Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Lincoln



There are two pretty grotesquely awful moments in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's semi-biopic of America's 16th President, and they, coincidentally or not, come at the very beginning and very end of the film.  In the opening scene Lincoln is surveying a battlefield and two soldiers, mostly unbidden, recite the Gettysburg Address at him (one of the soldiers is played by Lukas Haas, which is either a very sly cameo or an indication that Lukas Haas is further down the Hollywood food chain than I would have thought.)  Perhaps there's an interpretation for this scene that I'm missing, but all I read is a filmmaker who feels that the 16th President needs an introductory moment to lay out who he is and Why This All Matters.  On the other end of the film there are essentially two endings, both equally execrable, first with Lincoln's assassination and then with a flashback to the 2nd inaugural address.

These scenes, all three of them, show a distinct lack of trust in the audience to place the events of the film in context on their own, something which comes up over and over (and over) with Spielberg, which is perhaps why he's always been more of a populist filmmaker than a critical darling.  And it's a shame, because Lincoln is mostly a well-crafted biopic that manages to draw a vivid portrait of its subject matter without ever (except for the aforementioned scenes) feeling like a trip through the Big Events, the jukebox musical version of a biopic (think Ray, for instance).  Tony Kushner's screenplay takes one specific event (the push for the passage of the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery once and for all in the United States) and uses it as a prism to explore Lincoln as a whole man rather than an amber-preserved historical figure, and it is a very effective script, with a major assist going to Daniel Day-Lewis' almost preternaturally gifted performance.

I'm on record that I generally prefer a star turn performance (say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball) than a method-y, over-accented performance, but it's kind of impossible to look at what Day-Lewis is doing in Lincoln and not be awestruck.  This would be a career capper if he hadn't just put one in a few years ago in There Will Be Blood, but his Lincoln is as small and sweet and lived-in as Daniel Plainview was large and apocalyptic and just downright weird.  (Throughout much of Lincoln's very long pre-production period, Liam Neeson was supposed to play the role, and whatever anyone thinks of latter-day Neeson he would have been several steps down from Day-Lewis.)  Tommy Lee Jones has the film's second showiest role as Thaddeus Stevens, and it's nice to see him put in the effort for a change (no one checks out of a film that he doesn't care about faster than Jones), and Sally Field is on hand to lend her own gravitas to Mary Todd, but other than Day-Lewis the best parts of the casting come from character actors given meaty parts - TV favorites David Costabile and Walton Goggins both get nice showcases as members of Congress, S. Epatha Merkerson shows up in a small but pivotal role as someone close to Stevens, and the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson get all of the film's funniest non-Lincoln moments as a trio of operatives working behind the scenes to press members of Congress on the passage of the Amendment.

And that's probably the most surprising part of the film; not how serious Lincoln is (and he is) but how funny and charming the film allows him to be.  He has a tendency to speak in folksy stories and homespun wisdom, while the characters around him look on half in admiration and half in exasperation; it's obvious that this is how his friends and family are used to being delivered wisdom by him.  It's a clever conceit, one that (I think) is mostly historically accurate, and it takes some of the stuffiness out of what is, at base, another one of those stories about the men of Congress passive-aggressively sniping at one another and then eventually taking a monumental, historical vote.  I wish Spielberg had had the faith in the audience to bookend his film with scenes that fit the tone of the rest of the movie, but we still got a pretty damn good Lincoln movie anyway.  A-

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness



Space, the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  Her five year mission: to explore strange new worlds.  To seek out new life and civilizations.  To boldly go where no one has gone before.

(I could not think of a way to talk about this movie without spoiling it.  You have been warned.)

J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of Star Trek was (mostly) a triumph of outside-the-box thinking.  Tasked with both honoring the copious continuity of the already-established Star Trek universe, and allowing the beloved characters from the original series to have fresh new adventures, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman cut the Gordian Knot with a time travel plot that, while it may not have made a lot of logical sense, created a universe which honored the past while not being beholden to it.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and company return in Star Trek Into Darkness no longer having to justify their own existence, able to simply have their own adventures, wherever they may take them.  A new threat to Starfleet in the guise of cadet John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) emerges, first blowing up a Starfleet intelligence outpost in London and then, when the top brass gather together to determine how to respond, attacking the meeting and in the process killing Kirk's mentor, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood).  Harrison escapes to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos and Kirk is sent on a clandestine mission to assassinate him by Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller).  But neither Harrison nor Marcus are what they seem, and Kirk is faced with a series of difficult choices as he slowly uncovers the truth.

Harrison, of course, is no such thing, and is in fact the infamous Khan Noonian Singh, genetic superman and primary antagonist of Star Trek II.  Where the Khan of Star Trek II was completely driven by his hatred of Kirk, this Khan is mostly indifferent towards Kirk, and seeks his revenge against Admiral Marcus, who awoke Khan from cryosleep to help Starfleet develop weapons to use against the Klingons, and holds his colleagues hostage to force him to comply.  Kirk and Khan develop an enmity towards one another as the film progresses, but their relationship lacks the depth that "Space Seed" gave to Star Trek II.

Star Trek (the film) pointed towards a future for this franchise that was free from the series' continuity, that could blaze its own path in whatever direction it desired.  I saw a version of Star Trek Into Darkness that honored this idea, very briefly, when Khan and Kirk team up to take down Marcus' enormous prototype ship in the 2nd act.  That was a scene that said, we do not have to be defined by the past.  Perhaps Khan doesn't have to simply be a villain, perhaps he can be something more than that, a character who exists in an all-too-unusual grey area within the Star Trek universe.  Khan had done terrible things, granted, but so had Marcus, and maybe the script could have figured out a way to thread that needle, to at least partially justify Khan's actions and make him into something different, a character who wore neither white hat nor black hat but could be useful in certain circumstances and would be, going forward, a wild card out on the edges of space, always in the back of our heroes' minds.

But then it all fell apart, as Khan returned to the previous status quo, seeking petty revenge against Kirk and being foiled by the crew of the Enterprise.  "Where no one has gone before", it's the last goddamned words of the intro, the ones right before the music kicks in.  Did no one pay attention to this fact?  Did no one think, at any point, that this movie so thoroughly and completely refuses to boldly go anywhere but the same place that previous people had already gone?  We have Khan running through the same character beats, with a brief respite in the middle before the plunge back into outright villainy.  We have Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), inserted into the franchise at the exact same time point that she was in the first film series, here mostly just taking up space aboard the Enterprise but I swear to God I expected her final scene to reveal her to be pregnant (it didn't, which is something I guess).  We have a death in a radiation chamber, and the film practically begs audiences to be impressed by the fact that it inverts the scene from Star Trek II, putting Kirk in the chamber and Spock angrily screaming for vengeance against Khan as Kirk dies.  And the emotional response to this scene is completely muted given the realities of 21st century blockbuster franchise - there is no way that a second film in a series is going to kill off its hero, so the only reason that this scene exists is to remind audiences of the earlier film.  Everything here, ultimately, relies so much on the goodwill of audiences who loved Star Trek II that it forgets to actually create an interesting and believable story for its heroes to play around in.

In the end, this is a movie that posits that we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, that people are incapable of changing in any meaningful way and we are all fated to play the same roles, in the same way, with the same people, again and again and again.  That would be alright if the film cared to explore that idea with any sort of depth, but this is a movie that seemingly couldn't care less about anything but to make cheap references and remind audiences of an old movie that it actually loved on its own terms, rather than just as one enormous exercise in self-referencing.  Star Trek put together a new cast of actors playing a beloved set of characters, and discovered that those characters could still seem fresh in the 21st century.  Star Trek Into Darkness puts them together again, and weighs them down so thoroughly with the stale remnants of the previous century's stories that it suggests the filmmakers have already given up on the idea of boldly taking this franchise anywhere but backwards.  C-

The Bourne Legacy



The first act of The Bourne Legacy, director Tony Gilroy's sideways reboot of the Bourne franchise with Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross as the new lead, revolves very heavily around a drone strike carried out against Cross.  With the Treadstone program from the first three films falling apart around them thanks to Jason Bourne's having gone rogue, the people who run even more top-secret clandestine personnel programs at the CIA, particularly Eric Byer (Edward Norton), have decided that the programs, and everyone involved in them, need to be terminated.  Cross and another agent within his program (Oscar Isaac) are targeted for assassination by Byer and his team, and a drone is used to fire a missile into the cabin in which they are temporarily staying.

The Bourne films are, ultimately, about inwardly-turned post-9/11 paranoia.  Where the era of classic spy films was mostly about the fear of the Other (the Soviet Union or some related stand-in, and then some terrorist group or other after its collapse), this series of films is about the fear of ourselves, of the power we have granted the government in the name of defending America and how little ability we really have to step on the brakes with any of it.  These films are suffused with a dread of government-backed technology, programs that use neuroscience and biotechnology to create assassins and supersoldiers, and the use of a recognizable piece of controversial technology like a drone draws the connection explicitly between the fictional world of the film and the very real world in which we live.

Cross has been physically and mentally enhanced chemically by project Outcome, the sister program to Treadstone, and after he escapes the attack his path intertwines with Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a researcher who is involved with the science behind Cross's chemical enhancement, and who has narrowly escaped being eliminated by Byer under the guise of a workplace shooting.  Cross and Shearing travel to Manila, home to project Outcome's chemical manufacturing facility, in search of Cross's medications, as they are slowly but methodically tracked by Byer and his team, including an operative in an even higher security program (Louis Ozawa Changchien), project LARX.

Tony Gilroy wrote or co-wrote the first three Bourne movies and here he adds the title of director as well, taking over from the departed Paul Greengrass.  It's always an open question with action films as to how much the script actually matters - for every Shane Black, who parlayed his distinctive voice as an action movie writer into a genuine name-brand, there are 10 writers like Steven E. de Souza, who co-wrote, among other things, both 48 Hours and Die Hard, not that you'd know that both of those films came from the same writer.  Gilroy isn't a writer who is going to give you a lot of interesting turns of phrase, but he is one of the most gifted writers at crafting the mechanics of a taut thriller, and the way the Bourne Legacy accomplishes the twin goals of tying into the continuity of the earlier series while also striking out in an interesting new direction is remarkable in and of itself, before getting to the nuts and bolts of the film itself.

Because the Bourne Legacy is built much more on those plot mechanics than it is on raw action, and yet it still manages to move along at a brisk pace.  The first act is a bit clunky, with the action ping-ponging between Byer in Washington, dealing with the fallout from Jason Bourne, and Cross in some sort of alpine retreat, not yet aware of the imminent danger he is in.  The two halves of that equation don't fit together terribly well, with Cross' more action-heavy half ironically slowing the film down from Byer's pedal-to-the-metal energy.  Norton is a notoriously difficult actor to work with, which is the only legitimate reason he doesn't work more often, because he has a preternatural ability to breathe life into even an underwritten character like Byer.  Renner's performance is more along the path of mere adequacy - he's good enough at selling 21st century action-hero roles, but he doesn't bring a lot of charm to the proceedings.  Weisz's character is the pivotal one plotwise, which makes it particularly unfortunate that she spends a lot of the film as baggage, following Cross' various enhanced-soldier orders and simply trying to stay alive; she falls very distinctly on the "escort mission" side of the Female Lead In An Action Movie spectrum.  She's a smart and capable actress who is good in the role, but Gilroy could have tried to write his way around this cliche rather than through it.

I have gotten this far without mentioning the action in the film, and that is mostly because I didn't find any of it all that memorable.  It gets the job done of moving the film along between conversations, but I found the conversations, and the plot, to be almost universally more interesting.  Mediocre action in an action movie might sink a lesser film, but Gilroy's ideas here, and his ability to spin off this world in a fascinating new direction, manages to carry the day regardless of the fact that the action disappoints, which can either be taken as a great compliment for a film that resurrects a series that seemed dead while plugging directly into the current zeitgeist, or an indictment of a franchise which has lost its drive.  I know which side I fall on.  B+

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Iron Man 3



We're in uncharted waters now.  Prior to The Avengers, there were five Marvel Universe movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: First Avenger) that all served, in some fashion, as leadups to the big, Whedon-directed team-up film.  The burden on each, besides building their own worlds and their own characters, was to build anticipation for The Avengers, and building anticipation is, all things being equal, not really that difficult.  A glimpse here, a glimpse there.  Just enough to whet the appetite.

We're in the next phase of the Marvel film saga now and even though Avengers 2 is already on the horizon, each of the next batch of films has to convince audiences that yes, these characters each bring value to the screen all on their own, and their adventures are worth following even when they are split up.  Of the four major members of the Avengers, director Shane Black should, on paper, have the easiest time reintroducing a solo Tony Stark, since the first Iron Man movie took place more or less in a world in which an Avengers movie was more fantasy than reality, and Robert Downey Jr.'s performance has always been the most solid anchor in this universe, imbuing Stark with his own self-confident-verging-on-cocky charisma.

Black is reunited with his Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star in Downey, and there is a conscious effort to bring some of that film's light/dark dichotomy into this movie.  The film opens and closes with Downey speaking in voiceover, a direct homage to their earlier collaboration, and Downey gets his own Val Kilmer to bounce off of in this film in the form of, of all things, an adorable moppet.  Stark's second-act sojourn that brings him into the orbit of a child named Harley (Ty Simpkins) seems like the most shamelessly pandering bit of horseshit this side of Clark's irritating "son" in Superman Returns, but Black and Drew Pearce's script somehow makes it work.  In the midst of Stark's very personal and mostly small-stakes battle with the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), his ability to banter never leaves him, even when he only has a young boy to bounce off of.

But hanging over Iron Man 3, like an unwanted guest, is The Avengers, and the film never finds a satisfying way to grapple with it.  Leave aside the fact that Tony Stark has a bunch of superheroic friends who never bother coming to his aid in his battle here - we'll just assume, like we will probably have to with everyone else's solo picture, that everyone else is busy with their own life-or-death struggle, and don't have the time to answer the call at the moment.  Iron Man 3 tries to find something to say about the way the events of The Avengers, with its cosmic focus, had a profound effect on Tony Stark's distinctively down-to-earth persona, and it almost entirely fails.  To be more explicit, and I don't think this is much of a spoiler, the film give Stark panic attacks that are supposedly related to what happened in that previous film, positing that his battle with the forces of another universe or dimension or whatever it was changed his outlook, and harmed his ability to interact with the world as it normally is.  The problem here is that, for anyone who has seen The Avengers, the threat in that film, other than Loki's scenery-chewing, is almost entirely superfluous, simple plot mechanics that are necessary to accomplish the primary goal, which is to bring our heroes together and allow them to bounce off one another.  So to deal with that film here through his connection to its (pedestrian) plot, rather than through his new friendships, is pretty much a complete misfire (one of the other Avengers shows up in the post-credits sequence, and it's pretty funny, so at least they're still around, somewhere or other).

The action in this film is a mixed bag, although more good than bad.  The best action sequence is a doozy, the Air Force One rescue scene, but the worst action scene is, unfortunately, the final one.  It occurs to me that all three Iron Man films have set their final action scenes at night, and I think it's not a coincidence that the final battles of all three movies have been fairly disappointing.  The final action sequence in The Avengers was filmed in daylight, and it is arguably the best scene in the film.  Iron Man, the character, is alive with primary colors, and why filmmakers insist on muting them with night shoots is a mystery to me.

Aside from that, the villains in this movie are probably the most interesting out of all three films - they're certainly better than Mickey Rourke's sleepy villain in the second film, and are probably better than Jeff Bridges' afterthought of a character in the first.  Besides Kingsley, Guy Pearce gives the film a decent shot of energy as Aldrich Killian, an entrepreneur with the heart of a sociopath, and James Badge Dale is appropriately sinewy and weird as the film's most pro-active henchman.  I'll confess that the 3rd act twist caught me completely off-guard, so much so that it took me a minute or two to even figure out what it meant to say; I'm not sure if that reflects a failure on the filmmakers' part, or a massive success.  It is an exceptionally weird twist, and I won't spoil it.  Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress who I mostly don't like, has acquitted herself well as Pepper Potts throughout this series, and some of the film's uncomfortable sexism (there is a scene that almost perfectly echoes the worst scene in Skyfall, and women are way too often treated as props here) is at least partially mitigated by the role Potts ultimately ends up playing in the final showdown.  I like Black as a writer and filmmaker, but the women of the Marvel Universe still mostly deserve better than they're getting, and that  was unquestionably on display in his script.  Don Cheadle continues to be mostly stranded as Jim Rhodes, and both his and Terrence Howard's inability to find anything terribly interesting in the character speaks to how superfluous he's been over the course of three films.

Robert Downey Jr. has played this character in four films now, with at least one more on the way.  It's been a good fit for him, allowing an actor of his remarkable gifts to inhabit a B-list character like Tony Stark and turn him into a de facto A-lister.  Iron Man 3 feels, at least to some extent, like a capper to this character, even though there is at least one more contractually-obligated Avengers movie, if not more.  But Downey's version of Stark belongs to a bigger universe now, and this film's small-scale threat is too small for Iron Man now, in much the same way that it feels like it's time for Downey to move on to bigger challenges as well.  B

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Color Purple



It is safe to say that The Color Purple does not resemble any other film in Steven Spielberg's filmography up to this point.  His two most "serious" films before this both involved aliens, and their big ideas were much more metaphorical than they were literal.  The Color Purple was a gamble, both for Spielberg and for the studio that put a young white guy in charge of perhaps one of the quintessential stories about African-American women, and while I think that any film has to be judged entirely by what's up on screen, it's hard to forget about this background while you watch it - Spielberg was less than 30 years old when he shot it, and if the source material wasn't so strong, and so beloved, I'm not sure it would have made it out of pre-production.

Let me back up a step and say this - there is still, to this day, a (fairly low-level, but still present) controversy about whether Spielberg should have been picked to make this film at all.  And there are sort of two parts to this.  On the one hand, Spielberg is unquestionably one of the great filmmakers of his time, and specifically one who exhibits copious amounts of empathy for his subjects.  So of course he is (and was) just as capable of making this film as anyone.  But on the other hand, given that Hollywood still has a real dearth of black voices behind the camera, people whose own lived-in experiences are rarely allowed to come through on screen, it is at least somewhat of a missed opportunity that the studio settled on someone who didn't totally feel this material in their bones, at the very core of their being.  Because this is a story about black women, and black women directors of real renown are unicorns in Hollywood.  But we got Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's novel, and that's all I've got to work with, so enough grab-assing around, let's dive in.

14-year-old Celie Harris (played, as an adult, by Whoopi Goldberg) has already been twice impregnated by her lout of a father when she is essentially sold to Mister Johnson (Danny Glover) to be his wife/live-in maid and help take care of his three children by his previous wife.  Her younger sister Nettie comes to live with them for a while after running away from her father, but after Mister tries to rape Nettie too, she is kicked out of the house and Mister cuts off any contact between the two girls.

Everyone grows older and Mister's youngest child, Harpo, knocks up and marries the willful Sofia (Oprah Winfrey).  Sofia's stubbornness, the thing that gives her her unique spark, is also her ultimate downfall when she hits a local white woman and is sent to prison for eight years - she emerges from imprisonment prematurely grey and broken in spirit, employed as a servant to the very same woman who she hit.  In the meantime the mistress that Mister keeps a torch burning for, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), comes to stay with him for a while, and what starts out as a mutually antagonistic relationship between Celie and Shug soon turns to friendship and eventually (mostly by implication) mutual romantic love.  Shug eventually leaves and the next time she returns she has a husband, Grady (Bennet Guillory), disappointing both Mister and Celie.  With Shug's help, Celie discovers that her sister has been sending her letters for years that Mister has been confiscating - Nettie is working as a missionary in Africa, and both of Celie's children are with her.

At dinner with the family after discovering the letters, Celie finally breaks Mister's psychological hold on her, and tells him she is leaving with Shug and Grady.  Free of Mister's hold, Celie opens up a haberdashery in Memphis, although she is unable to solve her sister's problem - Nettie can't return to America since she can't convince US immigration officials that she is a citizen.  Mister, a broken-down drunk after having lost everything in his life (including Harpo, who ran off along with Celie) has one final decent act in him, and takes his entire savings to Washington to convince the government to allow Nettie and Celie's children back into the country.  The film ends as Celie is reunited with her sister and her children for the first time in decades, with Mister looking on from a distance.

The Color Purple is basically the same length as 1941, and while the latter was one of the most painful slogs I have ever had the misfortune of watching, this film absolutely breezed past.  Given a sprawling, decades-long narrative, Spielberg manages to condense it down to its crystalline essence, and he does so without sacrificing the arcs of several characters.  All three of the major female characters (Celie, Sofia and Shug) are given something interesting to do (Shug has a strained relationship with her preacher father because of her sexually adventurous youth, and her redemption in his eyes takes up the back half of her arc), and he even manages to work in Nettie's sojourn in Africa so that it fits seamlessly within the plot of the film.

But....(there's always a but)....the tone of this film, for long stretches, is just really, really off.  Some significant portion of the blame, and it's weird to say this considering what an important creative force he was in getting the film made, has to go to Quincy Jones, whose score is really brutally awful - light when it should be heavy, treacly when it should be subtle, the whole thing should have been scrapped (and maybe would have been, if Jones wasn't an EP on the film).  The one part where his gifts as a musician shine are in the late-film scenes set in Africa, where his approximation of African tribal music give the film a real driving tension that it is almost entirely missing elsewhere (Spielberg intercuts some sort of ritual involving Celie's children with Celie's almost-murder of Mister that is interrupted by Shug, set to Jones' tribal music, and it is easily the most tense moment in the movie.)  Celie spends a decent part of her adolescence being raped, first by her father and later by Mister, and the film only scratches the surface of what this means, cutting in way too many hijinx-y scenes, set to Jones' unsubtle wacky music.  It does a better job in the back half of taking everything a little bit more seriously, but those early comic scenes left a bad taste that lingered.

The film makes a fairly subtle case for Celie being a lesbian - from the standpoint of 2013, it's clear that that's what Celie is, and if this movie had been made now it would have been played up quite a bit more.  For whatever reason Spielberg gives a light touch to what I imagine is a bigger theme in the book (you can often tell, in a work that is adapted from a novel, when a ghost of a plot thread in a movie has been whittled down from a much bigger thread in its source) and this choice, probably more than anything, reflects some of Spielberg's reticence as a white male filmmaker to really tackle an issue that was outside of his comfort zone.  He certainly never suggests otherwise, but Celie's lesbianism is only really present at the very edges of the story (Shug probably isn't a lesbian, just someone who is sexually adventurous and flexible, but it's pretty clear that Celie is not attracted to men).

The best part of The Color Purple, by a fairly wide margin (and I say this not to damn the movie at all, but because this part was just that great) is Whoopi Goldberg's performance as Celie.  To use a cliched term, I genuinely found it to be a revelation - Goldberg entirely subsumes her boisterous personality within Celie's very small and contained character.  Her own public persona eventually overwhelmed her ability to play a character like Celie again, but if it was literally the only film she had ever acted in, it would still be a towering achievement worth mentioning in the same breath as some of the classic film performances.  I can't say enough about how good she is - the film goes out of its way to talk about how ugly Celie is supposed to be (which I gather is in the novel) but her performance is so charmingly sincere and unguarded that it is never in question why Shug falls for her.  Oprah is also quite good as Sofia, more for the front half of her performance (the "Baddest Bitch" part) than the back half, where she sort of loses the thread when Sofia is supposed to be broken, and no longer really has a good hook in the character.  No one else really stands out - I found Margaret Avery mostly too big, and was somewhat surprised to find she had been nominated for an Oscar.  Glover's role is really thankless, having to pretty much be an awful brute until his last-minute change of heart, and he does the best he can with a somewhat underwritten character, but whatever charm Mister is supposed to possess never really comes through, and it's hard to understand why someone like Shug ever came under his spell (it's kind of weird that Glover kept getting cast as heavies when he was younger, given that he practically invented the phrase, "twinkle in his eye" - he was also the bad guy in Witness.)  Willard Pugh, God bless him, is just awful as Harpo, a nothing of a nothing performance that comes dangerously close to Stepin Fetchit territory on several occasions.

So then there's another major problem in this film, one that has been endlessly dissected, and that is how it portrays black men.  Walker's novel is, I gather, a story about how both racism and patriarchal attitudes within their own community affected black women in early 20th century America (and, by extension, continue to affect them to the present day).  The unfortunate side-effect of this is that the men in this film are, by and large, pretty cartoonishly awful, either irredeemable louts (as Celie and Nettie's father, Mister and Mister's father all are) or hen-pecked losers (as Harpo is).  While that may have come across a little more subtly on the page, onscreen it ends up seeming pretty profoundly, well, racist.  So much of the legacy of post-Civil War era civil rights battles revolves around the fear that white people had that black men were uncouth, savage brutes who were coming for their women and, well....that's sort of what we have here.  Rapists, abusers, and lazy bums.  On some level I could understand if someone considers this a deal-breaker  for this film - from my standpoint, I thought the women were strong and interesting enough characters that I still considered it a worthwhile film to see.

And that's the bottom line, I guess, for anyone who has gotten this far - on balance, I liked the Color Purple. The parts that I liked I really liked, and the parts that I didn't like I was able to look past.  I don't think this is his most accomplished film by a long shot, and it's certainly not his crowning achievement.  But as a young filmmaker's first foray into truly serious subject matter, it's altogether solid, and is probably the film in this marathon so far that I'm most glad I did eventually catch up with.  I've been thinking about it since yesterday, and even though not everything worked, and some things were downright miscalculations, it's a film that I think will stick with me.

A few more loose odds and ends:

Spielberg really has very little interest in exploring gender roles in any sort of complex way.  Mister tries to make breakfast for Shug and he totally botches it, and the whole thing is played for laughs.  Celie then does the job instead and cooks up a gigantic, perfectly-cooked breakfast right afterwards.  There's a pretty obvious implication being made here for the audience, and it is extremely reductive.  Someone who was a bit more sociologically aware might have made something more interesting of this scene.

The old lady makeup/hair on Oprah is awful.  Just as she loses the thread of her character after she gets out of prison, the film drops the ball by putting her in such a stupid, stupid wig.

Spielberg's signifiers of Africa (elephants, zebras, savannah, tribal music) are awfully cliche.  It places the audience in space just fine, but it's also a "Really?" type scene.  Nettie traveled to Africa from America.  The chance that she ended up in the Serengeti, which is all the way on the eastern part of the continent, is somewhere between slim and none.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man



There are spoilers for the film here.

Searching for Sugar Man, as its title implies, is structured as a mystery.  Its title figure, Sixto Rodriguez, released two albums on a small record label in the United States in the early-70's.  Neither record sold particularly well, and Rodriguez the musician disappeared into obscurity.  This is a fairly common story in the record industry, where only the barest handful of people manage to sell enough records to make a living at it, but what sets Rodriguez apart is that, for reasons that are not entirely clear (the movie attempts to grapple with this question, but its answers are somewhat cliche), his music hit a chord with white South Africans in the 70's and 80's, people who considered themselves foes of the apartheid regime in that country.  Rodriguez became, without ever knowing it, a superstar in South Africa, a musician whose records occupy the same real estate with, according to one person in the film, the Beatles' Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The mystery that the first half of Malik Bendjelloul's film is built around is, what happened to Rodriguez?  In the pre-internet era, details of his life were difficult to find, especially for residents of a country as politically isolated as apartheid-era South Africa was, and rumors that he had killed himself in some gruesome way were the most common story passed around among his fans.  A couple of those fans took it upon themselves in the 90's, sparked by the re-release of his albums on CD, to find out the true story, and their search eventually yielded the man himself, alive and well and living a working-class life in Detroit.

The second half of the film fills in the details of Rodriguez' life after his brief shot at being a big-time musician, and spends a good deal of time building up to, and showing the footage from, Rodriguez' triumphant 1998 tour of South Africa, the first time his fans in that country had gotten a chance to see him in person.  It is a show-stopping moment, and it is made possible by Rodriguez himself, a man of copious amounts of humility and grace about the circumstances of his life, the near-miss of stardom and the fact that he makes ends meet by doing manual labor in one of the hardest cities in America.  Rodriguez resists introspection about his place in the world (he is an awkward interview subject, too careful and measured to provide concrete answers), but his humanity shines through the screen anyway.

Rodriguez' music populates the film - it's folky, with just the barest hint of Latin inflection.  He gets compared to Bob Dylan constantly, not without reason, and occasionally he comes up with a turn of phrase that really makes you take notice.  There's a bit of saminess to the music; he likes to come up with a question or phrase and repeat it in different iterations.  But at its best, his music absolutely could have played on AOR stations in the 70's.  It was probably a longshot in any case - the record label he is signed to was too small to provide any real publicity muscle (the biggest artist on the label was Bill Withers, and his albums also somewhat undersold) but the film at least implies that part of the problem was just how conspicuously Hispanic Rodriguez is.  His music is distinctly in the white folk tradition, acoustic guitars and political messages, and it's not far-fetched to imagine the label had trouble figuring out how to sell him to audiences.  The film also strongly implies that the head of his label, a man named Clarence Avant, pocketed the royalties that he should have been receiving from his South African album sales, but it doesn't follow the thread beyond asking Avant about it (who is extremely cagey about the subject, and comes off like the slimy record executive one imagines them to be.)

The second half of the film is dominated, not so much by Rodriguez himself as by his three daughters.  They are the narrators of his story, talking about his blue collar life as a manual laborer, about his quixotic 1989 campaign for Detroit city council (the city couldn't even manage to spell his name right on the ballot) and, above all, about how he worked hard to instill a love of the arts in them.  It's never clear what the family situation between them, their mother and Rodriguez is, but what comes across on the screen is just what a decent father he was to the three of them, and how much they appreciate what he was able to give them - not money, but knowledge, and passion, and the sense that lacking material things didn't mean that the culture in and around the city was closed off to them.

Bendjelloul engages in a bit of fudging to make the narrative work.  In the mid-70's, Rodriguez' records sold well enough in Australia for him to tour the country in 1979, and again in 1981.  Bendjelloul doesn't mention this fact, so that the 1998 concert in South Africa seems like Rodriguez' triumphant return to music after having walked away from the business in the early-70's.  It's one of those omissions that makes sense in terms of the story the filmmaker is trying to tell, but it's at least worth noting that the story told here doesn't quite match the reality of the facts on the ground.  Rodriguez is still a compelling enough figure, and his story so fascinating anyway, that it didn't matter to me.  There are so many stories that intertwine within the life of Rodriguez - the shady details of the music business, apartheid-era South Africa, the collapse of the working class (particularly in Detroit), but most of all the story of Rodriguez is one of a father and his daughters, about  how a man with very little can still give his girls so much.  A-

Friday, March 29, 2013

1941



When does it become clear to the people involved in making a film that the finished product is going to be a turkey?  Well, if it's some direct-to-video detritus, probably "before the script is even written."  But if it's a film with A-list pretenses, your Giglis, your Leonard: Part 6's, it presumably takes a while for everyone to realize what they're doing.  A bad screenplay can be salvaged.  A bad performance can be muted in the editing booth.  An incoherent mess can be streamlined.  But at some point, if things are really dire, it probably becomes obvious to enough people on the production that things are not going to end well, and their job is just to finish the damn thing and move on to the next project.

1941 is a massive turkey.  It is incomprehensible and unfunny, and it is those things for almost two and a half excruciating hours.  It was actually not a box office bomb, making three times as much as it cost at theaters, and I feel sorry for every single person who bought a ticket to the latest blockbuster from the man who made Jaws and Close Encounters, and had to sit through this piece of shit in a dark theater.  At least I got to pause it and take a break.  Watching this from start to finish straight through might have destroyed my mind.

The film is ever-so-loosely based on the bombardment of Ellwood, when a Japanese sub shelled an oil refinery near Los Angeles in early 1942.  After Pearl Harbor there was a lot of paranoia on the American coasts about what the Japanese or Germans might get up to, and the shelling of Ellwood fed into that sense.  We are introduced to a Japanese sub off the California coast at the very beginning, and then at the very end it does some shelling.  In the middle, a whole bunch of mostly-unrelated nonsense happens, and a huge cast of famous and semi-famous people show up for a few minutes here and there as the plot determinedly refuses to actually go anywhere.  A lot of stuff gets destroyed - planes, tanks, a house, a paint factory for some reason.  It's all supposed to be funny and almost none of it is.  I don't know whose decision it was to make this material into a slapstick comedy - Spielberg has a well-known love for Stanley Kubrick, so at some point I'm pretty certain he saw 1941 as his Dr. Strangelove.  But between his ham-handed direction (seriously, everything gets destroyed, it is exhausting) and the joke-free screenplay, the film is neither funny nor poignant.  It's not lifeless, at least, because at any given moment about 5 different things are happening on screen.  But it's all so tiresomely vaudevillian.  One of the characters, I am not making this up, is a ventriloquist dummy, and the film treats it like it's a real person.  That is the type of film this is.

John Milius, who is most famous for tough-guy movies like the Dirty Harry pictures and Conan the Barbarian, has a story-by credit, but I'm going to go ahead and assign most of the script portion of the blame to the writing team behind the Back to the Future movies, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.  It's not clear whether they wrote a semi-serious script and then Spielberg decided to go jokey a la Strangelove, or whether it was jokey to begin with, but most of Zemeckis' early work was pretty doofy, so I'm going to assume it's the latter.  There was one joke in the film that actually made me laugh, for a solid 1 joke/150 minute ratio.  A lot of the humor, to be fair, is visual, which really has to fall more on Spielberg's shoulders than the screenwriters.  If you think the sight of a tank plowing through a warehouse full of paint cans is inherently funny, well, this might be your favorite movie.

The cast is sprawling and almost no one comes out with their dignity intact.  John Belushi's character, if it can be called that, is an overeager spin on Bluto Blutarski.  Dan Aykroyd is a soldier who loves America but also has a thick Canadian accent.  Treat Williams spends most of the film attempting to rape another character - this is, obviously, played for laughs.  Slim Pickens and Warren Oates trade on their names and their well-established personae to join in the "fun"; Pickens, in particular, is on the wrong end of a very long scene that revolves around his character's bowel movements.  Ned Beatty is a clueless oaf who willfully destroys his own home (he does, however, have the film's one funny moment).  Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune(!) play the film's Nazi and Japanese villain, respectively - both of them play their scenes fairly straight, but neither has much to do but yell and argue.  Robert Stack plays the military head honcho, and he is probably the one actor in the film whose character acts in consistently logical ways, and never has to do anything humiliating.

I don't want to waste much more time on this film, because I have wasted too much on it already.  It is awful.  When the James Bond series bottomed out, at least one could still enjoy the various tropes of the series.  Same with the worst Star Trek movies.  There are no redeeming qualities to 1941.  It is stupid, it looks awful, and there are no performances in it that are even worth mentioning again.  Spielberg, at least, must have known he had a bomb on his hands when he watched the dailies, and he has at least had the good sense to stay the hell out of the comedy business since then.  Let us never speak of this movie ever again.

Well, just a little bit more.  Bullet points.

The opening scene is an homage to Jaws.  Instead of a shark, it's a Japanese sub.  That seems like a really presumptuous thing for Spielberg to do, to already be self-referencing this early in his career.

Slim Pickens does a riff on his famous "survival kit" speech from Dr. Strangelove, rattling off all the garbage in his shit-kicker character's pockets for the Japanese sailors that capture him.  It's actually vaguely amusing, but then they flush the character right down the toilet (puns!) by having him swallow a compass that the Japanese need for some reason, and then having them force-feed him prune juice.

The one funny joke - Ned Beatty is having a heart-to-heart with his daughter about the USO dance that she is going to go to that night, and he tells her that it is her duty as an American to sleep with the soldiers.  It came as such a surprise that someone had done something unexpected and funny that I had to rewind and watch it again to make sure I heard what I thought I did.

Robert Stack's character cries at Dumbo, which is actually pretty cute.