Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Whole Bunch o' Movies

Movies: Anna Karenina, Cabin Fever, Queen of Versailles, Gangster Squad

Alright folks, it seems that my muse of Internet Movie Review Blogs is speaking to me on this week and making me want to get all the movies I've been meaning to review out of my system. Instead of writing a separate review for each, I'm offering the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of four movies I've seen over the past month and never got around to reviewing.


Anna Karenina
 Joe Wright directs and Keira Knightley stars in this beautiful, if not super-memorable, adaptation of Tolstoy's tragic novel of forbidden love in late 19th century Russia. The most notable aspect of this film adaptation is that most of it is filmed on a stage, and the characters exhibit theatrical actions and expressions. The symbolism behind this artistic choice is a bit heavy-handed (it's like Anna is on stage! Everyone is watching her every move and judging her!), but the sets and costumes are undeniably striking.

The acting is pretty good: Knightley's Anna is appropriately tragic and beautiful. I haven't read the book, but Knightley portrays Anna as someone who is very paranoid and jealous. She actually gets away with taking a lover (Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Vronsky, her younger suitor) and her husband forgives her; but it ends tragically anyway when she suspects Vronsky of having another mistress. The agony leads to Anna's fateful decision to throw herself under a train (hopefully that's not a spoiler to anyone).

This adaptation of Anna Karenina is also notable because it spends time letting the viewer get to know smaller, supporting characters, such as Anna's goofy brother, Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden) and lovesick Levin (Domhnall Gleeson). This makes the whole production feel grander and more well-rounded, rather than focusing narrowly on the Anna/Vronsky/Karenin love triangle.

4 out of 5 stars


Cabin Fever

Randomly, I decided to watch this small-budget horror film, directed and written by a pre-Hostel Eli Roth. I heard the film was very original and scary because instead of the typical ax-wielding psychopath, the teens in this film are menaced by an extremely contagious flesh-eating bacteria as they camp out in redneck-infested hills.

I wasn't all that impressed. In addition to the constant refrain of "Don't be gay" and "What are you, a faggot?"--language that some may argue is par for the course in a schlocky horror film, but I think is just lazy and offensive--the characters and their predictably dumb actions are weak and two-dimensional. The message of the movie is that when the shit hits the fan, these supposed "friends" turn on each other immediately in order to save their own skins. Maybe they're the REAL monsters! Whoa man...whoa. I like the idea, but I don't think it was executed well.

2.5 out of 5 stars


Queen of Versailles

This documentary about an extremely wealthy couple, Jackie and David Siegel, who are in the process of building the largest home in America right when the Recession of 2008 hits, is not as damning as you might expect. If this film had been directed by Michael Moore, the spend-happy Siegels would have been offered up as a sacrifice to angry Americans who barely make ends meet. Instead, it's directed by Lauren Greenfield, a talented storyteller and photographer (check out her book Girl Culture), who shows the Siegels in an honest and sympathetic light.

David Siegel, owner of the largest time-share company in the world, doesn't appear to be in the same sociopathic category as the Bernie Madoff. Siegel genuinely believes that he has helped most of the people he's met--from customers to employees to politicians (he claims that George W. Bush won the presidency due to his "not quite legal" influence. Hmmm...). He mentions his kids as being the greatest accomplishment of his life. The sad irony is that for all his money, success, and his large family and young, attractive wife, Siegel doesn't appear to be a very happy man. When the movie nears its conclusion, he says that nothing makes him happy these days except finding a solution to his problem (losing his largest time-share resort in Las Vegas to the banks). The guy is pretty much the embodiment of "mo' money, mo' problems".

Jackie Siegel is not what you would expect of a trophy wife 30 years younger than her husband. She's pretty intelligent, for one thing, with a degree in computer science. She's clearly addicted to shopping, and she hoards tons of junk she doesn't need, from three different games of "Operation" to furry designer pants. But you can see how she got that way: she was a beautiful, intelligent woman who married a rich, older man and slowly, over time, lost touch with how most people live. She treats her maids and her kids' nannies kindly, but doesn't seem to get the irony of the nanny who practically raises Jackie's kids sleeping in a 10x12 room while the family members all have palatial suites. So she comes off as freakishly shallow and tacky, but I don't think she's a bad person.

Still, ignorance (and how ignorant can the Siegels truly be?) is no excuse for their insane excesses. This family literally has more money than they know what to do with, and they don't understand how to manage it and their property and possessions very well. When the going gets tough financially, David Siegel attempts to sell some of his property--but no seems interested in buying a $100,000 private jet in the middle of a recession. The family ends up materially wealthy and cash poor, having to fire the help and let their mansion deteriorate as David Siegel frantically tries to save his Las Vegas resort because he's too prideful to give it up. The family is sympathetic, but it's hard to take their losses seriously when it appears that they may actually be better off with less than they currently have.

4 out of 5 stars


Gangster Squad

Sadly, Gangster Squad is one of those films that show all the best scenes and lines in the preview. You would think that a noirish film about a secret squad of cops taking down a mobster in 1940's LA and starring Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and Sean Penn would be a pretty good time. You'd be wrong. Gosling and Stone are pretty to look at, and the movie is crammed with amusing 40's slang ("Who's the tomato?" Gosling asks his buddy, referring to Stone. Later, Stone says to Gosling, "I bet you have a ducky story about the war.", etc). But overall, the whole thing seems fake. The film is supposedly "inspired by true events", but the idea of a group of six cops attempting to take down a powerful mobster's entire empire is...unlikely. The dialogue is often laughable (Brolin's pregnant wife tells him, "You're a kind man. You don't talk much. You're a demon in bed." to explain why she's glad she married him. That line makes me cringe so hard.) And the ending is tied up in a nice bow that's a little too convenient and perfect.

Gangster Squad isn't a *terrible* movie, it's just a "meh" movie.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Race, Sex, and Body Image: Some Thoughts on Lena Dunham and "Girls"

TV Shows: Girls

*Thar be spoilers here*

In one of the first scenes of season 2 of Girls, Lena Dunham's precocious HBO sitcom, the main character Hannah has sex with a hot African-American guy (Donald Glover), who says "You wanted this...and now you're getting it." Hannah replies, "I'm finally getting it. It's about fucking time."

This scene is a blatantly cheeky response to critics of Dunham who felt the first season of Girls white-washed the hipster boroughs of New York where the show takes place. Feminists seemed to hang their hopes on the very young Dunham to create a show that spoke for them--all of them--and when it turned out that the show was more about self-absorbed, privileged white chicks than an intersectional exploration of fourth-wave feminism, some felt betrayed.

While this is an understandable response, and I agree that the show has some issues with a lack of diversity, at the end of the day it's Dunham's show and I think she gets to do what she wants. I also think her studied and consistently headstrong ability to sweetly flip the bird in the direction of her various critics makes more of an impact than the show itself. And I love it. The more people get pissed off, the more Dunham seems to figure out what really pushes her critics' buttons and..just..ever so slightly...push them harder.

Case in point: the rather hilarious non-controversy over Dunham's love of being naked on her own show. Dunham has a fairy normal body. She's a bit chubby ("I'm 13 pounds overweight and it has been awful for me my whole life!" cries Hannah in one memorable scene) with smallish breasts. In the show, she surrounds herself with actresses with more "conventionally attractive" bodies--the lovely Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, and Jemima Kirke. And who do you think gets the lion's share of nudity? Yep--the tattooed and dimpled Dunham. For some reason, this pisses so many people off beyond belief! Howard Stern recently said on his ever-tasteful show, "It's a little fat girl who kinda looks like Jonah Hill and she keeps taking her clothes off and it kinda feels like rape...I don't want to see that." (Stern has since apologized to Dunham). It's like, dude, 1) Jonah Hill worked hard to lose a lot of weight, so don't rag on him, 2) I'm pretty sure you have no idea what rape feels like, and 3) Have you ever seen a naked woman? I'm pretty sure Dunham doesn't qualify for "fat". And even if she is fat, I'd willing to bet most people would rather see her naked than Howard Stern.

Stern isn't the only one to reference Dunham's "blobby body" (thanks, Linda Stasi of the totally legitimate news publication, The New York Post!), but Dunham has all but laughed in the face of these mean girls and guys, saying, "My response is, get used to it because I am going to live to one hundred and I am going to show you my thighs every day till I die." BAM.

How can you not love this woman!? Other concern trolls on both the right and left have fretted over the sex lives of the characters. A woman writing into Glamour magazine tsk-tsked the mag for promoting Dunham as one of their Women of the Year, saying "If you think she represents millennials, you're mistaken. We're more than our sex drives." And so are the characters on Girls! Yes, they have a lot of sex, but they also work and get fired, visit with their parents, have parties, and pursue creative ideas (one of Hannah's defining characteristics is that she's an aspiring writer).

On the other side, you get folks who are concerned about Hannah's codependent, semi-BDSM relationship with the weird and narcissistic Adam. In the first season, Hannah and Adam have some...I can only describe them as "lazy-kinky"...sex scenes that are as uncomfortable as they are funny. Some in the blogosphere didn't like that the show seemed to romanticize being treated poorly by a sex partner. Which I think is dumb because when you're that age, it's almost a guarantee that you will be treated poorly by a sex/romance partner. And you'll probably treat some of your partners poorly as well.

Hey, look, I get it. Some of the scenes in Girls have made me roll my eyes (the scene where Hannah follows Adam out into the street while wearing a onesie? And then he spray paints "Sorry" a million times on a wall? Yeah, no.) The whole hipster thing can be grating at times. The characters tend to be pretty selfish and shallow. But I don't think people are allowed to complain about the selfishness of the characters when Don Draper of Mad Men and Walter White of Breaking Bad are much, much more selfish and anti-heroic.

People love to watch women act brazenly sexual and bratty--how else do you explain the popularity of porn and shows like Real Housewives? But people like to watch these selfish, entitled, sexpot brats and then make fun of them and walk away feeling superior. They're not used to watching such women win multiple Golden Globes at age 26. And to have startlingly normal bodies. And to respond to insults with candor and grace, as opposed to repentance and submission. Lena Dunham is talented and audacious and I love it.

I hope she shows me her thighs every day until she dies.

Girls: 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dancing on the Grave of Our Enemy

Movies: Zero Dark Thirty

Man, I wish I had waited to make my "Best of 2012" list until I saw Zero Dark Thirty because, all politics aside, it is an excellent film. It's intense from beginning to end, and the final 30 minutes, in which the compound Osama bin Laden is living in is raided, made me feel like I was going to have a heart attack. In a good way.

The acting is superb and subtle. Jessica Chastain turns in a career-making performance as Maya, the CIA officer who single-mindedly dedicates a decade of her life to hunting down the top Al Qaeda terrorist, even after the CIA itself has all but stopped caring. Maya is portrayed as having no love life and few friends; her life is totally dedicated to her work. She's smart and forceful, but in a quiet, observant way that helps her get exactly what she wants and needs to take down this man. But the viewer is left wondering--was it worth it? Was this a worthy goal to pursue?

Many would argue that yes, on a symbolic level, the death of bin Laden was extremely important. I remember learning that bin Laden was dead through a second-hand text, and seeing Facebook blow up the next day. Seeing people celebrate the death of a man who certainly was behind the 9/11 attacks but was not singly responsible for them, was bizarre. I'm not a mind control conspiracy theorist, but no doubt we are trained by our media and politicians to latch on to certain people, events, and sound bites. Was bin Laden's death justified? I'd say yes it was. Was it a cathartic moment for Americans? Most certainly. Did it make things all better? No. Nothing will completely wipe away the anger and agony of 9/11.

Another question: was a feature film about the hunt for and death of bin Laden in poor taste? I personally don't believe so. Yes, I think the filmmakers probably got some of their information, er, "extralegally", and yes, I think that's not exactly a great precedent. But I also think that people really want to know and experience, on some level, "what happened", and I don't think satisfying that curiosity is wrong or in poor taste.

Yet, we don't know exactly where Hollywood ends and real life begins. In fact, one of the biggest controversies of the film, which I'll address in minute, is that the film portrays the CIA gaining a critical piece of information about bin Laden through the torture of a specific terrorist. In real life, the CIA got this information through other means. So, was it irresponsible for Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to present as a fact that critical information was gained through torture? Yes, I do think it is irresponsible and disingenuous.

But let's explore the whole torture thing. Zero Dark Thirty has been lambasted as pro-torture. Some have suggested that Bigelow is a Bush-Cheney apologist who saw torture as critical to the death of bin Laden. Bigelow has denied these charges, and I take her at her word. I also don't see the film as pro-torture (although I do think aspects of the film are problematic--see above), and here's why:

1. Zero Dark Thirty does not romanticize, glorify, or sexualize torture.

Obviously, this interpretation is personal, but when compared to the torture sequences on the TV show 24, or in movies like Taken and Hostel, Zero Dark Thirty feels very different. The torture that Liam Neeson administers in Taken, for example, seems righteous and badass: a man who will (and should!) do anything to find his daughter. The torture in Hostel and Hostel 2 has an element of sexuality and fetishism to it. It involves nudity and gut-churning creativity. And of course, the infamous Jack Bauer is a super-masculinized hero, torturing people to literally save the day.

Zero Dark Thirty strips away the righteousness, the sex, and the glory from torture and shows it for what it really is: a nasty, pathetic affair to be hidden away in a dirty little room at a CIA blacksite. The film portrays torture as grotesque, revolting, dehumanizing to all involved, and nothing to be proud of. It also portrays it as disturbingly real--the victim, Ammar, soils his pants, is forced to crawl on the floor, and weeps openly. Even in Taken, the torture victims are permitted to retain some dignity.

2. The viewer sympathizes with the torture victim.

Ammar, the man who eventually gives up a name that is a key piece of information in hunting down bin Laden, openly admits to being a terrorist and wanting to kill Americans. He's a bad guy. Yet only the most sadistic, disturbed viewer would not be able to sympathize with Ammar. Although he certainly isn't innocent, it's hard to stomach watching him be tortured and humiliated. We (or, at least, I) wanted him to confess--not to help the CIA agents, but so that his torture might end. In some movies and shows that portray torture, the victim is an over the top or generic bad guy who gets what he deserves. The audience of Zero Dark Thirty doesn't see Ammar at his baddest, we see him at his most vulnerable. Therefore, we see his humanity and feel disgust on his behalf.

3. The film shows that torture is dehumanizing to torturer as well as the victim.

Obviously, Ammar is dehumanized by his torture. But Zero Dark Thirty suggests that the act of torturing takes a heavy toll on the torturer as well. Jason Clarke plays Dan, another CIA official who does most of the torturing. Dan is a well-rounded character and certainly not a sadist who enjoys his dirty work (again, this was my personal interpretation--others may see it differently). At one point he tells Ammar that he respects Ammar's ability to remain silent, even though he, Dan, is going to break him anyway. Later, he talks to Maya about wanting to leave the CIA. To me, Dan was a character that reluctantly did his job and removed himself emotionally from his work, despite the fact that it clearly had an impact on his psyche. While the whole "I was just following orders" excuse is pretty pathetic, I liked that Bigelow didn't portray Dan as a 2-dimensional racist meathead who loved his job. I like that she gave him some depth and showed a bit (but not too much) of the regret below his emotionally distant surface.

4. Portraying torture doesn't promote torture.

At the end of the day, I think it's good for American audiences to see a realistic depiction of torture because it forces us to confront this difficult issue head on without any of that Hollywod sheen to make it prettier than it really is. One view of Zero Dark Thirty is that because important information is gained by torture, the movie and all involved are pro-torture. Another view (and this is my view) is this: even if important information WAS gained through torture, does that justify it? I feel that Zero Dark Thirty asks this question and then doesn't fully answer it. On one hand, yes, torture is justified because it leads to the death of a terrorist who was behind the deaths of thousands of people. On the other hand, torture is not justified because when it's all said and done, and bin Laden is in a body bag, it doesn't change much of anything. Maya's tears at the end of the film can be interpreted in two ways: she is feeling incredible catharsis after the successful completion tof a decade-long quest. But she is also wondering, "what now?" Has her life changed or improved? Have others' lives changed all that much? Sure, no one outside of bin Laden's circle of friends, family, and followers mourn him...but his death doesn't bring back the victims of 9/11. Maybe it makes the victims' families rest a little easier knowing justice is kind of served...but it doesn't remove their pain entirely.

Zero Dark Thirty as a film is undeniably tense, well-written, and well-acted. In my opinion, it is one of the best of 2012 and deserving of the accolades it receives. As a political statement, the film is troubling, but not, in my mind, "morally wrong". I try not to attach moral judgments to films and those who watch them. And the films I do judge tend to be bullshit like the Tucker Max movie. There is a lot of wiggle room in art for meaningful portrayals of sex, violence, and moral ambiguity. If not in art, where? Maybe we need to experience violence and morally questionable behavior in the safety of a movie theatre (or library, or art museum) so that we don't feel the need to be violent or immoral in real life. Maybe a film like Zero Dark Thirty satisfies a curiosity to see what real torture looks like, while also making us confront the question: do we want to allow this?

Do we want to live in a society that does this? Is that what we want?

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012: A Damn Good Year for Movies!

Movies: Best and Worst, 2012

Dearest Readers,

I am so excited about the abundance of excellent films in all genres this past year that I am having trouble making up my Best Of list. Last year was, in my opinion, a not-so-great year for film. I named Bridesmaids the best/my favorite movie of 2011, and while Bridesmaids is certainly a true achievement in its genre, it seems a rather odd pick for best of the year. This year, I've seen so many films that are both masterful and wildly original that I can hardly do anything but gush about them all. And there are still great films of 2012 that I have yet to see and review--for example, I'm planning to see Zero Dark Thirty this weekend and I have no doubt that I'll love it.

But I didn't want to wait *too* long before making my list. So below I present to you multiple lists: "worst", "most overrated", "favorite" and "best". I'll keep the commentary short, and I'll link back to my reviews for each one so you can see what I had to say about each film in greater length if you so desire. Whether you agree with my picks, disagree, or have an alternative list--please post comments!

Thanks for following me through a top-notch year for cinema!


Worst of 2012

3. The Deep Blue Sea

Starring the excellent Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, this melancholy take on obsessive love and depression in post-WWII England was a stunning bore. It made many critics' "Best" lists, but I found myself bored and annoyed by the film's grating and desperate characters. It *did*, however, have one of the best scenes of the year: when a group of people sing "Molly Malone" as they hide out in a tube station during a bomb scare. A moment of authentic feeling in a beautiful, yet empty film.

2. Dark Horse

Todd Solondz is known for his nasty little misanthropic pieces of work, but Dark Horse is more irritating than shocking. Give me Dylan Baker as the local neighbor pedophile in Solondz's superior Happiness over Abe as the obnoxious man-baby "protagonist" of Dark Horse any day!

1. Elles

Elles, a film about a journalist interviewing young prostitutes, manages to be boring (the biggest sin in my mind), pretentious, and offensive with a complete lack of edge or anything interesting to say. And don't miss the lovely scene where a client pees on his female escort!

Special "For Shame" Award

Being Elmo

Being Elmo was a lovely, touching documentary about the voice behind Elmo--Kevin Clash. The same Kevin Clash who has been accused of having sex with multiple underage men. I weep for humanity.

Biggest Disappointments

 3. Prometheus

While I found Prometheus to be pretty entertaining, as well as having the best abortion scene ever committed to film, it's undeniable that Ridley Scott's "prequel" to his insanely popular Alien did not live up to the hype, was overstuffed and under-satisfying, and disappointed millions of fans.

2. Shame

It sucks to see Michael Fassbender, a very talented actor, in two movies on the disappointments list, but thems the breaks. Steve McQueen's portrait of a sex addict on the brink of self-destruction was good, but it didn't go deep enough (innuendo not intended) and I think viewers felt a bit cheated. We wanted a compelling story along with our full-frontal nudity. Maybe McQueen should take a page from Steven Soderbergh on how to make a good movie about naked dudes.

1. The Master 

Ya know, I like an uncomfortable, creepy, self-important P.T. Anderson film as much as the next person who actually knows who P.T. Anderson is, but The Master just didn't do it for me. And the fact that critics slavered over it only made me dig in my heels that this film is good but very, very much not great.

My Favorites

So, when I took my first film class during freshman year of college, the professor asked us to distinguish between "it's good" and "I like it". Any student of film can tell you why Citizen Kane is undeniably a great film and work of art. But are most of those people going to put it on to relax with a beer on the weekend? Very few, I hope. The following is a list of my personal favorite films of the year, which may in some cases coincide with what I consider "the best" achievements of the year.

 9. Ruby Sparks

A funny and subversive take on the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" written by (and starring) Zoe Kazan.

8. Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman's film about self-important (and self-deluded) college women has a pleasantly weird flavor to it.

7. For a Good Time, Call...

Probably no one remembers this raunchy comedy, but dammit, I love this film's beautiful take on female friendship.

6. Django Unchained 

Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction are still the Tarantino loves of my life, but Django Unchained is a solid, intense, funny, and brutal film. With wonderful performances all around, but especially by Christoph Waltz as a German bounty hunter whose opinion of American slavery transforms from glib to outraged, and by Samuel L. Jackson as a villainous house slave who only looks out for number one, Django is both one of the best films of the year and one of my favorites.

5. The Cabin in the Woods 

In terms of pure originality, Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods takes the cake. It's also insanely fun.

4. A Dangerous Method

An intellectual, brilliantly acted, and talky film that also has BDSM? What's not to love? Keira Knightley's awesome performance as a masochistic, hysterical, and deeply intelligent woman is outstanding. And Michael Fassbender (there he is again!) and Viggo Mortensen shine as the introspective Carl Jung and wry, cigar-chomping Sigmund Freud.

3. Magic Mike

Magic Mike was the best surprise of the year. Who knew a movie about male strippers could be both genuinely entertaining and also kinda actually thoughtful. It's hardly the deepest film ever, but there are as many insightful moments about masculinity and friendship as there are shots of man-butt.

2. Moonrise Kingdom

As far as I'm concerned, Wes Anderson can do no wrong. His films are something you don't see a lot in today's crass world: gentle. And not in a Lifetime Movie sort of way. This film is Anderson's ode to childhood love and self-assertion. A friend of mine argued that the older actors--including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Bruce Willis--outshined the young actors who played Suzy and Sam. I disagree; I saw it as the other way around.

1. Killer Joe

Alright, maybe this is a controversial pick. Killer Joe is most certainly an exploitative and "art-trash" film. But I don't think I had a better time at the movies this year (except for maybe watching Magic Mike). From Matthew McConaughey's performance as a sociopathic killer with impeccable manners, to Juno Temple as the young (but how young?!), possibly mentally disabled (but how mentally disabled?!) turn as Dottie, to the elements of slapstick humor (the scene with Ansel's suit sleeve. That's all I'll say), Killer Joe was a tense, dark, violent, and hilarious experience.

Best of 2012

The following are what I believe to be the best cinematic achievements of the year.

11. Magic Mike 

Once again, a wonderful surprise and, as a friend called it, "The Citizen Kane of male stripper movies."

10. Silver Linings Playbook

This was another happy surprise. A film that defies categorization, Silver Linings Playbook is about a bipolar man (Bradley Cooper) getting back on his feet after a stint in a mental hospital. To help him along the way is a tart young widow (Jennifer Lawrence). Robert DeNiro also has a great turn as Cooper's dad, an OCD-afflicted Philadephia Eagles super-fan. A joyous and funny film.

9. Argo

Tons of people LOVED Argo, Ben Affleck's film about the "true" story of how one man orchestrated the rescue of five Americans trapped in Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. I merely thought it was good. But the final act is definitely a tension-filled, nail-biter. Ben Affleck has proven himself to be an increasingly talented director.

8. Looper 

Much like Argo, I found Looper to be darn good, but not great. Looper's strength lies in both its originality as a work of speculative fiction, and also how it upends the expectations we have for speculative fiction. So although the audience is treated to slick scenes of a not-too-distant future, most of the film actually takes place on a farm. Looper is ultimately more about how your personal choices affect others and your own future than time travel.

7. A Separation

A Separation technically came out in 2011, but it didn't reach my town until February or March of 2012. The film is about a family in modern Iran that is torn apart, both internally and externally. Yet the film has a surprising lack of melodrama and is free from that annoying feeling of Oscar/Award-fishing. In fact, A Separation has more than a few funny and wry moments. Definitely a scrappy little underdog of a movie.

6. Killer Joe 

Killer Joe's killer script by playwright Tracy Letts and killer performances by Matthew McConaughey, Juno Temple, Thomas Hayden Church, and Gina Gershon make it one of the best films of the year. The film unnerves and entertains in equal measure--a feat that is difficult to accomplish.

5. The Cabin in the Woods

Again, the originality of this meta-commentary on horror movies pushed it toward the top of my favorite and best lists (and other critics' lists as well). From the get-go, the audience knows that something unusual is afoot, but what exactly the hell is going on isn't revealed until a bat-shit crazy final act.

4. Django Unchained 

Laughably, this film about a slave's revenge was called "racist" by some commentators. In my mind, The Help, which was incredibly popular last year, is more racist in its simplistic and patronizing view of black maids and the white people who helped them. Django is no more "historically accurate" than The Help, but it paints a far more vicious picture of the lowliness...the depths...that some of our ancestors went to in order to justify slavery and sadistically control slaves. With Django Unchained, Tarantino poked a sore spot for many Americans, and then put a bandage over that spot by letting us root for a black slave hero who turns the tables on the evil men and women who live off the sweat of enslaved people. This isn't to say that Americans should feel free from the burden of the history of slavery, but this film helps continue a conversation that we all need to keep having.

3. Lincoln

Speaking of slaves and the white dudes who helped them! Steven Spielberg's take on the passing of the 13th amendment is both intimate and epic in scope. With an intelligent and, at times, quite witty script by Tony Kushner, and a completely immersive performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is an all-around excellent and smart film. This movie is destined to win Oscars, yet it doesn't have that feeling I mentioned above of Oscar-grabbiness. Rather than focus on pandering to audiences expecting to see a white-washed, PG-13 version of Abraham Lincoln's life, Spielberg focused on one month of Lincoln's life in which he accomplished a great thing (if occasionally through shady means). Lincoln was not a perfect man, but he was most certainly an exceptional man. And he got an exceptional movie.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild

In addition to having the best performance in a movie by anyone this year (6 year old Quvenzhane Wallis' jaw-dropping performance as Hushpuppy), Beasts of the Southern Wild was an achievement of unique vision, genre-mixing, storytelling, and overall sensory experience. It didn't make it on to my "favorites" list simply because it's not the easiest movie to watch and it's not something I anticipate watching over and over. But it is undoubtedly one of greatest films this year.

1. Moonrise Kingdom

There were so many great films in 2012, but my heart belongs to Moonrise Kingdom. From Edward Norton's earnest portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward, to a soundtrack with French pop music and Hank Williams Sr., to Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky's love for each other that is untainted by the constraints and disappointments of adulthood, Moonrise is both delightful and emotionally complex.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Slave No More

Movies: Django Unchained

Three years ago when my friends and I went to see Tarantino's Nazi-killing revisionist revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds, we emerged from the theater quivering with excitement. We had just watched a bunch of Nazis, including the big man himself, get murdered by a troupe of Jewish men. We had been primed to hate Nazis, especially Hitler, who has become more of a symbol of ultimate, unrepentant evil than an actual man. So to watch a film where he gets machine-gunned in the face? A visceral, primal pleasure.

Coming out of Django Unchained was a little...different. Tarantino's latest revenge fantasy comedy (and homage to spaghetti westerns) is about a slave, Django (played by Jamie Foxx), who is freed by a German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, playing a far more humane character than his role in Basterds). In exchange for Django's help finding, killing, and hauling in a trio of criminals--the Brittle Brothers--for a hefty bounty, Schultz will help Django track down and rescue his wife, Broomhilda, who was sold separately from Django years before. Schultz teaches Django to use a gun and it turns out that Django is a natural at it. He's good at killing white folks too. Especially if they're in the process of whipping a slave.

The real fun begins when Schultz and Django track down Broomhilda. She was sold to a notorious plantation owner--Calvin Candie (played with delicious evil by Leonardo DiCaprio)--a rich dandy who forces his slaves to fight each other to the death in a sport called "Mandingo fighting". Schultz and Django pose as a customer interested in purchasing a slave for Mandigo fights and an expert on the sport, respectively. By offering to pay an outrageous sum to buy one of Candie's slaves, they gain entry into CandieLand, his plantation. Of course, it's not long before all hell breaks lose, Tarantino-style.

While Django Unchained was as excellent, funny, violent, and dark as Tarantino's previous films, it was uncomfortable in a way his other movies aren't. It's easy to laugh at Hitler being murdered, but when it's your own history up for scruntinization, you can't help but feel a sense of shame. And this is good. It's appropriate to feel shame about American slavery, even if you or your ancestors didn't own slaves. It's part of our collective history and memory as Americans and it's a burden we have to bear. At least, this is what I believe.

I read a review of the film that used a phrase like "America's weeping sore" to describe slavery. Slavery is a weird thing because it's far enough in the past that people living today don't directly relate to it, yet the haunting memories live on and get filtered down through history. Many people alive today do, in fact, remember a time when black people and white people did not intermingle at all. Where schools were segregated, the N-word flowed freely from people's mouths, etc. And everyone alive today is aware of the tension--the tightrope walk--of electing our first black president. The snide comments and jokes that followed. Images of the White House with watermelons planted in the front yard that were emailed between congress people who weren't fans of Obama.

Although things are far better than they were 50--and certainly 150--years ago; racism, white privilege, and all that ugliness are alive and well today. No one wants to be called a racist, but many folks cling to their "rights" to say and believe terrible, racist things. Django pulls no punches. Far more disturbing than the fountains of stage blood during the shooting scenes are the scenes of black slaves in those hideous, spiked collars, being led on leashes like animals. The scene where Django begs on his knees for his wife to not get whipped--and she's whipped anyway. The degradation and humiliation is disgusting--a sin.

Bizarrely, a couple days before I saw Django, I was waiting in a movie theater to see Anna Karenina (review to be posted soon!), and an eccentric-looking elderly lady sat down next to me to ask me to help read a train ticket she had in her hand. I realize that this will sound like a fake story, but this nutty old broad engaged me in a conversation about how Abraham Lincoln is surely "in hell" and was "a crook". Further, she said that once slavery ended, a bunch of slaves who, she said, "people like us would consider subhuman" went around raping and pillaging until "the KKK put a stop to it". I'm not kidding you people--these are her words! I tried to argue with her where I could, but mainly I was amused and bewildered--though not surprised--that this living relic in a tattered fur coat was saying things to me that surely some people think, but know better than to speak aloud.

I think the worst part was her comment about the "subhuman" slaves. Of course, she's partially right. These men, women, and children were born as human and free as any white person. Granted the same rights by God as any white person. But we--our ancestors--put chains on them and made them "subhuman". At least in our minds. It's easier to whip and rape subhumans than equal beings, isn't it?

America is a great country and I love it so much. But I understand and accept that if you call yourself an American, you have to take the good along with the bad. We live in an amazing country where we have many freedoms people in other countries do not have. But as payment for that freedom, we must acknowledge that it was not always this way, and it still isn't perfect. We are the country of the Constitution, but we're also the country of Rosa Parks, of Japanese internment camps, of Jim Crow laws. We must take it as whole in order to make it better.

4.5 out of 5 stars