December 31, 2013

Hot Fuzz

What the heck? I promised my friend that Hot Fuzz was the best of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost genre comedies, but as we're sitting through the movie, I'm feeling the running time like I'm sitting in a waiting room, and I'm wondering why they thought it was a good idea to make Hot Fuzz two hours long. When I first saw this movie in theaters in 2007, I was absolutely enthralled with it. And I've seen it at least three times since (which would make the total viewings at least four now). Perhaps the problem is that all the tricks are known to me: the surprises are gone and I'm less inclined to be excited by the movie when I already know all that's going to unfold.

At any rate, my initial reaction to Hot Fuzz was extremely positive. My reaction tonight was mixed. I enjoyed the comic nuttiness of the plot, which is one part slasher film, one part buddy cop movie. And I'm constantly fascinated by Edgar Wright's visions of English culture. His London in Shaun of the Dead is a place where the people are pretty much zombies already, before the actual zombie apocalypse even hits. And Wright casts a decidedly cynical--if bizarrely affectionate--glow over English villages and villagers in Hot Fuzz and The World's End.

The plot involves a model police officer (Simon Pegg) who's transferred from London, where his track record for excellence threatens the mediocrity of his superiors, to a small village outside London called Sandford, a place where he will presumably be forgotten. But pretty soon he discovers that the seemingly peaceful, quiet little town is actually a hotbed of gruesome crimes and lots of other weird shit. He befriends one of the other cops there--a slovenly but lovable man-child played by Nick Frost, whose only interest in law enforcement stems from his obsession with cop movies like Point Break, Die Hard, Bad Boys II, and Lethal Weapon. The rest of the police force treats him with contentious disdain: he's an upstart trying to make too much out of the many "accidents" that keep occurring in Sandford. To reveal more would be unkind to the movie, which has some admittedly delicious plot twists.

I think the problem with Hot Fuzz is that the script, by director Wright and star Pegg, is too ambitious. There's just too much it wants to accomplish in its attempt to parody/pay homage to multiple genres. And yet, if it didn't give way to such excess, I don't think Hot Fuzz would have been as fun and exuberant the first time around. So in protection of my first opinion of the movie, I'll say that they shouldn't have changed a thing. Going by my impression at least four times in, I'd say the movie needed to be more compact.

There is so much cleverness that you'll likely miss much of it the first time. Just don't screw it up and watch Hot Fuzz too many times, or you may feel your love for it start to wane like mine did. The supporting cast includes Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Rafe Spall, Kevin Eldon, Karl Johnson, Olivia Colman, Bill Bailey, Edward Woodward, Billie Whitelaw, Eric Mason, Martin Freeman (whom I didn't notice the last time I watched this; now I immediately recognized him as Dr. Watson from that lovely BBC show Sherlock and as of course, the Hobbit), and Bill Nighy. ½ or

December 27, 2013

The Year in Review: 2013

To date, I've seen 41 films and counting, as I close out 2013 with this annual post. I want to echo something Village Voice film critic Stephanie Zacharek said in her recent article listing her favorite movies of the year: it's not so much about ranking them as it is about taking stock of the movie year and noting which films mattered to us the most. As I've perused the myriad 'best of' lists of different film critics circulating on the web, I'm encouraged to see such variety. It's one of the good things about living in a hyper-connected world: increased availability of what might have been called "small" movies some time ago, but what is now just lumped into that dreadfully vague and loaded word "independent."

I'm happy to report that there were a number of enjoyable movies sprinkled throughout the year, despite the fact that there is still that December imbalance of too many highly acclaimed movies to see. Why is no one acknowledging how good Danny Boyle's Trance was? I have very fond memories of it, yet Trance has been absent from every major critic's list I've seen. Inventive and fun thrillers are so hard to come by these days, especially ones that manage to work art theft and psychological trickery into the plot.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt proved his merit as not just an actor but also a writer and a director with the sharp, fantastically clever and thoughtful Don Jon. This is one of the most intelligent romantic comedies of the modern era, and an apt commentary on 21st century social problems (like ignoring the real world with your cell phone). Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig sent me into the thralls of delight with Frances Ha (my favorite movie of 2013), which proves that movies really can give you hope.

I had a surprisingly good time with Brad Pitt as he battled a zombie epidemic in World War Z (I don't think of it as a zombie movie really, just a really fun adventure film). The last thirty minutes were taut and exciting, and the irony of the scientist--the key to solving this pandemic--getting killed early on (and accidentally, no less!)-- was just too ingenious. Sophia Coppola tapped into the nature of vapid materialism and youth culture with shatteringly adept and admittedly depressing results in The Bling Ring. Julia Louis-Dreyfus made me sit up and say, "oh yeah...why hasn't she been doing more movie roles?" in Enough Said. I cheered for The Kings of Summer and the fact that we had two thoughtful and understated summer movies with young people as the lead characters (the other being the imperfect but equally charming The Way, Way Back).

I was surprised by how much I liked the rock documentary A Band Called Death. It was like a detective thriller in a way: uncovering this rock band that was seemingly lost to us forever. And the proof (the recordings) were stowed away in someone's attic in Detroit. I was equally thrilled to watch those background singers get their due in 20 Feet From Stardom. What a belated triumph. (Apparently this was the year of the music documentary.)

December is always equal parts exhilarating and exhausting for me as I try to play catch-up, but I'm really thankful that so many of the movies being raved about are available on Netflix and iTunes. I'm also particularly thankful to my local independent movie theater, Sun-Ray Cinema, which is doing the Lord's work here in Jacksonville. If you live in the area or are visiting them, please check them out. They're the most fun movie-going experience in the city.

And now, all the lists. Enjoy and feel free to comment with your own lists.

Favorite Movies of 2013: 

Frances Ha 
20 Feet From Stardom 
Hannah Arendt
The Wolf of Wall Street
Don Jon
A Band Called Death
The Kings of Summer
World War Z
The Bling Ring
Enough Said

Favorite Performances of 2013:
Amy Acker, Much Ado About Nothing
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Vincent Cassel, Trance
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon 
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Jacob Lofland, Mud
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club and Mud
Janet McTeer, Hannah Arendt
Jeremy Renner, American Hustle
Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
Elizabeth Rohm, American Hustle
Nick Robinson, The Kings of Summer
Tye Sheridan, Mud
Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt 

Worst Movies of 2013

There were probably a lot more than 5, but I chose not to see such films as Iron Man 3, A Haunted House, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and The Hobbit 2 (which I've heard was pretty dismal). 

Here are my greatest cinematic regrets of 2013:
Broken City: Always discuss explicit bed scenes with your actress-wife before the premiere.  
Elysium: A real bummer, especially considering the cast.  
R.I.P.D.: Men in Black minus the fun.  
Runner, Runner: Justin Timberlake fails to hack it as a leading man, and Ben Affleck is too banal to be a good villain.  
Spring Breakers: Shoot me now and get it over with.

Haven't Yet Seen, but Want to

Inside Llewyn Davis
Stories We Tell
A Hijacking

Favorite New-to-Me Movies of 2013

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
The Queen (2006)
Real Genius (1985)
Serial Mom (1994)
An Unmarried Woman (1978)
The Untouchables (1987)
Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008) 

The Wolf of Wall Street

A strange mixture of brilliant and repulsive. You don't so much see The Wolf of Wall Street as you experience it. It's like looking into the heart of decay, only it's encrusted with jewels and wrapped in money. I had the same problem last year with Killer Joe. It was one heck of a movie, but I felt ashamed to even admit that I liked it. Is it wrong to enjoy depravity on the big screen? Even a little? Is it a sign of our own moral corruption that we might award accolades to a movie like director Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which some have dared to call a great film? Mike LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "Though Raging Bull must still go down as Martin Scorsese's greatest achievement, The Wolf of Wall Street makes the race for No. 2 a lot more interesting." Robert Kojder of the website What Culture concludes, "It's impossible not to become absolutely immersed."

Perhaps J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader sums it up best: "Scorsese's helpless attraction to the very behavior he wants to indict becomes the movie's serrated edge." (All of these quotes were accessed via Rotten Tomatoes. It wasn't exactly an arduous task.) The critics don't all agree of course. Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal didn't like it, and neither did Stephanie Zacharek of Village Voice, calling the film "too much of a bad thing."

I find myself in a weird middle ground. I don't feel that The Wolf of Wall Street is a great film that will forever be remembered in the annals of American cinema. (Then again, it might be.) But I also didn't hate it. I very much enjoyed the movie, and was rarely if ever bored (which is saying a lot because it's three hours long and I usually get restless after two). I'm fascinated by people who think wealth and stuff will make them happy, perhaps because I have to fight this belief myself sometimes. (Don't we all?) There must be an element of schadenfreude at work here: I'm glued to the screen for three hours watching a heartless S.O.B. steal from lower-middle-class schlubs, abuse Quaaludes like they're going off the market (oh, wait, they already were!), take Penicillin shots every time he sleeps with a prostitute, and treat his family like pawns in his narcissistic little game, and all the while I'm hoping for the big payoff: the fall. That's the appeal of movies: they rise up, and then they fall, and it's a glorious smashing effect full of broken shards of glass and bloody palms and dust settling over the fallen anti-hero's decadent, decaying corpse.

Here's the gist of the plot: Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a slick New Yorker with dollar signs in his eyes who starts a successful stock trading company from the ground up. Jordan is ever the slick salesman (a character trait that recurs throughout DiCaprio's oeuvre), and he turns the penny-stock-trading schmucks who work for him into first-class brokers who could make a man buy his own pen from them. Belfort's schemes aren't exactly legal, which gets him in trouble with the SEC and the FBI. And along the way, Belfort becomes addicted to drugs, sex, and the overall celebration of excess. What's a guy to do when he has so much money that transferring it to a Swiss bank account takes six separate trips for five separate people with stacks of bills taped to their bodies?

So basically, it's an ultimate American success story. In America, if you really want to, you can do this. And Jordan Belfort did and got caught, but then he served his measly 22 months and became a motivational speaker and wrote two books. (The script by Terence Winter is based on one of them, of the same name.)

But we're in it for the fall. And boy does Jordan Belfort fall! When leads his considerable staff in some kind of tribal chant (taught him by his mentor, who's played by Matthew McConaughey, in a cameo appearance), where they beat their chests and hum this creepy guttural mantra. It's a money-lover's war chant, and it takes this whole money-laundering thing into an almost prehistoric realm: We haven't changed, but the stuff we chase after has. And the toys are shinier and more expensive. (And those Quaaludes, man! Oh the Quaaludes!)

There's not much more to say about this movie. It's incredibly well-made and it really is brilliant in a sick sort of way. But you've been warned: it's like staring at death, or perhaps a mirror (if you want to take Belfort as an exaggeration of every person that ever valued stuff too much). And there are a lot of scenes depicting drug abuse and sex. So bear that in mind before you head to the theater. With Jonah Hill (whose character I genuinely loathed), Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin (who gives a memorable performance as the president of a Swiss bank), Cristin Milioti, and Christine Ebersole.

December 23, 2013


Grit with heart. Mud feels very Mark Twainish: it takes place in De Witt, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River, and the two boys at the heart of this film could be Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: one wants to view the world with romantic eyes--despite the fact that his parents are splitting up--and the other is a realist, an orphan being raised by his uncle. Their names are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and they spend their free time roaming the river and exploring all the little islands that populate it. (Twain made these islands central sites of adventure in his books, and they were indeed very much a part of his own childhood.)

On one of these islands, the boys run into Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a man on the run. He becomes endearing to them, and they help him rebuild a junked up boat by procuring spare parts from various junkyards across town. But the police and some bounty hunters are looking for Mud, and there's a girl named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who's waiting in a motel room for word from him so that they can run away together.

We're never exactly sure how much of Mud's story is being left out, and yet there's really nothing embellished about him. He speaks plainly. The problem is his own perceptions: Is he unable to see that Juniper isn't all she's cracked up to be? The mission of reuniting two lovers fills Ellis with a particular sense of purpose, seeing as his own parents' marriage is falling apart, and he's scorned in love by a girl himself. (The movie doesn't offer much in the way of good female role models: women are mostly disappointing in Mud.)

But the story is a powerful one, and the performances of McConaughey and the two young men are compelling. Writer-director Jeff Nichols eyes them with compassion without turning Mud into something sentimental. And he doesn't cheapen it by going for easy solutions to the various conflicts that arise. The characters in Mud feel very much a part of the world Nichols has created, or more accurately, procured: he adds to the mystique and the mythos of American life on the Mississippi. It's a wonderful film, and one of the most underrated this year.

With Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, and Bonnie Sturdivant. ★½

20 Feet From Stardom

What an exuberant movie. 20 Feet From Stardom makes you feel like music is the only thing in the world that really matters. It's a triumphant, glory-hallelujah kind of documentary, and probably the movie I've been looking forward to the most this year, ever since I happened to catch an interview with Merry Clayton on Fresh Air. The reason I even know who Merry Clayton is is because I'm a huge fan of the movie Maid to Order, a 1987 comedy starring Ally Sheedy as a spoiled brat who gets turned into a maid working for an eccentric L.A. music producer and his equally loony wife. One of their other staff members is an ex-girl group singer played by Merry Clayton, and she even sings a couple songs during the course of the movie.

The part was, as it turns out, more than a little autobiographical for Merry Clayton and some of the other background singers like Darlene Love (who really was forced to clean houses at one point in her life, despite being a stunning talent). That's what 20 Feet From Stardom is about: the journey of these women (mostly black), who had more talent than could be borne, and were in some ways screwed over by the music industry. But this isn't a downbeat or a complaining film. The ladies are realistic about the fact that for many of them stardom was ever only on the periphery. But they're also very direct about wanting that success and regretting that it didn't happen.

It is truly wonderful--and long overdue--to discover how much Clayton and Love and a number of other girls had to do with the success of some of the great songs of the 60s, 70s and 80s. (And many if them are still working today, albeit more sporadically, as jobs for singers have diminished over time.) Merry Clayton's the gut-wrenchingly powerful female voice you hear on the Rolling Stones' song "Gimme Shelter." Darlene Love can be heard first on "He's A Rebel," although she wasn't credited for it at the time. Claudia Lennear sang background with Ike and Tina Turner. Lynn Mabry with the Talking Heads. Lisa Fischer has toured with the Stones since 1989. Judith Hill sang with Michael Jackson. There are many others mentioned, some perhaps too briefly, but overall you get the feeling that the music industry has kept these jewels hidden from the world. And yet sometimes the impression is that it just wasn't in the cards for them.

This is perhaps a blessing in disguise.

Tata Vega puts it best: "I probably wouldn't be sitting in this chair talking to you right now, because I would have [overdosed] somewhere."

20 Feet From Stardom explores the elusive, heart-breaking, exuberant, ephemeral nature of fame, and the richer, more life-giving nature of the power of music, which for some is the thing that really matters. It's an apt reminder--because so many people are hungry to be famous--that superstardom isn't going to solve anyone's problems, and isn't necessarily the definition of true success. Sometimes it shuts down the talent and emphasizes things that aren't really important.

Directed by Morgan Neville. Featuring Owen, Maxine, and Julia Waters, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Sheryl Crow, Lou Adler, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Jo Lawry, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander, and David Lasley. ½

December 22, 2013

The World's End

Third go-round for director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the first two being Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). The World's End, like its predecessors, is the product of nostalgia for pop culture. Where Shaun poked loving fun at zombie movies and Hot Fuzz at buddy cop flicks, World's End takes as its genre of choice the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepford Wives, etc.

Pegg plays Gary King, a ne'er-do-well who decides to reunite his buddies and return to their hometown to visit all twelve of its pubs--a feat known as the Golden Mile--only to find that his buddies have moved on with their lives, leaving him snugly ensconced in the past. But against their better judgment, they acquiesce, and find themselves back in their cozy, boring hometown of Newton Haven, a small village presumably near London. But something has changed: the people seem different. (I think you know where this is going.)

As fans of this team may by now expect, this is an exuberantly funny send-up, with the usual not-that-subtle social commentary that Wright and Pegg (who co-wrote the script) like to insert into their movies. But above all, it's fun, a quality that's lacking in too many movies these days. So while the themes aren't as fresh the third time around, and the jokes and even some of the filmmaking techniques (like those little montage scenes so characteristic of Wright's work) are more obvious, more tried and true, The World's End delivers an entertaining celebration of ridiculousness that fans of this particular genre should find enthralling. And the beams of light that emanate from the faces of the mind-controlled-robot-pod-people-things create quite an effect, not to mention the almost brilliant but just insane enough to be hilarious philosophical debate at the climax of the movie (between our heroes and whomever is the king of these mind-controlled-robot-pod-people-things--his voice being supplied by Bill Nighy.)

Martin Freeman, ever the amicable chum, joins the cast, as well as Rosamund Pike, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, Pierce Brosnan, and David Bradley.  

Much Ado About Nothing

A charming concoction from director Joss Whedon, who shot this contemporary-looking take on Shakespeare's enchanting comedy at his own home in Santa Monica. It's in black-and-white, and the language of the original play is preserved (to the best of my knowledge), which in itself is a tricky undertaking, but the cast layers the movie with real feeling and heart. This version of Much Ado About Nothing strips away the possibility of diminishing Shakespeare's words, for the production is simple yet elegant, and the clever, passionate, amusing, dialogue emerges as the star of the show. And Joss Whedon's own brand of subtle humor, which always feels natural rather than embellished, adds to the pleasure of the writing (why mess with greatness?) and the performances of a cast of TV actors, all of whom do fine work. A truly worthwhile experience. The cast includes the wonderful Amy Acker as Beatrice, Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, Clark Gregg as Leonato, Fran Kranz as Claudio, Sean Maher as Don John, Jillian Morgese as Hero, Spencer Treat Clark as Borachio, Ashley Johnson as Margaret, and Riki Lindhome as Conrade.

December 19, 2013

American Hustle

Watching American Hustle is like watching three different train wrecks happen at once, and yet there is an element of control involved that would distinguish it from an actual train wreck. First and foremost, it's a comic film that yearns to have been made in the late 70s, which is when it's set. The period detail is as conspicuous as the hair of the women in the movie, from the carefully chosen music to the glossy retro Columbia Pictures logo that plays at the beginning of the movie. That's part of the trouble: American Hustle feels too manufactured, and as such the story falters a lot. The script by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (he also directed) is self-consciously a crime-comedy. Movies of this kind from the actual 70s weren't self-conscious. They just were. You begin to miss this element in American Hustle, because it always feels like a put-on.

But there are redeeming qualities, such as the magnificent cast: Christian Bale as a con artist with a deluxe comb-over and a striking little gut that compliments his even more striking fashion sense; Amy Adams as his mistress/cohort, a gal who affects an English accent in order to dupe clients; Bradley Cooper as a cop who's looking to get a promotion; Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's hard-drinking, hilariously out-of-control wife, who has a big nest of hair atop her head; and Jeremy Renner, a naive, well-intentioned mayor from New Jersey, who unwittingly becomes part of the cop's plan to entrap a bunch of politicians and mobsters.

David O. Russell's brand of comedy is hard to take sometimes. He's big on letting his characters ramble their way to a point, and you really miss clever, quick, flashy dialogue when that happens. On the other hand, there are some pretty funny lines in American Hustle, and many of them fall out of Lawrence's mouth like little flecks of verbal dynamite. Half the time you aren't aware of how funny they are, and just how loopy her character is. She really colors the film.

Bale is appropriately pathetic-looking as a lifelong scammer, he of the hyper-real performance. (I'm quite prepared to believe that he put on weight so he could have a real belly.) The movie doesn't take him too seriously, but it also doesn't completely dismiss him, which feels like loyalty on its own terms. Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, is always some degree of Bradley Cooper. (His character wears curlers at night, which is a good example of how the film can be uproariously funny when it wants to be.) They do play off each other well.

The overall results for me, were mixed. There were moments I laughed loud and long, and moments where I felt bored by what seemed like deliberate chaos. It's a whirlwind of a movie, and admittedly a well-made one. Linus Sandgren was the director of photography. His work is solid: American Hustle has panache and charm and sexy camera angles to spare. But there is something hollow inside of it, like director David Russell was grasping at becoming the next Coppola or Scorcese, and not quite hard enough. With Elisabeth Röhm, Robert De Niro, Jack Huston, Louis C.K., Alessandro Nivola, and Colleen Camp. ½

Hannah Arendt

When German-Jewish writer Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was sent to Jerusalem to cover the trial of Nazi colonel Adolf Eichmann, she was struck by the sheer banality of the man. To Arendt, Eichmann was a cog in a system designed for the purpose of committing unspeakable acts of evil with methodical, almost bureaucratic estrangement from conscience or morality.

As a biopic, Hannah Arendt is a masterpiece, starting with the performance of Barbara Sukowa as the indomitable Arendt. Sukowa plays her with dignity and restraint but also passion and vigor. The shitstorm that this woman seemingly brings on herself for speaking her mind and not backing down on her principles is quite fascinating to watch. Once Arendt's piece on the trial is published in The New Yorker, friends turn on her, colleagues asked her to resign, Israeli government men threaten her, and the hate mail comes in at a breathless rate.

Director Margarethe von Trotta (who wrote the screenplay with Pam Katz) manages to capture the sort of rambunctious intellectual life of the expatriate Jews living in New York (some of them victims of the death camps themselves, all of them displaced but embracing their new life in the States). There are lots of impassioned conversations over wine and cigarettes, switching from German to English and back to German again. Despite even the criticism of those closest to her, Arendt never backs down from her belief that Eichmann should be tried as a man, not a representation for an idea. It's a complicated thought once you consider the emotional wallop of six million souls lost to that particular idea. But this is a smart movie that has the courage to present its hero and her ideas without laundering them.

The supporting cast is equally good: Janet McTeer as the writer Mary McCarthy (she's a hoot), Nicholas Woodeson as New Yorker editor Bill Shawn, Axel Milberg as Arendt's devoted husband (also an intellectual), Julia Jentsch as her assistant, Ulrich Noethen, Michael Degen, Harvey Friedman, Megan Gay, and Klaus Pohl as philosopher Martin Heidegger, who taught Arendt how to think, and who apparently let her down in a profound way when he expressed accord with Hitler. ½

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave is the most intense movie about slavery that I've ever seen. It's based on the experience of Solomon Northup (played with real power and restraint by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. Northrup is kidnapped and sent to Georgia where he serves multiple masters, ranging from passively kind but cowardly (Benedict Cumberbatch) to downright sadomasochistic (Michael Fassbender).

This film adaptation of Northup's experiences really puts his plight into perspective. You might say he'd been living an easy life up until his captivity, but seeing how the plantations work off the sweat and soul-crushing of other black people transforms him. And then there's the sheer ugly moral ambiguity of being a slave: do you run and abandon your fellow slaves? Do you put the ones who've been subjected to particular cruelty and torture out of their misery? Can you ever trust any white people, ever again? I found myself wanting Django to appear and slaughter all the slave owners, and as slowly and painfully as they had tortured their slaves.

But there's a problem for me with 12 Years a Slave: it's a harrowing, torturous movie, full of lashings and abuses that feel too real to watch. Obviously--they really did happen, and they really were horrifying. Sometimes the camera stops and lingers, forcing us to watch the lashings over and over, or poor Solomon being hanged, but low enough to the ground that he can just barely touch the muddy earth with his feet and keep his neck from breaking. It's like we're marinating in the awfulness of slavery. Is this punishment? Is this "good for us?" Is this real cinema, transcending the superficial limits of entertainment and instead treating us to some kind of moral cleansing? I'm not sure.

Thankfully, the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor keeps the movie from turning into a total exercise in despair. As the years drag on, Solomon somehow manages to keep his wits about him, and he uses his intellect to stave off some of the abuse that others around him incur. (There is one scene where he beats the shit out of some trashy overseer, played by Paul Dano, and you don't want him to stop. You want him to beat the man into the ground and then start on the next person he sees with the same indignant ferocity.)

But it does mean that 12 Years a Slave often leaves the realm of 'entertainment' for the realm of 'message movie.' This is director Steve McQueen's attempt to demonstrate for us the horrors of slavery. And it is in turn horrific. Is it appropriately horrific? I suppose it is, in the way Schindler's List is appropriately horrific. It's not something I ever need to see again, but I'd refer anyone who wants to have some kind of visceral experience of slavery and how evil it is to this movie. This is a good companion (or should I say contrast?) to Gone With the Wind, with its decidedly rosier appreciation of the South pre- and post-Civil War.

And yes, I cried when he was reunited with his family. It was, again, very intense. Not for the easily disturbed.

With Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt (who co-produced), Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy, Alfre Woodard, and Chris Chalk. Beautiful cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, although the subject matter makes it hard to admire his occasional shots of the loveliness of moss hanging from trees on the banks of lazy Southern rivers. The very landscape feels tainted. Screenplay by John Ridley. ½

December 15, 2013

Frances Ha

Frances Ha is a delight, alternately heartbreaking and funny, about one of the worst things in the whole world: people in their 20s. There are moments and lines of dialogue in writer-director Noah Baumbach's script that are so subtly clever you have only a vague idea that they might be little hidden diamonds awaiting re-discovery.

The titular character, Frances, is played with daffy aplomb by the lovely, tall, tentative looking Greta Gerwig (the 'Ha' is short for her last name, Halladay). Frances is a girl who, for all intents and purposes, cannot get her shit together. She has no filter on her speech, and she doesn't have a knack for reading social cues. Frances lives in New York with her best friend from college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), but Sophie wants to move to an apartment in Tribeca and Frances can't afford it. Also, Sophie has a boyfriend nicknamed Patch (Patrick Heusinger), and they make fun of him but Sophie likes him more than she's willing to let on. Frances meanwhile, is in a stilted relationship that's on its last leg. She's also struggling to maintain her dream of being a professional dancer, as the company she's aspiring to has only admitted her as an apprentice.

Yes, there's a point in Frances Ha where you think: this may be the most depressing movie I've chosen to watch in a long time. And it's in black-and-white. Is there anything more disgustingly hipster than a black-and-white movie about New York City in 2013?  But it's not! It's a movie that makes you feel that even in the worst of circumstances, even when you're such a total screw-up that you seem to be clueless to your own self-sabotaging, there is hope. Things can get better. I really loved it. The performances were lovely, and it was nice to see a movie that didn't treat its down-on-her-luck heroine with contempt. (There are moments when you want to cry for Frances, or smack her, or both. But you always root for her.)

With Charlotte d'Amboise (who I think resembles Betty Buckley), Michael Zegen, Adam Driver, Michael Esper, Grace Grummer, Josh Hamilton, Justine Lupe, Maya Kazan, and Britta Phillips. 86 min. ½

Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson is a highly personal documentary directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, virtually a lifelong reader and fan of the popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which was created by Bill Watterson. I have read very little of Calvin and Hobbes--and was generally not that interested in doing so based on what little exposure I did have to the strip--and I was worried that Dear Mr. Watterson would be a gushy fanboy's exercise in hero worship. It is, to a large degree. Schroeder takes us to his childhood home in Wisconsin and shows us his old bedroom, describing the wall that was once covered from floor to ceiling in Calvin and Hobbes clippings. But his documentary thankfully goes beyond that singular worship, touching on the wonderfully fascinating nature of creativity itself, as well as the apparently controversial decisions of Bill Watterson, who retired the strip after 10 years (a decidedly short run for a comic strip, since Blondie has been in print for over eighty years).

Watterson became something of a recluse in 1995 after issuing the final entry of his comic strip. He also refused to let his work into the hands of merchandising companies, thus barring devotees from ever owning a Calvin and Hobbes stuffed animal, Calvin and Hobbes lunch box, Calvin and Hobbes coffee cup, bottle opener, leg warmer, sweat band, card deck, purse, underwear, etc. (Some of the people who contributed to the documentary were clearly emotionally traumatized by this decision to deprive them of such products.) But despite its rather fanboy-esque theme, Dear Mr. Watterson is a fairly engaging and intriguing documentary. That's due in part because of the quality the guests who speak eloquently of Calvin and Hobbes' impact on the industry. It's also bolstered by the fervent admiration of the devoted readers who grew up with this "little" comic book character with a big love for exploring and imagining the world. (The cartoonist's wit and skill are well-showcased.)

There's also some talk of the divide between high and low art--I suppose comic strip fans want their comics to be considered on the same level as opera?--but I say: embrace the lowness of low art. Don't try and re-define the parameters of high art to include all the things that are not in fact high. That's the whole point of low art: it fulfills us in different ways than opera and things like that. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

But the problem with this movie is that it's not really interesting enough to be a documentary. There's little at stake. Perhaps an encounter with the man himself would have livened things up. I kept thinking, "I wish someone would make a documentary about Debbie Harry like this." But then I changed my mind. Not if it's just fan worship. Only if there's a real story to tell. Documentaries are stories just like narrative film, and the good ones don't forget that. This one feels like it needed to be re-imagined. ★

Shock Waves

Underwater Nazi zombies. These days, such a ridiculous phrase sounds like a cliché. But when Shock Waves premiered in theatres, it was relatively new ground. It's a low-budget cult classic (made for about 200,000 dollars, although Wikipedia erroneously claims the budget was a million) that asks the question: What if the Germans were experimenting with dead soldiers during the war only to create a division of ultimate Aryan fighting machines? And then, what if these creatures were submerged in a watery grave for thirty years near an island off the coast of Florida, only to be resurrected when a small group of boaters runs into their ghostly death ship? As idiotic as it sounds, Shock Waves isn't bad. The zombies are appropriately ominous looking, and the synth score by Richard Einhorn is effective. Plus there's the presence of two cinema legends in small but amusing roles: Peter Cushing, as the aging SS commander living in isolation on the island, and John Carradine, as the cantankerous captain of the ill-fated boat that runs afoul of the zombies. With Brooke Adams (in her first major screen role), Luke Halpin, and Fred Buch. Written by Ken Wiederhorn (who also directed) and John Harrison. Filmed in 1975, copyrighted in 1976, and released in 1977. Also known as Death Corps and Almost Human. ½

December 14, 2013

Spring Breakers

Can I have my 90 minutes back? I think this movie was a critique of vapid materialism and wasted prosperity, but it showcased what it critiqued with such obsessive, pornographic enjoyment that it left me feeling cold and ready for it all to end. (Some have praised it for being hiply ironic. It's really just stupid, and oh so poorly written, though admittedly well-made.) For those of you who felt MTV's annual televised spring break programming needed some narrative and a little Bonnie and Clyde thrown in for good measure. Directed by Harmony Korine. With James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine.

December 11, 2013

Gone With the Wind

For all its sudsy melodrama, Gone With the Wind is still compulsively watchable. If you look at Vivien Leigh's performance in light of the fact that the role of Scarlet O'Hara had been offered to Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, you may find a new appreciation for what Leigh brought to the character. (Davis and Hepburn were fantastic, but neither was the right choice for GWTW.) Leigh gets Scarlet O'Hara perfectly: she's tenacious, audacious, venomous, and vulnerable. And Clark Gable never takes her seriously as Rhett Butler, which is a perfect antidote to Scarlet's drama queen persona. Its depiction of antebellum South, the land of manners, cotton, and slaves, may be rosier than we'd like to think, but then, the fall is all the more profound. And I have yet to see a film with a richer color sense than this one. It slumps a bit during the second half (the film clocks in at nearly four hours in total), but there are enough great performances and great set-pieces to sustain this saga, which has a surprisingly good sense of humor considering it's bigger than life itself. Directed by Victor Fleming. (George Cukor was fired in the first few weeks of filming after spending years in pre-production.) Written by Sidney Howard, who adapted Margaret Mitchell's bestselling book. Produced by David O. Selznick. With Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel (who is perhaps the funniest character in the film, Mammy), Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O'Neil, Butterfly McQueen, Oscar Polk, Ona Munson, Ann Rutherford, Evelyn Keyes, and Carroll Nye. 1939. ½

December 08, 2013

The Searchers

The Searchers (1956) has often been cited as a great Western, particularly because of the spare Texas vistas captured by Winton Hoch's camera and the surefooted, straightforward yet thoughtful direction of John Ford. In The Searchers John Wayne spends a good many years trying to track down his two nieces, who were captured by the Comanches. In most Westerns, the cowboy is a kind of active agent that affects everyone and everything around him. In The Searchers, we watch how the cowboy copes--or doesn't cop--with being rendered a passive failure for much of the film. It's an interesting twist, and yet the movie feels like nothing much happens. It is entertaining and funny up to a point, but I don't see the brilliance that people claim is there. John Wayne shows his usual adeptness at dishing out the one-liners, and he runs circles around his charmingly befuddled sidekick, Jeffrey Hunter (who may have the most piercing blue eyes in cinema history, perhaps even bluer than Paul Newman's). Hunter is prominently featured in one of the film's most memorable (to me at least) shots, in which he runs toward his family's ravaged homestead and we the audience see the look of terror mixed with grief and fear in his face. It's such a powerful little moment. The supporting cast includes Vera Miles (who overacts somethin' fierce), Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon (as Scar), Ken Curtis, Harry Carey, Jr., and Hank Worden, who steals every scene he's in. I could never tell if he was crazy, kidding, drunk, or a combination of all three, but he makes for good comic relief. ½

December 02, 2013

End of Watch

End of Watch (2012) is a tense, spare cop thriller that works exceedingly well because of the bond between the two main characters, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. They're partners and in a very real sense, brothers, who work the impoverished inner-city of Los Angeles. It's a world where a frantic woman calls for assistance because her babies--she claims--have been kidnapped, but they're then discovered to be duct-taped and locked in a closet. It's a world where drug cartels roam and carry out vengeance with reckless indifference to the threat of their own demises. The film is shot in gritty semi-documentary fashion and as such feels like something right out of a police log (at least to a viewer). The action always feels authentic, as does the goofy banter between the cops, who maintain a summer camp atmosphere when they're not chasing drug dealers and gang members. You have to wonder if this movie effected a spike in enlistment. It feels more than a bit like a tough-as-nails, violent valentine to the police force. Written and directed by David Ayer. With Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, America Ferrera, Frank Grillo, Cody Horn, David Harbour, Cle Sloan, and Shondrella Avery. 108 min.