of on-screen time, even Lee Pace as the flamboyant Copperwood Democrat Fernando Wood who wanted New York to secede and Justified’s peerless Walton Goggins, his wormy magnetism on that show checked here in the role of a tremulous fence-sitting Democrat fiercely tugged by both sides in the amendment debate.
And what about the African Americans? Well, as seems customary in the aforementioned lame-stream, they talk less here than they are talked-about. Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker and “confidant” to the First Lady, is permitted here to ask Lincoln the question most black people are more likely to ask of him now: How, Mr. President, do you really feel about us? Mr. President finesses the answer in the movie with precisely the same ambiguity with which he dealt with the race question all his life. (He was never as ambiguous on slavery itself. The distinction isn’t as clear here as it perhaps should be, but it’s there.) David Oyewelo, as one of the black Union soldiers speaking directly with Lincoln at the movie’s beginning, is far less credulous, peering at the president’s amiable façade with visible skepticism over its owner’s commitment to that “new Birth of Freedom” cited at Gettysburg months before the movie’s story begins.
But if black people aren’t as conspicuous as whites in Lincoln, race, as noted earlier, rages insistently throughout, stalking the historical figures like a rough, fearsomely mythological beast whose presence drives everyone’s actions, even – especially – the hesitation or outright refusal to act at all. And the movie is not the least bit shy implying that it is hysteria towards the very idea of “race-mixing” rather than the dark race of the despised minority itself that is most complicit in the Civil War’s bloodshed. Nowhere is this made more visually striking than after the unsuccessful attempt by Confederacy vice-president Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and his “commissioners” to retain slavery as a prerequisite for a negotiated settlement between North and South. The impasse fades to the image of a city in flames illuminating the night, followed by a gloomy ride by Lincoln and assorted military officers through a sooty, corpse-riddled battleground in Virginia. At such a point, those familiar with Lincoln’s life and words might be inclined to think of his 1858 speech in Edwardsville, Illinois when he dares to ask whites about dehumanizing and subjugating blacks: “Are you quite sure the demon which you have roused will not turn and rend you?”
I bet Tony Kushner knew that speech. I’m also betting that Kushner, who’s on-record defending Barack Obama’s circumspection and cool resolve against the dismissive criticism from Kushner’s left-wing allies, worked on this screenplay over the past few years with the intuitive sense that the 44th president’s struggles to finesse necessary transformation against ferocious and, at times, irrational opposition mirror those of the 16th president. Such perception gives his script a breadth, passion and level of commitment rivaling those of his stage work, notably, inevitably, Angels in America.
Lincoln, as the film takes pains to point out, is not perfect – and neither is Lincoln. Its ending comes across as Spielberg’s surrender to the temptation of making things obvious to the audience. It needed to end a few minutes earlier. (No, not this time. See for yourself.) Still, though we’re all in dire need of remedial history and (God knows) civics, Lincoln arrives not as a $50 million classroom lecture, but as a deeply enthralling diorama of tragedy and triumph bridged by the worst (avarice, bigotry, meanness of spirit) and best (equanimity, perspective, the enduring power of the open mind) from our many selves. And in case I didn’t make it clear at the outset, I’m as surprised by all this as you are – or will be.
November 6th, 2012 — movie reviews
Cloud Atlas – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Too much cheese can be bad for your health…unless you have nothing else to eat.)
On the printed page, Cloud Atlas implied, ruminated and teased along the edges of profundity. On the big screen, it blares, shouts and gushes how significant it’s trying to be. As you’ve heard by now, the movie is several thrilling romances in one enveloping 165-minute epic. So it’s not surprising to find yourself subdividing your overall reaction. I guess, then, as with some of my peers, I was alternately engrossed, impatient, enthralled, bemused, touched and incredulous – and never bored, though I’m damned if I can figure out how that happened. I didn’t always admire the film. But to mimic those who have only now finished campaigning for public office, I approved its message. And its message, in spite of what you may have read in reviews or heard from “advance buzz”, has less to do with reincarnation or karma as it does with freedom – or, more to the point, how we behave when freedom is absent.
To some critics, this recurring motif seems too obvious or banal to merit any “serious” consideration. But this presumes that every other commercial feature deals in such themes with as much grandeur and insistence as this six-ring circus of time displacement. The Wachowski siblings, who shared directorial duties with Tom “Run Lola Run” Twyker, made themselves golden when, with The Matrix, they suggested that your life may not belong to you while at the same time offering metaphorical routes towards release. You find this riff echoing through the parts of the movie belonging to them – the 1849 storyline about a Caucasian attorney and a Maori slave taking turns at saving each other’s lives; the 22nd-century dystopian saga of a Korean clone who finds her humanity by revolting against her masters; the post-apocalyptic tale of a tribesman disoriented by encountering relics of a lost civilization. The Twyker-directed segments – the 1936 thread about a dissolute young composer’s ill-fated encounter with his own greatness; the 1975 thriller about an investigative reporter’s set-to with ruthless energy-industry thugs; the present-day comedy about a publisher’s efforts to escape unjustified confinement in a dour nursing home – blend with the others better than you’d expect. But not quite seamlessly enough to notice some wobble and strain in the total package.
All the actors in the film in various roles – from Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and James D’Arcy to Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, Donna Bae and Jim Sturgess are forced to wear varying layers of make-up to keep your heads in the game of trans-temporal souls. You get the feeling they’re not just engaged in role-playing, but in a genuine cause. They don’t get too many chances to tell stories about slavery and freedom either.
I suppose I should make a bigger deal of Cloud Atlas’ lapses in restraint and judgment in order to maintain my auxiliary membership in the Justice League of Curmudgeons. But while I can’t wholly recommend it, I can’t get out from under it either. And it’s mostly because while I don’t buy its pitch, I buy what it’s selling. I’m assuming I’ll hear a lot of talk about slavery and freedom in Spielberg’s Lincoln. But whatever its own merits, I doubt I’ll feel the direct sting of such issues as directly as I do here.
Arbitrage – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So, like, am I supposed to care what happens to this putz? And, if so, why?)
Hollywood’s golden age submitted for immortality a strikingly diverse male iconography: Cagney, Tracy, Gable, Cooper, Bogart, Wayne, Stewart, Mitchum and Grant. In their place, we have a handful of lizard kings: Cruise, Travolta, Cage, Willis and Jeff Bridges, especially his recent run playing grizzled-guys-of-blearily-compromised-dignity in both Crazy Heart and True Grit. Even Denzel Washington, who’s apparently proven yet again that he’s a standard-bearer for that aforementioned golden-age, won his only lead-actor Oscar so far by playing a distressingly bent police detective in 2001’s Training Day.
As good as Washington was in that movie, not even he can go into lizard mode with as much panache as Richard Gere. Mistaken at the starting gate (as was Alec Baldwin) for a dashing heroic lead, Gere is at his best playing characters who occupy that narrow range between morally conflicted and balefully duplicitous. It took a long time for audiences and critics to get that message given what I now suppose were the unreasonably large expectations Gere aroused back when ABBA ruled the hemisphere. Critics regard Gere’s own bent-cop turn in 1990’s Internal Affairs as the beginning of his revisionist period. But the evidence of lizard élan could be found as far back as 1979’s American Gigolo; its Julian Kaye lacking only the self-knowledge and articulation of Gere’s latter variations of the well-groomed, two-faced sharpie, whether as the blithe trick in 1990’s Pretty Woman or the ardent trickster in 2007’s The Hoax, which I was certain would nail down an Oscar nomination for Gere.
I have the same expectations for Gere’s splendid work in Arbitrage, though I suspect the results will be the same because the movie, as with Hoax, hasn’t gotten audience buzz strong enough to match the mostly-positive critical reaction. And what do I know anyway? I expected Margin Call to hit big with audiences and Academy voters a year ago. But I should know better by now. People may be mad as hell at Wall Street and the avaricious, short-sighted bastards who manipulated the economy to the edge of a cliff. But as far as today’s audiences are concerned, there’s no point in dragging these greed-heads out for further exposure unless Batman, Spider-Man and even The Hulk step in to beat the shit out of them. And I’m not sure they’re wrong to expect it.
Robert Miller, the besieged Master-of-the-Universe Gere nimbly portrays in Arbitrage, is a silver lynx in pinstripes, gliding into well-apportioned rooms as Julian Kaye did, only with barely-contained apprehension replacing Julian’s self-conscious swagger. Miller’s a bounder, an adulterer and, as with all true Americans, a serial improviser. He’s keeping law-enforcement wolves at bay on two fronts: By browbeating (charmingly, of course) his way into a merger that will paper over his hedge fund’s illegal oopsie and by buying off his former chauffeur’s son for helping him evade the scene of a fatal accident.
I’m only guessing the extent to which writer-director Nicholas Jarecki disapproves of such slippery-eel behavior because the game Arbitrage plays is one of compare-and-contrast ethics. Are the police, spearheaded by Tim Roth’s Colombo-esque bulldog, any more admirable for trying to get at Robert by terrorizing the African-American youth who’s merely keeping his word? After all, Robert’s rewarding his silence with money and what matters more than money? Justice? Robert would say you can buy that, too, though that’s the one thing he doesn’t bid on here, unless you count the merger. (Can’t say any more without spoiling the movie, which is still floating through the multiplexes before its December DVD release.) Despite Gere’s shrewdly-rendered performance, Arbitrage lets him down because, no matter how calculated its ambiguity, it doesn’t have the weight to do more than tweak its audience’s moral imagination. And if I’m going to spend an hour-and-change staring at yet another Master-of-the-Universe ensnared by his own machinations, tweaking isn’t enough inducement. Not after this election anyway.
Savages – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Not as bad as you’ve heard. In fact, the last time I had this much unadulterated fun at an Oliver Stone movie was…was….wait, it will come to me…)
People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s trying too hard to make a point. People give Oliver Stone crap when he’s not trying to make a point at all. Seems as though the only thing people don’t give Oliver Stone is a break – though it’s also true that, as with other maestros of the inflammatory/declamatory feature (see also “Lee, Spike” or “Moore, Michael”), he can be his own worst enemy. To deploy what seem to me appropriately martial metaphors, I tend to prefer the epee and the switchblade to the double-barreled shotgun for aesthetic approaches. But Stone’s blast-the-walls attack can yield arcane charms if you’re in the mood. And for any number of reasons, I’m more in the mood for Savages than I ever was for JFK, Born on the Fourth of July and even Platoon.
You could say – and I will – that Savages is Stone’s vision of the movie business as sifted through a SoCal crime thriller of dealing drugs and death. Its ménage-a-trois of Aaron Johnson’s Ben, Taylor Kitsch’s Chon and Blake Lively’s O-for-Ophelia is a too-neat analogy for the way Hollywood does business – or imagines itself doing business. Ben and Chon make their huge coin growing, packaging and marketing the sweetest, tastiest marijuana north of Baja. Nice guy Ben uses his take to help poorer countries become more self-sufficient in food production while hard guy Chon lays down the thunder to those who try to shortchange them out of profits. O, the triangle’s gauzy hypotenuse, loves them both for being twin poles of what she sees as The Perfect Man.
Inevitably, this beautiful dream is assaulted by a Mexican drug cartel, headed by a ferocious, helmet-haired Salma Hayak, that won’t accept “no” to their bid for a hostile takeover of Ben and Chon’s enterprise. Toss in Benicio Del Toro as Hayak’s sociopath enforcer and John Travolta as a morally flexible DEA agent and you have the kind of freewheeling comic misanthropy that once made you giddy to go to the movies in the mid-1970s. And if you still think Stone’s trying too hard, consider the two-for-one climax as a promising sign that maybe he’s starting to take everything less solemnly than before.
October 23rd, 2012 — movie reviews
“SEYMOUR MOVIES” was the title of my long-lost weekly TV review block for WPIX-TV. (Hey, guys. How’s it going up there? Miss you much.) It’s re-invented here as a new blog feature that won’t run as regularly. Another installment will follow this one soon. Promise.
The Master — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: I don’t care how great a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is; I am never going to his house to watch sports with his friends if they’re all like his main characters.)
If I ran a repertory movie house, I’d set up a double feature with Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line leading off and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as its companion piece. I’ll bet you they’d flow so seamlessly into each other that audiences willing to sit through the whole program would swear they were the same strange movie. And I would bill the double-feature, for either Veterans Day or Memorial Day, under the general rubric: “The Greatest Generation: Approach With Caution.” Here’s another one: “War is Hell and So Are Other People.”
You’re never allowed to know the specific kind of trouble Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has seen during World War II. But you’re free to guess the worst from watching Freddie distilling moonshine from toxic industrial wastes and humping sand-sculptured women. Never mind if he was unhinged before the war; only a rare strain of shellshock (an expression I will always prefer over PTSD) could have caused such a severe case of nervous decompression. .
The protagonists in Anderson’s movies are either highly combustible (Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood; Barry Egan in Punch-Drink Love) or highly malleable (Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; almost everybody in Magnolia). Freddie carries both these extremes into the only place where someone like him could find comfort and release: a pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical cult whose leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) fills in the dark, empty spaces in Freddie’s soul. Not even this outfit can meet his amorphous needs – and the movie’s bleak theme may be that nothing can.
It’s a forbidding takeaway and the movie’s frosty, near-clinical diagnosis of such angst won’t win your heart. Phoenix, improbably, almost does in the way that an injured wolf, however much he snarls and tears at you, can subdue your resistance with its whimpering. As unnerving as Freddy is, you come away worrying about his future. I’m also kind of worried about Anderson’s. The Master can only enhance his long-term prospects for moviemaking immortality. But it leaves you wondering how hard he’ll press his ongoing inquiry into the nature of need. Addiction itself can only be his next logical subject and it’s more than a little scary to wonder how he’ll frame that discussion.
Argo – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Is Bryan Cranston the greatest American actor?)
The tight spaces of Argo’s narrative and settings don’t give Ben Affleck the kind of room he had in both 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town to show his facility as a director with gritty atmosphere and smoldering passion. If anything, Argo’s account of how six American foreign service workers were extracted from post-revolutionary Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew seems more like a calling card for Affleck’s potential television work in case the feature-film thing doesn’t work out.
This movie’s success with critics and audiences so far seems to assure Affleck of more chances at the helm, even if his performance as CIA operative Tony Mendez, the escape plan’s mastermind, seems contained to a fault. But then, containment seems to be the movie’s prevailing motif. The decision to shoot every character, even Kyle Chandler’s perfectly puffy rendition of Carter chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan, as if each was in a box too small to hold them works to the movie’s advantage by boxing in or, maybe more accurately, bottling up your dread and anticipation throughout. There would be no purpose in making a movie like Argo unless you can make your audiences worry how the story’s going to turn out – even when they can easily research the outcome before they buy tickets.
So far, the only actor here who seems to be getting anything resembling Oscar buzz (Really? Now?) is Alan Arkin as the brash-but-soft-hearted movie mogul who cooperates with the Agency by selling the idea of a fake Star Wars rip-off. Arkin’s fine and John Goodman, as the droll makeup artist who serves as middleman between the spooks and the suits, is even better. But you’ve seen them do their respective shtick before, however effectively mounted here. The performance that most conspicuously breaks through the tightly-wound story line belongs to the increasingly legendary Bryan Cranston, who is yet again playing a character with warring intentions, though there’s no reason to place his harried Agency middle-manager Jack O’Donnell in the same clinic with Walter White, the self-justifying sociopath Cranston’s made immortal on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It would be easy for most actors to play O’Donnell at a single high pitch as he’s pushed around by those above and below his GS level. Somehow, Cranston makes O’Donnell’s passage from skeptical boss to harried controller to steely improviser seem recognizable to anyone who’s either supervised or been supervised towards an impossible deadline. He seems too well-adjusted to be involved in such abnormal shenanigans, which is precisely what makes him authentic in this welter of quick-change deceit. I doubt such intelligent work will be rewarded with an Academy nomination. Cranston will just have to settle for covert acclaim – at least for the time being.
The Paperboy — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So oily and greasy, I could fry a whole chicken in it.)
Books are books and movies are movies and I’ve been acutely aware of the difference since sixth grade when I tried to pawn off a book report of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea based solely on the Walt Disney movie version – and, yes, I am still ashamed of myself, thanks for asking. But I’m hearing so many people, even a few I trust, saying Paperboy the movie is the fault of Paperboy the book that I am compelled to pick up my magnifying glass and serrated tweezers to split a few hairs I might have otherwise left alone.
I’m going to fix upon what may be the smallest of these hairs: Yardley Acheman. In Pete Dexter’s book (which, since I have the floor, I will declare one of the two best novels written by my former Philadelphia Daily News confrere while withholding for now the other one’s title), Acheman’s a white journalist who sees himself as a stylistic dandy when compared with his bloodhound colleague Ward James. Despite his own propensity for turning newspaper work into something perilously close to poetry, Pete carries an abiding bias towards hard-working, nose-to-the-ground reporters like Ward over “New Journalism” peacocks such as Yardley and I badly missed that subtext in Lee Daniels’ movie, where subtext along with subtlety has been tossed over the side like so much tainted cargo.
In said movie, Yardley is a black Englishman (David Oyelowo) who’s supposed to be the “word man” on an unnamed Miami newspaper to the “leg man” here re-dubbed Ward Jansen (depicted by Matthew McConaughay with more peacock swagger than one might have expected.) I don’t know why the name change had to happen, but I’m guessing that the novel’s 1965 setting was moved four years ahead in order to make more plausible the idea of a newspaper-reporter-of-color coming to a small Florida town to help prove that a white swamp rat named (as in the book) Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of murdering a bigoted local lawman.
It’s still not plausible. African-American reporters were barely integrating northern newspapers in 1969, making it more improbable that black tabloid transients were being imported from overseas to juice up New South broadsheets. And they sure as hell weren’t getting jobs as “New Journalists” in New York as Yardley’s supposed to have achieved in the movie. I was looking very hard for black New Journalists in those days because I badly wanted to become one. That’s how I know this is bullshit.
Defenders of both the movie and Daniels shrug at such anachronisms. It’s a vision of the past, O.K.? No one expects Imitation of Life or The Long Hot Summer to be documentaries of their time and place. Word. But whatever you may think of those 1950s melodramas to whose levels of warm moisture and socio-cultural itchiness Daniels’ Paperboy seems to aspire, there’s a spike of emotional truth that cuts through their respective levels of gauziness and muck. This movie’s glib re-jiggering of Yardley’s identity and purpose into a racial-sexual red herring signifies a preference for gaudy effects over the kind of honesty that’s ONLY possible in great melodrama. Someday, assuming Daniels gets more chances to deploy his over-the-top blend of raciness and grotesquerie, there may well be retrospectives devoted to his body-of-work, his – if you will – vision. I may even be around to bear witness if I choose to. I will find something else to do.
Oh, yeah. Don’t know if you’ve heard but Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron’s jellyfish bites. Have I ruined it for you? Guess what? That’s not even the grossest thing you’ll see.