A Man for All Genres: Midday on Burt Lancaster

[NOTE: Here is the podcast of the show]

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in "From Here to Eternity" (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity” (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

From 1946 to 1991, Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) entertained us on screens both large and small, in films of almost genres (he’s listed as #19 on the AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Stars list). His was a dynamic presence, muscular in body and spirit, always forceful. Born in New York City, he first trained as a circus acrobat – which helps account for his lifelong athleticism – finally transitioning into acting after serving in the army during World War II. Nominated four times for an Oscar, he won Best Actor for Elmer Gantry in 1960. Some of his other notable films include The Killers, From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the O.K. CorralSweet Smell of SuccessBirdman of AlcatrazAirport, and Atlantic City.

On Friday, November 1, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss Burt Lancaster’s life and career on the day before his 100th birthday. Join us if you can.

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

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

Enjoy the show!

Let “12 Years a Slave” Banish the Reign of Tara from Hollywood

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

It’s about time. Though Hollywood has tackled America’s legacy of slavery before, it has rarely done so with as visceral a combination of strong visuals, masterful performances and, most importantly, a screenplay that takes an unflinching and unvarnished look at out country’s antebellum past. Last year, we saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained – the best movie of 2012, in my opinion – which, fantasy though it was, placed the violence of slavery at the forefront of its story, helping to strip away the romanticism that has so often been present in depictions of the Old South. Now we have 12 Years a Slave, the third feature film by British director Steve McQueen (HungerShame), based on the 1853 true-life account of the same name, written (and lived) by Solomon Northup. Let this be the movie that finally banishes all notions of there having been anything gallant or glorious in the values of the slave-holding states. Let Gone with the Wind go, once and for all.

The movie tells the story of Northup, a free black man from New York, born in 1808, who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841 and then, after 12 years of hopelessness, managed to send word to his friends up North, attaining his freedom once more, in 1853. The horrors that he witnessed and experienced were, sadly, nothing exceptional for slaves, but posterity has benefited from the fact that Northup, himself, was exceptional – and educated – and so could observe, and later recount, his terrible tale in great detail. His book was published just one year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and together the two books form a powerful mid-19th century abolitionist pair (Northup, in fact, dedicated his own book to Beecher Stowe).

In the film, Northup is played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, best known to American audiences – if known at all – from movies like Love ActuallyMelinda and MelindaSerenityChildren of Men2012 and/or Salt, among others. Here, he is nothing short of extraordinary, crafting a performance that allows Northup’s intelligence, resilience and dignity to shine through even when the man is beaten or forced to beat others. He is always not just there, but present. Although McQueen is an accomplished filmmaker, without Ejiofor at its center, the film would not resonate nearly as strongly as it does. We need his humanity and his strength.

Which is not to say that McQueen’s talents are negligible. Before turning to feature filmmaking in 2008, McQueen was primarily known for his photography and video installations (see http://www.mariangoodman.com/artists/steve-mcqueen/ and http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/steve-mcqueen for examples of both), and his sense of visual aesthetics and design turns almost every scene into a painterly work of art. This is both a plus and a minus. It’s good because we need to see how brutal were the realities beneath the lovely facade of the plantations It’s sometimes ineffective, however, because the narrative will stop cold for a few minutes and hold on a particular shot, creating a sort of tableau of a frozen moment. Perhaps it’s McQueen’s background in photography and installations that makes him do this; perhaps he feels the necessity to slow the action down as a reflection of the seemingly never-ending nature of Northup’s imprisonment. Whatever his reasons, I think this, more than the film’s subject matter, will be the main obstacle for mainstream audiences. Unlike Django Unchained, this is not an action film. It’s a meditative drama about the evils of America’s original sin.

As much as I loved Django Unchained, we needed this film even more, particularly in an era where half the nation still seems to be driven crazy by the fact that a black man is president.  In some ways, it reminds me of Octavia Butler’s great science-fiction novel Kindred in its depiction of the horrors of slavery (if you haven’t read that book, please do so). Go see it. Now.

Some side notes:

  • There’s a lot of Oscar hype already. For all that that matters.
  • I just love some of McQueen’s shots: the riverboat paddle is like blood.
  • Great performances by others, including Adepero Oduye (Pariah), Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt.
  • Film is brutal, but with overall restrained action, except when it explodes.
  • Fresh Air ran two great recent pieces on the movie: one an interview with director and star; the other an interview with an historian.

“The Counselor” Fails to Defend Our Rights As Moviegoers

Counselor

The Counselor (Ridley Scott, 2013)

Ridley Scott’s new movie, The Counselor, made from the first original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy, tells the story of a criminal defense lawyer – the “Counselor” of the title (Michael Fassbender) – who has decided, for unspecified financial reasons, to enter the world of the Mexican drug trade. Things don’t go well. Naïve and unprepared, Fassbender’s attorney quickly finds himself unable to control the downward spiral of his fortunes, and soon he and his fiancée (Penelope Cruz) are on the run. Along the way, many people die – some in gruesome ways – and villains wreak mayhem. The real crime on display in this movie, however, is the terrible screenplay – complete with forced, overwrought dialogue – and over-the-top performances of many of the leads. When I care more about the fate of two cheetahs (yes, cheetahs!) than that of the central humans (sorry, Fassbender, your tears and snot are for naught), then there’s a major problem. What were they all thinking?

Right from the start, I knew we were in trouble. The movie opens with an overlong credit sequence and an embarrassingly guileless sex scene between Fassbender and Cruz that is shot like soft-core porn yet performed like a Disney film. Ridley Scott, who can be hit (AlienBlade RunnerThelma & Louise), or miss (Legend, A Good Year, Robin Hood), is nevertheless, at 75 (almost 76), one of the most important directors of the last 40 years. As a visual stylist, he has been incredibly influential. Just watch both Alien and Blade Runner, then compare the design of science fiction films before and after, and you’ll appreciate how much his aesthetic has affected subsequent filmmakers. Cormac McCarthy, as a novelist, has given us such bleak masterpieces as No Country for Old Men and The Road, among others (and an earlier romantic foray, All the Pretty Horses). The two films adapted from his books that I have seen – No Country for Old Men and The Road – both managed to show human greed and suffering in ways both disturbing and engaging. I, for one, cared about the fate of the characters, even while averting my eyes at some of the scenes on screen. But in The Counselor, neither director nor writer have succeeded in creating situations that feel anything but false. Words and actions drip with artifice. Worse, the entire exercise feels like a teenage boy’s fantasy of sex and violence. Avoid at all costs, unless you like watching unmitigated disasters.

I’ll end with a few interesting (to me) observations:

  • Did anyone notice that this was the same actress pairing as in Vanilla Sky (note to producers: that fact is not a selling point)? In that film, Cameron Diaz also played crazy to Cruz’s nice. Hmmmm . . .
  • Speaking of Diaz, she gives by far the worst performance in the film. Though endowed – beyond her usual physical charms  – with a gold tooth and a long cheetah-spot tattoo, she is unable to make her character feel like anything but a construct. Then again, with that dialogue . . .
  • Javier Bardem is interesting – he always is – but relishes his overwrought dialogue – as they all do – a bit too much.
  • Bruno Ganz is one of the few actors who is able to do a lot with very little, as a diamond merchant in Amsterdam.
  • Brad Pitt is funny, up to a point.
  • Why give us a scene with Rosie Perez in the penitentiary? Why one more character to later lose track of? Ugh!

You have been warned.

“The Fifth Estate” – Passing Entertainment, but No Great Scoop

Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate (Bill Condon, 2013)

Here’s a quick question for you: do you know what the first four estates are? The first three date from the codified class divisions of the European feudal era: the First Estate = Clergy; the Second Estate = Nobility; the Third Estate = the rest of us. The term “Fourth Estate” was first used in the 19th century to signify the daily press. The term “Fifth Estate” has gained traction in recent years to mean those forces outside of mainstream media that manage to exert significant cultural and socio-political influence on the world we live in. These forces include – but are not limited to – bloggers, tweeters and sites like WikiLeaks.

Never heard of WikiLeaks? Where have you been these past few years? Well, fortunately for you, there have been two films released this year that can explain all you need to know. The first, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, a documentary directed by Alex Gibney, came out this past May, and is already available for online instant viewing. That film is a fast-paced, well-made portrait of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, that manages to effectively reveal Assange as deity, demon, prophet and narcissist. Now comes The Fifth Estate, a fictionalized retelling of the same story (more or less), that has many fine qualities, but that falls just shy of the elegance of its non-fiction predecessor. Go team Gibney!

Bill Condon – director of such previous (sometimes interesting) films as Gods and Monsters, KinseyDreamgirls and, sadly, the final two films of the Twilight saga – knows his way around cameras, graphics and cutting rooms, and The Fifth Estate begins briskly and smartly with a wonderful montage of the development of the Fourth Estate across the ages, with headlines ripped from the dawn of the printing press to the present. This lesson complete, we find ourselves inJuly, 2010, in the offices of the British newspaper The Guardian, the German Der Spiegel, and the American New York Times, as each is about to publish, simultaneously and online, selections from the trove of leaked US intelligence documents that WikiLeaks was soon to publish – in its entirety – on its own site. This moment is the perfect culmination of the summary we have just watched, as it represents – in the eyes of the filmmaker and, perhaps, the world – the true ascendancy of the Fifth Estate. We are reminded of how rapidly the world has changed over the past decade by a news reporter – heard in the background – marveling that this unprecedented scoop has come from “an organization that didn’t exist 5 years ago: WikiLeaks.”

From there, we jump back to 2007, when Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch – terrific, as always) meets Daniel Berg (Daniel Brühl – just seen in Rush, and just as good here). Berg is something of a lone groupie of the little-known Assange, and a true believer in the message that Assange peddles: “privacy for individuals; transparency for organizations.” Berg, younger and insecure – and a better programmer than Assange – is also the perfect new recruit for WikiLeaks, in awe of his hero and easily manipulated. Together – charismatic guru and hardworking grunt – they make a formidable team, quickly scoring victories against banks and tyrants with the secure, untraceable leaks of damning documents.

For two-thirds of the film, Condon keeps everything moving with great gusto, carefully managing the different data streams of the script (by Josh Singer) in a manner both informative and thrilling. I particularly liked his visual metaphor of an open warehouse of office cubicles – with no ceiling – as the virtual space in which Assange and Berg do their work. Even in this, the better part of the film, there are signs of trouble, however, with unnecessary and pedestrian plot points, such as the underdeveloped relationship of Berg and his girlfriend Anke (Alicia Vikander, so strong in both A Royal Affair and Anna Karenina, and so misused here). And I enjoyed the performances of both Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci, as upper level State Department staffers, but am not sure we needed their stories. In an attempt at evenhandedness, perhaps – to show the real-world consequences of Assange’s belief in absolute openness – Condon and Singer lose focus.

The final third of the movie, though, is where things breaks down, with Condon piling conventional melodrama on top of plot contrivances on top of dense action in a mix that slows the story to a crawl. We’re back in 2010 now, and Assange and Berg (no longer a passive groupie, but an adult with a conscience) fight over whether to redact the secret U.S. documents or not (to protect intelligence sources). What should be a searing moral conflict, however, is instead played out as a lover’s quarrel. It’s not wholly uninteresting, but it also doesn’t live up to the promise of the movie’s beginning.

I recommend the film – especially if you haven’t seen Gibney’s doc (which you can always watch, as well, or instead) – but with the above reservations. And I’d like to single out Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run), one of my favorite German actors (also very good in The Baader Meinhof Complex) as one of the supporting characters whose role – unlike poor Vikander’s – does add to the depth of the story. The Fifth Estate may be far from a masterpiece, but it’s very watchable, and tells a (mostly) gripping true tale. Unless you’re Julian Assange, in which case you’ve already weighed in, and don’t like it.

3×3 Movie Reviews, 10/18 @ 12:45pm, WYPR 88.1FM

[NOTE from 10/18/13 – Here is the link to the podcast of the show]

On Friday, 10/18, at 12:45pm, I will be on Midday with Dan Rodricks to talk about three movies currently in theaters, two of which I have already reviewed here: GravityCaptain Phillips and The Fifth Estate (which opens tomorrow, which is when I will publish my review of it).

If you can’t listen locally, you can live-stream the podcast here:http://www.wypr.org/listen-live

And you can always download the podcast afterwards, either via iTunes or the Midday page: http://www.wypr.org/stationprogram/midday

Enjoy!

“Captain Phillips” – Final: US Navy 1, Somali Pirates 0

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)

It’s a lonely place to be if you didn’t find Paul Greengrass’s latest film a masterpiece. If that’s the review you want, I suggest you read this piece by the wonderful Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. I, however, have feelings more in line with this far more critical look at the film from Andrew O’Hehir of Salon. With a 94% critics rating and an 88% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as of this writing), the film looks like a hit. So what’s wrong with me?

Well, first off, let me just say that there is much to like in this movie. Greengrass, who gave us Bloody Sunday, The Bourne Supremacy, United 93The Bourne Ultimatum, and Green Zone, not to mention many television documentaries beforehand, knows his way around an action sequence, and usually manages to tell his stories in a manner both dispassionate and engaging. That may seem like a contradiction, but what I admire in Greengrass is the way in which he focuses primarily on story, rather than on message, allowing the audience to interact with the characters on their own terms (within limits, since all filmmaking is about manipulation) in a (seemingly) objective narrative.

The problem in this latest movie is that the visual weight of military power, by the end – intentionally or not – overcomes Greengrass’s better tendencies, allowing a distasteful and wholly unnecessary bit of triumphalist jingoism to creep in (which, as it did for Andrew O’Hehir, reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty). Of course I wanted Captain Phillips to be freed. Of course I wanted the pirates defeated. Films are not made in a cultural vacuum, however, and Hollywood has a long tradition of pitting the American military against brown-skinned bad guys, and my ultimate takeaway from this film is that a predominantly white U.S. military, with overwhelming force, defeated 4 impoverished and incompetent Somalis, killing 3 of them. In spite of the virtuosic display of camera and editing techniques, I emerged in 2013 wondering why white filmmakers can’t do a better job understanding how harmful their images can be. True, the script, by Billy Ray, does make a token effort to help us understand that these pirates are human beings who have their own reasons for acting as they do, but it’s not enough. US Navy 1, Somali Pirates 0. Rah, rah.

Which is too bad, because the man at the center of the story, Richard Phillips (played here by a marvelous Tom Hanks), is a true hero. A demanding boss, we first meet him as he says goodbye to his wife (in a weak and completely expositional scene with an underused Catherine Keener), then boards his container ship for a trip that will take him and his crew past the Somali coast. It’s clear right away that he is good at what he does, but not particularly beloved of his crew (all business, with no time for chit-chat). But his rigorous ways have a real payoff when 4 tenacious pirates board the ship. Thanks to Phillips’s previous insistence on training, the crew is able to keep the pirates from gaining total control. And then, as a final gesture, Phillips places himself in direct harm’s way, allowing himself – rather than any member of his crew – to be kidnapped in a lifeboat (side note: that’s a pretty awesome unsinkable lifeboat!) by the (now injured) pirates. Eventually, the U.S. navy arrives, and Phillips is rescued. Since this all occurred in 2009, I assume that you, dear reader, have some kind of memory of these events, hence do not take my quick plot summary as a plot spoiler.

Up to that point in the film (minus the opening scene), I was a complete fan. There were even some nice critical digs at both the shipping companies that refuse to allow their crews to have armed guards, and at the U.S. military for being unreachable when the pirates first arrive. In other words, this was no jingoistic exercise – yet – but a taut even-handed thriller that told a specific story about a single incident with geo-political resonance. But then the big boats and the Seals arrived, and I slowly began to lose interest.

It’s still quite an adrenaline rush, though, so if that’s your thing, you’ll have a good time. You’ll also probably enjoy – beyond Hanks – the terrific performances by the actors playing the pirates, especially Barhkad Abdi, who plays Muse, their leader (my thanks to Hollis Robbins for that link). He and his colleagues almost succeed in overcoming the “White Man’s Burden” weight upon their heads through their fine and nuanced performances.

Go see it, and I welcome your comments after you do.

Midday on “Sullivan’s Travels”

[NOTE: Missed the show? Check out the podcast.]

“I want to make ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’,” proclaims John L. Sullivan, a successful Hollywood director of madcap comedies. He’s grown weary of the light fare and wants to try his hand at a serious look at the problems of ordinary folk. “OK,” respond the studio bosses, “but with a little sex in it.” Pointing out that Sullivan knows nothing about the poor, they unwittingly launch him on a journey to discover the real America. What follows is a madcap adventure of its own, both funny and moving, that stands as proof that sometimes the best way to tackle a serious subject is to do it with comedy.

Preston Sturges (1898-1959), was the first writer to successfully convince a Hollywood studio (Paramount) to allow him to direct his own work. Without him, there would be no John Huston or Billy Wilder, or the legions that followed them. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) was his 4th feature as writer-director. Less commercially successful than its predecessor, The Lady Eve, it has nonetheless become a true classic, standing the test of time as an example of great writing, great directing, and great “serious” comedy. The Coen Brothers were making a direct reference to it when they made their own 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

On Friday, October 11, Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed – Chair of Film/Video at Stevenson University – will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss this great film and what it can teach us about the nature of comedy.

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

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

Enjoy the show!

“Runner Runner” Away

Runner, Runner

Runner Runner (Brad Furman, 2013)

In 2011, Matthew McConaughey starred in a wonderful little legal thriller entitled The Lincoln Lawyer, which was widely heralded as signaling a revival of his then-flagging rom-com hell of a career. That movie was directed, with great panache, by Brad Furman, the director of Runner Runner, which opens today. Would that this new film had even half of the wit or style of Furman’s previous gem. Instead, it just happens to be one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time, a fact made even worse by the fact that everyone involved with it seems to be trying so hard. But the script, by writing partners Brian Koppelman and David Levien (RoundersRunaway JuryOcean’s ThirteenThe Girlfriend Experience) is stuck at the pedestrian level of a Syd Field 101 college course, and no amount of shaky camera close-ups or frenzied Justin Timberlake jaw clenches can make it work. Adding aesthetic insult to injury, Furman’s skill at dragging a great performance out of a star seems to have deserted him here, and Timberlake – so fine in films like Friends with BenefitsThe Social Network and Black Snake Moan – is reduced to mugging and indicating. Finally, I like Ben Affleck as a director these days (Gone Baby GoneArgo), but when he’s the best actor in a film, you’ve got a problem.

That’s not entirely fair. John Heard makes a supporting appearance as Timberlake’s father, and since he’s always good, he’s good here, too. Some actors just always shine. As for the rest of the film, it’s not even worth recounting the plot. Suffice it to say that it involves online gambling, Costa Rica, gratuitous sex and nudity, as well as violence, and a grotesquely miscast Gemma Arterton as the femme fatale. She has a lot of fine qualities as an actress (in other work), and an interesting face, but she’s no Gilda, which is what this film required (in fact, much of this misfire feels like a bad frat boy knockoff of that 1946 Charles Vidor classic). And in case you’re wondering about the title, it’s a poker term, barely explained in the film. But it’s a fair warning, so heed it and run away.

“Gravity” Pulls You In, Weighs You Down

Gravity

Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

The best thing about Gravity is its masterful combination of intense action sequences with breathtaking 3D CGI. The worst thing is its clumsy screenplay, filled with false and unearned sentiment. The most surprising thing is that this mixed bag of a movie should come to us from the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, he who gave us the brilliant Y tu mamá también, back in 2001, a film with no special effects and much true sentiment. In the years since that early masterpiece, Cuarón has made surprisingly few features, but those films have been strong: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the best in that series) and Children of Men (not perfect, but very interesting). The rest of his time has been filled with TV work, some short films, and, perhaps, preparation for this new project. Keeping abreast of new technologies is a tough business these days, and Cuarón has definitely learned how to shoot beautiful and gripping images in the current environment. And Gravity is a successful thrill ride, but while it pulls you in, it will definitely weigh you down every time one of the main characters opens his or her mouth.

This is not to say that the film is made without wit. The story begins as three U.S. astronauts are making repairs to the Hubble Space telescope, communicating with Ground Control back on Earth. And who should be the voice of NASA? Ed Harris, the man who helped save the threatened crew of Apollo 13. Very clever. Since this opening scene was taking place in a stunning 3D facsimile of low Earth orbit, I had initial high hopes that Cuarón would produce a movie of grace and beauty, throughout. But then George Clooney and Sandra Bullock – two of the astronauts – began conversing, and the gracefulness disappeared. Not to worry too much, folks, however, because when the action starts, it’s gripping and terrifying. Who needs smart dialogue when you can stage a space disaster with such mastery?

And what a disaster it is. Just a few minutes into the movie, the peace and calm of our astronauts’ routine maintenance work is violently interrupted by debris (moving faster than a speeding bullet, Ed Harris warns them) from an obsolete satellite that the Russians have blown apart with a missile (their version of routine maintenance). Suddenly, all is chaos. The telescope is destroyed, the non-movie star astronaut is dead, and Bullock finds herself propelled far away from George Clooney’s folksy charm. As she spins out of control into the dark, fogging her helmet with hyperventilating breaths, she (and we, with her) is enveloped by the vertiginous loneliness of space.

Along comes Clooney (in space, it turns out, someone can hear you scream), however, with the calm of experience (his Kowalski is a veteran space traveler) and miraculous jetpack (for more on just how miraculous this jetpack is, you can read this New York Times article), to rescue Bullock’s (novice medical engineer) Stone. Although her oxygen is quickly running out (those gasps of fear will kill you), they meander over to the International Space Station (their own space shuttle was also destroyed), talking about their hopes and dreams. I would suggest that less talking – both for us and for Stone – would definitely have been better here. And there, again, is the crux of what keeps Gravity from being a truly amazing work of cinema: Alfonso Cuarón and his son and screenwriting partner Jonás don’t seem to realize when enough is enough. Let the images speak. Show, don’t tell.

I’ll refrain from spoiling more of the plot, except to say that at each step of the way, the increasingly dire circumstances that our heroes face are spectacularly realized. Bullock, especially (except when reading painful lines of dialogue), more than holds our attention on screen. She is the center of the film. Movie stars become who they are because of some special combination of charm, talent, looks and chemistry, not always distributed in equal doses.  It’s nice to see Bullock in a film this year – other than, say, The Heat – that allows her talent to shine.

Whatever my issues with the script, I emerged from this experience exhausted, and relieved. It is a true adrenaline rush. If that’s what you need, and if you can ignore the hokey human interplay, than this could be the film for you. Bring a partner whose hand you can grip tightly.