Here is Chris Rock on The Daily Show discussing his new movie Top Five. My brother and I went to see it the other night and it was excellent. It was really unique in its particular blend of different genres and emotions in one film. It was funny, as is to be expected, but it is also poignant and romantic in ways that seemed genuine. When something happened to the characters emotionally, it felt earned because of the great character development of the film. Chris Rock himself has said that Woody Allen was an influence. It felt like an indie drama crossed with a very funny and raunchy comedy. Again, it was unique and even this description does not really get to the core of it. The movie not only had me laughing, but also left me thinking ever since I have seen it.
I’m watching the movie Amistad for the second night in a row. I’m only about 90 minutes in, as I fell asleep the first night, and it is pretty slow going. I can’t really critique a movie that I’ve only seen half of though. It very well might have an excellent second half. There have also been movies that I have found slow that come together magnificently in the end.
I think though that a movie’s first goal should be to entertain. A song’s first goal should be to create great music. No matter how noble an idea is, it needs to work as art first. 12 Years a Slave is incredible, because it manages to fire on all cylinders. It is telling a story that needs to be told, but it is telling it in a way that is incredibly emotionally involving. I think if you want to move minds you need to move the heart first.
Another thing I noticed while watching Amistad is there were several moments in the first half where the music tried to make you feel something that wasn’t earned. One of the worst movies I have ever seen, Mr. Holland’s Opus, consistently tries to make melodrama mean more than it does by laying on syrupy strings. In 12 Years a Slave, I am referencing that because I just saw it, the score is almost minimal. When it does come in it deepens the emotion that you are already feeling because the storytelling and performances are already so powerful. Too many times movies try to cheat with a score.
Anyway, again, I am not really trying to critique Amistad, because I haven’t finished it yet. What I have seen isn’t horrible, it’s just merely average. However, I wanted to touch on the above ideas while they were still fresh.
I never did end up finishing the movie last night as I was extremely tired. I did find a section towards the middle of the movie highly compelling. There is a scene that is largely wordless, aside from background dialogue, which documents the horrors on the slave ship. This segues directly into a slave auction, again with very little foreground dialogue, where we watch dandy whites dressed in light colors bidding on slaves. That section seemed to convey the whole horror and absurdity of slavery through mere images. I only wished that what I had seen before that was orchestrated with such expertise.
I saw a really great movie the other night called The Collector. It was from 1965 and it starred Terrance Stamp and Samantha Eggar. It was a psychological thriller about a man that kidnaps and imprisons a woman.
Terrance Stamp plays Frederick Clegg. Clegg is seen collecting butterflies at the beginning of the movie. He stumbles upon a house that has a large underground cellar. He decides to take his collecting one step further and he kidnaps Miranda Grey, who is played by Eggar. He has known Grey since they were young, but because he was of a lower class he felt inferior to her and was always afraid to approach her. He has convinced himself that if he can keep her captive long enough eventually she will learn to love him.
It was directed by the great William Wyler that also directed Ben-Hur, among many other classic films. Although the general story is quite simple, the movie is pregnant with ideas, features great performances by both its leads, and creates a good deal of suspense. Aside from some brief intrusions by a couple other people, it is almost like a two person play. Most of the action takes place in Clegg’s house.
Clegg is someone that wants to be understood and feels greatly inferior due to his class. Class in England, where this movie takes place, is much more of an issue than in America, especially at the time of the film. The movie also deals with the struggle of the sexes as Clegg wants to posses Grey. There is even a seen where it looks as if he is carrying her across the threshold like they just got married, even though he has made her unconscious. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Clegg has a meltdown over not being able to understand the abstract art that the educated and more sophisticated Grey loves.
The power of this movie really comes from the main performances and the dialogue of these two characters. (Apparently Stamp and Eggar dated at some point before this movie was made. Stamp was also told by the director to not talk to Eggar during breaks between filming. All of this adds to the tension that you see on screen.) The characters are complex and the story is riveting. This is an older movie that still holds up completely today.
12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power. It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time. Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does. This is not a film that gets by on good intentions. It is a tour de force for all involved.
The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North. He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses. It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell. We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.
I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter. There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results. Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us. In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.
The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master. The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit. The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story. There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes. There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing. For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth. And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head. The score is almost minimal. Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on. Often films will try to manipulate you with their score. I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.
Every actor in this film brings their A game. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face. Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.
This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy. Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history. This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors. It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world. In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists. He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.
Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history. I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time. He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped. Children! And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.
When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront. Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible. Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion. Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.
This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion. The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring. Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.
If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table. However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present. While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface. I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.
As any of you that have been reading along know, the last two weeks I have been interested in the Civil War. Last night I watched Lincoln. It was the second time I have seen it and it is really an extraordinary film. Although there are a few scenes that seem a little too symbolic, and because of this aren’t believable as reality, overall it is really well done. Maybe its best attribute is it really makes one think about the nature of politics.
Anyway, I wanted to watch another movie on that time period tonight. I was doing an internet search and the truth is there are very few excellent movies that deal in that historical period. I find that very strange. Is that because we are afraid of really exploring a war in which half of the country was on the wrong side of justice? Is it just that it is too long ago and, unlike World War II and Vietnam, we are too far removed from it?
It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that in order to understand modern America, one must be able to have some understanding of what happened during that time period. Works of drama are more accessible than most history. Good dramatizations can also often bring out certain truths, even if they contains slight elements of fiction, in ways that documentaries or even history books cannot. They can connect people emotionally to something they might not otherwise understand or be interested in.
I had one of those days where nothing seemed to go right. I went to walk my dog around the lake and locked my keys in the car and so on. I decided that it was best if I didn’t leave my house the rest of the day. I figured if I went out I would end up driving my car into a bridge embankment like an unguided missile. So tonight I’m staying in and watching the movie 12 Monkeys for the first time in years. Although I have caught parts of it on TV, I haven’t watched it from start to finish since it was in the movies in 1995 when I was still in high school. I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam film, but I remembered this movie as more of a thriller than it being one of his signature pieces. I thought it was the kind of movie that was totally entertaining, but once you knew the solution to its mysteries, that it didn’t have the multiple watch value of some of his other films.
My memory, as usual, was wrong. The movie is another one of his sic-fi movies, as is The Zero Theorem that I just reviewed. And although at the foreground of this movie is a highly entertaining mystery thriller, in the background is many of the themes that Gilliam delves into in other works. In a world that is absurd, who is really crazy, and who is really insane? Are those that believe put their faith in the order of the world, an order that was constructed by man, any more sane than those that question things? The normal world, or sane one, is one that tortures animals, heavily medicates people that are outside of that norm, and that plays games with nature.
Gilliam, as usual, does an excellent job at creating an imagined future. He does this by creating a future that looks lived in. Even though this movie came out in 1995, his vision of the future doesn’t seem dated. It is a future created by someone with a boundless imagination and true artistic ability. It has an element of steampunk in its look.
However, most of the film takes place in 1990 and 1996. He takes what was then roughly the present and disorients the viewer to it by using the weird angles and wide angle lenses that give the his films a distinctive look. This not only helps to mirror the insanity of its characters, but also allows the viewer to view the everyday with a fresh perspective. It is like we are seeing things that we see every day for the first time. Another way that he exposes the absurdity of our world is by combining things that exist in reality in unique ways. Pink flamingos fly through a northeastern city. In a hallway in the mental hospital early in the film a janitor stands on stilts. All of these things exist in our world, but the way they are combined makes you realize the strangeness that is lurking just below the surface of our world.
Although I felt The Zero Theorem had more to say, and was therefor for me a better film, this movie is actually more accessible. The narrative takes less work for the viewer. Both are brilliant films, but in different ways. The Zero Theorem and his movie Brazil are more heady and full of ideas, but 12 Monkeys has a more compelling narrative. It really depends on what kind of scene you want to get into. For the first time Gilliam viewer or the more casual movie fan I would probably recommend something like 12 Monkeys. If someone was looking for a stranger and more intellectual, if you enjoy surrealism and philosophical underpinnings, then I would probably steer someone to Brazil or The Zero Theorem.
Terry Gilliam’s latest movie is one of his masterpieces. The Zero Theorem, staring Christoph Waltz, is a subversive science fiction movie that uses the future to show us our present. It is full of ideas, great performances, and is a visual wonder.
The movie follows Q, someone that works a mundane office job, as he tries to solve the zero theorem, which is a mathematical equation that will prove that life is meaningless. Q is a damaged individual that takes no joy out of life. He is an introvert that tries as much as possible to avoid human communication. He wants to work from home, so that he has even less contact with others. He unwillingly goes to a party at his supervisor’s house. There he meets the boss of his company who grants his wish to work from home as long as he will work on the theorem. At the party he also meets a young and beautiful woman that shows interest in him.
Q spends his days waiting for a phone call that he believes will give him the meaning of his life. Much of the film deals in symbolism like this. The phone call represents anything outside of ourselves that we believe will give us the answer to life’s mystery. The dialog in the film, like the film itself, jumps back and forth between the absurdly comic and of a more philosophical nature. However, just because the film deals heavily in symbolism, does not mean that the main characters are not three dimensional or that the world is not fully realized.
Visually the film is an absolute masterpiece, both for the cinematography, the realization of the world that the characters in habited, and the sheer amount of ideas that are on the screen. In Q’s house there is a crucifixion where Jesus’s head is replaced by a camera that watches Q’s every move. In his office he is working on what looks like an absurd video game with a video game controller replacing the typical office keyboard. I have worked several office jobs in the last ten years and working on a meaningless video game is not too far from the truth of what a great deal of office work is like.
The colors explode on screen. Every scene looks like it was carefully orchestrated. Every nook and cranny of the film looks like it had thought put into it.
The film is like our world, but on steroids. If the capitalism that runs our country is allowed to continue one can imagine that this is what our world will turn into. Commercials follow Q down the street as he commutes to work. The party scene, with its garish colors and cartoonish behavior, looks like a modern nightclub taken to its logical conclusion. The characters work ridiculous jobs that bring no meaning to their lives. Terry Gilliam is showing us the absurdity of our world. He is just pushing things a little further so that the everyday becomes new again.
Even though this film is very subversive, it is not without heart. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the film is not without some small sliver of hope. Gilliam knows what is important despite how much we get wrong.
If you are a fan of Gilliam’s work than I highly recommend this film. if you don’t know any of his work, but are willing to try something that will make you think, then give this film a try. Some critics have described this film as Gilliam-lite, but I don’t agree. This is a unique filmmaker operating at the height of his powers. This is like a modern update of his masterpiece Brazil. While Brazil dealt with a dreamer in the middle of a bureaucracy, this movie imagines a future where corporations run everything.
On a personal note I watched this movie the night of the election. Feeling somewhat depressed I decided to watch something else other then the returns. It was one of those instances where art makes one feel less alone. I thought, “Thank god someone understands what is going on.” Gilliam is a tremendous filmmaker and we are lucky to have him amongst us. He is one of those rare souls that uses his imagination to paint the world as it truly is.