“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” Fights Bloat and Loses

Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, 2014)

The tagline for the new (and final!) film in director Peter Jackson’s overlong and bloated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s brief and sleek first Middle-Earth book The Hobbit (following last year’s second film in this trilogy in search of a raison d’être beyond the mercenary) is “the defining chapter” (see poster, above). I’ll believe that when, 20 or 30 years from now, Jackson has proven himself worthy of that promise. Since there is still plenty of story and esoterica to be mined from the Tolkienverse (or to be invented by fans of J.R.R.’s writing who aren’t getting their fill from Game of Thrones), I am highly skeptical that this is the last we will see of elves, orcs, dwarves, wizards and, of course, hobbits (if I was supposed to capitalize any of those, well, I just don’t care). Where there’s money to be made and fans to be satisfied, why stop?

I’ll tell you why – because this stuff is getting dull. Really dull. The whole post-Lord of the Rings enterprise has always felt contrived – an exact replica of the successful formula that Jackson and his team had applied to Tolkien’s actual trilogy (and I like those movies, so don’t peg me as a Sauron who’s always hating – I’m more like a Saruman who was once on the side of the heroes but has now turned against them) – only without any sort of script. Yet here we are, and a new movie has come out, so I must review it.

To be fair, after all that, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (despite my love of this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, can we please stop adding colons to titles …) is brisker and shorter than its predecessors. It also starts in media res, so before we know what’s happening, the action is on. What action? Well that is the problem with this kind of opening, since we are required to remember exactly where we left off last time. This is no stand-alone film, to be sure. Perhaps we are meant to have recently purchased the DVD or Blu-ray and just re-watched film #2. I’d buy that as a motivation …

Anyway, as Smaug rises above the lake to blast that wooden town floating in the river, some memory of past events may come back to you. Let me help you: Smaug is a dragon (whose name is pronounced, in this series, as “Smow-og,” though reading the book as a child, I just called him Smog, as in, dirty air), whose lair under the mountain has just been invaded by a team of dwarves (I think I’m supposed to write “dwarfs,” but again, so what?) whom he had originally kicked out of said lair. Bilbo – the ostensible protagonist of these movies (the hobbit of the title … before the colon and all) – spent much of the second half of film #2 taunting Smaug, and though I cannot quite recall what he specifically did to Smaug to piss him off so much, the dragon is on a rampage and blasts the town and its inhabitants all to hell.

It’s actually a well-executed scene, quite frightening, but it soon ends in the expected way (hint: this is not Smaug’s movie), after which we spend two hours among mopey dwarves and a largely missing hobbit. Yes, there are battles and people die, but keep in mind that Jackson has taken the final 72 pages of a 300-page book and tried to make a feature-length film by lengthening scenes that were best left short. The most moving sequences – and they are very affecting, to be sure – are ironically ones that center around a character not even in the original source text: Tauriel the “she-elf” (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost“), who is in love with Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner from “Being Human“). Almost everything else left me looking at my watch.

Perhaps the worst sin of the film is how much Jackson ignores Bilbo or, even worse, makes him such a passive character. Martin Freeman (Watson from “Sherlock“) is always excellent, but his relegation to supporting status here forces us to watch orcs and dwarves square off, and after one battle too many, it all blends together. I think the folks at Weta Digital do great work, but really, it’s story that we (OK, that I) come to see.

And lest I make this review as bloated as Jackson’s movies (it’s contagious!), I will stop now. See the film if you must, enjoy it if you will, but remember that good box office returns will only encourage the man to keep on going.

Savor This Weekend’s “Top Five” “Wild” “Pelican Dreams” (and Flee – Flee! – from “Exodus”)

Hard week at work (it’s exam time) = shorter reviews than normal combined into one loosely concocted post. Enjoy!

Top Five

Top Five (Chris Rock, 2014)

Let’s be clear: this is not a great movie, by any means. Though comedian Chris Rock (Grown Ups) has directed two previous features over the past 11 years (Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife), he is still a relatively inexperienced filmmaker, and it shows. Scenes drag on for too long, reaction shots are not always timed well, and transitions are often clumsy. And yet . . . the movie is supremely enjoyable, and frequently very funny. Rock is a smart man who is much more than just a funny guy (see his recent Hollywood Reporter essay on race in the movie business as an example of his insightful thinking), and his jokes – when they hit their mark – are like little Trojan comedy missiles that hide their barbed social commentary inside a soft Nerf™ cover. It helps, also, that Rock has cast the perfect straight foil for the main character that he, himself, plays, in Rosario Dawson (Cesar Chavez), with whom he has terrific on-screen chemistry. Their banter is a delight to behold. So while the movie is flawed, it has enough going for it to be more than worth seeing.

Andre Allen (Rock) is a major Hollywood star known for playing “Hammy the Bear” in a series of crude Beverly Hills Cop send-ups who, in a career 180 reminiscent of that of Sullivan’s Travels, has decided to abandon comedy and make a film about an 18th-century Haitian slave uprising (like Sankofa, only without the artistry). One of the funnier running gags in the movie is how atrociously bad this movie-within-the-movie is and how no one, regardless of race, wants to see it. Allen is also about to get married to a narcissistic reality star played by Gabrielle Union (Think Like a Man Too), and the stress of the upcoming nuptials and his failing movie may just drive him to drink again (he’s a recovering alcoholic). In walks a New York Times reporter (Dawson), hungry for the real scoop on the star, and after Allen agrees to spend the day walking around with her, most of the rest of the movie is about their conversations – often deep, frequently hilarious – about life and Allen’s career. Thanks to the two stars and some very witty dialogue, the movie almost always works in these blissful scenes. If it doesn’t quite work at other times, it’s still more hit than miss. It may be not make it into my own personal top five of the year (or top 10, or top 20), but it’s still a lot of fun.

Wild

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014)

The worst that can be said about Wild, the new film by French Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), is that it feels overdetermined. While it’s true that good drama often flows from the connections and causalities between various life events and the narrative threads that bind them, it is also true that one must be wary of coincidence and cliché. Wild has a strong story and structure (courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby), but also a lot of easily foreseeable outcomes. If that’s the worst of it, though, then not to worry, for the positives mostly outweigh those negatives. What Wild does beautifully is tell the moving tale of one woman’s journey of self-discovery after a moment of supreme crisis in her life. And while we can easily guess that this journey will end well (the movie is, after all, based on the best-selling memoir of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, the movie’s protagonist), that doesn’t mean that the journey is not, in and of itself, interesting. It helps that the cinematography is gorgeous and the performances sublime. It’s potent stuff, mostly well realized.

When the movie begins, Strayed – a very good Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) – a woman in her mid-20s, has just pulled herself out of a self-destructive downward spiral that saw her both engage in indiscriminate sex with strangers (despite being married to a man she loved) and abuse heroin, all the result of grief at her mother’s untimely death from cancer. She reinvents herself with a new last name after her divorce and decides to hike 1000 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail as both penance and healing walkabout. We travel with her as she struggles up peaks for which she is woefully unprepared, flashing back to earlier moments in her life, including many scenes with her mother, the self-described “love of her life.” Played by a magnificent Laura Dern (the mother in The Fault in Our Stars, as well), Cheryl’s mom is a warm and nurturing presence to which Cheryl returns time and again during the cold nights of her hike, and thanks to Dern we can easily understand why her loss was so devastating to Cheryl. Eventually, as these stories go, Cheryl manages to pull herself up by her hiking bootstraps – after meeting many colorful characters along the way, and some mild danger, as well – and return to the world of the living, leaving us with a sense of genuine catharsis and redemption. And though we may have seen this kind of movie before, it’s rare that we see a movie where a woman solves her own problems, largely by herself, without requiring undue help from the men in her life. Redemption and, hopefully, inspiration to us all.

Pelican Dreams

Pelican Dreams (Judy Irving, 2014)

At a brisk 80 minutes, Pelican Dreams, the lovely new documentary film by Judy Irving ( The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) hardly overstays it welcome. With beautiful shots (especially the high-resolution slow-motion footage, both above and underwater) of wild pelicans at work and play, the film treats us to stunning scenes from the lives of these once-endangered birds (courtesy of DDT dumping in the 1950s and 1960s) who now face new environmental threats because of climate change. At times heartbreaking (especially when we meet injured birds in captivity), and at other times heartwarming (when those same birds fly away), the movie is a moving tribute not only to the birds but to the people who care for them. The film should appeal to all who care about about animal life on our planet.

That said, the movie is not perfect. I did not enjoy Judy Irving’s voiceover; in fact, I often found it irritating and completely unnecessary. Better to let the beauty of the birds and the voices of the experts tell the story, rather than interrupt our revery with musings on whether or not birds dream. I loved Irving’s Wild Parrots – in which she refrained from such excessive commentary – but as she announces at the start of her new film, she has always felt a personal connection with pelicans (unlike with parrots), and so we get what we get. I was also not a big of the film’s soundtrack, by Bruce Kaphan, which I found as similarly intrusive as the voiceover. So be it. Together they are a small price to pay for the joy of watching pelicans frolic.

Exodus - Gods and Kings

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014)

What can I say . . . do not see this film. Flee from Exodus: Gods and Kings. It may well be the worst film I have seen all year. I overheard some people at the end of the screening I attended saying that while the story was bad, at least the effects were spectacular. They are wrong. The effects are terrible, too, and the 3D just makes them worse. Everything in this mess, from the performances to the production design to the visual effects and cinematography, is just misconceived and misbegotten. You want to watch a story about Moses and the return of Jews to their homeland? Rent Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments – a bloated mess in its own right, but a masterpiece of storytelling by comparison – instead. And that’s all I have to say in the subject. Or maybe not. Let’s let Mel Brooks have the last word, in this clip from History of the World: Part 1.

“The Homesman” Drifts Along the Frontier Trail

Homesman

The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014)

The greatest asset in The Homesman – the second theatrical feature directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) – is also its greatest weakness. Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), plays Mary Bee Cuddy – an independent frontier woman in the Nebraska Territory in the 1850s – with such energy and commitment that she shines from within, making her luminous to behold. In other words, it is a typically magnificent Swank performance. The problem is that everyone else in the movie keeps lamenting how plain and bossy she is, and the disconnect between what the camera sees and what the characters see is jarring. Even when she essentially throws herself upon the men in the movie, desperate for love (or, at the very least, connection), they reject her. I had always thought that the settlers who populated the American West liked their women strong (with nice, child-bearing hips!). According to this movie, that is not the case, and it literally drives the women crazy.

Cuddy – alone on a farm that she owns, with no man and no family – volunteers to transport the wives of three men in her town back East. These poor women have gone insane, for different reasons: one has lost her children; another, her mother; the third, to be honest, I cannot remember the reason. It’s not important. What is important is that the men in their lives have either abused them or been unable to provide them what they need – emotionally, spiritually, physically – to survive in the barren landscape they inhabit. Adrift and friendless, they need someone to step up and escort them back to a more civilized place, and that someone is Cuddy. But she can’t do it alone, and on her way home one day she finds a drifter, George Briggs (Jones), seated on his horse with a rope around his neck. She rescues him and tells him he must help her make the trip to Missouri. He’s not keen on the idea, but since he gave his word, he does, indeed, go along for the ride.

This is a movie defined by its oddness – in ways both good and bad. Though mostly chronological in its storytelling, it occasionally digresses from the narrative to show us a subjective memory or dream, without explanation. At times elliptical – days pass without us realizing it at first – the film at other times succumbs to excessive expositional dialogue. I haven’t read the source novel of the same name, by Glendon Swarthout, so I don’t know how much of the aesthetic strangeness of the movie comes from Jones or the original author. Still, though messy and not always coherent – Cuddy’s climactic action is untrue to her character, and for some reason James Spader (“The Blacklist) shows up in the final third as an Irish gangster – The Homesman is usually interesting to watch, largely thanks to Swank and Jones, who fill the screen with their electrifying performances. As a feminist revisionist take on Westerns – deconstructing male behavior and revealing it for the selfish and misogynist thing that it can be – the film is fairly effective. As a gripping and consistent narrative, it is less so. I did love the ending, though, which is perfect for a crazy movie like this: Briggs, his one selfless act completed, dances, drunk, on a river barge, reverting back to the behavior that got him in trouble in the first place.

Still, if you want to see a better recent Western about the triumph of the female spirit, I recommend watching Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff. Until then, The Homesman may or may not do, depending on your taste. Jones’s first film was far more successful, but this one, flaws and all, is not without merit.

A Midday Preview of Coming Attractions & Current Cinema: 12/5/14 @ 1pm

[NOTE: If you missed the show, you can download the podcast here.]

Rodricks_2014-12-5_EndOfYearReview

It’s time again for our annual end-of-year movie show when we discuss the current slate of films – those in theaters and those soon to be released – and make our recommendations of what to see and our predictions of what will make it into the Oscars race. From Interstellar to The Theory of Everything to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies to Foxcatcher to Annie to Wild to Into the Woods and beyond, we’ve got your cinematic needs covered.

Join us, then, on Midday with Dan Rodricks (WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station) during the second hour, 1-2pm, on Friday, December 5, as Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – discuss the movies of the season – what’s in theaters right now and what soon will be – as well as what’s worth seeing that you might have missed earlier in the year (such as Obvious ChildBoyhood, Under the Skin, BelleIdaSnowpiercer, PrideLife Itself and The Lego Movie, just to name some of my personal favorites). This broadcast will be a great set-up for the Oscar preview show we’ll do in February, so be sure to tune in!

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast, instead.

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page.

Enjoy the show! Feel free to offer your own thoughts on your favorite movies of the year, so far, in the comments section of this post.

“The Theory of Everything”: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Equations

Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

Biopics – or biographical pictures – all face the same challenge: how to reduce the essence of one person’s life into recognizable and digestible components while balancing the needs of drama within the approximate two-hour length of most movies. It’s not an easy equation to solve, and sometimes the better films are the ones that choose to focus on one particular moment in that person’s life, as in last year’s marvelous The Invisible Woman, about the affair that 19th-century English author Charles Dickens had with a much younger woman. Since Felicity Jones, a powerfully engaging young actress who portrays Jane Wilde – or the woman who was physicist Stephen Hawking’s first wife – in The Theory of Everything, was also in The Invisible Woman, perhaps we can claim that one of the requirements of a successful biopic be that it feature her. For while The Theory of Everything has the usual flaws of many a biopic – compression, conflation and oversimplification – it is nevertheless among the best of its genre, thanks in no small part to Jones and Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), who plays Hawking in an astonishing, career-making performance that rivals anything the great Daniel Day-Lewis did in My Left Foot.

One thing this film does not do well, though, is explain Hawking’s theories of the universe (which is clearly not its intention, anyway). For that, I recommend you check out Errol Morris’s superb 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time, which was based on Hawking’s best-selling book of the same title. In that film (or book), you’ll learn all about Hawking’s obsessions with (as his website tells us) “gravity, black holes, the Big Bang, the nature of time and physicists’ search for a grand unifying theory.” Hawking is probably one of the most important scientific minds of the 20th (and now 21st) century. But that’s what The Theory of Everything is about, despite its grandiose title.

Instead, this is a story of love, resilience and overcoming adversity. When the movie begins, in 1963, Hawking and his bride-to-be, Jane, are students at Cambridge University. They meet cute, fall in love – she studies medieval Spanish literature and he, physics, and it’s the difference that attracts – all is beautiful, and then one day Hawking takes a nasty fall and it is revealed that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS) and only two years left to live (Hawking, born in 1942, is still alive as of this writing). It is, as his father intones, “a heavy defeat.” But Jane genuinely loves Stephen, and is a lot tougher than she first appears to be, and soon she is nursemaid to the great (though physically deteriorating) genius, putting her own dreams on hold to be wife, and then mother, as the couple has not one, but two and then, finally, three children. She is a saint, though, to be fair, the movie is based on Jane’s account of her life with Hawking, so we’ll have to take the truths therein as simply her own version thereof.

As a portrait of two strong-willed individuals, the film is a marvel. But while Jones is luminous, it’s Redmayne who impresses the most. From a dashing nerd, he morphs into a twisted physical shell of a man with eyes that shine through the pain to show the giant brain within. It is a truly remarkable transformation. And we need to see Hawking’s daily struggle in this visceral way so that when, towards the end of the movie, in front of an American audience during his book tour for A Brief History of Time, his computer-generated voice (Hawking underwent a tracheotomy in the 1980s after a bout with pneumonia, and lost his vocal chords) intones, “‘However bad life may seem, while there is life, there’s hope,” it resonates with meaning. So while you may not learn a lot about science in The Theory of Everything, you may learn a lot about life, and living it to the fullest.

The Metafictional Penultimatum of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1″

Hunger Games - Mockingjay 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 2014)

There is a moment in the first third of the new Hunger Games movie – yet another “Part 1″ of a two-part adaptation of the final volume in a popular young adult book series – that is the perfect encapsulation of the inextricability of movie making and movie marketing; the ultimate metafictional moment. Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant warrior heroine of Panem’s revolution, has been drafted to play the role of the “mockingjay” – the symbol of the rebellion against the Capital – and has failed miserably to deliver camera-ready performances for District 13’s propaganda team. She’s no actress, and the studio setting of the rebels’ bunker is no battlefield: Katniss is best when she’s authentic. And so the leaders send her out to visit another, recently bombed, district. While Katniss is there – camera crew in tow – the Capital attacks again, and she fires off an explosive arrow, destroying an enemy airplane, then turns and delivers – to the camera – an improvised speech that is everything her handlers have wanted. Next scene: the residents of District 13 gather to watch the short propaganda film, or “propo,” edited to showcase the highlights of the skirmish and of Katniss’s righteous battle cry. The piece ends with the mockingjay logo – the same one used on much of the marketing materials for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – accompanied by the four-note mockingjay melody – the same one used at the end of the movie’s official trailer. The movie within the movie is a tie-in for the movie, in other words.* Expect the evil President Snow to be playing with a Katniss Everdeen action figure in Part 2!

That said, this new entry in what is a hugely successful film franchise (The Hunger Games grossed almost $700 million worldwide, and it’s sequel – Catching Fire – over $850 million) is not always so crass (or clever, depending on your point of view). There is genuine feeling in the performances, and Francis Lawrence, the director of the previous movie (and also of Water for Elephants, among other works), continues to show a real strength with actors and action scenes, alike. Forever banished are the missed beats and false notes of the first film, and we feel we are in the hands of a consummate craftsman who knows how to direct his cast and crew. Mockingjay – Part 1 largely delivers on its promise to set up a rousing finale for next year’s Mockingjay – Part 2. Still, while it (more or less) holds together as a movie in its own right, there’s a certain lack of energy in the plot development that all too often reduces tension and slows things down for no apparent reason other than to fill out the half-story to feature length and make room for the conclusion. Other than the fact that the two-part series ending has become de rigeur, thanks to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 and Part 2, there’s no real raison d’être for this particular movie’s penultimate status. With (much) tighter editing and another 30 minutes tacked on, we’d have one hell of a finish.

All major actors from the first two films are here again (unless their characters died, earlier), and in fine form. It’s bittersweet to see the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) as Plutarch Heavensbee, but there he is, good as always. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) and Liam Hemsworth (Empire State) incarnate the three sides of the central love triangle with appropriately moist eyes and trembling voices, though it’s Hutcherson, as the captured (and tortured) Peeta Mellark who gets to really act this time, as his body and mind reflect, more and more, the scars of his captivity. Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace) and Elizabeth Banks (Little Accidents) are back as comic relief (of which this gloomy film needs much more than it has), and are each perfect, as is Jeffrey Wright (“Boardwalk Empire“) as the Capital’s erstwhile tech security guy who now works for the rebellion. Julianne Moore (Don Jon) joins the cast as Alma Coin, leader of District 13, opposite the great Donald Sutherland’s (Man on the Train) President Snow. They’re all very good together.

Overall, the film is much better than its source text (which, granted, isn’t saying a lot). The first book of the series was by far the strongest and yet its cinematic adaptation was, so far, the weakest of the bunch. As author Suzanne Collins wrote books 2 and 3, she seemed to lose her way, and the final book – in particular its final half – was an underwritten mess. So far, the movies are following the reverse quality trajectory. If Part 2 has all of the strengths of Part 1 plus more energy (i.e. none of its weaknesses) and less gloom, than there’s no doubt that the finale will continue this trend. I wish they had made one movie, rather than two, but my desires are insignificant compared to the demands of the box office.

*[Noted on 11/24/14 – in this interesting article in “The New York Times,” the author discusses the innovative marketing techniques of Lionsgate, the studio which released the film.]

3 (Descending) Cinematic Degrees of Finesse: “Diplomacy,” “Dear White People” and “Rosewater”

Right now, at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre, you can see three very different films about diplomacy and negotiation. Each movie tackles, in its own unique way, the idea that words matter. They don’t always matter equally, however, and these films are certainly unequal in quality (though even the least of them is not without some interest). In descending order of quality, I present DiplomacyDear White People, and Rosewater.

Diplomacy

Diplomacy (Volker Schlöndorff, 2014)

Based on a stage play by Cyril Gély – who, along with director Volker Schlöndorff (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), co-wrote the movie adaptation – Diplomacy tells the story of how, towards the end of World War II (August 25-26, 1944, to be exact), the Paris-born Swedish consul-general to France, Raoul Nordling, convinced Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz – the military governor of Paris – to refrain from blowing up the “City of Light” as the Nazis retreated from the Allied invasion. This material has been covered before, in the 1966 action-adventure war film Is Paris Burning? (an adaptation of the book of the same title), but whereas that film was all battles and explosions (and very good for what it was), this new film is about a different kind of tension. Will Nordling convince von Choltitz to disobey a direct order from der Führer and save Paris? The fact that the movie is largely fictional (at least according to the great academic historian Ian Buruma) does not diminish from its success at creating a brilliant cat-and-mouse game of verbal fencing. It’s particularly rewarding because the roles of cat and mouse (who is who?) remain unclear until the very end. It is a brilliant exploration of the art of diplomacy.

Both André Dussolier (Un coeur en hiver), as Nordling, and Niels Arestrup (Un prophète), as von Choltitz, are more than up to the task that Schlöndorff and Gély devise. We believe them as men of strong will and strong minds (Dussolier, especially). And we understand the stakes at play, for the movie opens with archival images of the destruction of Warsaw (another petty act of Nazi terror that served no strategic purpose). Should Nordling fail, not only will centuries – nay, millennia – of human culture and history be destroyed, but so, too, will hundreds of thousands of lives be lost, for the demolition of the bridges over the Seine will cause widespread surges that will break the river’s banks and flood the city. This knowledge lends an urgency to the sometimes-casual conversation between the two men that makes even the most seemingly trivial line resonate with meaning. In this movie, words do, indeed, matter a great deal.

Dear White People

Dear White People (Justin Simien, 2014)

I must confess that I found both the trailer and the hype surrounding Dear White People more than a little annoying. The jokes and the premise, itself (white people are racist!), seemed clumsy and unoriginal. Racism exists and pervades our culture – of that I have no doubt (just look at the lack of diversity in major films coming out of Hollywood) – but that doesn’t mean that any film that takes on that subject is going to be good. Still, one of my favorite films from the 1980s remains Robert Townsend’s biting satire on race and popular culture, Hollywood Shuffle, and that had plenty of crude humor in it, so I finally made up my mind to go see first-time feature director Justin Simien’s movie. Much to my pleasant surprise, it was a lot better than I expected. Yes, it was messy – the way many first movies are – but it was also pretty smart in many places, and filled with appealing actors delivering fine (and often nuanced) performances. And yes, words do matter here, too, since they are the weapons wielded by one group against another in the negotiations over campus (and racial) supremacy.

The four main actors – Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris“) as Lionel, Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls) as Sam White, Teyonah Parris (“Mad Men“) as Coco, and Brandon P. Bell (“Hollywood Heights“) as Troy  – all deserve immense credit for what works in the film, as they make the dumb stuff seem smart and the smart stuff seem brilliant. Lionel is the gay black (Trekker) nerd with a huge afro who fits in nowhere; Sam is the conflicted bi-racial (“tragic mulatto” as her otherwise sweet white boyfriend mockingly calls her) who hosts the titular “Dear White People” on-campus radio show; Coco is the aspirational reality TV wannabe who will do anything to draw attention to herself; and Troy is the man-about-campus son of the Dean of Students who is normally so un-confrontational that he has no real identity to speak of. All four come together in ways both contrived (the white President and black Dean of Students not only went to college together but now have children attending the same university and dating each other?) and amusing as a white-run humor magazine throws a “negro”-themed Halloween party, complete with blackface, fried chicken and watermelon, which leads to a race riot. It may not be entirely believable (why don’t the black students have their own party, as the folks over at NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour pointed out – would they really be sitting around having a Black Student Union meeting?), but much of it is good fun. And the ultimate “why can’t we all get along message” of the movie, coupled with its cynical take on (campus) politics (which is believable), is hard to argue with. So it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but one filled with lots of goodies.

On a final note: one interesting way in which we can argue that popular culture has changed a bit over the years is that there have been no alarms over how this film might incite racial rioting, as there were back in 1989, when Spike Lee released his seminal masterpiece Do the Right Thing. We’re still far from a post-racial world (if that’s even possible), but that may count as progress, of a sort.

Rosewater

Rosewater (Jon Stewart, 2014)

Would we care that much about this film if Jon Stewart – he of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” – were not the director? I doubt it (and I’m a fan of Stewart’s). While it tells a worthy story – how Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned for 118 days in 2009 by the Iranian regime after he reported on the disputed 2009 presidential election between then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the main opposition leader, Mir Hossein Moussavi, it does not tell it in any particularly exciting way. This is a film – like Dear White People – by a first-time director (and Justin Simien, above, had at least made a number of short films, first, and worked as an editor), so to expect more would be unrealistic. Still, Stewart does not embarrass himself, and gets a fine performance out of Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Y tu mamá también), who plays Bahari. But the script (which Stewart wrote, based on Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me) and the direction almost succeed in making a compelling story seem pedestrian (starting with the horrible music by Howard Shore, who has done much better work in films like Doubt and The Departed, among many others). Stewart felt driven to make this film in part because Bahari had appeared on his show a few days before being arrested, an appearance which was one of the pieces of evidence used against him during his incarceration (dictators never seem to have a sense of humor, sadly). Nevertheless, it would have been better to have a Paul Greengrass (United 93) or an Alan Parker (Midnight Express) direct it. Oh, well.

What we get is a film that purports to show us a horrible ordeal at the hands of a totalitarian regime that manages to make said ordeal seem like no big deal. There is very little tension anywhere, although both Bernal and his interrogator, “Rosewater” (so nicknamed by Bahari – though we never learn this from the movie – because of the scent he applied to himself daily) – played by Danish actor Kim Bodnia (In a Better World) – do their best. There is one moment in the film where the story suddenly takes a turn for the captivating, and that is when the über-interragotor who supervises “Rosewater” challenges Bahari to prove – given the history of the Western media and of the CIA in Iran (he argues that both conspired to turn public opinion against the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq and supported his ouster in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi) – that he is not a spy. “How can you say that when the media worked with the CIA to bring the Shah to power?” It’s true – the CIA did usher in the Shah. In the ongoing Kafkaesque negotiations between Bahari and his torturers, where words matter less than subjugation, this scene proves interesting. The rest is just noise (which may be Stewart’s point, but which does not make for captivating cinema). Good try, Jon. You got this out of your system. I’ll wait for your next movie.

Second Episode of “Reel Talk” Now Available

Reel Talk 2

From L to R: Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, with Ben Tschirgi, his second guest.

The second episode of Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reedon HCC-TV, is now available. My second guest was a former student of mine, Stevenson University/Howard Community College alumnus and actor/writer/director Ben Tschirgi. We reviewed NightcrawlerWhiplash and Birdman. You can watch the episode on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), or online. The above link to the show takes you to its general landing page, which has whichever episode is most current up on the site. If, in the future, you want to see this second episode – even after the next episodes air – you’ll need to click on this permanent link to it. Enjoy!

The amazing HCC-TV team did a wonderful job, as always, putting this together. There will be a new episode aired after the start of the new year. If you want to watch the first episode, click here.

“Beyond the Lights” Does Not Go Beyond Much

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)

About halfway through Beyond the Lights - the new soapy tearjerker of a pop-infused romance by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) – Nate Parker (Red Tails) takes his shirt off to dress the self-inflicted wounds of Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle). As the camera lingers on his perfect chest, biceps and abs (which it will do with increasing frequency throughout the film), what should be a moving moment of crisis turns, instead, into a risible and crass display of a sexy body. The audience in the theater laughed, as they did with each subsequent nude shot. And that’s the essence of the problem with the movie. Though Prince-Bythewood, a talented writer/director, has made the film with the best of intentions – tackling universal themes of love, despair, identity and self-determination – the net result rarely rises above the general (and generic) clichés of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. With more than a few shades of 1992’s The Bodyguard (and most other pop star-centered stories) in its DNA, Beyond the Lights – though entertaining in spots, and featuring a riveting performance from its female lead – does not, in fact, go beyond much at all.

Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, the mixed-race daughter of Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) – in a thankless one-note role as a domineering stage mother – and an unknown father, whom we first meet as a child (nicely incarnated by newcomer India Jean-Jacques) as she is about to perform in a talent contest, singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” When she comes in second, her mother forces her to throw away the trophy, telling her, “You wanna be a runner-up or you wanna be a winner?” With a sudden smash cut to the present, we see what Noni has become: a rising R&B star who, through a series of sex-fueled music videos with a white rapper, is poised on the brink of superstardom (with her first solo album on the way). But then, one night, inebriated, she tries to throw herself off a balcony, and we discover that the journey from child to adult, and from authentic performance to the artificiality of the music business, has taken a serious toll on Noni.

Fortunately, Kaz (Parker), a twenty-something police officer moonlighting on Noni’s security detail, is there to catch Noni as she falls (physically and emotionally). The rest of the movie centers on the way their relationship could either derail both of their career prospects (he is an aspiring politician), or show them each a new way forward, towards the selves they were meant to be. It’s a sweet story, but often rendered so clumsily, and with music  – even the final ballad that Noni composes as an example of true self-expression – so insistently banal that is often hard to appreciate the moving message beneath the noise. The sole exception to this is the scene in the film when Noni, in Mexico with Kaz, sings, once more, Simone’s “Blackbird,” and we feel – for one brief shining moment – something real happening on screen (Mbatha-Raw is great throughout, but not well served by the material).

In spite of it all, the film is eminently watchable, with appealing actors. It’s just not very good.

“Force Majeure” Is a Cinematic Tour de Force

Force Majeure

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014)

In Force Majeure, a Swedish film (originally entitled “Turist“) by Ruben Östlund (Play), a family – seemingly happy together – on vacation at a ski resort (the gorgeous Les Arcs, in the Savoie region of Alpine France) faces one (natural) disaster that then leads to another, more serious (familial) one. After an avalanche comes dangerously close to the outdoor restaurant where they are lunching, the father bolts as the snow rushes upon them, leaving the mother to frantically protect her two kids. After that, nothing is the same. As a meditation on manhood, heroism and gender roles, the film is a masterpiece.

I knew none of the actors beforehand, but both Johannes Kuhnke – as Tomas, the father – and Lisa Loven Kongsli – as Ebba, the mother, are brilliant. We believe both their early easy physical intimacy and later dissolution. For Ebba cannot forgive Tomas for running; or, rather, she can’t forgive him for not owning up to his behavior. As their children (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren, each equally terrific) look on helplessly, Tomas and Ebba intermittently argue and avoid each other.

But this is also a wonderfully funny film. In fact, it’s one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year: a true “dramedy.” Both Tomas’s narcissism and Ebba’s never-ending amazement at that narcissism, coupled with their unrecognized sense of entitlement (only the wealthy can afford Les Arcs), make for wonderfully biting comedy. As do their interactions with other guests at the resort, including Tomas’s good friend Mats – played by the wonderfully charismatic (what a great big red beard!) Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones) – and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (the charming Fanni Metelius). Mats, especially, tries to help Tomas justify his selfish behavior through a verbal jujitsu that just makes it worse (and leads to his own subsequent problems with Fanny). There is no way out except through confession. Which turns out to not be true at all, since Tomas manages to suffer his breakdown in the most self-pitying, self-centered way imaginable. By the time the film ends (in a spectacularly inconclusive fashion), we sense that the marriage is over, even while Tomas – his guilt off his chest – seems revived. Ebba knows better, as do we. It’s Tomas’s refusal to do more than just admit to cowardice – his refusal to change in any substantive way – that spells doom. It’s a perfect portrait of how and why relationships can go wrong.

It’s a must-see, and also very entertaining.