So these new Wolf of Wall Street posters are not doing me any favors here; they only make me want the movie even more. All this amid talks of release date gerrymandering and holiday re-positioning. Remember that, when the studio was supposedly thinking about bumping the movie into 2014 altogether, either because director Martin Scorsese wasn't done tinkering with the complicated movie, or because someone didn't think the movie would stand a chance against the other big Oscar contenders. Remember those good ol' days?
Anyway, Scorsese's Wolf of wall Street — aka The Casino of White-Collar Crime — is coming out on Christmas, thank heavens, because two weeks is too long between Marty's movies, nevermind the two years since Hugo. Sadly, though — and I haven't seen the movie, so this might not be fair — it doesn't look like Leo's going to get that coveted Oscar ... again. I might be eating those words, though. I've heard some hype about the movie, and Scorsese's wild directing, and it's generally frenzied editing style famous of Scorsese veteran Thelma Schoonmaker, but nothing on DiCaprio. I'm cheering him on, regardless. The guy's an institution and if he never holds one of those gold statues, then the universe if severely wacky. Footnote: does he look like Charlie Sheen in the bottom poster? I think he does, which is altogether awckward since Sheen was in Wall Street, the sorta-same movie from the ’80s.
Also, have you seen the cast list for this movie? Sheesh, I scrolled so far down that I found molten core before I found the Sylvia Ward, who plays "Wedding guest (uncredited)," according to IMDB's scroll-like encyclopedia of names. Ward's credentials are kinda hilarious: she played "Theater patron" in The Longest Week, "Hot girl" in Vamps, "High End Escort / Mercury" in an episode of Law & Order: SVU, and "Russian escort (uncredited)" in The Dictator. So, cheers to Ward and to Wolf of Wall Street. I look forward to seeing both this holiday season.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Sunday, November 24, 2013
In 1974, Woody Grant lent an air compressor to his buddy Ed Pegram for a project he was working on. Forty years later the compressor is still outstanding, to which Woody doesn't hold a grudge, even though it's clear Ed Pegram stole it.
This is Woody's biggest character flaw: he sees goodness in everyone. After all, he reasons, Ed just forgot to return it and one day he'll get a knock at the door and there Ed will be with his air compressor and all will be right with the universe. It's a rosy view, but, of course, an impossible one.
Woody, the central figure in Alexander Payne's utterly beautiful new movie Nebraska, is played by veteran actor Bruce Dern, who turns in one of the most wholly original performances of the year as he squints and wanders, sighs and stares ambivalently into space, and slowly shrugs through the twilight of his life.
Woody is a drunk and, possibly, delusional. He receives one of those phony "You already won $1 Million!!!" sweepstakes letters in the mail and he thinks he actually won something. The letter says to call or mail it back, but then he would have to entrust the United States Postal Service with his precious loot, so one day he begins hoofing it from Montana down to Nebraska, where the sweepstakes company is located.
He can't seem to get out of town, though. In the opening scene a sheriff's deputy stops him on an overpass. "Where you going?" the deputy asks. Woody points in front of him. "Where you coming from?" says the deputy. Woody points behind him. The guy's a regular chatterbox. After several failed walking attempts, Woody's son, David (Will Forte) agrees to drive his dad to Nebraska if only to indulge the old man's fantasy, as brief as it may be. "He needs something to live for, and maybe this is it," David tells his older brother.
So off Woody and David go on a road trip unlike anything I've ever quite seen. David tries to patch up their botched family history, but Woody is so vacant that he primarily stares out the window, his eye always limp and moping, "Are we in Nebraska yet?" At one point Woody loses his teeth in a trainyard, they meet up with some even-more-vacant relatives and, during a stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody offers a daring critique of the stone monument that, if broadcast on a national level, would decrease park attendance in such a way that it might do serious harm to the National Parks Service.
The road trip makes an extended detour in Woody's hometown, where his brother and his wife — and their two mouth-breathing adult children — set them up for a couple of days. All these characters unite in a brilliant scene inside the brother's living room, where Mouth Breather and Neck Beard razz David about his driving speed. The sequence is punctuated by long bouts of silence as all the characters listen, pause, think, pause, react, pause. It's as if brains move a little slower in this house.
Now, let me detour myself a little bit: this movie reminds me greatly of John Hillcoat's The Road, based on the Cormac McCarthy book about a father and a son traveling south to escape an inescapable apocalypse. That movie and this one share a common trait: it's about fathers. But where The Road was about a father imparting wisdom and goodness onto his son, this one seems to be the obvious flip-side of that theme. It's about a father and a son on a journey south, and the son is setting the example for the father.
I loved Bruce Dern here, but I think Nebraska's secret weapon really is Forte, who does something quite remarkable — and gentle and kind and moving and selfless — in the film's final act. Another secret weapon is June Squibb as Woody's wife, June. She's a prickly little cuss, and she knows it. She joins the expedition late in the journey, but she'll leave you in stitches with every one of her quotable lines. When asked if she milked cows on the farms, she says, "I ain't fiddlin' with no cow titties. I'm a city girl." On a trip to a cemetery, she recognizes a name on the tombstone: "He was always trying to get in my panties," she says. then she turns to the grave, flips up her skirt and hollers, "Here's what you're missin'!" If Squibb doesn't get an Oscar nomination for this hilarious role, then there is no justice in the movie business.
The movie, filled with the shattered and aging remnants of Americana's golden age — Last Picture Show all grow'd up — answers the sweepstakes question fully, but the sub-plot to follow is the one with the air compressor. And wouldn't you know it, Woody runs into Ed Pegram, a slimy slug of a man, who preys on Woody's kindness and gullibility. The man brings out the worst in Woody, and the best in David, and they end up uniting, if only to screw Ed Pegram over in a way that should have happened decades earlier.
This is one of the best written, most marvelously well acted and most focused movies of the year. And even though Nebraska's flatness is barely picturesque and the entire film is shot in black and white, the composition and cinematography are spectacular.
And back to that damned air compressor: if there was ever a modern-day equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock's MacGuffin then here it is. Everyone wants it, yet it serves no purpose to the plot, other than Woody wants it back. One way or another, Ed Pegram is going to relinquish it, whether he knows it or not. Such is life.
Monday, November 11, 2013
In 1988, the medium of animation — tragically misguided after its lengthy silver age — was up for grabs. The hands that would grab it came from far away and across an ocean.
It was not a great year for American animation. Disney was in a terrible decade-long slump; its mega-hit The Little Mermaid, which would put it back on track, was still a year away. Director Don Bluth had some success with An American Tail and The Land Before Time, but his films, while darker and edgier, still resembled sub-par Disney projects. Television cartoons were mostly a bust; they were becoming cheaper and uglier, and had hardly progressed since The Flinstones in ’60s.
Then came a rebirth with three animated movies within three different genres, all from
Isao Takahata's historical drama Grave of
the Fireflies, Hayao Miyazaki's whimsical fantasy My Neighbor Totoro and Katsuhiro Otomo's dystopian science fiction Akira. Any one by itself could have
tilted animation's fortunes in Japan's
favor, but here were three within months of one other. It was a cultural
While Totoro and Fireflies are fine movies — if you haven't seen them, I suggest you carve some time out for them; bring tissues for Fireflies — Akira is the movie that still resonates with powerful clarity today.
The film, set in Neo-Tokyo 30 years after World War III, has its roots, like Godzilla before it, in World War II nuclear hysteria. Meddling with powers beyond our control, and beyond humanity's calling, are common themes in post-War Japanese films, and Akira is no exception. Gritty graffiti-tagged streets and sprawling electric cityscapes are mashed together in the film's dystopian setting, where a biker gang with Tron-like motorcycles terrorize the streets amid an anarchist rebellion.
Troublemaker Kaneda, leader of one of the gangs, is sent into the vast military industrial complex of the city when his friend, the weakling Tetsuo, is infected with an energy weapon named Akira that turns him into a doomsday device. (By the way, the English dubbings are awful, which you will find out when you listen to Kaneda and Tetsuo's back-and-forth. My recommendation: watch it in Japanese with English subtitles.)
Despite its straightforward story — biker kid versus his best friend — the film makes a hard left about halfway through when it turns into an all-out fantasy bonanza with Tetsuo having hallucinations of teddy bears with bio-luminescent milk-blood and his increasingly dangerous telekinetic powers that turn one of his arms, and later his whole boy, into a purple mass of veins and organs. The stakes grow and grow, from the survival of the biker gang all the way up to the survival of the whole city of
Nothing is safe by the end, in which all of civilization is at stake. It ends
with a new Big Bang, not kidding.
For a variety of reasons, even amid some bizarre plot twists, Akira works. I credit the animation, which has all the anime tropes — the spiky hair, large and expressive eyes, exasperated staring — yet also an emphasis on realistic physics. Sequences of exploding bridges and obliterated military hospitals are incredible examples of the film's understanding of real-world objects and how they can be drawn into a film. Even by today's standards, CGI and all, the animation is fluid, effective and dazzling. It helps that Akira's animators have given their sci-fi world a lived-in nuts-and-bolts feel, like Star Wars and Blade Runner before it.
Akira also marked a more adult examination of animated storytelling, one that the anime subgenre would overplay dramatically over the next 25 years with increasingly violent and perverse titles both inside and out of the mainstream anime culture. "Japanese tentacle porn" pretty much sums that up. And that's just scratching the surface. Before cartoons became even stranger in Japan, thank the Internet for its wider distribution, Akira had enough swearing, gory violence, sex and nudity, and the climax's gruesome biological mutations to fill the film's 120 minutes; even today it feels raw and audacious, and far removed from Disney's wholesomeness.
Mostly, though, Akira is entirely committed to its far-fetched story, itself based on director Otomo's manga series. Never does the action, editing and composition, animation or the film's signature visual identity waiver, even as the plot veers into wacky end-of-days fear mongering and nuclear-based quantum physics. Or when Tetsuo turns into a giant pulsating bio-mechanical blob. Even the music, with its percussion-heavy first act and the now-classic duuuuhn-duuuuhn-duuuuhn of the Akira weapon give the movie a distinct personality and character.
Still to this day, it's one of a kind. And in its success you can trace almost all of modern-day anime, from Ghost in the Shell to Pokémon, neither of which have Akira's momentous presence or its explosive technical achievements. Now that it's 25 years old, see it again, or maybe for the first time. It's a daring movie for a genre that rarely seeks out adventures this mature.
Friday, November 8, 2013
As further proof that comic movies are on top of a perilously expanding bubble, here comes Thor: The Dark World, a movie that has more charm than the first movie, but still all the hammering headaches.
Unlike the first Thor, though, the plot is a little easier to follow and the characters are more endearing, even the mighty Thor, whose actor, Chris Hemsworth, has grown more comfortable in the man-god’s galactic boots. I like how Hemsworth treats this insipid comic blah like highbrow Shakespearean literature. He definitely elevates the material.
Ignoring all the Marvel minutiae and comic mythology, Thor is an electrifying superhero. He comes from another planet, which means on Earth, he’s a socially awkward tourist. The movie knows this and accepts it, which is why The Dark World punctuates the action with comedy bits: Thor sitting in a tiny station wagon, Thor riding the subway, Thor asking for directions from dumbstruck Londoners, Thor hanging his enchanted hammer on a coat rack.
We pick up with Thor back on Asgard, his home planet, not a piece of armor for his rump. He’s still at odds with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and not speaking to brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s now imprisoned in Asgard’s dungeons after the events of The Avengers. Neither Odin nor Thor can sense it yet, but somewhere out there in the nine realms of the galaxy lurks a dangerous ooze called Aether. If you’ve seen even one comic movie, then you’ll know what comes next: the Aether is an all-powerful weapon that is so great the entire universe could be destroyed if it falls into the wrong hands.
Along comes the dark elf Malekith, asleep for thousands of years and waiting for the Aether to turn up so he can literally destroy everything. But how does Malekith know when the Aether is unlocked? His wi-fi signal apparently passes through dimensions — whatever. I am immediately suspicious of plots in which villains are willing to destroy all life. What purpose does that serve? Nihilism perhaps, but even a true nihilist — one who assigns no meaning or purpose to life — wouldn’t have enough commitment to climb out of bed, let alone undertake a vast quest to crush their foes, attain a weapon and obliterate the cosmos. But here’s Malekith, following the villain playbook step by step.
The movie takes place mostly on Asgard, where Thor and his Nordic buddies battle dark elves on electric hover-canoes and inside electric-mesh prisons. Of course, Loki gets out, which causes some brotherly frustration as Odin’s sons continuously plot against each other. Loki, again, is rather magnanimous. Remember when people loved Alan Rickman’s Snape in the Harry Potter movies even though he was a lecherous imp of a villain? That’s Loki. His cheering section is often larger than Thor’s; with his drab self-righteous personality, Loki earns it. So off Loki and Thor go, clobbering baddies with Thor’s hammer, which has a name only pronounceable by Vikings and Norse gods.
The best scenes, though, are on Earth, where Thor reunites with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who felt spurned and forgotten after Thor made an appearance in Marvel’s last movie. “I saw you on TV in
New York,” she says in a sentence that
contains the entire Avengers movie. She’s
quick to forgive, though, especially after the Aether is sucked into her
bloodstream. As his earthly princess succumbs to the Aether’s grasp, Thor has
to slug it out with dark elves, spinach-fed rage-monsters, knife-shaped space
speeders, a mother ship that looks like a railroad spike and Loki, the scene
Like the original Thor, much of the action is shot too tight and edited too fast, producing a jarring succession of shots made only worse by the film’s shoddy 3D. I mentioned headaches above, and this is the root cause. Most of the cranial trauma comes from the 3D conversion, all done in post-production as opposed to being photographed with three dimensions in mind. I’m not a fan of 3D movies, but this one is especially awful. The movie looked blurry and out of focus; in some cases, the 3D effects weren’t even noticeable. Overall, just yuck yuck yuck. This is not the way to see movies.
What a shame, too, because this Thor showed some promise. It’s still a Marvel cash grab that only further sets up The Avengers 2. But Thor, that big dumb tourist, is growing on me.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Movies are typically transient endeavors. They’re disposable little nuggets of entertainment that require nothing more than a seat, a dark room and an open set of eyes. They ask nothing of us but to sit, listen and watch. At a movie’s conclusion, we abandon the movie’s fading image on the screen, tip-toe over the scattered popcorn, walk to our cars and continue on with our lives.
Every now and again, we see a good one that we take home with us. We’ll laugh at its premise, or discuss the merits of its themes or plot. Or just admire its likable and pleasing stars.
Only rarely do we see movies that inform our views of the world, movies that cauterize into us the emotions of their players, movies that open our hearts and minds to a humanity we had not yet considered. These transcend the term “movie” to become part of our personal and cultural DNA.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is one of those rare movies. It does more than just dance light on a screen. It asks us to bear witness to
America’s greatest shame, slavery, and also its greatest trait,
The movie is based on a book by Solomon Northup, a free-born black violin player in 1841. Solomon, played here by acting powerhouse Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a respected and well-spoken resident of
where he and his family have found kindness and equality in the pre-Civil War
era. Solomon is invited to Saratoga, N.Y. , for a musical gig. When the
job is over, he’s paid and taken to dinner, but he wakes up the next morning
shackled in a basement within sight of the U.S. Capitol. Washington,
Solomon is sucked into a ruthless trade, one in which white businessmen kidnap and sell black men, women and children out of the northern states so they can be funneled down into the South, where slavery’s scourge is legal and thriving. In a grotesquely depressing sequence, Solomon and dozens of other kidnapped souls are held in a house that serves as a showroom for prospective buyers. The slaves are naked, and frequently slapped and poked, like your dad kicking that Buick's tires on the lot before the big purchase. White landowners come in and gaze at these terrified human beings as if they’re farm equipment — and essentially they are. One man can afford a woman, but not her child. Screams fill the house as the family is torn apart. “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” the slave trader tells her.
Eventually, Solomon ends up on the farm of a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who treats his slaves with a semblance of dignity and respect. Unfortunately for the slaves, Ford is a busy man, so he delegates much of his farm’s oversight to Tibeats (Paul Dano), a vindictive and petty man who clearly just wants to see men bleed and suffer. The movie is full of these types, and I shudder to think of a third of this beautiful country pockmarked with gaping voids of hate and bigotry like Tibeats. To Dano’s credit, his character is so effective, he’ll make blood boil.
As the movie crawls forward — never flinching away from the whippings, beatings and hangings — we get a sense for what slave life must have been like: tedious, back-breaking work all day followed by quiet periods for meals and sleep late in the evening. Solomon spends much of his free time reflecting on his terrible circumstances — “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” — and also plotting an escape that never materializes. He has many chances, but the plantation is big; the South is even bigger. He is told by others to not to let anyone know he can read and write, or they'll treat him suspiciously. The first chance gets he steals some paper to write a letter home; the only ink he has is blackberry juice.
The movie is directed by Steve McQueen, whose films (Hunger, Shame) offer stark, detached glimpses of terrible chapters in the lives of men. Even amid his large sets, the convincing period clothing and the era-appropriate dialogue, it’s obvious McQueen is a minimalist at heart. He doesn’t punctuate his scenes, or let them get too loud or flashy. They are shot simply, but effectively. Nowhere is this more obvious than on Ford’s farm: Solomon, a noose around his neck, is left hanging from a tree branch, his toes scraping the dirt just enough to keep him from choking to death. He hangs and hangs. The shadows change, indicating the passage of hours. Slaves wash and dry clothes behind him. Children play in the field. Birds chip. Cicadas buzz. And still he hangs, gasping for breath. It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in the movie, and yet it shows the very essence of McQueen’s work — understatement. It also helps that Ejiofor is so understanding of his character and the barbaric conditions he must suffer through.
Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s frequent muse, turns up late in the movie as the slave owner Epps, a monster even by Tibeats’ standards. On his farm, the beatings are more frequent, the whippings more savage and the conditions more degrading. Even Epps’ wife, a real peach of a woman, is some kind of twisted abomination. She lobs a decanter at a slave’s head so hard it nearly kills her. The audience I saw the film with recoiled so violently, the air seemed to be sucked out of the theater.
Several writers before me are calling 12 Years a Slave the Schindler’s List of slavery. I must agree. Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film framed Nazi atrocities in a historical, but also emotional, context. It was shown in classrooms and aired unedited on television. It became a learning movie. To begin to understand what happened during the Holocaust, we had to witness its cruel awfulness. Riding similar principles, 12 Years a Slave might be the definitive movie about slavery. You simply must see it. Take your teens and, if they’re ready for it, your older children. We must not ignore this country’s great shame. We must confront it. And this movie bares its soul to history's ugly details. We've never seen slavery like this. Certainly television's Roots laid the foundation. (In many ways, Roots is to 12 Years a Slave what Shoah was to Schindler's List.) Django Unchained, for all its commentary about slavery, was not exactly historically accurate . 12 Years is going to be the first time you see some of these images, and you will wince and flinch.
Now, before I close, a word on two performances: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. Remember these names. We’ve seen Ejiofor before, in Children of Men, Salt and Love, Actually. He will win an Academy Award for this gripping portrayal of hope and survival. Nyong’o plays the character Patsey, whose story is representative of the slaves who didn’t escape. Because for every Solomon, there are thousands upon thousands of Patseys.
12 Years a Slave is one of the best movies of the year and, hand’s down, the most important. Go to the theater to witness it, but don’t treat it like a movie. It’s bigger and better than that. It’s the shame of this county’s past, but the hope of its future.