Not the movie coverage you need, the movie coverage you deserve.
On the red carpet of the premiere of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the second installment of the films based on Suzanne Collins’ popular novels, the ear-splitting roars of the fans reached deafening volume for its star, that girl on fire Jennifer Lawrence. And on fire she is. 2012 was quite good to her. Her lively performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” got her an Oscar, and she was given the enviable role of protagonist Katniss Everdeen in the first “Hunger Games” movie, directed by Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”). Francis Lawrence directs the sequel. His past credits include 2007’s “I am Legend.” That film also depends on the charisma of its star to carry the film. Ms. Lawrence does all that and more, so much so that one begins to wonder why the filmmakers even bothered with male characters Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Pouty, watery-eyed, and bafflingly bland, they only seem to slow down this fierce warrior, who, with feline poise and bow and arrow in hand, is like a hunter/gatherer for the modern age. Katniss is the rare female hero allowed to be heroic without being masculine, protective without being motherly, convey sensuality without being over-sexualized. She can register as a character both men and women want to be. This is an important, maybe even seminal creation that is currently leading the charge for female protagonists in similarly action-oriented entertainments. So why, then, with such a great character, does this franchise seem so uninspired and thin?
Perhaps it is because the outline of the series never made much sense. Would an impoverished yet passionate people really stand idle for seventy-four years while a totalitarian government annually forces their children to fight to the death? Would someone like Katniss really be needed to incite revolution while millions of apparently bloodthirsty members of society cheer the vicious murders of children? These questions became more problematic due to the tame, surface level world building that comprised the first film. The cruel nature of the people who watch these gladiatorial fights is never acknowledged or explored, and their gaudy, day-glow clothing looks like they just came from a San Francisco gay club. Why do they dress this way? One doubts the filmmakers even know. Further, the PG-13 violence never stared clearly at the death on screen. The shaky cam technique nervously hurried away from the carnage, resulting in a whirl of hectic images. For this installment, the camera is steadier and the stakes higher. Katniss and her love interest Peeta survived the competition and have received riches and celebrity status in the Capitol. But revolution is bubbling in the 12 districts of Panem, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland, in his devilish, mustache twirling prime) is none too pleased. He and the new game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) devise a new plan: they will gather the winners of past competitions, many of them middle –aged, and throw them back into the arena, all the while hoping to discredit Katniss’ position as a symbol for revolt in the process. But Katniss does not want to be a symbol, and her celebrity status sickens her. She only wants to protect her family and Gale (her other love interest). Watching her spar with Snow, deal with her fame, and also navigate her increasingly volatile home of District 12 make up the best moments of the film, which carry appropriate weight and tension. The poor districts look appropriately devastated and drained of life, and the sight of storm troopers enforcing their might on the citizens is intense. Yet once the action stays in the Capitol, leading to the inevitable thrills of the latest competition, the film loses most of its substance.
The desire of this film, like its predecessor, is to deal both in serious themes and work as light entertainment for teenagers. Consequently, the dark implications of the narrative lose focus amidst all the extravagant costumes and videogame thrills. It’s also unfortunate that, excluding Lawrence, the young actors never properly convey the psychological trauma and emotional scars that the Hunger Games undoubtedly inflict. It is up to the seasoned actors to conjure texture and meaning out of thin air: Stanley Tucci as the gleaming, sycophantic show host, Caesar, Woody Harrelson as the blunt, pragmatic Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks finding greater emotional depths as the haughty Effie, newcomer Hoffman as Plutarch, whose quietly imposing presence promises danger with each gaze, and other new additions like Jeffery Wright and Amanda Plummer as past winners. These watchable actors do their best to elevate the proceedings above anything that Marvel has been dishing out for the past several years. Those superhero films don’t have the benefit of Ms. Lawrence, but even she seems to be tiring of this franchise. The stoic, internal grit of Katniss doesn’t suit the unchecked, external intensity that defines her best performances. When, in an early scene, Snow warns her to watch her step, Katniss replies with a determined stare and just a hint of worry. But one gets the sense that Lawrence would rather Katniss send a middle finger his way and stroll out the room. That would’ve been awesome. For non-fans of the franchise, strolling out the theater to see something better will be equally awesome.
Many critics and pop-culture columnists have considered 2013 a banner year for African-American films, with the acclaimed, Oscar poised slave drama 12 Years a Slave as the appropriate capper. For countless black moviegoers, however, the real film to put a lovely bow on the year is The Best Man Holiday, the eagerly anticipated sequel to the 1999 surprise hit The Best Man. The film is set nearly fifteen years later. Relationships have been established, such as the one between the meek Julian (Harold Perrineau) and former stripper Candice (Regina Hall), while others, like the friendship between struggling novelist Harper (Taye Diggs) and football superstar Lance (Morris Chestnut), have faded. For fans of the first film, much of the delight of this one will be from seeing how these characters have changed and developed since we last attended that emotional wedding in the first film. But if it is a pleasant surprise that these characters would make it back to the big screen after all these years, for writer and director Malcolm D. Lee, it was simply a matter of time and circumstance.
“I had always thought I would revisit these characters maybe ten years later or so,” Mr. Lee detailed, but he also admitted that, beyond the sentimental and creative reasons for making a sequel, it was also a matter of staying active. “I needed to work again… I had been trying to get a couple things off the ground; nothing was really making any traction…there’s all this talk about branding, and I was like, why can’t I get anything off the ground? And then I said, well, what’s my brand? My brand is I am most noted for doing The Best Man.”
From there, he said it was a matter of getting all the actors together again in a room, pitching a story that would interest them, see how it felt, and go from there. For Lee, it was a chance not only to return to characters he knew and cherished, but to also acknowledge the ways that he as a filmmaker has changed along with his characters. When asked on the difference between the director he was in 1999 and the director he is now, his answers touched on filmmaking and his personal life as well.
“My worldview has developed. I was single then. The things that concerned me on the first movie… I can put them in better perspective,”
He noted the ways in which his increased wisdom and experience has allowed him to be both rigorous and malleable in his approach, giving his actors greater leeway while also being demanding about what he wants. On his craft, Mr. Lee was proud of the progress that he’s made in his career.
“I’ve gotten better at everything,” he asserted, “how to shoot, what to shoot, framing, comedic timing. There’s a number of things I’ve improved upon, and I’m still trying to improve upon.”
Indeed, moviegoers will see clearly his more accomplished abilities on screen. He juggles multiple storylines and characters and alternates between zany comedy and moving, emotional beats, delivering a gratifying entertainment that will have you laughing through your tears.
The Best Man Holiday’s lighthearted charms stand out this season, usually reserved for sober, grave movies that hunt for awards. As a black centered film, it also deviates from dramatic historical works like the aforementioned 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, which deal with the struggles of the past. One of the real satisfying aspects of Mr. Lee’s film is that the issues afflicting the characters are not specific only to African-Americans. They’re universal, applicable to people of any race. It is in a way a perfect example of where movies of this type can go in the market, when the African-American experience can become the American experience. On this banner year in black films and The Best Man Holiday’s place among them, Lee was enthusiastic:
“I think it’s been fantastic,” he exclaimed. “All the movies are different [and] I think we fit in in a great way… There’s room for everybody. Let us keep making quality movies. I hope that it continues.”
Cheers to that.
The Best Man Holiday is now playing in theaters nationwide.
“The Best Man Holiday,” Malcolm D. Lee’s better-late-than- never sequel to the 1999 hit “The Best Man,” comes during another remarkable time for black centered films, and among such sober dramas like “Fruitvale Station,” “The Butler,” and “12 Years a Slave,” arrives with a much needed sigh of relief. The gravitas of those films weighed the moviegoer down in his seat, practically crushing him with their seriousness. Lee’s entertaining, early Christmas treat has arrived to take the weight off, allowing you to breathe, maybe even laugh a little.
It’s been fourteen years, but looking at the still youthful faces of actors Taye Diggs, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, and others, one would think it was just yesterday that we last saw these impossibly beautiful people struggling with love, friendship, and a book that mirrored real life a little too closely. That book, written by Diggs’ character Harper, revealed an adulterous incident between him and the serenely pretty Mia (Monica Calhoun), who was set to marry football superstar Lance (Morris Chestnut). Those who saw the first film know that the marriage still took place, but Lance and Harper have since grown apart. The film’s early scenes quickly bring you up to speed on what else has changed. Harper, now married to Robin (Lathan), is expecting a child but is struggling as a novelist. The mild-mannered Julian (Harold Perrineau) married former stripper Candice (Regina Hall), and together they run their own school. The slick, irreverent playboy Quentin (the indispensable Terrence Howard) works in marketing. Julian’s eccentric ex-wife Shelby (Melissa De Sousa) has found success on reality TV, and the career obsessed Jordan (Long) is climbing the ladder at MSNBC. When the whole gang gathers for a weekend Christmas celebration at Mia and Lance’s New Jersey mansion, bitter tensions will simmer to the surface, financial woes will consume the mind, and at least one huge secret will alter the mood of the affairs. It’s a lot of plot and character to handle, and for at least a couple stretches, one worries if Lee can handle it all. But Lee loves these characters as much as their fans do. The film’s best moments concern not the plot developments, but the often hilarious comic asides, primarily delivered by Quentin, whose every word is delivered like a wink and a backhand slap. The camaraderie between these characters is infectious. These are people you would want to hang out with in real life. When the males engage in an air band rendition of New Edition’s “ Can You Stand the Rain,” the set piece practically begs audience participation. The scene is filled with such fun sincerity and warmth you practically want to snuggle next to it. Another scene, like a wild slap fest between two of the female characters, is as riotous a moment as one will find outside of “Love and Hip-Hop.” Other moments of hilarity include Quentin’s use of the phrase “stimulus package,” and Candice’s description of Jordan’s new Caucasian boyfriend as a “a tall vanilla swagga latte.”
These zany character moments are the film’s most satisfying. It is when Lee tries to go from wacko comedy to deathly serious that the film struggles. This is a messy, earnest melodrama that wants you to cry almost as often as it wants you to laugh. Christian overtones seep into the narrative more than once. Rather amusingly, it equates football to some kind of holy struggle, and after one suitable emotional crescendo, Lee adds yet another, bringing the emotional exhaustion level to a hundred. Ultimately one can forgive Lee’s indulgences. In wanting to give the viewer such an overstuffed stocking of goods, he makes sure no one comes out with nothing. You will laugh, and you may cry, and you most definitely will have a good time. Perhaps the best present of all is that these articulate, attractive, and affluent individuals, once considered such a novelty back in ’99, when films like “Love Jones,” “Soul Food,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” flooded the marketplace, have become just a bit more commonplace. It is rather inarguable that actors like Long, Lathan, and Diggs have been criminally underused, but their existence is not the shock that it once was. And if this film proves to be another success, when Lee sees fit to return to these characters again (Best Man Reunion? Best Man Mid Life Crisis?), perhaps the next generation of black actors will be fairing even better, and an audience for them will have reached new heights.
The opening credits of the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind,” all Hollywood glow and nostalgic tone, lament the passing of the Old South; it is now “no more than a dream remembered.” It would be easy to say “12 Years a Slave” offers the nightmare vision of this era, but what the film presents instead is something far subtler, and ultimately more shattering.
Directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, the film is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, an African-American living in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Mr. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a literate, successful violinist who was born a free man. This last aspect of the narrative is key: the viewer, along with Solomon, is thrust into a world both terrifying and positively alien. Both the viewer and Solomon is an outsider to America’s peculiar institution, which Hollywood has handled either with coats of reassuring gloss or removed sensationalism. But the happy slave of “Gone with the Wind” doesn’t exist here, and the lurid thrills of “Django Unchained” are gone as well. What remains is a clear eyed and unwavering depiction of slavery as both a deranged force of moral corrosion and an insidious machine that used the lives of others to pay for wealth and stature.
The film opens with Northup already enslaved, cutting sugar cane on a Louisiana plantation. In a series of eloquent flashbacks, we see him living comfortably with his family in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1841 before accepting a job by two white men to play violin in a circus. Soon he finds himself in Washington D.C., enjoying a night of wine and a cordial camaraderie with the duo. It is a sham, one made horrifyingly apparent when Solomon awakens shackled in a darkened cell. The disbelief and confusion on his face is painful, and when he wrestles with his chains, the sound of metal scraping against his cell floor assaults the ears. Two sneering slavers enter his cell informing Solomon of his new status as chattel. They beat him when he tries to assert his identity, and he is subsequently passed from master to master.
This narrative is harrowing enough to draw in the viewer, and the danger of leaning towards sentiment or manipulation has crippled similarly emotional enterprises. But McQueen, a British visual artist, has never asked for tears. “Hunger” (2008), his first feature, about the 1981 Irish hunger strikes, was the sort of abstract flick that turned the smearing of feces on a wall into a Renaissance painting. His next feature, “Shame” (2011), chronicled the life of a sex addict like an artsy ritual of sexual explicitness. Both these films arguably fetishized psychical and psychological imprisonment. “12 Years a Slave” of course also concerns entrapment of the body and mind, but this time McQueen opens himself up to narrative, human emotion, and the weight of history. His visual, sense driven style lends itself beautifully to his desire to immerse the viewer into Solomon’s ordeal, as well as the rhythms of life on a plantation. As the film moves elegantly from one incident to the next, McQueen lays bare the evils of slavery with a patient gaze and long, persistent takes. Most excruciating of these is when Solomon is almost hanged from a tree for defying an overseer. The lynching is unsuccessful, but he is left to dangle in the hot Louisiana sun, feet tip-toeing in the squishy mud below, the sound of cicadas providing the soundtrack to the scene. All around him, plantation life continues unabated; the slaves go about their labors, while a few white faces simply stare. The scene seems to last forever, and it conveys the terrible psychology of slavery, while also symbolizing the precarious situation that Solomon would find himself in for over a decade. This scene is on the tail end of Solomon’s time with the reasonably benevolent slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man whose good Christian sermonizing is drowned out by the agonizing cries of a slave whose children were taken from her. Ford, who bought Solomon from a loathsome trader (Paul Giamatti), soon sells him to the sadistic drunk, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps is a pitiful brute of a man who, like many men in his time, uses the bible to justify the brutality he inflicts upon his “property,” including that of his personal favorite, Patsey, played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o in a turn almost as devastating as the lashes she will endure at Epps’s hand. Fassbender, a regular collaborator with McQueen, is unsettlingly intense, promising violence with every look, his affections for Patsey revealed in repugnant, yet complex ways. McQueen manages to lend screen time also to Epps’s rigidly cruel wife (an effective Sarah Paulson), who seethes with fury at Epps’s love (however perverse) for Patsey. The great Alfre Woodard also shows up as the wife of a plantation owner, who has managed to find a slice of pleasure in this world of insanity. But Ejiofer is the anchor, the one the viewer clings to on this hellish odyssey. The British actor, who has given a number of brilliant supporting performances stretching back to 2002’s “Dirty Pretty Things,” is finally given a role worthy of those big, soulful eyes, which here contain all the fury, despair and pain of a man whose freedom is wrenched away from him. Oftentimes McQueen’s frame contains just Ejiofer’s face, and in it we can see the fire of a human spirit struggling to remain. There is heartache in that face, but also life, clung to with almost desperate force.
The beauty in Ejiofer’s performance characterizes McQueen’s work as well. Working with the cinematographer Sean Bobbit, he finds a lush and serene majesty on the grounds of Southern plantations, where the summer sun glistens through Spanish moss and strange fruit hang from the poplar trees. Yet the stunning imagery never overshadows the emotion of the narrative, conveyed naturally by scenes of great cruelty and heartrending anguish, which Mcqueen’s camera sees without false dramatics. Though Solomon’s journey would ultimately end happily, what will linger in the viewer’s mind long after the end credits roll are the lives of countless others whose stories will never be told, and how so few of them received happy endings. “12 Years a Slave” is something more important than the best film yet made about slavery; it is a candid depiction of evil and its irreparable damage. This evil was not alien, and not that of a nightmare, but real and human.
“Captain Phillips” moves with a velocity and force that may leave the viewer too shaken to notice the deeper implications of its narrative. This, however, is emblematic of all of British director Paul Greengrass’s work. As a former journalist, Greengrass operates in objectivity, but beneath lies the beating heart of a humanist. To say nothing of his critically acclaimed docudramas “Bloody Sunday”(2002) and “United 93”(2006), his Bourne films, which injected a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the thriller genre, are driven by a moral weight and urgency that jarringly contradict the hallow mayhem that characterizes most action filmmaking. Greengrass makes films about the consequences of action and the ugly side of might and means. Where a Michael Bay might race by death with gleeful abandon, Greengrass’s camera often lingers, putting the full brunt of what’s been done in the face of both his characters and the viewer. This again proves true in his latest thriller, inspired by true events that unfolded on April 8th of 2009, when four Somali pirates seized the Maesrk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship under the command of Richard Phillips. What happened over the next four days was then turned into a memoir by Captain Phillips, titled “A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea.”
“Captain Phillips,” whose script is written by Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) is based on this memoir, and while both works depend on the naturally riveting details of the event to propel their story, the feelings distilled from the former will leave the more profound impression. The film begins with an admittedly clunky scene between Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife (Catherine Keener) as they leave their idyllic Vermont farmhouse, chatting about a changing world and their kids’ futures. The dialogue is rather wooden and obvious, but Greengrass’s restless camera and the intimacy of the exchange prepare the viewer for more stressful times in Phillips’s future. Before long, we see Phillips walking the deck of his ship, reading emails warning of pirate attacks on his route (the ship was hauling 17,000 tons of cargo, including food, to Kenya), and running his crew through safety drills. Soon, a real threat materializes in the form of two fast approaching skiffs. Despite intense maneuvering from Phillips and the use of water hoses to veer the pursuers off track, four heavily armed Somalis manage to board the ship.
What transpires next is a harrowing and intense battle of wills and smarts between Phillips and the Somali leader, Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi), and it is here that Greengrass displays his mastery of the genre. Since the success of his Bourne movies, many directors have tried to emulate his hand-held camera style and staccato tempo, but they do not posses his coherence and proficiency. Greengrass’s camera swerves and bobs with anxious energy, as if constantly figuring how best to frame the action. Yet he always stages the action clearly and vividly, always keeping the viewer aware of where hunter and prey are in relation to each other, inciting nail-biting moments of tension. Distance and scale are also handled with a keen eye, and here, scale proves important. When the Somalis are racing beside the ship, we are aware of just how feeble their little boat looks compared to this behemoth. The situation becomes more pitiful when Muse decides to take Phillips hostage in a small lifeboat and the full strength of American muscle is brought to bear. Thus, we are presented with two warships, an aircraft carrier, and the thrilling sight of parachuting Navy Seals.
Safe to say, the odds are in America’s favor, but to Greengrass’s credit, this is not simply “Us vs. Them.” Hollywood has made a business of demonizing third world countries. It would be easy for Greengrass to have made a rollicking tale of Tom Hanks, that wonderful everyman, against the wild eyed, evil Somalis. It is a given that the viewers will sympathize with Mr. Hanks, whose controlled and grounded performance puts you on his side right from the start, if his skin color already didn’t. But the Somalis, as played by Abdi, Barkhad Abdirhman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali, each carve out distinct and human portrayals as well. Abdi’s Muse in particular may be the most compelling character in the film, his calculating eyes and fearsome disposition doing little to hide the desperation that has pushed him to the point of no return. Ray’s script arguably moves quicker than the camerawork, barely granting much context to the Somali plight beyond a hectic scene showing various poor inhabitants volunteering for piracy. But Greengrass and his cinematographer Barry Ackroyd tell a deeper story, lingering on certain details: the bare feet of a pirate who can’t afford sandals, the incessant consumption by the pirates of Khat, an amphetamine plant that helps to suppress appetite, the angry threats that hide the fear of individuals who are not yet out of their teens. What Greengrass ultimately presents is the full reach and limitations of America and the ramifications of globalization, which may be doing more harm than good. As the tension continues to mount in the claustrophobic space of the lifeboat and the US army makes their play to save Phillips, one feels the excitement seeping out of the moment even as the story reaches its violent crescendo. For many, the end will be a fist pumping moment, but Greengrass wants you to see deeper than that. He wants you to remember the stained teeth of Muse and his cohorts, the blood left in the wake of this demonstration of American power, and in an astonishing final scene, the wreck of a man whose stability and control has shattered under the weight of his harrowing ordeal. In Greengrass’s rigorous rendering of this disquieting tale, he manages to take a political and moral stance without seeming to present one. Before the end, there is a shot of the US warship pulling in the lifeboat, which holds the captors and the captive, both parties powerless to a larger force carrying them forward. Is there a metaphor there? Decide for yourself. After all, Greengrass operates in objectivity.
“That nigger says nigger more than I say nigger,” exasperated Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character in this year’s box office hit The Butler. Gooding’s character was referring to President Lyndon B. Johnson, but the line brought to mind another white man who is perhaps a little too enamored with that most venomous of words. Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino is one of the most critically admired and popular filmmakers of his generation. He is perhaps the only director working today whose name alone can attract moviegoers to the multiplex. Since first carving out a place for himself in the pop-culture with his 1994 indie phenomenon, Pulp Fiction, Mr. Tarantino has made movies the way few others can. A Tarantino flick is like a cauldron of distinct ingredients, mixing together different genres, each camera movement and frame seeming in reference to another in film history, using the English language with a heady panache that suggests a hijacking of Shakespeare’s dialogue by a street smart hustler. His unique style has given him a devoted and fervent fan base. But amidst those fans are a number of detractors who are none too pleased that the word nigger has a supporting role in his films. His most recent work, 2012’s Oscar winning Django Unchained, was attacked for what many critics felt was an extreme love affair with the word. Articles in The Washington Post and the U.K.’s The Guardian put the count at over a 100 times that the word is used. Many people were wondering the same thing: What gives, Quentin? Of course, in this case the answer was easy: “If you’re going to make a movie about slavery and are taking a 21st-century viewer and putting them in that time period, you’re going to hear some things that are going to be ugly,” Tarantino explained in an interview with the Washington Post. But his relationship with the word goes back further than Django. His debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, which featured an all white cast, also had a number of instances where the word was uttered; so too was the case in Pulp Fiction and 1997’s Jackie Brown. Indeed, all four of these films seem to have an equal infatuation with black culture, whether it is ‘70s icon Pam Grier, black centered exploitation films, or the music of Randy Crawford and Bobby Womack. His most vocal critic, director Spike Lee, asked a question many of us were probably wondering as well: “What does he want to be, an honorary black man?” Well—- maybe.
It may be true that, unlike Mr. Womack, Tarantino has never made it across 110th street. And as a native of Knoxville, TN, it is unlikely that he has ever known the street life Ms. Crawford sings about. And his use of the N-word is often gratuitous, either in some hope to soften the word or titillate the viewer. Yet no word in the English language comes with harsher force than nigger. Tarantino could use the word 1000 times in a film, and it would not numb the viewer to the word. So he is certainly insensitive to its effects. Yet I don’t think one should condemn him completely. His most popular films reveal a rather earnest sympathy for and love of black culture, as well as moral outrage for the white men who demean it. His white characters in Reservoir Dogs, all talking with the sort of street slang attributed to black people, are an unseemly, despicable bunch. They have no problem using the N-word. “Man walks into prison a white man, walks out talking like a fucking nigger,” says one character, blatantly underlining the way whites in America appropriate “black” behavior. “You fucking guys are acting like a bunch of fucking niggers, man… always saying they’re gonna kill each other,” says Steve Buscemi’s character Mr. Pink. Yet, in the end, that is exactly what happens; the characters all kill each other in a pathetic mockery of a Mexican standoff, no better than the “niggers” they claim superiority over. There is constant talk among the characters of them being professionals. But what we see on screen are a bunch of bickering, homicidal criminals, just as likely to shoot an innocent bystander as they might each other. And throughout this deconstruction of the white man’s machismo, Tarantino manages to throw in a monologue on the difference between black women and white women, placing the former in quite the endearing light: “They got a line, and if you cross it, they fuck you up,” asserts Mr. Pink. Such admiration for black women is fully manifested in the Pam Grier vehicle Jackie Brown. Tarantino directs Grier to a Golden Globe nominated role, and it is one of her very best. Grier’s performance at once celebrates her past status as an action film icon while also being nuanced and crafty, moving too fast and too purposefully to stop for a pointless sex scene that another director might throw in. In an interview with NPR, Tarantino remembers going to a mostly black school, living under black run homes, and being taken to Blaxploitation films by his mother’s boyfriends. “Black culture was my culture growing up,” he says. This undoubtedly influenced the vernacular of his characters in his films. It also provided a basis for the iconic Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, played by Samuel L. Jackson in a performance that would define the rest of his career.
To look again at Django, one sees a clear disgust with slavery beneath all the tasteless gore and genre thrills. The white characters that play Beethoven music and host lovely dinners while slaves are being ripped apart by dogs and forced to fight to the death are cast with a knowing and contemptuous eye. When these characters are eventually disposed of, it is not with simple gunshots and pools of blood; they are blown backward into smithereens, blood spewing out of their bodies like geysers. There is true glee in the deaths of these characters, the glee of a filmmaker who once said that the abolitionist John Brown was his favorite American hero. “He decided, ‘If we start spilling white blood, then they’re going to start getting the idea,”’ Tarantino said in an interview with Charlie Rose. White blood does indeed spill in Django, and spurt out every which way. And Hollywood may be getting the idea—- perhaps moviegoers want to see similarly themed films. Django Unchained is not driven by the sort of white guilt that some critics saw in films like Driving Miss Daisy or The Help. It is the work of a white sympathizer who has decided to become an honorary black avenger. He may be too in love with the N-word, but he’s also in love with black culture. And, unlike most other white people, he’s not ashamed to admit it. Right On!
Prisoners, an exhaustingly tense and riveting thriller, is almost an antidote to a genre that has become for many viewers exhausted territory. Directors often use genre like an exercise, working out the muscles, prepping for bigger and better things. Director Denis Villeneuve, working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, instead uses it like a springboard, jumping to greater and more thoughtful heights than what the confines of the genre might suggest. The result, coming from a Canadian, is something distinctly and gravely American.
Our nation’s particular grappling with aggression, paranoia, and religious fervor is as persistent as the rain in this dreary Pennsylvania suburb, a seemingly normal place that also holds dark secrets. It’s Thanksgiving. Two couples, one black (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), and one white (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello), are spending it together. They laugh, joke, and prepare for dinner. Meanwhile, their two young daughters decide to go out and play. They don’t come back. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a local, weary looking detective with a spotless record, arrests a seemingly feebleminded young man (Paul Dano) whose truck was spotted in the area. But when there isn’t enough evidence to hold him, he is forced to let him go, much to the distress of the father of the white couple, Keller Dover. Dover, a stern survivalist and God fearing man, is furious at what he feels is the ineptitude of the police and decides to take matters into his own hands, a facet of the story already given away by the trailers.
Trust me when I say that they don’t give away much. Prisoners is as much concerned with the characters as it is with the sprawling mystery at its center. Recalling similarly dark and complex thrillers like Mystic River and Zodiac, Villeneuve takes a hard and unsparing look at the paralyzing effects of tragedy, and the corrosive power of anger on the soul. The soul most at risk is Dover’s, played by Hugh Jackman in what is his best performance to date, a vivid creation of macho Americana gone horribly wrong. As the days drag on and his daughter remains missing, Dover resorts to more desperate and inhumane measures to find her, becoming terrifying in a way that would have Wolverine running for his life. But his Dover remains believable as a loving, distraught father whose ordered life has been upended by the random cruelties of the world. Equally effective is Gyllenhaal. His detective is gaunt, and there is an anxious edge to him that does little to explain those mysterious tattoos on his knuckles. His methodical technique is in stark contrast to Dover’s impulsive actions, but we begin to see taunts from Dover and the irresolution of the case begin to eat at him. Soon, he too will be pushed to the edge. Viola Davis, who can cry just about better than anyone in the movies today, and Terrence Howard, as a man torn between doing what’s right and helping Dover, add strong supporting work to the proceedings, which are relentless in the laying out of potential leads, red herrings, and developments.
This is a tangled web Villeneuve weaves, and so it might be expected that the film’s climax depends on one or two contrivances. But the accomplished filmmaking makes any false notes seem minor. Cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots with a chilly austerity that finds a bleak poetry in the rain-streaked, somber landscape, and the foreboding strings of the musical score add haunting intensity to every scene. This thriller will have you wound tight, gasping with each new revelation and flinching away from the actions of characters that operate on a moral playing field as grey as the setting. Christian overtones add texture to a film concerned with compromised morality and sin. The title itself carries many meanings, for there are many ways to be imprisoned. One can be imprisoned by rage, by the job, or by the effects of past traumas. And once imprisoned, it can prove very hard to break free. Long after the film’s bold final shot, the viewer will question which actions were justified and which were not. And, much like it is in life, it may be hard to find the answers.