Alright, we're off onto this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with reviews of the Oscar-Winning film, "12 Years a Slave", and "Her", as well as Oscar-Nominee "Philomena".
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) Director: Steve McQueen
The biggest shame of "12 Years a Slave" is that for many people, especially those like me who were a little too young to have seen "Roots" (And admittedly, I still haven't gotten around to it myself. I've missed some opportunities over the years unfortunately) that this will be the film that will show many people the true horrors of slavery. In that sense "12 Years..." is incredibly effective. The problem with it, if we can call it a problem, is that the film doesn't have the great sweep of a movie or an epic the way we'd hope. But that's because there isn't one in slavery. It is our great national sin, and for that, we've tried dozens of way to pretend to have eradicated the horrors of that time from our mind. It's easier without a surviving witness or footage like we still have plenty of with the Holocaust (Well, not "plenty" of exactly anymore but....) The movie seems like it should feels about one man's struggle to survive and outwit a system design to break him, but that would be a movie. Based on his autobiography which was published back in 1853, and played a forgotten-but-big part in shifting America's views towards slavery as we went headlong into the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in Saratoga, New York. He's a known violinist locally, and a respected citizen elsewise. His wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott) travels for a few months during the year for her work with the kids, Margaret and Alonzo (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler), so he takes up an offer to go to Washington to work for a traveling circus. This, turns out to be a kidnapping, and soon, he finds himself on the slave market, chained and locked, beaten with a board until the board breaks, and then whipped. His name is changed to Platt, since he matched with the description of a runaway slave by that name. He's first bought by a plantation owner, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) along with a mother, Eliza (Adepero Oduye) who's separated by her own children during the sale and is in a state of immeasurable grief. He earns the respect and admiration of Ford, even when he fought his plantation runner Tibeats (Paul Dano) after his constant mistreatment of him. He and two others end up hanging up from a tree, and in the movie's most brilliant shot, he's hang from the neck, hanging on the ground by his toes, just enough to keep himself alive for at least the whole day, and hardly anybody goes to help him. Owner, slave, somebody finally gives him a sip of water, but it takes at least until night until he's cut down finally. To save his life, Ford sells Solomon and his debt to Edwin Epps (Oscar-nominee Michael Fassbender) who owns a cotton plantation. He berates and whips his slaves constantly, all except his prized Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong'o) who picks well over 500 pounds of cotton today. Epps rapes Patsey constantly, much to the dismay of his wife (Sarah Paulsen) who refuses to give Patsey her cookies, and forces Epps inevitably to whipping her, and forces Epps to punish claiming his manliness is at stake. He also forces Solomon to do whip her too. There's a lot of brutality and nudity and generally treacherous behavior all through the film. At first, Solomon thinks and wonders about how exactly to fight back and find his way out of the inhuman situation, but inevitably, it's not to be. Eventually, Solomon, who's hiding his ability to read, tries to find a way to send a letter up north, but even that has to be timed, and lucked. There's no "Django Unchained"-like revenge or anything like that, the film, is about what life was like as a slave, and little else. Director Steve McQueen has always been a realist compared to a sentimentalist and that's hard-to-take for some, but imagine what it was for them. And think about this, this is a story of a free man's account of being a slave, for 12 years. 12 out of the hundreds of years of slavery- it predates America by 150 years or so. No movie could ever replicate that, that a traditional movie anyway, the same way "Schindler's List" could never give us an entire scope of the Holocaust. That said, that's what movies do best, give us a small glimpse, a small personal glimpse at what was truly a disturbing institution.
HER (2013) Director: Spike Jonze
I'm now on my third viewing of Spike Jonze's "Her". It's not necessarily as original as some are making it out to be; it's clearly got influences. "Lars and the Real Girl" comes to mind for a recent film about a guy who has a relationship with something that isn't, for lack of a better term, alive. It's also got some of the insouciant wit and whimsy that the writer of Jonze's earliest features Charlie Kaufman, with films of his like "Eternal Sunshine..." had, and I even suspect that the personal poetry in his ex-girlfriend Sofia Coppola's work like "Lost in Translation" probably had an effect on him as he was writing this. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely a most unique and original film, and a truly great and perfect script. Maybe too perfect, but it works here. It's almost transcendentalist in tone. It's technically a sci-fi film, taking place somewhere in a near future. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) works at a surprisingly popular and busy job as a hand-written letter writer, where he is hired to basically play a Cyrano and write letters for other people, expressing their true emotions which most people don't seem to be able to do in a modern world where video games curse and talk back to you. Theodore is going through a tough divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). He's become mopey since, barely able to even go out and talk to his friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher). He signs up for an O.S., and Operating System that's designed to meet his friendship needs. She names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and they start developing a relationship and then later a romance. It's hard to explain exactly why this works so well. Communication is a common theme, or the lack thereof. When Amy's husband leaves her, he becomes a Buddhist monk and vows six months of silence, choosing to refuse to communicate rather than accept his own failures and tribulations, or discuss them with a significant other who wants more. Theodore struggles with video games and porn, two other replacements for human contact, but only resorts to the O.S. when he loses all interest in human contact. And Samantha, the machine isn't treated as a machine. She's highly advanced, and the ying-yang of Samantha's new-found life, inspired by every new experience, and capable of machine learning and adapting, this is a tricky performance, but more than that, it's these incredibly thought and observantly well-written strings of dialogue, particularly between Theodore and Samantha that make the film truly special. You can actually just listen to this movie, like a radio play and be entertained. And while, much of the romance, doesn't actually tread into unexpected or new territory, it carefully observes a future world where relationship with O.S. or other digital people can be plausible and in some ways, a new a booming form of relationship surrogacy. That was the other movie, the film reminded me of "The Sessions" about a paralyzed man who employs a sex surrogate to become more comfortable with women. The movie is beautifully realized, incredibly elaborate cinematography and production design, it's harder to create a near-future than a distant one, and this feels like a believable near future, and the subtle score by Arcade Fire create a melancholy but hopeful undertone to this most unusual film. It earned an Oscar for Spike Jonze's screenplay, and he deserved it, 'cause the script is so intricately written it managing to turn this sci-fi romance, practically into a Linklater-esque subtle piece of banal poetry. Some movies take a premise and do nothing to it; "Her" takes it seriously, and yet still makes it fun and enjoyable. There is real a poetic beauty to this film, that's really impossible to describe, and I love that I can't describe it.
PHILOMENA (2013) Director: Stephen Frears
Stephen Frears's latest effort, "Philomena" earned a somewhat surprising Best Picture Oscar nomination this year, pushed a little bit by the Weinstein machine, but it is a strong film, and one that would could just as easily frustrate and annoy you if it weren't for the smart and subtle ways the films lightly bends around and hugs the corners of what we'd completely expect the story to turn into. The title character is Philomena Lee (Oscar-nominee Dame Judi Dench) as a rather simple yet religious old woman, who was one of the Magdalene Girls (If you've never seen the Peter Mullan film "The Magdalene Sisters", you should put it on your Netflix queue now.) They're girls that the nuns would take who were pregnant or in some other way had sinned or were orphaned in, and basically makes them slaves until they could repay God. The kids, they snatched away from the teenagers and allowed them only an hour with them a day before they could be adopted by American parents. Jane Russell actually adopted one of her kids this way. Philomena's Anthony would be about 50 now, and while the Church keeps claiming the records were destroyed in a fire, it's clear there's something amiss, and that at least one evil nun knows the truth. After some reluctance, a former BBC reporter and political advisor who got ambushed in a scandal, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who was Oscar-nominated for co-writing the screenplay with Jeff Pope) takes up her investigation, doing this "human interest" story, he thinks originally to kill some time between his books on Russian history. There's two dynamics occurring, one is the investigation which leads them to America. The other is the relationship between Philomena and Martin as these two opposites from different universes try to co-exist while seeking out her long-lost son. Dench as always, is superb here, taking a seemingly simple character and making her far more observant and complex than we first think. The final confrontation with the church is perfectly scribed, and that's all I'll say about it, 'cause I'd be giving away too many details into the writing process and the film, other than to say that it perfectly balances both the characters and perhaps our frustrations with what happened to Philomena, but Philomena herself and her emotions.... Frears's is one of those directors who never gets enough credit. You can list his films, and go, "Oh, he directed that, and that, and that,..." but he changes genres and stories so often that you can't quite pin him down. He always manages to come up with something new that surprises us. I don't know if I'd put "Philomena" up as one of his very best, but it's definitely an admirable one.
THE UNKNOWN KNOWN (2014) Director: Errol Morris
You get the sense from watching "The Unknown Known" that Donald Rumsfeld, once asked a question, has never really considered the question he's being asked before. He isn't dumb or necessarily foolhardy, but he hears the question, takes a few moments to think about the question, and then answers with "It's possible." Not necessarily because he hasn't dwelled on such thoughts as 'what would've happened if I had been picked by Reagan to be Vice-President and not George H.W. Bush', would he have been on the path to the Presidency', but that that's the logical answer and conclusion to the question. He spends a lot of time, thinking and pondering over those possibilities, he even studies up on history and other such incidents, but he doesn't seem to ever have any actions. And if you're like me, who can answer a question with "it's possible", but can't help but elaborate on most questions no matter the answer thinking that more things need to be brought up and mentioned or thought about when considering the question, and give one a look at our own thought process as we consider the question,...- in other words, I hardly ever answer a question with only two words. To me, that's either that's a sign that you're hiding something, or that's a sign that you're just not capable of much more. Rumsfeld's clearly capable of both, but maybe perhaps very few things truly need such elaborations.
The more you know about the Iraq War, the more you'll benefit from the lack of insights found in "The Unknown Known". Errol Morris himself, thinks that after 33 hours of interviews with Donald Rumsfeld, he knows less about the War than he did before. How can this be, he ponders, and we ponder. Morris hypothesizes in an interview of him on "The Vice Podcast Show". that he is the most self-deceived person he's ever interviewed, and if you're familiar with Morris's career, that's a long list. BTW, I highly recommend that podcast, the link is below:
Morris has made some of the greatest of all documentaries, including his Oscar-winning film "The Fog of War" many years ago, where he interviewed the supposed architect of the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. That film was an usually insightful and inside look at the Vietnam War from a person who personally formulated it, Here, this quasi-companion piece to it, we hope would be some other kind of in-depth look from the inside on the Iraq War. Rumsfeld, a former Congressman and member of the Nixon and Ford administrations, seems, like a...- like a lot of things really. The movie turns and becomes a look into this, apparently-otherwise strikingly smart and thoughtful man, who truthfully seems more than blissfully unaware of his own position in history the more you listen to him. He wrote 20,000 memos, dictating numerous things over decades, some of it is the most unbelievable pieces of irony ever imagined. Unbelievable to everyone it seems, but Mr. Rumsfeld. He often looks up the dictionary definitions of words, (from the Pentagon dictionary usually as he points out) It's not that he talks about wanting to not be place in a position and have a Pearl Harbor happen to him because he didn't have the imagination to think of the possibility of something like that happening, but he seems to barely understand that he was in such a position for, 9/11 happened. Or that the graphic torture techniques and behaviors of Abu Ghraib, weren't migrated from Guantanamo, even though he ordered the techniques himself. The title of the movie comes from one of his many strange mystical tanglings of the English language, that we hear. Another is "The evidence of absence is not evidence of absence", which was his defense for attacking Iraq believing that they had WMDs despite the lack of having them. That phrase, I learned later that that comes from Carl Sagan, and was about his defense of the possibilities for extra-terrestrial life. (I doubt Carl Sagan would've used that same basis of evidence for much else.) "The Unknown Known", is aptly titled. Morris calls it a horror movie, as he's terrified at the supreme innocuous ineptness of Rumsfeld. By the end of the movie, Morris, almost at a loss screams out at him, "Why did you do this?! Why are you talking to me?!" his response is probably the last thing you'd expect someone in his position to say.
BTW, if anybody asks in the future:
I'll call that my official rating, just so as not to leave the question mark up there alone, which is partially irony and wit on my part, but it's also a pretty accurate representation of my thoughts on the film as a whole however. I think it'll probably be a lot of people's as well, but either way, it's essential viewing.
WALK OF SHAME (2014) Director: Steven Brill
There's a decent premise here, but not much else. Despite the amount of times I'm often seen walking around the greater Las Vegas area, I can honestly say that I've never had or been through a "Walk of Shame", at least I wasn't particularly ashamed, but-eh, then again I never had to go through Los Angeles is a skimpy yellow dress without a car or money. The movie begins with a series of mostly reenacted famous Youtube clips of mostly local news anchors. I once discussed the reasoning behind the seemingly insurmountable number of those clips, while dissecting the "Today Show" once, in my most searched for blogpost of mine, cause apparently lots of people search for the phrase "Today Show sucks" or some variation on that, but that's neither here nor there, because the entire movie seems to solely exist in a world where local news exists primarily of nothing but news bloopers. Meghan Miles (Elizabeth Banks) was in one of those bloopers in the beginning, involving cats. That last parts not important, but on the same day she doesn't get the job, her boyfriend packed up the house and left. So, Meghan and her friends Rose and Denise (Gillian Jacobs and Sara Wright Olsen) take her out, and for reasons that aren't worth explaining, she's wearing a skimpy yellow dress. I wish I could claim that the yellow dress she was wearing, was perhaps a thinly-veiled reference to the famous third section of the 3-part dance play "Contact" by Susan Stroman and John Weidman, but mostly it's because the outfit is relatively embarrassing to wear for an uptight professional news reporter, and because she can easily be spotted in it, especially by police officers (Bill Burr and Ethan Suplee), one of many people who confuse her for anything and everything except as a news anchor, despite her face being everywhere around town. Anyway, she meets a guy, then, she suddenly has to be at the studio that day, and be great for some National bigwigs as the person they were gonna give the job to fell through, but her car's been towed, no money and apparently she can't figure out how to go from A to B in L.A. without being harassed, propositioned, and numerous other humiliating things. Some of them were actually funny, and the basic idea of the movie, a woman getting on numerous adventures after a night out trying to get home, isn't a horrible idea, but it's basic existence is just a reason to shove together a lot of bad sketches that never amounted to much, and I forgot it the second I watched it.
I'm almost tempted to recommend "Grand Piano" just for the assured ridiculousness of it. It was compelling to watch admittedly, although it's also essentially a parody of something like "Speed" mixed with "Phone Booth", just change out the sketch about the guy being forced to continuously type 50/words a minute or else the typewriter explodes, with playing a piano concerto at a symphonic Hall, playing every note perfectly or else, the sniper (John Cusack) will kill him, and/or his loved ones until he finally finishes the performance, and without playing a single note wrong. This includes, naturally playing a piece that known as "The Unplayable Piece" or La Cinquette, (Not a real piece btw, I don't know why they didn't just use Rochmaninoff, cause that would always work in that spot, but not a real issue.) a piece that he, Tom Selznic (Elijah Wood) had struggled through his infamous last performance over five years ago, as this is his rare comeback piece, one he probably wouldn't have made if not for his new wife Emma (Kerry Bishe) It's shortly after the concert begins does he find on his sheet music, these real threats to his life, and in his earpiece, the voice of his would-be assassin, shooting off silently other friends and family of his in the audience. He now has to manipulate while performing the killer, while also struggle to get others attention without getting them killed and inform them that something is wrong, (Or without him getting killed himself.) Such a ridiculous premise, it's almost intentional parody, but they play it rather straight, and it almost, for a while seems like it's actually happening, if it isn't exactly plausible. I'm not sure how serious they really wanted me to take "Grand Piano", but you know, this was close to being a nice piece of great trash, so I admired it, but it's too over-the-top to recommend. It's an interesting base though, the idea of man having to continuously play the piano, something like that concept's been done once or twice before, probably not like this. I think it's a better "SNL" sketch than it is an intense thriller. Wrong genre, but definitely an interesting and unique approach; I gotta admire the kind of balls it takes to do something that over-the-top.
THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE (2013) Director: George Tillman, Jr.
I had many thoughts while watching the somewhat ungangly-titled "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete", one of which that kept crossing my mind was that this was one of the best films I've seen in a while, and that it involves some of the most under-appreciated performances of the last year. I also thought about the Italian Neo-realism that gets mixed somewhat with hope and injections of hope and fancifulness. I also thought about a few friends of mine who shall remain nameless who grew up with me, and had similar struggles like having a prostitute or a heroin junkie for a single mother. (Or both), like the hero in the film, Mister (Skylan Brooks). Mister, and that's the character's actual first name, lives in the Brooklyn Park Housing Projects. He's failed 8th grade, and his current reaction to anybody who seemingly gets in his way is to curse them out. You can't blame him, when you consider his mother, Mom Gloria (Jennifer Hudson). And I must say, in this very brief part she's in, this is probably the best acting I've seen from Hudson. She's a prostitute for a local pimp, Kris (Anthony Mackie) and when she's not doing that, she's at home, shooting up. She's not hiding it, or anything, she shoots up, as though that's the only way she can tolerate her world, and that includes Mister, and also Pete (Ethan Dizon) a son of one of her co-workers, who for reasons that aren't immediately shared by either Mom Gloria or by Pete, she's taking care of for the time being. That time being isn't long, when soon enough, cops, who had already raided the house apartment complex and she's arrested. It's not the first time, but Mister & Pete don't want to go to Child Protection Services. Since she's rarely out for longer than a couple weeks at the most, they decide to try and survive on what they got, which isn't much. A welfare card that's overdrawn, a few things to pawn, a few things to pawn when needed. Sometimes they have to break in somewhere or rob someplace. Mister figures that it won't be for long, as he found a flyer for an acting job in Beverly Hills that's he's pretty sure he can get. He loves movies, he has passages of "Trading Places" memorized by heart, and his monologue is from "Fargo". Why movies? The same reason everyone loves movies, escapism, a trip to another world, where everybody speaks with a weird accent and stuff like that. There's a few other hopes like an old neighbor, Alice (Jordin Sparks) who managed to find her way into a upper class townhouse, even if it included having an affair with a married man, who's willing to leave his wife for her, and actually mean it. I thought about some of the classic early French New Wave and Italian Neorealist films while watching "...Mister & Pete", and another film that crossed my mind was "Grave of the Fireflies", also about two young children forced to live in desolate situations after their parents' deaths. It reminded me of it, but another strange subtext of the film was the way of the neighborhood. Filled with erratic characters who's natural instincts are to mistrust, and even those who help out, Mister in particular feels there's always an ulterior motive. He teaches Pete to fear and run from the cops, and not to snitch on anyone else, especially to the police. Yet, as days turn into months we grow to know and care about these two young kids, and exactly what they've been through and why they think and act that way, and it just makes it all the more heartbreaking. If there's a flaw in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete", late in the movie, the film tries to wrap everything up into a nice little package and bow, when it doesn't really need to, but that's okay. It didn't effect the film's pathos too much. The performances by Brooks and Hudson are particularly special, and Brooks and Dizon's give two of the best kid performances I've seen in a long time. The film was directed by George Tillman Jr., it's the third film of his I've seen after "Men of Honor" and the wonderfully good Biggy Smalls biopic, "Notorious", and I'm starting to look forward to his films, he always seem to make a good one, and this is one I'll be thinking about for awhile. Very powerful slice of realism.
THE BELIEVER (2002) Director: Harry Bean
"He speaks well." notes Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane) as he and Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell) the surprising quiet, yet composed leaders of an underground Neo-Nazi group as they observe Danny (Ryan Gosling) one of their most intelligent and most devout of the members. They're right, he's certainly more intelligent than well-spoken than most Neo-Nazis I've met. There's even a twisted logic in his reasoning for hating the Jews, as well as the experience and thought process to back it up. He in fact is Jewish. That doesn't stop him from beating up any random person he sees on the street wearing a yamika. In "The Believer", Ryan Gosling gives one of his very best performances (And at only 22 years old at the time.) as the young Jewish man, who is both aggressive and violent in his hate, and desire to kill Jews, this despite being brought up in an orthodox house and upbringing. In flashbacks, we see him (Jacob Green) being taught the Torah in school, but he's constantly argumentative, particularly over the Abraham and Isaac story, one that has caused me and many others much grief. He also studied Eichmann, and the Nazis, and Hitler. "Did you ever read "Mein Kampf", Hitler did some of his best writing in prison." he observes after a street fight they start, and he's blazing a swastika shirt like Sid Vicious, only without the irony. Perhaps not-so-strangely, most of his colleagues haven't read Hitler. They especially don't know the Jewish traditions and customs. Some are Holocaust deniers, and after one altercations led to them getting talked to by Holocaust survivors, and one of the Neo-Nazis start claiming the Holocaust didn't happen, and he explodes on him. "Then why is he your idol?!" He exclaims. All that, and he killed, 200,000? The story is loosely influenced on the life of Daniel Burros, who killed himself in '65, shortly after the New York Times, published his real identity as being Jewish. In "The Believer," we see a man struggling with his own identity and self-hatred, that's the kind of thing people look to appease in themselves that usually leads them to groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazis. An ability to focus their anger on those who they deem insufficient to them, and history will tell us just how often The Chosen People get that disdain. Yet, he can't handle just how the Fascist, want to disregard race in exchange for a capitalist world run by money, and infiltrating the government and public world legitimately to promote their other ideas. As Danny becomes more and more disenfranchised by both sides, his struggles of himself becomes more difficult. He shows his girlfriend Carla (Summer Phoenix, who's also Lina's sister) how to write the Hebrew alphabet and writes the language with a delicate touch, just as opposite he teaches the Fascist perspective as viciously and eloquently as Malcolm X used to teach, in classes that he's convinced to begin teaching. "The Believer" is a truly haunting and mesmerizing film that takes an uncomfortable characters and subject matter, and allows us to engulf ourselves into it, while still keeping us appropriately at arms length of it, at least for those knowing and sober enough to appropriately consider the material while not embracing it, through a complex character study that's deeper and richer than it seems.
FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN (2011) Director: Dennis Lee
I think I first started seeing trailers for "Fireflies in the Garden" back in '08, long before the film's eventually 2011, American release date, and that's especially rare for a Julia Roberts film, despite her rather limited role. Titled after the Robert Frost poem, I can see the film took so long to get to American theaters, and I can see why I pushed it off another three years on my Netflix queue. (And probably why, I've been doing everything possible to not write this review) The movie jumps back and forth in time without really any explanation, but it revolves around Michael Taylor (Ryan Reynolds as an adult, Cayden Boyd as a kid) and the drastic relationship between him and his father Charles (Willem Dafoe), and his vicious behavior and treatment towards him, as he was growing up, and in some ways how that behavior got passed onto him in the future, while Charles himself changed, first after a car accident that killed Michael's wife Lisa (Roberts) and then earlier when his behavior. That's basically the best I could describe the events in this undecipherable mess. I think it's out-of-order chronology is intended to emotionally effective, and really show how the passage of time doesn't effect our emotions even as we ourselves change, but frankly it was discombobulating and confusing. I can barely explain Emily Watson or Hayden Panetierre's characters at all, and they were fairly prominent in the film as well, but none of it- it's not so much it didn't come together, it was more like, they weren't really trying. Certain scenes work and were sorta powerful in of themselves, but trying to get any depth out of this film, is really just a struggle. It's hard to even get a story out, It's almost like, random sporadic memories sprung onto us, in rapid succession. I'm making it sound more interesting than it really is. This movie was like doing a jigsaw puzzle upside-down, you kinda know where you're going with it, but you don't know the complete, or whether or not you even have enough pieces actually, and whether or not they all actually belong to the same puzzle at all. Well, with most jigsaw puzzles, I usually get frustrated and bored and quit long before I finish, and emotionally I did the same thing with this film.