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12 Years a Slave (2013)
I Found This Surprisingly Lacking In Passion - But Maybe That Was The Point
"12 Years A Slave" won the Oscar for Best Picture, and has been perhaps the most talked about movie of the year. It also deals with a subject matter that's long been of interest to me. So, perhaps my expectations were for something different. But the thing that really stood out for me as I watched this was that for the most part it was surprisingly lacking in anything that could be called passion. I won't deny that there were moments of great passion - and that in an overall sense the movie certainly tugs at your heart as you consider Solomon's plight, and the nightmare into which he was suddenly transported, but there was also just an overwhelming dryness to it for lack of a better word. And then it occurred to me - that could have been the point of the picture.
This is the story of Solomon Northup (a true story, told by Solomon Northup in a book he published about his experiences in the 1850's) - a free black man from New York State kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum south. That was not at all a rare occurrence. Being a free black in the era before the Civil War - even in a northern state - carried with it inherent risks. Solomon was a happy man, comfortable and with a family. His life in New York came across as perhaps too idyllic, as if there was no racism in New York, which was certainly not the case. But that also might be a deliberate and exaggerated contrast. Solomon's life in New York must have been a paradise, compared to the horror he was about to be confronted with - a horror that seemed to have no escape. You can feel for the character and his plight, and perhaps that explains the relatively passionless nature of the movie. To survive, Solomon probably did have to shut off his feelings for the most part. He had to numb himself to reality. Perhaps that's the point - one made early in the movie, after his sale into slavery, when he lashes out at Eliza (sold with him) - who can't stop wailing over the children she had been forced to leave behind. She lashes back at him for showing no emotion about his wife and two children. It occurred to me afterward that that one scene may have explained the entire feel of the movie - for Solomon (and for many, both white and black) slavery was dehumanizing (obviously) but it also numbed everyone who was a part of the hideous institution, allowing everyone (both whites who treated blacks like cattle, and blacks who were treated that way) to endure the south's "peculiar institution." So maybe the overall feel of the movie fit the story well, and made a point about both slavery and its effects on humanity. Blacks could be slaves but still act with great dignity; whites - simply because they were slaveholders - lacked that dignity; even the kindest slaveholder - such as Ford, Solomon's first "master" - was still a slaveholder, participating in an inhuman institution. That's clearly too much of a generalization about both whites and blacks, but even if painted with a broad canvass, the point comes across.
There were moments of high drama. In many ways the central scene of the movie is the whipping of Patsie. Patsie had become close to Solomon. She was also the special "love" (in the very sick sense that only slavery could breed) interest of Master Epps, and as a result the object of jealousy and cruelty from his wife. It all comes together in one scene that is raw with emotion. After Patsie gets in trouble, she's stripped and tied to a tree to be whipped. At first Epps can't do it, in spite of the encouragement of his wife. He hands the whip to Solomon and orders him to flog Patsie. Solomon tries to go "light" but is finally ordered to whip her hard or other blacks will be punished. Solomon has no choice, but still Epps eventually takes over the job himself, leaving Patsie brutalized and bleeding, with her back torn apart, lying down, being tended to by female slaves while Solomon looks on in horror at what he'd been forced to participate in. That was a powerful scene that brought home the evils of slavery - in much the same way, for example, that the whipping of Kunta Kinte to force him to say that his name was "Toby" was for me the central part of the TV mini-series "Roots."
Solomon's eventual release is a very dignified portrayal, as he's finally rescued by northern friends who find him and force the law to intervene and have him freed. The scene, I thought, was deliberately underplayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played Solomon. The emotion revolves around two hugs - one for the white man who finally came to get him, and one for Patsie - who he leaves behind to face this brutal life alone (because what choice does he have.) Otherwise, Solomon keeps a stiff upper lip, so to speak, and even his eventual reunion with his family is a dignified one, as he apologizes for his appearance, explaining to them that he's been through a difficult time for the last few years.
It is perhaps a surprisingly passionless movie - but once you think about it, that makes a point about the institution of slavery itself. As I said, it numbs those who participate in it - either as slaves or as slaveholders. The slaves perhaps have their humanity raised up as they endure what must be the unendurable, the slaveholders have their humanity stripped away simply by their attempt to dehumanize other human beings. "12 Years A Slave" doesn't make for especially exciting viewing, but it is thought-provoking and provides a worthwhile reflection on the institution of slavery and its effects on everyone involved.
An Excellent & Suspenseful Thriller
This is certainly the textbook definition of an edge of your seat movie. It's got a lot of suspense, and plot twists galore so that from the very beginning you're never really sure who is or isn't guilty, and the ultimate revelation of that caught me at least completely by surprise. As a result of that, this can also be a bit confusing at times, but it's never a movie that you lose interest in.
The basic story revolves around the search for two young girls who have gone missing without a trace. The families are friends, and are fully involved in the search. There's a prime suspect, but no definite evidence against him. The movie is not just a story about the search for the girls. It's also a study of how far people are prepared to go when they're desperate.
Hugh Jackman was excellent as Keller Dover - one of the desperate fathers, who takes his desperation to the extreme. Paul Dano also did well as the prime suspect - the mentally challenged Alex. Unlike others, I really wasn't that taken with Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective in charge of the case. For me, he really didn't seem to work in the role.
Overall, though, this is an excellent and suspenseful thriller. (8/10)
The Thing (2011)
I'm Not Sure A Prequel Was Necessary
Interestingly enough, I didn't realize that this was a "prequel" until I actually watched it. My bad! My reaction to seeing that "The Thing" was being released in 2011 was - "why would they remake the story yet again, less than 30 years after they remade it the first time?" So I actually never bothered with it until very recently. Since I thought it was a remake, why would I? I liked John Carpenter's version of the story. It was pretty decent. So I was glad this turned out to be a prequel and not a remake. And yet, when all was said and done, I was still left wondering if a prequel was really necessary.
It fits in with the story. No argument there. It explains what happened at the Norwegian Antarctic base where the creature came from in the '82 Carpenter version. To be blunt, I didn't really need to know that. I didn't end the '82 movie thinking, "Wow! I wish they had explained what happened at the Norwegian base." But somebody thought it had to be explained. Thus, this movie. And it does that, so it accomplishes what it set out to accomplish, which is more than you can say for some movies. It just came across to me as a story that really didn't need to be told; a prequel that really didn't need to be made. And, the explanation of what happened at the Norwegian base aside, it's also repetitive - because in most respects it feels more like a remake than a prequel. I mean, really, it has nowhere to go except to the same place for the most part.
Having said that, this isn't a boring movie in any way. It's quite exciting. It has a lot of action. The creature effects work pretty well. The performances are good enough. I just had the feeling all the way through that it wasn't really necessary. And that detracted from how much I could enjoy it. (5/10)
All Is Lost (2013)
One Man Alone On The Ocean
I'm willing to give this a 4/10 based solely on Robert Redford. I actually thought he was pretty good in this. Being a totally one man show is tough. That's the job Redford was presented with in "All is Lost." He's one man, stranded in a yacht in the middle of the ocean. The yacht is sinking. He's getting increasingly desperate to find a way to survive his plight. Redford's character (unnamed as far as I recall) has no dialogue. How could he? He's alone on the ocean; there's no one to talk to. And unlike, say, "Cast Away," nobody thought to do something "cutesy" like giving the character a volleyball (or some inanimate object) as a "friend." No, it's just this one man alone on the ocean, his yacht damaged after striking a shipping container that's adrift, heading into a storm, with increasingly little hope for survival. No dialogue of great note. Just Redford. Some have criticized his performance. I thought he was OK. I felt for the character. I sympathized with his plight. But the movie as a whole?
I'm no expert at yachting. Actually, I would be terrified to get on anything that floats in water that's over my head unless I had lots of people who knew what they were doing with me. But - wow - even I (and I know literally nothing about yachting) think this guy (who clearly has been on a long voyage across the ocean) came across as woefully unprepared for an emergency - and I assume an experienced yachtsman would make sure he was prepared for an emergency, especially on a long voyage. I'm not going to get into big technical critiques of what he did wrong. I don't know enough to do that. It just seemed to me that he wasn't prepared, and that really didn't seem to fit the story. He had to be experienced just to get where he was. If he was experienced he should have been prepared for an emergency. If her wasn't prepared for an emergency, then he couldn't have been experienced. If he wasn't experienced he couldn't have made it to where he was. See the logical inconsistency there? The never-ending loop of trying to figure out how this guy got into this situation? I'm no expert at this, but it bugged me.
Setting that aside, after a while this lost me. The basic story just can't go on meaningfully for almost two hours. I get it. A guy is lost at sea and facing terrible odds and likely won't survive. I get it. But after a while - with no dialogue, no way of really getting to know the character, no other characters to play off - this just seems to bog down in repetitiveness. I don't mind movies with little or no dialogue. This one just didn't really work for me.
The 4/10 is for Redford. I thought his performance was admirable. It was a tough part, with a character who wasn't entirely believable. Redford was OK with it. But the movie as a whole didn't really do much for me.
Captain Phillips (2013)
Another First Rate Performance From Tom Hanks
Once this gets going, it keeps you glued to your seat. "Captain Phillips" is based on the story of the Mearsk Alabama, which really was captured by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. As the title suggests, the movie (based actually on a book written afterward by Phillips) focuses on what happened to Phillips after he was taken hostage and held for ransom, which negotiations being conducted by the U.S. Navy.
After a brief introduction, which serves primarily to introduce us to Phillips as a family man, most of the movie is set either on the Maersk Alabama, or in the lifeboat the pirates use to escape and in which they take Phillips. Perhaps it's merely because we know what's going to happen, but even as the scenes aboard the ship start out slowly and calmly, with Phillips merely taking command, there is a sense of tension. There are warnings of piracy activities in the region, and as the Maersk Alabama begins to track the pirates on radar, that tension builds, leading up to the takeover and hostage taking.
The experiences of Phillips on the lifeboat are harrowing. Hanks does a superb job with the character - his most powerful scenes coming at the end, as he's released back into U.S. custody and gets taken to the warship's sick bay and begins to break down as he's examined by a doctor. Those scenes are rife with emotion. It's impossible not to be drawn into the character at that moment and to begin to wonder just what the experience would have been like. It really was a brilliant performance by Hanks, who built the character slowly but surely over the course of the movie, leading to that final scene.
Some of the Maersk Alabama's crew members have challenged the accuracy of the film. Some have suggested that Phillips was not as much of a hero as the film suggests and that he was, in fact, to some extent to blame for what happened by not listening to warnings to stay 600 km off the coast of Somalia (the Maersk Alabama was only a little over 200 km off the Somali coast when this happened.) I can't vouch for the history, of course, except to note that it's obviously filmed from Phillips' perspective, being based on Phillips' book about the incident. As a movie though, this is in fact quite gripping, and it's one of Hanks finest performances. The movie even manages to take a fairly even-handed approach to the pirates, not portraying them as evil but rather more as desperate people living in a desperate part of the world. (8/10)
A Ho-Hum Viewing Experience
I would have no hesitation in saying that this version of Jules Verne's story is better than the big budget 2008 version. The cast in this one (featuring James Mason as Professor Lindenbrook, Pat Boone as as McKuen, Arlene Dahl as Carla Goteborg and Peter Ronson as Hans were, I thought, better than the '08 cast, and the story was tighter than that one. And yet, while better than than the '08 version, I still found watching this to be a rather ho-hum type of experience. Setting science aside, and acknowledging this to be a piece of sheer entertainment, some of the adventures that take place under the earth are pretty good and the effects aren't bad. The "dinosaur" scenes might just feature normal lizards with some fins attached and made to look huge worked reasonably well, and there was even a pretty fine piece of acting from Ronson (who played the Icelandic guide) when Hans discovered his beloved pet duck Gertrude slaughtered and confronted the man who had done the deed. I actually found that scene tense. At the same time I sensed no real chemistry between Mason and Dahl, which made the end of the movie feel a bit forced and unnecessary.
The introduction to the story (as Lindenbrook begins to put together the expedition) for me went on too long and could have been quite shortened. Frankly, the musical numbers from Pat Boone also seemed out of place and added little.
Yes, it's better than the '08 version of the story - which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. But, for me at least, it still doesn't pack enough of a punch to be considered in any way a classic. (5/10)
Exciting But Chaotic
There was an exceptionally good movie here. Bruce Willis turned in a pretty good performance as Jeff Talley. As the movie opens, Talley is an LAPD hostage negotiator, whose job goes wrong when a negotiation he's leading fails, and several people - including a young boy - die. Fast forward a year and Talley has given up as a hostage negotiator and settled in as chief of police in a small California town. Unexpectedly, though, a family is taken hostage after a home invasion by a gang of young thugs, and Talley has to deal with the situation.
That could have made a very good movie in itself. It had more than enough suspense and excitement to sustain itself, and it even had a perfectly sinister villain in the off the wall Mars, played by Ben Foster. The movie would have been much stronger had it simply revolved around that story, with Talley dealing with the type of situation he thought he had left behind, and battling inner demons while doing so. But those who made this couldn't leave well enough alone.
Adding the plot point about Talley's family being taken hostage by a gang of criminals wanting to get a DVD in the possession of the owner of the invaded home did nothing for me except confuse things. I have no objection to good plot twists, but this seemed an unnecessary add-on to what was a good movie, and it only served to create chaos in the story.
"Hostage" is exciting. There's no doubt at all about that. But it's also far too chaotic for my taste. (4/10)
The Ordinary Atmosphere And Lack Of Excitement Actually Makes This Very Powerful
One of the things that makes "Testament" so interesting is simply the fact that one expects a movie about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust to be exciting. But "Testament" isn't exciting. Instead it starts out routinely ordinary. We simply meet the Wetherly family. Mom, dad and 3 kids. They have all the love and all the problems of any family. There's nothing extraordinary about them. And they live in the extremely un-extraordinary small town of Hamlin, California. Everything is un-extraordinary until one day the TV goes out. When it finally comes back on, it's carrying news of a massive nuclear attack on large portions of the United States. Aside from a very bright light coming through the front window of their home, nothing much happens in Hamlin - except for the aftermath.
There's no one to turn to for help, there's hardly anyone left to be in contact with. The bright light, of course, told us that while Hamlin wasn't destroyed, there must be radiation. Can anything be safely eaten? Can the water be safe to drink? Have the people been hopelessly exposed? We watch, as things slowly begin to fall apart in Hamlin.
A lot of this revolves around the children. So many children. Children who had a whole lifetime ahead of them and were busy practicing a school play, when the unimaginable happened. The school play goes ahead, to try to maintain some sense of normalcy, but nothing is normal anymore. People get sick, people begin to die, and there's just no hope. None at all.
It's the sense of absolute and utter hopelessness that permeates this movie and that finally makes it both so sombre and so powerful. It's not at all "exciting" in the normal sense of the word, but it's gripping. You can't let it go once it starts. I actually watched this back in 1983 when it was released. Today, it's a bit of a curiosity. But in 1983 the Cold War was still going on, the Soviet Union still existed, and Gorbachev hadn't come to power to bring a sense that, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, "we can work with him." In the pre-Gorbachev era, the Soviet Union was mighty threatening, and this movie would have at least been unsettling in its believability. Even today, with the Soviet Union long dead, "Testament" has power. (8/10)
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
One Of Robin Williams' Best
I find Robin Williams frustrating as an actor. He can be both very funny and he can pull off dramatic roles well. For such a versatile actor, though, he often ends up taking the parts he plays a little too over the top and can sometimes distract from the story. "Good Morning, Vietnam" was a very good performance by Williams, though, which allowed him to display both his comedic and dramatic talents.
Williams played military DJ Adrian Cronauer, who hosted an Armed Forces Radio show out of Saigon in the mid 1960's during the Vietnam War. Cronauer was an innovative DJ, trying to make military radio sound more like civilian radio back home. The military, however, is very steeped in tradition, and Cronauer's efforts weren't universally appreciated by the military brass, with whom he often butted heads.
Williams did a good job as Cronauer the DJ. In fact, you could say that he was tailor made for the part. Having said that, the real life Cronauer acknowledges that he wasn't as over the top as Williams portrayed him. So the movie isn't a biography; it was made for entertainment purposes. I suspect that much of the dramatic content of the movie was fictional. It revolved around a Vietnamese woman who became Cronauer's love interest and her brother, who became Cronauer's best friend until he was discovered to have been a Viet Cong member.
This is, perhaps surprisingly, a reflective movie at times, giving the opportunity for the viewer to think about the Vietnam War through a number of scenes. It's definitely one of Robin Williams' best performances, and he's supported by actors such as J.T. Walsh and Forest Whittaker. (7/10)
The Butler (2013)
Interesting Way Of Looking At The Civil Rights Movement
I have to say that this was an interesting way to take a look at the civil rights movement in the United States. Everything is seen through the eyes and experiences of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) - the son of a Georgia sharecropper who eventually becomes one of the head butlers at the White House. Gaines is a quasi-historical character, his life and experiences being loosely based on those of real White House butler Eugene Allen. Whitaker did a good job in the role, and Gaines was an interesting character. In some respects the most riveting part of the movie comes very early, during Cecil's boyhood as the son of sharecroppers. We see the reality of life in the south for blacks in the scene when the white owner of the property rapes Cecil's mother, and his father is powerless to do anything about it, and ends up being killed by the rapist for making even the mildest protest. From there on the movie portrays the struggle for equal rights through Gaines and the various administrations he serves, ending long after Gaines retirement, with the election of Barack Obama as the first black president. Gaines wife Gloria was played by Oprah Winfrey, who offered a credible performance.
The nature of the movie makes this unsatisfying if you're hoping for any sort of full account of the civil rights movement. It's just not that kind of movie. It shows the highlights but it also leaves a lot of significant events out. Of course, there's a portrayal of some of the political considerations, as Gaines is often allowed to be in the Oval Office while discussions about civil right are being held. But there's no real depth to the look at the movement; just a series of vignettes more or less. As the movement evolves, it's interesting to see Gaines evolve with it, to the point at which he becomes an advocate for black employees at the White House to receive equal pay to white employees, which finally happened during the Reagan administration. One of my favourite scenes, actually, was Gaines conversation with his boss about the issue. When his boss objects to the proposal, Gaines replies "I just talked to the president (Reagan) about it. He said if you had a problem you should take it up with him." That was a good and strangely satisfying scene.
The portrayals of the various presidents were inconsistent. Some worked well; others didn't. Although I was momentarily thrown off by him, I ended up surprisingly happy with Robin Williams as Eisenhower. James Marsden worked for me as John F. Kennedy, and Alan Rickman was passable as Reagan. On the other hand, I found John Cusack as Richard Nixon annoying at best. I didn't think he captured anything at all of the man, and Liev Schriber really didn't work for me as Lyndon Johnson. Among other things, where was Johnson's southern accent? It was absent. There was a lot of controversy about the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. For some strange and even bizarre reason, apparently conservatives feel that a liberal actress shouldn't be allowed to play Nancy Reagan. Fonda's an actress. She was playing a part. I thought she was fine in the part. My advice to American conservatives is: get over it and stop taking yourselves so seriously. This was a movie!
The real Eugene Allen was a strong supporter of Barack Obama, and the movie closes with Obama's election, portraying the very sad death of (in the movie) Gaines' wife the day before the election so that she never had the chance to vote for him. Having said that, and even while recognizing the appropriateness of ending a movie that's portraying the civil rights movie with the election of the first black president, in some ways the end of the movie came across as perhaps a bit of a commercial for Obama - post 2012 election, mind you.
It's an interesting movie. It doesn't have a lot of depth as far as its look at the civil rights movement is concerned, but it's certainly worth watching. (6/10)