Posts Tagged ‘movie reviews’

Henry V may be the most cinematic of all Shakespeare’s plays. It stars a young underdog hero who wins the battle and gets the girl. It is a spectacular piece of theater, with nearly a dozen stand-out scenes, some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, and battles just begging to be filmed. Henry V has drama, action, comedy, romance, heartbreak, and a rich vein of ambiguity – all of which give actors and directors wide scope to shape their own versions of the play. Here’s how three of them did it, in order of personal preference.

Kenneth Branagh: Henry V (1989)

henry v branaghBranagh’s Henry V is not only the best film version of the play by far – it is one of the finest film versions of any of Shakespeare play – because it flawlessly executes Branagh’s vision of the hard consequences of war.

Every element of the film reinforces this theme. Branagh’s screenplay presents many of the play’s darker elements: the English traitors, the hanging of Bardolph, the deaths in battle. The mood and production design are somber throughout: Branagh splashes mud all over Olivier’s bright Technicolor Henry V. Branagh assembles a remarkable cast of A list actors for all the major roles, who all bring their characters to specific human life. Branagh fully exploits the dramatic possibilities of each scene. And he delivers the knock-out punch with a four-minute tracking shot of King Harry carrying the body of a young boy killed by the French across the battlefield and through a tableau of almost every character in the play, living, wounded, or dead, while the non nobius is sung.

If you require nitpicking, there are traces of Branagh the insufferable ham within his very fine performance of Henry V. And Branagh doesn’t quite convince us Harry and his princes go only reluctantly to war. They prosecute their campaign against the French with too much vigor to make us believe that. IMDB page for Branagh’s Henry V.

Laurence Olivier: Henry V (1944)

henry v olivierLaurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V was a remarkable achievement, and greeted with great acclaim, when it first appeared during World War II. (The film was intended to raise the morale of wartime Britain.) The problems are that so much of Olivier’s version is out of step with modern taste, and so many of the scenes fail to make effective use of film as a medium, that contemporary viewers will see it as a half-success at best.

This Henry V still makes an impact, however. Olivier is excellent as an unambiguously heroic Henry V playing his role as public leader of the English army to perfection, most especially during the St. Crispin’s Day speech. He is very good showing us the private King Henry the night before Agincourt and the appealing young conqueror who wins the heart of his young French queen. Olivier’s charging knights and mounted sword fights still impress in an era of massive digital special effects. And the diction, presence, and physicality that made Olivier a star on the English stage are all on rich display.

Unfortunately, the phrase “stage star” sums up the difficulties with this Henry V. Much of the acting, including Olivier in many scenes, is the “presentational” style well suited to clearly communicating every word and gesture to the last row of a large theater but which on film comes across as loud, stiff, flat, and dull. Olivier’s clowns are worse. They play their lines for the broadest and most obvious comedy and the clowns include not just Falstaff’s retainers, but also most of the French nobility as well as the English clergy seeking to divert King Henry’s attention from their wealth by provoking a war with France. (The “Salic law” scene is hysterical, though.) All the comedy and the many actors playing “types” rather than individual men and women make this Henry V only rarely moving.

Finally, Olivier’s production design is a fascinating mess. He uses three distinct styles. Most of the scenes in England are played in a reproduction of the Globe Theater, with the actors and audience interacting with each other, and the acting suited to that situation. The sets of the interior scenes in France resemble famous illustrations from Les Tres Riches Heures and the acting is again stage style. Exterior scenes in France, all around the battle, are filmed outside or on realistic sets, and the acting humanizes the characters by taking advantage of the power of the movies to make the smallest gesture big. All this further reduces the emotional impact of the play. But it does prove the old axiom that an interesting failure is superior to a dull success. IMDB page for Olivier’s Henry V.

Tom Hiddleston: Henry V (2012)

shakespeare henry v hiddlestonTom Hiddleston is reasonably good as King Henry in the 2012 BBC production of Henry V (which is part of the “Hollow Crown” series), and many of the actors and scenes are persuasive. Overall, however, director Thea Sharrock has made a cock of her version of the play.

Sharrock doesn’t seem to have quite decided what she wants her Henry V to say or who she wants her King Henry to be. The film starts on promising notes. Sharrock opens with Henry V’s funeral (which The Chorus describes in the closing lines of the play) suggesting we are going to get an “all is vanity” approach. She reinforces this idea by giving us a King Henry who goes to war out of a sense of obligation to his own and his country’s honor.

But then she doesn’t follow through. Instead, much of this Henry V has the look and feel of Branagh’s. Sharrock underplays many of the scenes, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech, losing the drama without gaining new insight. And Sharrock muffs the Harfleur scene, where she has Hiddleston threatened the French citizens with genocide from within the walls of their own town if they don’t surrender . Didn’t anyone notice that the English army had already captured Harfleur?

This isn’t the only time Hiddleston’s King Henry shows irrational anger and a taste for violence. He also shows it when he orders the execution of the French prisoners at Agincourt. Then at other times, Hiddleston’s King seems deeply and sincerely pious. Then at other other times, we see flashes of the old charming rake Prince Harry from the Henry IV plays. The total effect of this is not a character who is complex and mercurial. The effect is that Hiddleston’s Henry V comes across as incoherent: a person who can be radically different from scene to scene, sometimes from moment to moment.

Big fans of Shakespeare, and of Tom Hiddleston, will not be unhappy with this version of Henry V. But for those who want to watch just one movie, Branagh’s is the version to choose. IMDB page for Hiddleston’s Henry V.

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american sniper eastwoodPretty lies sell. Politicians know it. Hollywood knows it. Clint Eastwood knows it – although perhaps he did not intend to sell pretty lies when he made American Sniper. But pretty lies are what Eastwood delivers. And in them rest the sources of the controversy, and the complications, of the movie.

As you likely know, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, an American SEAL who is famous for being the “deadliest sniper in American history” with 160 confirmed kills to his name. The movie is far more interested in telling the story of the impact Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq had on him and his family, however. Much of that story is not pretty and much of it is true.

There Is Much Ugly Truth in American Sniper

There are quite a number of ugly truths wrapped around the pretty lies of American Sniper, which do a good job of giving the pretty lies of the film the appearance of “truth by association”.

Eastwood does not make war look fun. He makes it look like a tough, exhausting, dangerous job — Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post nails it when she called American Sniper a “professional procedural”. (The single exception is the scene where Kyle kills a rival sniper with a headshot from nearly a mile away. We follow the bullet in slow motion as if we were watching The Matrix.)

Eastwood certainly doesn’t make war look pretty. In one scene, one of Kyle’s friends is hit by assault rifle fire that instantly deadens his expression. He dies seconds later. In another scene, one of his friends is shot in the face, and we watch as the man chokes on the blood gurgling in his throat. Kyle’s sniper rifle blows holes the diameter of coffee cans in the bodies of the men, and the woman and the child, he kills.

Eastwood shows us the impact of war on soldiers. We are there outside the operating room when they die. We attend their funerals and see the grief of the family they left behind. We see soldiers trying to recuperate from horrible wounds in hospitals back home, and then try to build a new life with broken bodies and broken spirits.

We see what the war does especially to Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by an excellent Sienna Miller. One of the strengths of American Sniper is just how much attention and respect it pays to the suffering of the wives (all wives in this case) of soldiers at war. And we see the impact of the war on Chris Kyle himself through the outstanding performance of Bradley Cooper – richly deserving his best-actor nomination – who in scene after scene, quietly and almost motionlessly, conveys the anguish of Chris Kyle’s job.

After Kyle shoots an armed enemy, he exhales and drops his head. Then he sniffs and returns to looking through the sight of his rifle, as if each shot were a burden he would need to carry and for which he would need to ultimately answer. This is particularly true after the famous opening sequence, when Kyle has to decide to shoot a young boy who is running toward an American patrol with a grenade, and then shoot the boy’s mother who picks up the grenade after her son is killed.

Later in the film, another boy picks up a grenade launch dropped by a dead fighter and seems to be attempting to aim it at an American patrol. “Put it down, put it down, put it down,” Kyle whispers as he fixes the boy in the sight of his rifle, a look of horror spread across his face. His relief when the boy drops the weapon is palpable.

Balanced against these many ugly truths – and they are very ugly indeed – are the pretty lies of American Sniper. These lies are very pretty indeed. The ultimately overwhelm the counter truths. And these lies start with Chris Kyle.

Chris Kyle: An Ideal and Idealized American Soldier

By all reports, the real Chris Kyle was in many ways the man American Sniper shows him to be. A tough professional elite soldier who joined the military to defend the United States from terrorists. A loyal and unwavering friend. A loving and devoted husband who struggled against the damage the war did to himself and his family, and who then committed himself to helping other veterans with the same struggles – including the man who killed Kyle in 2013.

But there are other parts of Chris Kyle that are absent from American Sniper and which are less than ideal. For example, the movie portrays Kyle as modest and reluctant to discuss his work. The real life Chris Kyle seems to have been much less modest. He actively promoted himself as “America’s most lethal sniper” and made good money doing it.

Kyle’s bragging also extended to things he didn’t do. Kyle claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas and gone to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shoot looters. No evidence for these claims exists. Kyle also claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura for criticizing the Iraq War. Ventura won a $1.8 million libel judgment against Kyle.

You could say that these were a few moments when Kyle’s mouth got ahead of his brain. You can’t offer the same defense of some of the opinions Kyle published in his autobiography. Such as these:

“I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” [From the introduction.]

“I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” [On why he wanted to go back to Iraq.]

“It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” [On firing at two insurgents on a moped.]

These are not the words of a modest and selfless soldier, doing the hard work most people are unable or unwilling to do; not the words of the Chris Kyle portrayed in American Sniper who is celebrated by much of the nation as hero. These are the words of a person who enjoyed being paid by the U.S. government to go on a murder junket. And there is nothing pretty about them.

What Exactly Does “Fighting for Freedom” Mean?

As amazing as it sounds, the prettied up Chris Kyle isn’t the prettiest – or biggest lie – Eastwood tells in American Sniper. That distinction goes to the justification the movie presents for the Iraq war. Or more precisely, the lack of justification for the Iraq War the film presents.

War is a brutal business and when a war is necessary (and I do believe some wars are necessary) then we need men like Chris Kyle to fight them; and if these men are less than perfect in their motivations, and less than perfect in their actions, it is nonetheless indecent to criticize them for their imperfections. Men like Chris Kyle are the means to the ends we pursue, and if we don’t like the means then we shouldn’t pursue the ends.

The problem is that American Sniper utterly ignores questions like these. Instead, it takes at face value, unexamined and unchallenged, Chris Kyle’s justification for the Iraq War, which is the pretty, glittering, noble-sounding phrase that he was “fighting for freedom”.

But what does “fighting for freedom” mean in the context of the Iraq War? Don’t look for the answers in American Sniper because they ain’t there. Which leaves us to guess.

One possibility is that “fighting for freedom” means protecting the United States from existential threats – that is from enemies that have the ability to destroy America and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. In this case, there are two important questions: Was Iraq an existential threat? and if so Was invading Iraq the best response to this threat?

The answers to both questions have been definitely settled as “no” for everyone not living inside an intellectually dishonest fantasy land. (They were also clear to many before the war began.) The same answer holds true for the claims that we were fighting for Iraq’s freedom, and that all that was need to create a stable democracy in a peaceful Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. History – if you wanted to bother looking at it – would have told you otherwise.

In this context, perhaps “fighting for freedom” means we don’t want to admit we launched a war of choice out of a combination of fear, incompetence, stupidity, vanity, bravado, and magical thinking. Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that it would be too painful to admit the Iraq War was a mistake after all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families.

Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that we really just want to kick somebody’s ass; we aren’t too particular about whose we kick; and we need some high-minded sounding excuse to go do it.

This is an offensive suggestion. The problem is … of all the possible definitions, it makes the most sense. If you were really serious about protecting America, you would believe it is worthwhile to carefully assess threats and deliberately choose the best response, weighing risk against benefit. And examine and learn from mistakes. Yes? If you were really serious about spreading freedom, you’d look at the places where it was done successfully, and the many places it wasn’t, then get serious about exactly what it will take and how hard it will be.

If on the other hand, you’re a fan of the shit-kicking approach to foreign policy – Let’s go kill bad guys! – and you see military intervention as simply a whole lot more awesome version of the National Football League – then “fighting for freedom” full stop, end of discussion, is all you need.

American Sniper: Catnip for Red States

Eastwood has claimed in his public statements that American Sniper is a “character study” and that the film is “anti-war”. Neither one of these claims holds up to scrutiny.

In terms of Chris Kyle, not only are the ugly pieces of his character left unstudied in American Sniper, they are substantially prettied up. This idealized Chris Kyle, with all the storytelling and myth-making fire-power of an accomplished director behind him, is made by the movie into “the” portrait of “the real” American soldier. Too tough, too brave, too accomplished, too loyal, too tender, too strong, too steady, too vulnerable, too modest, too selfless – just flawed enough to be too heroic – to be true.

It’s hard to be anti-war if you make the impact of a war ugly (which Eastwood does) but make the reasons for fighting that war noble when they ain’t. Or put it this way. When horrible sacrifices are justified by beautiful lies, the lies don’t become horrible. The sacrifices become beautiful.

Considering the total effect of American Sniper then, the pretty lies are stronger than the ugly truths, and leave the stronger impression. No surprise then either that the film has the knickers of liberals in a twist or that American Sniper is a smash-hit success in Red State America. It’s perfect catnip. It acknowledges the horror of combat and the heavy sacrifices of military families, while telling us soldiers are heroes who volunteered to fight a good and necessary war. Based on all the reports of cheering during the movie, sounds like the shit-kickers got their money’s worth too.

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Selma MovieFor a movie as universally praised – and as well deserving of that praise – as Selma, the film is getting curiously little positive attention lately.

Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.

And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.

The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.

Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.

Selma the Movie Versus History

The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.

This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.

The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?

These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.

That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.

You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).

Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.

But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?

Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub

The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.

Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.

Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.

But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.

Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.

Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.

DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.

The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.

This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?

This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.

Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.

That is what they sell, after all.

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the wolf of wall streetMartin Scorsese’ 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street (now on streaming) is not a morality tale. It is not a caustic satire. It is not even a black comedy. It is – simply – a Three-Stooges, gross-out, id-driven comedy. Full stop.

There are a whole bunch reasons why this is hard to see. The film is based on a real-life figure (the penny-stock impresario and fraudster, Jordan Belfort) whose crimes are emblematic of the Wall Street which brought ruin to middle-class American prosperity and much of the world economy. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio rather than Will Ferrell. It is directed by Mr. Scorsese who is rightly celebrated as a master of American cinema (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). And it gives high-minded critics the rope of just enough material – largely the result in my eyes of the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s yeowoman’s work imposing some order on the magnificent, exhilarating, and exhausting chaos – to hang themselves.

This rope includes the moral queasiness we feel laughing at pain and cruelty – and ignoring victims – which straight-up comedies avoid by making themselves obviously straight-up comedies (in which we are laughing at “types” rather than “real” men and women). It also includes certain characters and situations which seem to have been imported from an entirely different movie: in particular, the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who pursues Belfort with an intensity, complexity, and ambiguity missing from the rest of the movie, but also the briefly presented dissolutions of Belfort’s two marriages. And it includes the possibility of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street as a meditation on three human themes – appetite, addiction, and selfishness – that resonant with all the Three-Stooges, appalling, and hysterical excess.

It is, however, only the appalling and hysterical excess that makes a durable impression in The Wolf of Wall Street. The celebrated scenes are all outrageous, horrifying comedy. Matthew McConaughey tutoring a wide-eyed DiCaprio on the essentials of Wall Street success: greed, client manipulation, cocaine, and masturbation. DiCaprio whipping up his traders into a berserker frenzy. All the glossy, sleazy, tawdry parties, the highest density of f-bombs ever recorded in cinema, and the massive drug consumption that makes Al Pacino’s Scarface look like a teetotaler. Most especially, the already famous extended scene in which DiCaprio and his business partner (Jonah Hill) consume way too-many Quaaludes and deliver a genius piece of physical comedy that is likely to become standard in film-school curriculums.

Perhaps you can wrestle legitimate meaning from all the exuberance of making in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that work has been entirely assigned to the audience it seems to me. “We made it. You figure it out,” is the final message. Which makes The Wolf of Wall Street a kind of Benny Hill Goodfellas, a far-better Scorsese film with which it shares the same basic story arc and a similar character as anti-hero. But instead of taking us deep into the life of Henry Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street serves up a bunch of running around, yucks, and tits.

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twelve years a slave mcquIs it possible for a movie to tell a truth its audience does not want to hear?

We know that movies can sell the pretty lies of propaganda more persuasively than other medium. In fact, you could say the definition of a movie is a “pretty lie”. But can a film tell an “ugly truth”?

12 Years a Slave, the newest winner of the Oscar for best picture, directed by Steven McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the rare film that allows us to answer “yes” to this question.

There are a lot of reasons films like 12 Years a Slave are so rare. The essential one, however, is the simple fact that you have to sell tickets to movies.

The average price of admission to a movie in America last year was $8.35 and if you were an adult attending a non-matinee showing, $12.00 to $15.00 was more like it.

In aggregate, people will lay down money to be entertained by a movie. They will especially slap down coin to participate in a filmed fantasy: sex, wealth, power, revenge or justice, adventure, romance, agency, freedom, lives lived with noble meaning and purpose.

Sometimes, they will pay to see the truths of their real lives expressed for them by a film. Even less often, but still sometimes, people will pay to watch a movie that tells an ugly truth about someone else.

But people do not want to pay for the experience of confronting an ugly truth about themselves. Because it damages their self-esteem.

There is a growing body of social science research (see this recent piece on the vaccines-cause-autism myth as an example) that finds when people are confronted with evidence that contradicts one of their dearly held beliefs, they end up clinging even more strongly to that belief.

That’s why so many “issue” movies are sanitized, prettified, heavy-hand pieces of didactic crap in which an exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class achieves some sort of redemption for the victimized class, often while a representative sample of the victims stand admiringly off to one side.

This is because it is nearly impossible to show an audience an ugly truth unless you give them a big, honking, obvious, unambiguous way of disassociating themselves from that ugly truth. Thus the self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class and thus the speech (or speeches) in which said hero firmly articulates the principles we all eagerly embrace so we can feel like good people.

The remarkable, harrowing, painful, brilliant achievement of 12 Years a Slave is how little of this it does and consequentially how powerfully it succeeds as art and history and moral persuasion.

As you doubtlessly know by now, 12 Years a Slave, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York state who is kidnapped into slavery. The film focuses on the brutal daily reality of Solomon’s life as an enslaved man: the what-should-be-impossible to endure physical, emotional, and psychological suffering that Solomon and the men, women, and children who are enslaved with him do endure until they die.

Director Steven McQueen keeps the focus on Solomon’s suffering and refuses to allow us to look away. We are immersed in Solomon’s experience, in a firestorm of words he cannot risk speaking, of emotions always felt but seldom expressed because their expression will bring him destruction, either from the hands of white slave-owners or his own enormous interior pain.

As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply astounding. The role requires Mr. Ejiofor to do everything and nothing. To feel and to show us that feeling and to show us Solomon hiding that feeling. To not speak and to show us the words he does not speak. To show us a life in which every minute of that life is anguish and exhaustion – sometimes gentle but usually unbearable.

There are many indelible scenes in 12 Years a Slave, but for me the most unforgettable is the one where a slave-owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinger) forces Solomon to whip Patsey, a young enslaved woman with whom Epps is malignantly, sexually obsessed. (Patsey is played by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for the role.)

The whipping nearly breaks Solomon and is devastating to Patsey as well. Solomon’s reaction, the red mist of blood that rises from Patsey’s back each time the lash strikes, her uncontrollably weeping, and the deep furrowed wounds from the whip McQueen shows us, all should put to an end – for the last time – to the lie that slavery was a just “particular institution” or a “benevolent institution”; or the lie that abolition was a less worthy cause for liberty than the liberty of slave-states to determine within their borders who did and who did not deserve the right to the freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; or the lie that slavery was a mere minor blemish on the glorious, now persecuted culture and history of the American south specifically and America in general; or the lie that the suffering of enslaved men, women, and children has been overstated and oversold, and in any case, slavery is in the past and so it is far past time for people to shut up about it.

McQueen does a good job of not letting his audience off the hook in this movie – and by “his audience” I should be specific and say the audience not escaping the hook is “American white people” and fair enough – but there are two stumbles in Twelve Years a Slave.

The first is in the characters of the slave-owner Edwin Epps and his wife, who both shade far enough into psychotic villainy that McQueen could allow his audience to say that it was only a few crazy bad slave-owners who did crazy bad things to enslaved people.

A bigger problem is the abolitionist carpenter name Bass who helps Solomon regain his freedom. Bass is played by Brad Pitt and as the exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class who achieves a redemption of sorts for Solomon – and who while at it, also delivers a few neat little speeches that articulate the principles we all can eagerly embrace and so feel like good people – Pitt stands out like a big fat sore thumb.

I get the feeling this was not exactly McQueen’s choice. Pitt was one of the film’s ten producers, and of the ten, the only generally recognizable big Hollywood gun in the group. When the best picture Oscar was announced, Pitt was the first producer on stage, the first producer to take his Oscar, and the first producer to speak — though he spoke briefly and graciously, and mostly to introduce McQueen.

If the price of getting 12 Years a Slave in theaters was to give Pitt a few glamour moments, it was a price well worth paying. But the movie would have been better served if Pitt had switched roles with Paul Giamatti, the slave-trader who knows Solomon is a kidnapped freeman and sells him any way. Pitt’s glamour would have made a bracing contrast to his character’s actions, and Giamatti would have made the audience-hero-surrogate less pretty, less preachy, less courageous, less unconflicted. Less like the person we would like to be. More like the person most of us are.

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Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

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ralph fiennes coriolanusIn his 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, director and star Ralph Fiennes delivers a first-rate movie from one of the Bard’s second-rate plays.

Coriolanus is Fiennes’ debut as a director and his adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is impressive. The story concerns a 5th century Roman general, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, who earns renown for his victories over Roman’s enemies, the Volsci.

Coriolanus is encouraged to run for consul, but his extraordinary pride and inflexibility alienates the common people, whose nominal support Coriolanus needs to win office. Coriolanus is branded a traitor and expelled from Roman instead, at which point he offers his services to the Volscian general he previously defeated and leads the Volscian army’s attack on Rome.

Fiennes places his Coriolanus in a modern, unidentified European country that feels like the former Yugoslavia in which much of the film was shot, and creates a compelling portrait of a militaristic nation with weak democratic institutions threatened by both internal and external strife.

Viewers are likely to recognize the influence of such filmmakers as Paul Greenglass and Kathryn Bigelow on Fiennes’ direction, but his mastery of their techniques is so complete and so visceral that I can give him nothing but credit for his success.

Fiennes gets strong performances from all his cast, including Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, and especially Vanessa Redgrave, who delivers a knock-out performance as Coriolanus’ she-wolf of a mother. For good measure, Fiennes gives a harrowing, malignant performance himself as Coriolanus.

My only quibbles with Coriolanus derive from the source play, not Fiennes’ work, and even these quibbles arise from Shakespeare falling short of his best work rather than some intrinsic flaw.

Shakespeare’s poetry in Coriolanus is quite strong and his plot construction better than usual. What’s lacking is the signature “inwardness” of his best characters (to use Harold Bloom’s apt word) and these characters’ ability to change.

Coriolanus never “overhears himself talking to himself” (Bloom again) and certainly does not change. That Coriolanus is utterly inflexible and lacks self-awareness are the drivers of his tragedy, and so perhaps necessary to the play. But this means the work does not quite achieve Shakespearean greatness.

Still, that leaves us with a play very good indeed, and one to which Fiennes in this film does full justice.

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