Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 October 2013

An Adventure with Pirates

Captain Phillips is a good movie. It is well acted. It is a tense, nail-biting action movie for the entirety of its running time, and it is supremely well edited. But I never really warmed to it. I am not a huge Tom Hanks fan anyway, so perhaps that contributed. There are more reasons, though, I think.

Lots of good things, first: the trailer for Captain Phillips sort of makes one feel as though the film follows a cargo ship for a while and then pirates come and everyone freaks out and Captain Phillips plays the hero. But Greengrass is smarter than that. Phillips is not some good-guy, bad-guy film. This isn't an action movie like a Bond movie or one starring Jason Statham or something. Instead, after we follow Hanks's drive to work in the morning, the film follows the film's pirates and their lives. The film explains why they're hijacking ships in the first place, what the incentives are for them, the choices that are provided for them in Somalia, etc. These pirates are fleshed-out characters, and one feels as though one knows them individually from the first. It is a smart storytelling move that allows us to sympathize with and understand all five of the characters who make up the film's final act: the USAmericans and the Somalis.

And the film's finale is just extraordinary. I've never seen anything like it. If I was frustrated with Captain Phillips for much of its running time, the way Greengrass ends his film seemed to me unique and bizarre and just great. It was moving and uncontained and Tom Hanks is extremely good in this last sequence of the movie.

The thing is: Captain Phillips – for all of its excellent suspense and action sequences – couldn't make me stop thinking about money. There is no security on this cargo ship. An odd thing considering that everyone knows that there are pirates in the waters off the East coast of Africa. And then everyone is ordered to do their jobs. Phillips keeps the ship on course instead of moving into safer waters because the shipment needs to be delivered on time (in order to keep costs down, clearly).

But then the ship is boarded. And the military flies in and-I-quote half the U.S. Navy to rescue these guys. Millions of dollars are spent. Three giant military ships surround Captain Phillips. Staff are working around the clock. And all I could think the entire time was one single dude with a machine gun could've prevented this. Presumably that man wasn't hired in order to keep costs low, but the result of that cost-cutting is the enormous, ludicrous level of expenditure that is a U.S. military rescue mission. This isn't what the movie is about, really, but I couldn't help thinking that private security would've solved a problem that this USAmerican company instead asked the U.S. military to solve.

In the first place, this is what we do in the United States: depend on the government and find reasons to make government bigger. And in this way, pro-military factions of the government are just as dependent on big government as politicians who want more money spent on domestic social programs. In fact, smaller government for the neo-conservatives has never actually meant small government at all: it means, in fact, less social spending and more military spending. A real small government would mean that the U.S. military would never have been involved in a hostage situation like Captain Phillips's. Because the company sailing in international waters off of the east coast of Africa would be taking care of itself instead of looking for a government bailout. Bailout, handout, what's the difference? The difference is scale. Helping out people out home costs a good deal less than the technologies it takes to police the rest of the world.

In the second place, I now read in the New York Post that the real Cpt. Phillips is not a hero at all but contributed to the capture of the ship through his own willful negligence. He ought to have been 600 miles off of the coast and he was only 235 miles away. Why was he so close to the coast of Somalia? I'm gonna guess it has to do with money.

As for Oscar: Captain Phillips will probably grab several nominations next year. Tom Hanks seems like an easy get for Best Actor (he is so good), and his foil Barkhad Abdi will likely snag a supporting nomination. Editing, Directing, and Picture seem like obvious nominations as well. I'm not sure how everyone feels about Captain Phillips but I doubt it can be ignored come awards season. It is the most tense 2 hours I've spent in a really long time.

15 October 2013

Broken, Indeed

Apparently, Broken City was not a novel before it became a screenplay by Brian Tucker. 

Yet Allen Hughes's film feels gutted, as though an enormous portion of it is missing. Plot points go whizzing past and big character revelations feel like afterthoughts. The worst part is half of these big surprises feel superfluous. This person is having sex with this person – but we only get to hear about it. This person was making a deal with this other person, but the movie's audience gets this information from a secondary source.

In truth, Broken City is a kind of James Bond-style action film: spying, betrayals, big, rich villains. Of course, it isn't wearing the fancy tuxedo of a Bond movie; instead it's dressed up like a noir thriller, pretending to be a corrupt city drama à la L.A. Confidential or something by Brian De Palma. This movie wishes it were made in the 1940s, and wishes Mark Wahlberg were Edmond O'Brien. But Broken City never manages any of that. Instead it plays like a television crime-drama, with predictable heroes and surprise villains who aren't surprises at all. Even worse, Broken City isn't the least bit sexy, though numerous plot points involve who is sleeping with whom.

Mr. Wahlberg, doing the right thing, of course

The cinematography is rather enjoyable, and there is a good car chase in act three. There are a couple of great fight scenes, too. But the direction is dry and the script is worse. I love me some Mark Wahlberg, and I'm gonna keep seeing the movies he's in (at least for now), but this is three burns in a row by my count.

And this film ought to have been better. It's a gorgeous city. The cast is stellar. Corruption. Scandal. Tuxedos. But Broken City languishes. The cast feels like they're phoning it in. Except for Wahlberg the characters all turn out one-dimensional, and the screenwriter hides information from the audience arbitrarily, frustratingly, and finally stupidly. By the end, the big revelation feels like just a little hiccup, a dumb secret that had been kept for the film's entirety but ended up not being the least bit interesting.

11 October 2013

In the House

I recently caught François Ozon's film In the House (Dans la Maison) and was in love with it. I think this is definitely the best film Ozon has ever made. It's stagey, unrealistic qualities working perfectly with the narrative he is telling. I love Ozon, normally: his offbeat, queer sensibility really appeals to me. I was particularly fond of 8 Women when it came out. But Dans la Maison is a film about an old, married teacher's desire for excitement in his life – or is he simply enjoying someone make fun of the middle class – or is he fantasizing about the woman his student loves – or is he actually in love with his male student?

Dans la Maison is about wanting to watch and seeing what one can get away with. It is about the fluidity of desire – and I don't mean along some kind of Kinsey continuum – whereby what's sexy is watching or listening or imagining and what we imagine matters less in the scheme of things than that we imagine. Dans la Maison is about a lot more, too: class and race in France, art and pornography, pedagogical ethics. It's great.

Mr. Ughetto and Mr. Umhauer

Oh and the acting! The always perfect Kristin Scott Thomas is in it. (I see everything she does.) And the lead role is excellently played by Fabrice Luchini. But Ernst Umhauer and Bastien Ughetto, the actors who play the school-age boys are just fantastic!

09 October 2013

Toy's House

Honestly, I can't recommend The Kings of Summer enough. I found this first film (directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts) to be a mix between two other movies that I liked very much this year – The Spectacular Now and Mud. I guess that means I am spending a lot of time recommending movies about adolescent boys who struggle with their adolescent lives and try to make sense of the world. The Kings of Summer is about a high-school age kid who is not getting along with his father and so (with his two friends) decides to move into the woods for the summer and live "like men".

In other words, even the kid at this movie's center understand that he is in a coming-of-age narrative. He is trying, actively, to become a grown-up and he knows it. That this bildungsroman theme is self-consciously obvious makes the whole thing even more enjoyable, and The Kings of Summer manages both an ironic and an empathetic perspective (a bit like D.O. Russell's gaze in last year's terribly titled but eminently likable Silver Linings Playbook). We almost never understand the main character Kings to be making the right decision – he makes childish decision after childish decision – but he is a confused, frustrated kid who I couldn't help but love anyway.

Unlike Spectacular Now and Mud, The Kings of Summer is a very funny comedy, with occasionally broad performances by comedians Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Kumail Nanjiani. Kings straddles this sit-comic approach to the suburban scenes with a Malickian approach to all of the scenes in the forest. The woods look gorgeous: the boys look out at the sunset, and play in the lake, and walk in open meadows, and it really feels like they are outside of the absurd world of suburbia that their parents inhabit. But these are two entirely different filmmaking styles, and if they don't actually belong together, their juxtaposition works very well, so that it made me appreciate the boys' forest retreat all the more. The dream of "getting out into nature" makes much more sense when it is clear how absolutely nonsensical life is in suburbia.

Toy's House (this film's former title)
I read a review of the film that called Vogt-Roberts' first feature "slight", and I can understand why someone would critique it this way. If I compare Kings to Mud and Spectacular Now, I have to say that the acting in the other two films is much better in them than in Kings; thematically, the other two films are more interesting, as well; I can even say that I was much more emotionally invested in the other two.

But I liked Kings better. It is a self-aware film that captures something of the absurdity of adolescence and the impossibility of certain modes of existence. Vogt-Roberts casts a withering gaze at masculinity, and, by way of derision, he mocks the idea that traditional masculinity is the proper telos for adolescence. This is is a very funny film, and if it doesn't quite do realism and honesty as well as The Spectacular Now or suspense as well as Mud, The Kings of Summer has an exquisite and hilarious charm all its own.

P.S. I really do feel strange about liking so many movies that center around male adolescence this year. I wonder what's come over me! Feeling nostalgia over my youth, I suppose.

07 October 2013

Things about The Hobbit #2 We Know for Sure

Aaron: Now that I saw the Desolation of Smaug trailer in 3D, I think I am excited for it.
Caleb: Um, I'm withholding judgment here... Maybe it's better in 3D but I hope your love of dragons isn't blinding you to the serious decline in the dialog of the franchise.
Aaron: It is. Be sure of it.
Caleb: Yea. OK. At least you are honest about it. I think the quality of our dialog on this movie will be different:
Caleb: I feel like the narrative lacked focus and...
Aaron: Dragons!
Caleb: Yes, I take your point. I also feel that the visual storytelling....
Aaron: Dragons!
Caleb: Yes. Yes. Even Sir Ian's portrayal...
Caleb: Right. Right. Dragons.
Aaron: Hahahahaha. I am positive that you are correct. My IQ goes down like 50 points when dragons show up.

06 October 2013


You probably don't need me to convince you to go see Gravity. But, it is great. Cuarón is doing his signature long takes. There's all sort of weightless, awesome tension. Clooney and Bullock are great. And I don't know how they are selling this movie in your town, but Gravity is an action movie. An action movie that is also intensely suspenseful. It also contains themes of hanging on and letting go, evolution, becoming someone new, and the power of willing oneself into action: trying. But the star here is the action itself. Gravity is not some heavy-handed message-y action film à la Prometheus.

The sound is great, Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is stellar as always. The special effects are insanely good. And the whole thing is pretty terrifying. I saw it in 3D IMAX and I kind of want to see it again in exactly the same way.

I have lately been drawn to these one-lonely-person-against-nature kinds of stories. I recently loved the Icelandic film The Deep, as well, which involves one lonely guy swimming in the North Atlantic for six hours as he tries to get back home. (How anyone could stay alive in that freezing-cold water is a still-unsolved mystery, but it is a true story.)  Perhaps it is my own introversion that makes a film about someone by herself battling against her own will and spending time with her own memories and pain and fighting to stay alive that appeals to me. I tend to like a film like this much, much more than, say Life of Pi or even Kon-Tiki, which I liked so much. Just this one person, alone, trying to make a go of it, and not knowing whether anyone else cares and knowing for a fact that nature itself does not care. This appeals to me as a narrative. I recognize something in the struggle of my own life, something that makes a kind of sense to me – trying to make things work without really knowing why I am bothering... but doing it anyway.

P.S. in regard to Gravity and its Oscar chances, I think we're looking at 7 total – maybe more. Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing, at least.

02 October 2013

BATAAN - A Movie as Big as Its Name

Finally got to see Tay Garnett's Bataan, a WWII movie that Metro released in 1943. It is famous for its brutal portrayals of violence in the 1940s. Although because of the code, films were not usually allowed to show certain things: an excess of blood as well as sounds of violence, including screams of pain, were usually not allowed.

Bataan has everything. It's almost shocking how violent this is for 1943 Hollywood. The film is worth a watch simply for that. The film stars Robert Taylor as a hard-bitten sergeant. His right-hand man is the great character actor Thomas Mitchell. And there are great performances from George Murphy, Kenneth Spencer, Lee Bowman, Desi Arnaz, and especially Robert Walker. Taylor, the shiny movie star of later big-budget features like Ivanhoe and Quo Vadis? is incredible here: contained, strong, and curt, never the grandiloquent performer he is in those giant '50s movies.

Mr. Mitchell as Feingold
Garnett's movie is based on John Ford's 1934 WWI movie The Lost Patrol, or if it isn't, it is surely indebted to it. The films work the same structurally, but whereas The Lost Patrol feels frustrating and futile, Bataan feels like a creepy film noir made in the middle of the jungle. The sound stage on which it is filmed comes to feel claustrophobic, madness-inducing, and the performances are just stellar.

Mr. Walker as the Sailor
The violence is the main show, here, but there are also some superb explosion effects, and the ending is absolutely perfect. Even better, Garnett has at least three sequences in the film where the soldiers simply wait for things to happen. He tells the audience what is going to happen and then he allows time just to run. We watch and wait and wait and wait, and the tension that the director is able to create with these sequences is absolutely extraordinary. I was on the edge of my seat.

This film is superb. A gem of a war movie from the 1940s that never got its due.

01 October 2013

A Dialogue on the Butler

I've been having trouble articulating how I felt about The Butler. I enjoyed some of it, but was mostly frustrated with its oddities. So I asked my friend Carlos to have a conversation with me about the movie, in the hopes that I would be able to get clearer about how I felt about the movie.

Aaron: I've been calling Lee Daniels' movies "messy" for a while, and I know he hasn't made that many (Shadowboxer, Precious, The Paperboy), but that is really what stands out to me about this picture and the others. The tone of the The Butler is constantly shifting. There is a disjointedness about the movie. The characters don't feel somehow "themselves", as though they change who they are from scene to scene. This was especially true for Yaya Alafia (Carol) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter). Now, it may be that good acting saves most of thee characters – makes them feel more the same from scene to scene – but that certainly is not the case with Carol and Carter. The film obviously shifts tone wildly, too.

Carlos: Lee Daniels does a few things really, really well. And the one thing that I think he does consistently is pull out transformative performances from his actors. He does this through what seems to be a highly counter-intuitive method of intentional miscasting. Mo'Nique in Precious. Everybody in The Paperboy. And Oprah in this (who turns out to be the shining star of this movie, but never in a million years would she have been on my cast list). But Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King was cast perfectly. No argument there.

Mr. Gooding as Carter
Aaron: The other thing is that this is really a kind of Forrest Gump romp through USAmerican history, and so the movie is necessarily sort of shallow.

Carlos: I think most of the problems in Lee Daniels's The Butler (do I have to call it that?) stem from the script. I think, at the heart of it, there is a strong story about race and America's rocky relationship with change. It's also hard to deny that it comes at a time where race and civil liberties are at the forefront of many Americans' minds, and that lends the film a lot of power that it may not have had otherwise. That being said, I agree completely with your Forrest Gump analogy. I had the chance to read an earlier draft of the script before the movie was made and I'll say that the same problems that existed in the script existed on screen. So there's your lesson for the day, aspiring screenwriters: you can't just fix your problems in production. More than anything for me it was his over-reliance on voice-over and jarring transitions between time periods that sunk the movie for me. But the picaresque approach to the story really only gave you a shallow view into the racial politics of the star-studded presidential menagerie, often boiling down their racial politics to a single scene. I actually found the son's journey much more interesting than the butler's. But maybe that was the point.

Aaron: It wasn't the point. The film focuses on the father's half of the father-son relationship. And I think that was sort of the problem – David Oyelowo's character was just more interesting. He plays it beautifully, I thought. Totally boyish and then grown and fascinating. I did want to note one scene that looked really great: the dinner sequence in the White House contrasted with the lunch-counter violence. That was a great juxtaposition. And if I thought his character disjointed, I should also say that I loved Cuba Gooding, Jr. in this. He is a confident performer, and I understand that he is constantly asked to play silly clown characters, but I know guys like him. I felt like I knew Carter, and Gooding approaches a guy like that without judgment (unlike an actor like Terrence Howard).

Mr. Oyelowo as The Butler's Son
Carlos: It also looked cheap.  Did it look cheap to you? 

Aaron: It did look cheap! Why did we both think that? Was that because we saw so little of the White House? 

Carlos: I didn't mind not seeing the White House. It was the lighting. Everything had this fuzzy, soft look and I think it was there because Daniels needed to cover up for the fact that whenever possible he was trying not to use age makeup (I sourced this from a couple of interviews) and the age makeup they did use looked terrible. You would think with a 30-million-dollar budget they could make it look spectacular, but that's what you get when you hire every A- to B+ list actor to fill out your presidential pool.

Ms. Fonda & Mr. Rickman as the Reagans
Aaron: As relates to this casting question, I feel strange about it. This is a sort of Hollywood thing, right? This anticipation we get to have and the pleasure we receive from playing Guess which famous movie star will be playing each president and first lady? It draws away from the film as a document of a historical period and makes everything seem slightly more, well, fake, while at the same time it is totally fun to see Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda play the Reagans.

Carlos: It was gimmicky, and it often took me out of the movie, but it was exactly as you say. Totally fun to see Rickman and Fonda as the Reagans. But I think these choices go back to Daniels' reliance on camp. Which isn't a bad thing. It's just a thing. And it doesn't always work well with the tone of his movies. The Butler becomes more of a spectacle when you have this star-studded cast filling out minor roles. This is a bit of a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it's distracting. You're wondering if Cusack's nose is Nixonian enough, or if LBJ is indeed Liev Schreiber or someone else, or about just how much the right wing is incensed by Jane Fonda playing the wife of the second coming of Christ. But maybe that's the trick? Because you're being distracted by this spectacle but it pulls your focus away from the holes in the script momentarily.

Aaron: I love that you said that this celebrity-sighting thing is actually about camp. Of course you are correct! I hadn't really thought of that, but you are absolutely right. It's just that the film doesn't really want to be campy. Or that the camp sensibility is married in an uncomfortable way to the kind of sentimental narrative for which people like Zemeckis or Ron Howard are known. The two ways of storytelling really conflict quite strongly, and though I enjoyed the campy parts, they made me feel uneasy because I never quite dropped into the sentimental sections of the film. 

Carlos: Speaking of cheap. Can we talk about the ending? 

Aaron: Haha. Do you mean the way that The Butler behaves as though every single issue for which black people have fought in the U.S. is automatically solved by the election of a black president? It is a curious project of forgetting in a film that would appear to have been all about actively remembering precisely those struggles. I do, of course, agree with the sections with MLK where he talks about black domestics, etc. I think that kind of analysis is helpful and super-smart. But the film wants to be about the United States presidents' struggles with racism, and in the end the film pays more attention to the changes of conscience those white men have than it does to either the black domestic at the film's center or the angry black revolutionary who is his foil. 

Carlos: I think you hit the nail on the head. Remember, this was written by a white guy, Danny Strong (of Game Change and Recount fame), and while Lee Daniels really did his best to punch up "the black experience", it only felt genuine in the scenes taking place in the home. I'm looking at you, get-that-cheap-trifling-bitch-outta-my-house scene. But as it stands, the rest of the movie was like watching 15-minute snippets of Lincoln. You know the president has already made up his mind, things are shitty and need to change, and that there is an entrenched force of racists that refuses to budge. And maybe it's just the cultural lens that I'm viewing the film through, but I did want to see more about what shaped the various presidents' views on race. Instead I got a direct set up "problem" and pay off "how they fixed the problem". It got kinda monotonous. (I actually did a double feature with this and The Grandmaster and they had a lot of similar structural problems, except The Grandmaster was shot beautifully and it had punching, so it was more engaging.)

My biggest issue with the ending – and it was the same issue that I had with the script – was that it needlessly politicized a story that should have been for all of us. Now it's for less than half of us. While I understand the importance of button-ending the movie with the election of Barack Obama to reinforce the "see how far we've come" theme, it irked me. Not that I give a shit what the right wing thinks, but this film could have been (and I am being generous using "could") a great cultural touchstone that turned the mirror back on us to ask us how far we've come, but persists in telling us that we still have a long way to go. 

Aaron: I think the ending does precisely the opposite. Maybe this is my inner black panther speaking, but when we think of having a black president as the end of anything, I feel like it tells us that racial oppression is basically over. Seen in this light, the struggles that the film describes feel, by the end of the movie, as though they have actually ended in real life. I am surprised you saw the film in the opposite way. 

Carlos: I guess I was unclear. What was delivered is exactly what you say. But I wanted the ending to acknowledge that this struggle clearly isn't over yet. The ending, as is, feels like the "white guilt" version. I know that Daniels had to do a heavy amount of cuts right at the end, so I wonder what may be lost in the digital trash bin.

Queen O knockin' it out of the park

Aaron: In any case, the film is uneven at best. I think if it's worth seeing it's for the game of spot-the-celebrity and for Oprah Winfrey, who is her own epic version of spot-the celebrity. She is fabulous in The Butler, but it is also impossible to forget that she is Oprah: she's one of the most well-known women in the world. As it happens, she is also a great actress, and it is fun simply to watch that. 

Carlos: Agreed. Uneven, but ultimately worth seeing if not for the fact that we don't get many big theatrical releases that even attempt to discuss race in any sort of meaningful way. And yes, Oprah was and is the #1 reason to see it. For the camp spectacle of seeing Queen O dressed down and lookin' rough, as much as for her spectacular performance.