Friday, January 30, 2015

Film Friday: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave is an historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York-born free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841. Like Lone Survivor, this is an excellent and intense film which I would prefer never to see again.


12 Years A Slave begins by introducing Solomon Northup’s life in New York. This moment of the film is perhaps a little idealized with the whites around him being too colorblind compared to their historical counterparts, but the film nevertheless conveys the foundation of a smart, talented and competent man -- a man who would in other contexts be considered the type of solid American who made America great – who has established a happy, respectable family life in New York. Helping this presentation is the truly compelling screen presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Ejiofor is an actor who easily conveys emotion and inner thoughtfulness.
Northup is a musician and finds himself approached by two men who claim to be looking for a musician to accompany them to Washington. Northup could use the money and it’s only for two weeks, so he agrees. Things appear to go well until Northup wakes up in a cell in Washington, D.C. He has been drugged and he wakes up with several other blacks who appear to be runaway slaves or, like him, kidnapped freemen.

Helpless to free himself, Northup is smuggled to Louisiana where he is sold to his first slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup is forced to go by the name Platt, and has been warned never to share the truth of what happened to him or he would never escape.
Northup impresses Ford with his intelligence and wins him over. He tells Ford what has happened, but Ford is unable to free him because of debt concerns. Unfortunately, Northup also makes an enemy of a white plantation enforcer (Paul Dano) at this point and Ford is forced to ship Northup to another plantation to hide him. He believes he has chosen well, but the new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a sadistic owner who believes that he has a Biblical obligation to own slaves.

On the surface, Epps seems respectable, but things are not as they seem. He repeatedly rapes one of his slaves and eventually has a child with her, despite the fury of his wife. He also abuses the other slaves out of frustration at his inability to stand up to his wife’s abuses of the slave with whom he is sleeping.
Finally, Northup meets a Canadian builder (Brad Pitt) who convinces him that he can contact Northup’s friends in the north and have him freed. I’ll leave the rest up for you.

Why This Film Works

This film works on many levels. It is an excellent period piece, done in such a way that it truly feels like you are getting a glimpse into a world long gone. It has beautiful cinematography. Indeed, some scenes are shot as beautifully as if you were watching a National Geographic Channel travelogue. It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits.
What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the excellent way this film presents its material. First off, there is nothing in this film that anyone who is aware of slavery doesn’t already know. So the film is not relying on presenting something new or fresh. What it does instead is present things we already knew about in a way that is both realistic and graphic, and thus very visceral. However, the director also smartly uses cutaways to shield the audience from much of the horror. This makes the horror more palatable.
In fact, these cutaways are genius. By cutting away at these points, the film seems to spare the audience by telling the audience that they don’t need to see this play out to understand how horrific it was. Yet, at the same time, cutting away openly reminds the audience of how horrible this was and it is essentially telling the audience that what they would see would be too graphic for them to take. In effect, in appearing to spare the audience and avoiding a charge that the violence was gratuitous, the director actually ingeniously highlights the violence and makes it seem all that much stronger. Indeed, as an aside, while the film doesn’t show much of the horror, you still hear it and will see it your mind. We’ve noted before how powerful this technique can be.

The other thing the film does, and perhaps the most important point, is that it seems to make no comment on what is going on. The film tells the story as it happens, lets each character speak his or her mind, and then leaves it up to the audience to decide whether what is going on is evil or justified, and whether these people are good or bad. Even with the slaves, the film doesn’t do the Politically Correct thing and make them all angelic as it demonizes the whites. To the contrary, the film makes it very clear that there are good and bad people all around and that, many times, those people get swept up in events.
The end result of this approach is a truly gripping and compelling film. As with Lone Survivor, this film produces an incredible array of strong emotions. You feel true hatred for the people who have done this and anger that they did this in our country. You feel despair for the hopelessness of some people. You feel contempt for some who would not do what they could to help. And in the end, you feel a great deal of pride that Northup survived this ordeal, that others did stand up to help him, and that we went to war to end slavery.

All that makes this film worth seeing: great actors, great direction, gripping emotional script, and a film that rises far above the generic crap being put out today. But again, as with Lone Survivor, this is a difficult film to watch because it is so disturbing to think this really happened and that people can treat each other this way, and I would not like to see the film a second time.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Friday(-ish): The Gathering Storm

by Kit

The Gathering Storm, a depiction of Winston Churchill during his “Wilderness Years” of the mid-30s as he attempts to warn Britain about the impending danger of Germany, produced by HBO, and starring Albert Finney as Churchill is flawed masterpiece. What is fascinating is how it overcomes its massive flaw, which could have easily been avoided, through use of a stellar cast of recognizable faces, especially Finney, giving us one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of an historical figure I’ve ever seen in a film.

WARNING! The flaw is in the Third Act so there will be MAJOR SPOILERS HERE!

The Story

The genius of the movie's portrayal of Winston can be summed up in the first ten minutes, by the way. A car arrives at a place of the Battle of Blenheim and Winston, darkly dressed in suit and hat with a cigar in his mouth, steps out of the car to swelling music, giving us. Walks up to a hill and imagines of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, on horseback leading the British army amidst all the battle’s horrors to the stirring strings of "Rule, Britannia”. As cannon balls explode around him, Marlborough turns his head to Winston and they make  —and Winston wakes up nude at his Chartwell home in 1934 and waddles to his restroom (still nude) to take a pee reciting a speech about why giving India its independence would "mark the downfall of the British Empire."

And we get a glimpse of his bare buttocks as he walks over to the restroom. It's not the prettiest sight. Winston Churchill is at the nadir of his political career. His position on his party’s India policy has made him politically isolated, his finances are in trouble due to the loss of much of his wealth in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, his relationship with his older children is strained and his wife Clemmie seems to be barely keeping the family together, and he suffers commonly from what he and his wife call his “black dog days”. His primary joy seems to his current book about the aforementioned Duke of Marlborough that he dreamed about. And painting watercolors.

Winston is in this state when Desmond Morton, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, arrives at Chartwell with information on Germany’s rearmament. Winston, equipped with this information begins making speeches to Parliament on the issue. Morton also brings in a young man working at the Foreign Office with access to much better information about Nazi Germany than him named Ralph Wigram. Wigram, who despises the Nazi ideology due to having a son with cerebral palsy, reluctantly agrees to break the law by “stealing classified documents and giving them to someone who has no right to use them.”

The second act takes the following course; Clemmie soon departs on a safari leaving Winston to run the house alone. A task to which he is not as well-suited, struggling to deal with family issues and problems with a landscaping project at Chartwell.

Winston uses the information from Wigram well, building opposition to the appeasement policy despite attempts by Stanley Baldwin to undermine him by getting people in his constituency to attack him.

Wigram, however, who in one scene admits to Winston that he is a “worrier” who is concerned about his job and his family, which is dependent upon his job, slowly begins to despair as he sees the Nazi’s building continuing unabated and feeling stress about the possibility of losing his job over what the help he is giving to Winston (which would trouble for his family). He begins to have doubts about what they are doing and whether or not it will work at all. Th stress of it all is clearly building upon him.

Which leads us to the films biggest flaw. He cracks and dies suddenly on New Year’s Eve and it is heavily implied to be a suicide. The scene and the following two at the graveyard where Churchill comforts Wigram’s widow Ava and the scene at Churchill’s house between Winston and Clemmie talking about the future are well-done and the movie could’ve stopped there, ending the movie on an ominous note.But instead we skip ahead 5 years rather abruptly to September of 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is announcing the beginning of the war against Germany and Winston Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. This creates quite a drag despite giving us a rousing coda where Churchill arrives at the Admiralty.

In the opening minutes the movie gives us the stout and heroic Churchill we all know from childhood and promptly tosses it in the rubbish bin by showing us this rather pathetic and pudgy man, who in his words is “witnessing my own demise”. The rest of the movie takes us on a slow course of subtly showing Winston steadily gain the confidence and spirit needed to be the savior of Britain —5 years before the advent of Second World War. A sort of “superhero origin story”, if you will with the Wigrams seeming to serve as a sort-of stand-in for the British people he would later inspire.

This also allows us to feel like we know Winston Churchill better. We see his bullying of his servants but also his compassion. We watch him struggle with despair and climb out of it (albeit subtly). And since much of the movie is of him at home it seems as if we are living at Chartwell with him. By seeing him at his home during one of the worst times of his life we feel like know him better. The result is that by the end I was kind of sad to see it end, I wanted to spend more time with Winston.

When a biopic makes you feel like you have actually spent time with him and you actually want to spend more time with him, even if it is more out of perverse fascination as in Downfall, and if it is at least fairly accurate, then it has accomplished the important task of putting the person onto the screen.

And the cast supporting Finney is amazing. I did not mention them in the story summary because it would’ve dragged the story with parenthesis in every other sentence so here is a list of persons you might recognize (aside from Albert Finney): Vanessa Redgrave (Guinevere in Camelot and lots of other movies) as Clemmie Churchill, Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!, Slughorn in Harry Potter) as Desmond Morton, Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins) as Ralph Wigram, Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Ralph’s wife Ava, Derek Jacobi (Henry V, Hamlet, Gladiator, and the upcoming Cinderella) as PM Stanley Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin in John Adams) as Sir Robert Vansittart, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Avengers) as Winston’s son Randolph, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) as Baldwin’s lackey Ivo Pettifer, and Gottfried John (General Ourumov in Goldeneye) as a visiting German official. And there are others I’ve probably neglected but those are the ones I’ve recognized from other movies.

So with a cast like that you can imagine the result: Great performances all around. This is a movie where there is not a badly written character.

What Doesn’t Work and How it Could Have Been Fixed

The problem is in the Third Act. Despite attempts to build up Ralph’s despair the death feels abrupt. Now, his death really did happen on January 31, 1935 and, despite being listed as pulmonary hemorrhage, it is widely believed to have been a suicide.
Perhaps a bit more time could have helped. The review at the expressed dismay that Churchill’s “Munich” speech was not in the movie. The movie was only 90 minutes and primarily covers only 1934 to 1935 so maybe expanding it to 110 or 120 might or making it a 2-part, 4-hour miniseries have helped it. Perhaps doing this, maybe as a 120+ minute  movie or as a 4-hour mini-series, would have allowed them to move Wigram’s suicide to after the capitulation at Munich. Film adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story. Or they could keep it accurate and keep Ralph’s death by putting it in 1935 would’ve made a great point to end Part 1. Or covering all the period between 1935 and 1939. adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story.
Or, finally, they could have cut the last 5 minutes out altogether. Shorter movie, yes. But the shot of Winston Churchill looking out from Chartwell into the night sky after Ralph’s death is a great one and, as I said above, would have made a great moment to end the series. A bit too abrupt, maybe, and it would’ve cut the rousing scene where Winston arrives at the Admiralty to swelling music we heard at the beginning but it would’ve helped.


But, on the whole, the film is indeed a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth a watch. The performances are excellent and Finney is so good that I have actually had trouble watching other  portrayals of Winston Churchill because they do come even close to what Finney accomplishes in The Gathering Storm.

Especially the sequel, Into the Storm, with Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill. Which I had to quit watching out of a disinterest due to its episodic script ( compared it to a “Greatest Hits of World War 2”) and uninteresting portrayals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

So, I say watch it. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Guest Review: Samurai Cop (1991)

by ScottDS

In 2012, I invited you all to The Room. In 2014, we made the Miami Connection. And now, in 2015, I will introduce you to the Samurai Cop. Directed by Iranian expat Amir Shervan, this is one of the most inept films ever made... and it’s a riot! Ever since the Red Letter Media (Mr. Plinkett) guys mentioned it, I’ve wanted to see it. And now I have. Fasten your seatbelts.

Watch this (kinda NSFW) trailer. I’ll be right here.

Pretty crazy, huh? The, uh, plot involves… oh, f--- it. What plot? There’s a Japanese gang, known as the Katana Gang. They’re expanding their turf and our hero cop – the titular Samurai Cop aka Joe Marshall – is brought in from San Diego to kick some ass. The end. Seriously, that’s it. The gang is led by Fujiyama. He has some henchman. Marshall has a wise-cracking black partner, Washington. They have a grouchy captain. Marshall hooks up with a hot lady cop as well as the villain’s hot lady friend. Plenty of guns are fired, though with one or two brief exceptions, I’m not sure there’s any actual Samurai on display. If there is, it’s not from Marshall, who we’re told is a master yet he looks like some surfer dude. Seriously, this is one of the great “so bad, it’s good” movies and I highly recommend watching it with some friends. Smoke ’em if you got ’em!
To the best of my knowledge, Amir Shervan was kind of a big deal in his native land and when he made it to our shores after the Revolution, he directed one schlockfest after another. It’s interesting to watch this movie: it really is a foreigner’s idea of what a “typical” American action film (circa the late 80s, early 90s) should be like. You have the cop, the partner, the love interest, the superior, the villain, and the henchmen. What else do you need? Oh yeah, how about an actual grasp of American culture? Or at the very minimum, a grasp of the English language? The dialogue (such as it is) is so ridiculous and stilted at times, you’d think the film was made by aliens. I kid you not – at one point, Marshall addresses the villains as “You son of a bitches!” The actor tried to fix it but Shervan (who also wrote the film) wouldn’t have any of it.

Matt Hannon plays Marshall. He looks the part but he’s not a great actor. The only remotely recognizable face in the film (emphasis on “face”) is Robert Z’Dar, who plays a henchman named Yamashita, despite being very much American. Z’Dar suffers from cherubism, which is why he looks the way he does. From watching the film, it’s clear the B-movie favorite is having a blast. His is an imposing presence and he takes the material completely seriously. Another henchman is played by Gerald Okamura, an actual martial artist who’s appeared in several films and TV shows. I can’t say I’m familiar with the rest of the cast: Fujiyama is played by Cranston Komuro and Mark Frazer plays Washington. He and Hannon have good chemistry, though you get the impression that the two guys made up all their schtick on the spot. The hot lady cop is played by scream queen Melissa Moore. Uh, she does good work. [smile]
If you watched the trailer linked above, you may have noticed that the color timing is inconsistent. That’s not just the trailer – the tint often changes in the same scene, from one shot to the next. Hot to cold to hot again. The editing is horrible: there’s a noticeable lack of establishing shots, some shots are cut off too early while others linger for several seconds, and the dubbing... oh God, the dubbing. Not only are there frequent sync problems, but Shervan himself dubbed several of the actors. It’s quite obvious, especially when the lines are delivered back to back. Were the actors so busy that they were unable to come back and loop their lines? Or did Shervan finally realize he needed a modicum of story so he decided to dub in lines he felt were necessary for exposition?
I haven’t even talked about the wig yet! So the film wrapped and several months go by. In the interim, Hannon cut his hair, only for Shervan to ask him to come back for re-shoots. Horrified with Hannon’s new haircut, Shervan made him wear a wig. Fair enough. Well, the reshoots must have taken a long time because Hannon spends half the movie wearing this ridiculous mop! It changes from shot to shot and even slips off in one fight scene. It’s un-effing-believable! Let’s see… what else. Oh yeah, the locations. The locations look like the filmmakers just happened to stumble across them. Multiple inserts were filmed in Shervan’s office and one backyard fight scene looks like it was shot in three different places! Poor Mark Frazer (Washington) has several scenes where he isn’t acting with anyone – the director simply told him, “Make a happy face. Now a sad face.” The film cuts from a two-shot of Hannon and another actor to Frazer and it’s obvious his close-ups were filmed out of context. There’s a scene in the police captain’s office where both Hannon and Frazer were filmed separately for their close-ups and it shows. To be fair, this is often SOP when it comes to filmmaking but, you know, most filmmakers try to make the shots match!
The film came and went. There was no premiere, no theatrical release, and the home video rights were snatched up by some company in Europe. So we must ask: who grieves for Samurai Cop? The good news is the film has since been re-discovered (or, rather, discovered by the first time). I don’t know where the existing print came from but for the last several years, it’s been playing the midnight circuit to sold out crowds. Not only that, it was recently released on Blu-Ray with extras. And not only that, there was a rumor that star Matt Hannon had died. His film student daughter found out and Hannon recorded a brief YouTube video explaining that he’s very much alive. And not only that, currently shooting in Los Angeles: Samurai Cop 2!! That’s right – the original gang is back together for a sequel!! I’m not familiar with the filmmakers but they promise to make a real movie this time, but with some inside jokes for fans. Hannon and Frazer are joined by a trio of porn stars (whose names I may or may not have recognized)... actress Bai Ling... The Room’s Tommy Wiseau (!)... and George Lazenby (!!). I don’t know what to expect but I’ll be there on opening night!

If you love bad movies, I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you value things like story and character, not to mention semi-decent camerawork and sound, then maybe it’s not for you. Hannon was recently interviewed by the RLM guys and he comes across as a cool guy who’s just as baffled about all this as I am. I wish him the best of luck.

“What happened? Are you out or in?”
“Baby, I'm always in.”
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kubrick: Will Dr. Strangelove Survive The Test Of Time?

Some time ago, I ran across an article which opined that Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove would remain popular forever. I don’t buy it... not at all. To the contrary, I think Dr. Strangelove and Kubrick are both fading fast.

The article in question begins with the author stating that Dr. Strangelove is now 50 years old and just happens to be a film the author “constantly revisits” as a “favorite cinematic exercise in Kubrick’s storied career.” The author then notes that the purpose of their article is to “highlight those elements” of the film which provide the film with “its continued relevance to a post-Cold War society” and basically to explain why this film will remain popular forever.

Ultimately, however, the author comes up with little to nothing. Indeed, while at first glance the author appears to identify several elements which could arguably support the idea that the film could remain relevant and funny to future generations, it quickly becomes obvious that the author has simply repeated one idea over and over and over: this film will last forever because Kubrick used dark humor to parody something which scared the author and his friends... the potential of nuclear war being caused by crazed (American) leaders. But that point is a faulty point.

Here are the arguments given by the author:
(1) Kubrick’s use of humor and satire to tell a Cold War story was bold and innovative... a Cold War story, people!... a scary Cold War story about nuclear war!!... told with humor!! That’s fricken BOLD!!;

(2) Kubrick did this when Cold War saber-rattling was at its worst and terrified us all, ergo it was SUPER BOLD;

(3) the book this film was based on was a serious book, but Kubrick turned it to satire... a BOLD choice!!!; and

(4) Kubrick pokes fun at the military’s “mindless patriotism” and suggests that “warmongering is the business of men with sexual inadequacy issues,” thereby turning an anti-military indictment into a parody!
As I noted, however, each of these arguments is ultimately the same idea, that Kubrick was brilliant to use parody to address a topic which scared us then and continues to scare us today. But that’s wrong. Indeed, for his thesis to work, the author assumes that we are all terrified by the idea of crazed, incompetent Americans starting an insane nuclear war with the Russians. But that’s just not true.

The Cold War is dead and gone and younger generations don’t care about it. It is ancient history to them. They do not hate or fear the Russians, they never saw a Soviet, they don’t understand the ideological goals of communism nor have they seen it backed by military muscle, and they never grew up worrying about a nuclear exchange. Even my generation didn’t see nuclear war as something to worry about. We didn’t see it happening and if it did, there was nothing we could do about it. So at best, we were fatalists – something you see reflected in much of 1980's culture. And few Americans ever bought into the idea that our military is bloodthirsty or wants a nuclear war. So the author's premise that these issues resonate with us all is flat out wrong.

Nor can I say that Kubrick has done anything uniquely interesting in attacking a serious subject with satire. The author seems amazed by this, but I can name a dozen earlier films that did the same thing, like Chaplin’s The Dictator. And there have been others that followed, like Spies Like Us. So Kubrick’s film hardly stands out as unique in that regard. Moreover, Kubrick’s parody feels dated today as the modern military simply doesn’t look or act like the one being parodied, as the Russians are no longer the threat they were – in fact, nothing has replaced their omnipresence as an existential threat, and as many of the gags feel like they would no longer work in the age of computers and cells phone and live-satellite surveillance.

All in all, when I look at Dr. Strangelove, I see an interesting historical curiosity that was well done and deserves to be seen as a classic, but has no punch today. There is nothing about this film that feels the least bit relevant today, the gags feel dated and oft-copied, and none of the key elements that make this film work feel like they could happen today.

Moreover, I am starting to see Kubrick’s star fading. Indeed, while Kubrick was once seen as having entered the pantheon of eternity as one of the greatest directors of all times, since his death, he seems to be slipping fast into the ranks of good, but not-divine directors.

Why do I say that? Well, one way I judge longevity is by paying attention to how often films end up on television and how often they get referenced throughout the rest of the culture. A decade ago, Kubrick was everywhere. His films were a regular staple on various channels... A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Spartacus, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, etc. were on every week. Sitcoms, other films and politicians referenced them. They were parodied by other films. New films by Kubrick were an event. And Kubrick’s name automatically came up without dissent in discussions of the best directors ever.

None of this is true anymore, however. Outside of The Shining, few Kubrick films get much play these days. I can’t think of the last politician or political cartoon to mention his films. No one parodies his films anymore. And, since his death, he seems to be increasingly forgotten in the discussion of the great directors ever, with people being more interested in discussing whether Christopher Nolan and James Cameron should be on the list.

Now don’t get me wrong, as I’m sure some are already planning, but I’m not saying that Kubrick has been excised from the culture or that Dr. Strangelove will never be seen again. I’m sure he will always remain on the lists of film buffs and his films will continue to find a home on “classic” channels. But what really I’m saying is that Kubrick seems to have fallen a notch from the eternals to the really good, and his films now seem like a thing of the past rather than an influence on the present and something to be passed on to the future. And like it or not, I just don’t see Dr. Strangelove continuing to relate to future generations as it has no relevance to their lives.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Schedule Restarts Next Week!

Hi Everyone! The film site will be starting again in earnest next week. So tune in Tuesday! In the meantime, are there any movies you are interested in seeing this year?
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