Tuesday, October 06, 2015

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a great movie.  I never want to see it again.

This harrowing film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northup, brings to life the cruelty and inhumanity of the antebellum South through a faithful recreation of Northup’s luring away from his New York home, subsequent enslavement, and eventual repatriation to the land of the free.

The recreation is served by the production designer’s careful attention to detail, scarring performances on the part of the cast, and careful direction and photography that highlight the jarring cruelty of slavery by showing just how routine that cruelty had become.

The production design is immaculate.  From period construction equipment to architecture to clothing, 12 Years a Slave is better than a museum: it doesn’t just show us where people lived and what they used and wore; it shows us how they lived there, how they used the materials to hand, how the clothes they wore actually looked in motion.

The cast, well, it’s remarkable. Lupita Nyong'o as a fellow slave trying to maintain some humanity provides an unforgettable performance.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, as slaveholders of variable degrees of humanity, provide contrasting images of the corruption of absolute power.  Paul Dano, as a foreman who, though below Cumberbatch and Fassbender on the social ladder, absolutely assumes his God-given superiority over the slaves under his dominion, creates a character of both weakness and power – a difficult, but important, station to portray. The anchor, as he is for so many films, is the great Chiwetel Ejiofor, who Can Do No Wrong.  His intelligence, his humanity, his fear, and his desperation provide both a hero for the film and an audience identification character.  From Dirty Pretty Things to Kinky Boots and now to 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor is putting together a filmography that’s marking him as one of the most compelling actors working today.

Of course, without the right director and photographer, all this hard work would come to naught.  Director Steve McQueen and DP Sean Bobbitt, however, are up to the task.  Watching their film, one can almost feel the heat and humidity of the Louisiana Bayou.  One can almost smell the stench of a slave quarters.  Most importantly, one can understand how life goes on even as men and women are captured, tortured, raped, murdered, and buried in shallow graves time and again, year after year.

And of course, this is all part of our American heritage, as much a part of the fabric of our country as the rockets’ red glare or the New Deal.  It’s a part of our heritage we know about, but kind of gloss over because it’s so painful to contemplate.  That pain is why I don’t want to see 12 Years a Slave again, though I’m glad I saw it once.  Do not miss 12 Years a Slave.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Life Itself; All is Lost

Purely by coincidence, this turned out to be a death-themed post.  Sorry about that.  Here's a picture of a puppy and a kitten.

Life Itself

Roger Ebert is to the amateur movie blogger as Big Papi is to the beer league softball player.  Life Itself, a biographical documentary about the man and his declining months, doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know from watching his shows, reading his reviews and his blog, and following his career.  Nevertheless, it makes us part of the celebration, makes us witnesses to the man.  It’s an insightful, touching film, and I think Roger would have given it a thumbs up.

All is Lost

I watch a lot of movies on the installment plan: 20 minutes on the elliptical here, half an hour in an airport lounge there.  Do not watch All is Lost on the installment plan.

The movie’s about a solo mariner (Robert Redford) sailing his yacht across the Pacific Ocean.  When the yacht collides with a floating shipping container which smashes a hole below the waterline, the mariner handles the situation calmly and competently.  When faced with more, compounding problems, the mariner handles them in the same fashion.  Sometimes, however, life throws more at you than you can handle, calm competence or no.

In a way, All is Lost works as a metaphor for life.  We sail along in our prime, with the wind at our backs and the sun overhead.  Then something goes wrong, then something else, then another thing.  We handle it all as best we can.  We fight against the dying of the light.  But the light is temporary; it’s meant to die.  And calm as we remain, competently as we handle one health scare after another, we degrade, and fail, and sink beneath the waves.

Heavy stuff, I know.  So heavy, in fact, that I found All is Lost rather hard going.  I’m currently in the apogee of my own life, and contemplating my inevitable decline isn’t really my favorite way to spend a couple of hours.  Still, I’m glad I saw this film.  It’s ambitious, and it executes on that ambition.  If Robert Redford was once the perfect embodiment of death, he’s now the perfect embodiment of the process of dying.  You could do with a worse guide to inform you that all is lost.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Inside Out

In my notes on Terminator:Genisys, I wrote that I’ve lost interest in big budget, yet empty, animation festivals.

Inside Out is a big budget, yet rich, animation festival.  I loved it.

This is an amazingly ambitious picture, bringing together contemporary psychology theory, brilliant storytelling, and cutting edge animation to take us inside the mind, perhaps even the soul, of an 11-year-old girl struggling with a cross-country move and all the uncertainty that can bring.

Of course, this sounds like the type of thing you may recall from elementary school films, but we’re talking about a Pixar movie here.  This is the studio that sold us on the concept of paying rats to prepare our meals.  Inside Out makes us care about his girl and – I don’t quite know how to write this – the component parts of her psyche in a way that not only captures our imagination, but improves our understanding of ourselves and of those around us.

I love Inside Out.  I love everything about it.  It’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Terminator: Genisys

Oh, my goodness.  What a big, goofy, internally inconsistent, dumb, fun movie.  That left me flat anyway. 

Terminator: Genisys is a great movie for the casual fan of the Terminator franchise.  If you have a vague memory of the first two films and general feeling of goodwill toward the concept of time-travelling killer androids, this is just the picture to fire up when you’re sitting in Coach on Hour 6 of a 10-hour plane ride.
Here’s the premise: we start some minutes before the beginning of The Terminator. John Connor is about to send some meatball (who is supposed to be what Michael Biehn might have looked like if he’d gotten into steroids instead of whiskey) back in time to rescue his mom from young Arnold Schwarzenegger.  So far, so good, but …
… oh, no!  The Terminators have infiltrated the Resistance!  One of them’s attacking John just as Not-Biehn is transporting!
And away we go.  And this is all fine.  We have a reasonably clever script, we have a woefully underused television star in a supporting role when he’d have brought so much more than a killer recipe for protein shakes to the not-Biehn role, and we have Arnold shooting guns and pulling faces.  It’s fun, but it’s missing something.  It took me a long time to put my finger on it, but it finally came together during a stunt sequence set on the Golden Gate Bridge.
See, there’s a bit where a school bus flips end over end, then rolls for a while, then flies through a fireball, etc.  Sarah Connor’s wearing a seatbelt, at least, but not Meatball.  There were two things wrong with this bit.  First, the crash was not survivable – seat belt or not.  If you’re making a movie about killer androids from the future, you need to get the little lies right in order to help your audience swallow the big lie.  Second, while the sequence used some practical effects, its climax –with the bus coming at the viewer while a fireball explodes- just doesn’t look real.  This would have been fine a year ago, when all the big action movies looked like this.  But this was the summer of the superlative Mad Max: FuryRoad, where a shot of a truck smashing into some obstacles, wiping out, and generating chaos was a shot of a real truck actually smashing into real obstacles, wiping out, and generating (real, though carefully planned) chaos.

For that matter, This movie never felt real.  I never feared for any of the leads’ lives.  I was disappointed that the brilliant Matt Smith was given so little to do.  I just- well, Terminator: Genisys offered a couple of hours of nostalgia and ‘splosions, and that ain’t bad.  But that doesn’t really cut it any more.  Give me a $5M movie about Thai or Malaysian stuntmen fighting each other over a MacGuffin.  I’ll take that – a little movie with actual people executing difficult stunt sequences – over a big budget, yet empty, animation festival.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Equalizer; Into the Woods; Going Clear

The Equalizer

Lone superman eliminates the entire Russian Mafia in Boston.  I don’t get it – it’s not like they killed his dog.
Yes, The Equalizer is basically John Wick with Denzel Washington.  I’m actually ok with that, because I liked John Wick and I like Denzel Washington.  I liked The Equalizer, but I didn’t love it for two reasons.  First, it was so bleak that I felt depressed while it was on.  Second, the fight choreography and photography weren’t particularly compelling.

If I were the kind of guy who gave scores, I’d add bonus points for the Chloë Grace Moretz's turn as an actress affirming that, yes, she is the next Jodie Foster.  Further, I’d add points for casting Marton Csokas as the villain.  He’s kind of a stock Russian baddie, but he was in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  And I really love Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Into the Woods

About halfway through Into the Woods, I paused it checked to IMDB to learn whether the guy who wrote the music is the same guy who wrote Cats.  I hate Cats.
That said, Into the Woods does provide yet another example of why Meryl Streep is enjoying such a long and lauded career.  Frankly, it's as if she were in a different movie.  While the rest of the performers seem to be there to make one of two statements ("I may be a movie/tv star, but I can do musical theater!"  "I may be a Broadway star, but I can do movies!"), Streep is assaying an actual character.  Yes, she sings and dances, but she's alive and she brings the movie alive whenever she's onscreen.
Perhaps I'll remember Into the Woods as the move that made me think, 'Maybe I will queue up Ricki and the Flash, after all.'

Going Clear

One day, my college roommate came home with a copy of Dianetics.  I threw a fit, warned him not to get involved with that evil cult, and convinced him to toss the book.  Going Clear, a documentary exposing Scientology, proves me right nearly thirty years later.  I’m just glad my roommate listened to me way back when.

While the film lingers a bit too long on celebrity scandal for my taste, it succeeds in making its case that Scientiology is an evil, rapacious swindle.  It does so in a careful, compelling way that makes it succeed as entertainment, as well.  I recommend this one without reservation.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Casting By

Casting By, a documentary about casting directors, sheds light on the dawn of the casting director as an independent creative player in the world of film and television.  It’s interesting stuff if you’re a movie buff, but I suspect it would put a general audience to sleep.
The story takes focuses on Marion Dougherty, a brilliant New York casting director who defined the job.  Just as Dougherty was coming into her own as a casting director in New York – based network television, the studio system was coming apart in Los Angeles.  When the studios stopped keeping a roster of reliably stereotypical role players on contract and transitioned to hiring afresh for each new film, they needed someone who knew the talent pool.  They needed someone who knew how to read a script and see a certain performer or type of performer.  They needed a casting director.
Dougherty filled that role, and in so doing she garnered the respect of many of the great filmmakers of her day.  While she was at it, she trained the next generation of casting directors and shaped her profession for years to come.  Casting By tells her story with verve, and sprinkles it with interviews with such luminaries as Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese.  However, the film assumes a familiarity with the motion pictures of the late sixties and early seventies (Dougherty’s heyday) that many viewers may not share.  If you haven’t seen Midnight Cowboy, you can’t know how perfectly cast John Voight and Dustin Hoffman were in that film.  The same goes for Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, or a number of the other actors in a number of the other films Casting By expects you to have seen.
That said, Casting By taught this film buff a few things about the history of auteur-era American filmmaking, and it did so in an entertaining fashion.  If you’ve done your homework, you’ll probably enjoy Casting By.  I know I did.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Best Offer

The Best Offer could as easily been entitled Geoffrey Rush is a Really Good Actor.  In the film, Rush plays an art and antiques valuator and auctioneer with a tightly controlled, distant life.  He is his work, and he is very little else.

Until, that is, he meets a girl.

Once he meets a girl, the plot kicks in.  It’s a perfectly fine, if heavy handed, tale, but the tale isn’t the draw of The Best Offer.  The draw of this film is the opportunity to watch Rush assay a particular kind of solitary gentleman, then to watch him develop this character into a three-dimensional man.  He really is breathtaking, even if the film he’s in begins to fade from memory mere days after its viewing.  I do enjoy Geoffrey Rush.