Category: Dramas Based on Real Life


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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before I begin the review proper. I watched this movie in the wee hours of Monday/Tuesday morning. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet because I went out and partied on Tuesday and was hung over the entirety of Wednesday. Anyways, if my review isn’t up to my usual standards [particularly my recent reviews of Into the Wild or Melancholia], that’s why. My apologies.)

Finally! After over three years of waiting, one of my goals for this blog has finally come true. After three years of review films, I think it’s safe to say that my understanding and appreciation of cinema has deepened and my taste in movies has certainly matured since I was in high school. And one of my goals for this blog was to find a movie that I had watched for the first time when I was much younger that is supposed to be a “classic” but that I simply didn’t enjoy and finally understand why it’s held in such high regard and enjoy it as much as everyone else.

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Vertigo is the closest I’ve come although I still find the first 2/3 of that film to be an insufferable bore (thankfully, it’s last act is perfection). My viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia for this blog were marked by an appreciation of the films’ technical merits but no real pleasure (once again, still think they’re mostly insufferable bores). When I was in high school, I didn’t get the hype surrounding Raging Bull at all, and I’ve long thought that De Niro only won his Oscar because he gained 60 pounds during the film’s shoot. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

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All of the other “classics” that I’m still yet to warm to beyond their technical merits have consistently suffered from what I view as a deficiency of compelling character. Lawrence of Arabia is interesting as a historical document (though skewed towards the notion of British exceptionalism) and a phenomenal bit of epic filmmaking, but the film has nothing to say about why T.H. Lawrence is such a legendary and endlessly fascinating figure. And I’m actually unsure if 2001 has anything interesting to say whatsoever. But, if there’s ever been a more intense portrait of desperate, wounded masculinity than Raging Bull, I don’t know what it is.

Scorsese is famous for his gritty, stylistic crime thrillers but anyone who’s seen The Age of Innocence or Taxi Driver (or even the recent The Wolf of Wall Street) knows that his real talents lie in burrowing into the heart of his characters; his most famous films simply combine great characters with iconoclastic style. The ultimate sacrifice of his own happiness that Newland makes in The Age of Innocence is one of the most moving and powerful arcs of Scorsese’s career. And by casting aside the typical tale of good guys and bad guys for Raging Bull, Scorsese lets us see the full force of his understanding of character in one of his most memorable “heroes,” the real life boxer, Jake La Motta (Silver Lining Playbook‘s Robert De Niro).

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Based on La Motta’s (ghost-written) autobiography, Raging Bull takes a look into the La Motta’s rise to boxing world champion as well as the ultimate self-destruction that rules every step of his life. Managed by his brother Joey (Joe Pesci), who only seems kept together in comparison to Jake, the film begins when a 19 year old Jake La Motta loses his first boxing fight by decision. In an unhappy marriage (Jake has a major Madonna/Whore complex), Jake meets the 15 year old Vicky (Casper‘s Cathy Moriarty), and he instantly falls for the virginal beauty. But, the two’s marriage  only leads to heartbreak and destruction for both.

With the possible exception of Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth, there has never been a male lead in the cinema as insanely jealous and aggressive as Jake La Motta. What’s more astounding is the extent to which Jake himself owns up to and wished to atone for his outrageous behavior. Jake is sweet and tender with Vicky until they get married and sleep together. And from that point forward, he’ll beat and harass her if she so much as looks at another man. At one point in the film, she referred to another boxer as a good looking man  and Jake beats him so viciously in their next match that he’ll never be good looking again.

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And, at the end of the day, Raging Bull is an attempt by Martin Scorsese to explore the dichotomy of Jake’s violent and brutal presence in the ring (and how said violence makes him successful as a boxer) and that same violence and brutality destroying his personal life. Jake becomes convinced that his brother is sleeping with Vickie just because Joey beat a mobster outside a club to protect Jake’s honor. And so Jake beats Joey within an inch of his life. And although that toughness means Jake can stand toe to toe with Sugar Ray Robinson, it makes him an awful husband and a generally terrible human being.

And Robert De Niro’s performance makes this film. On some level, I still question if the film is as deep and definitive of overt masculine desperation as it makes itself out to be or if Robert De Niro is just that good. Regardless of the answer to that question, De Niro gives one of the finest performances of his iconic career as Jake La Motta. There’s a scene later in the film where La Motta’s been arrested and is thrown in jail, and the animalistic ferocity of De Niro’s performance is one of the most intensely acted scenes in film history, and the rest of the movie lives up to that high standard. To be honest, him gaining the 60 lbs. himself seems like an unnecessary stunt when his performance alone carries the film.

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The film’s cinematography is as brutal and unforgiving as the movie’s script. Trust me when I say you haven’t seen a boxing movie like this before. Replacing the “boxing ballet” of titles like Rocky with buckets of blood and in-your-face camera angles, Raging Bull makes you feel every punch and every cut. In fact, Raging Bull goes beyond reality unless Jake La Motta’s final bout against Sugar Ray Robinson is really as bloody as this film suggests (which is to say that by the end, Jake looked like Sloth from The Goonies). And the gorgeous black & white cinematography fits just as well for the domestic segments though they are nearly as brutal and terrifying as the boxing sections (which is what makes Raging Bull such a classic).

Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty both shine in some of the earlier roles of their career (I might be wrong, but I think this was Moriarty’s first role). Vickie is less a character in her own right and more a bounce board for Jake’s insane rage. And her lack of depth is probably the sole reason I’m not giving this film perfect marks (spoiler). But, Cathy Moriarty works wonders with what she’s given, and of course, Joe Pesci is always your go to man if you need a small guy with an insane presence and a hair-trigger temper. The role isn’t as substantive as his parts in Goodfellas or Casino (I know I’m one of the latter’s few defenders), but he steals every scene he’s in as usual.

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As I said, I watched this film several days ago, and I’m at work and I just need to draw this review to a premature close. Raging Bull is clearly one of the great films of the 1980s which was sadly something of a dry period for great American cinema (the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate essentially ended the New Hollywood era of the 60s and 70s), and while I wouldn’t put it over the top of Taxi Driver as Scorsese’s best film (or even the flawed Gangs of New York for that matter), it is one of the great portraits of American masculinity and a must-see for all film lovers.

Final Score: A

 

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In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.

2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.

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This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.

In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.

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Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.

Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.

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And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.

As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.

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And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.

It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.

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Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.

And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.

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But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.

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And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.

Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.

Final Score: A

 

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Like many young intellectuals yearning for something deeper in their lives, I have turned to Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel, On the Road, for inspiration. One of the defining pieces of “beat” literature, On the Road is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century and its portrait of young Americans without purpose or direction has carried a romantic power to millions of disaffected youth since it was first released in 1957. However, unlike many of my contemporaries who have read Kerouac’s classic novel and viewed it as a romanticized ode to life on the road and freeing one’s self from the shackles of society, I interpreted On the Road to be a deeply sad and lonely evocation of the desperation that has consumed young people when we’ve found ourselves freed from whatever ties we imagine society has bound upon us but have yet to find any actual meaning within our own lives outside of evading those strictures.

I took that view of the novel because deep down, there are no happy characters in the book. The closest you get is Dean Moriarty (later on, famous real life Merry Prankster, Neal Cassady, in real life: see The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But even Dean’s manic joie de vivre masks a complete lack of any meaning in his life and a total inability to care about anyone but himself in any sort of real or meaningful way. Dean is a product of pure, selfish, destructive id. And everyone else, from Sal to Carlo to Marylou to Camille, are wandering around in an existentialist fugue hoping that the next great adventure will provide them with a sense of purpose. And, that sense of purpose never comes until, at last, Sal is able to wash away the idealistic facade he’s built around himself and his relationship with Dean Moriarty. And this understanding that On the Road is a tremendously sad and introspective work is probably the only thing that the 2012 film adaptation gets right.

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I didn’t read On the Road until fairly recently so I had known about the plans for the movie for a while, but had I read the book without knowing there was a movie coming out, I would have made the argument that On the Road was unfilmable, and Walter Salles’ film adaptation does little to make me think I’m wrong in that supposition. What makes On the Road succeed certainly isn’t it’s narrative structure which, sprawling as it is, is mostly Sal Paradise wandering around the country with a different group of outcasts and outsiders and barely making any sort of revelations or character change until perhaps the end of the film. On the Road is important for its sharp, unique  prose and the poetry of his descriptions of the fringes of American 1950s American society. The only way that I could see an On the Road adaptation working as a movie is as some type of late-period Terrence Malick style visual tone poem which tries to keep as much of Kerouac’s prose and poetry intact. The film version that exists attempts a more traditional narrative structure and it robs the piece of much of Kerouac’s magic insight.

For those who haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the tangled web of “beat” literature, On the Road is a very autobiographical tale of the both literal and spiritual journey that Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), aka author Jack Kerouac, takes around the nation when he finds himself drawn into the social circle of a group of mad and passionate intellectuals and freaks including homosexual poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), aka Allen Ginsberg, and manic conman Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), aka Neal Cassady. Deciding that the only chance he’ll have to write anything of meaning will be if he leaves his material world of comfort in New York City behind, Sal sets out on the road and crosses back and forth across the country multiple times in search of inspiration and the elusive American dream. Whether or not he ever finds it is up to your interpretation of the novel.

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On the Road clearly couldn’t adapt the entirety of Kerouac’s sprawling, epic portrait of life on the American road into a two or so hour movie and so the vast majority of the book’s more minor subplots get left on the cutting room floor (though when they arrive, they are so thinly developed that you’d probably be left wondering what the fuck is going on if you haven’t read the book), and screenwriter Jose Rivera picks a few key threads to focus on. A significant amount of the novel is dedicated to Dean Moriarty’s almost criminal mistreatment of his girlfriends/wife, the 16 year old Marylou (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart) and the older but even more suffering Camille (Kirsten Dunst) as well as the homoerotic subtext of Dean’s friendship with Sal and his explicit (in terms of not being subtext/not graphic portrayal) homosexual relationship with Carlo Marx.

Those are important threads of the novel, and I particularly appreciated that the movie made clear things that Jack Kerouac only really hinted at in the novel in regards to Dean and Carlo’s sexual relationship (something that’s become a matter of historical record since the novel came out). And, the film addresses the insanely misogynistic behavior that Dean commits pathologically that Sal seems to in love with him to ever call him out on in the book. But, by focusing so heavily on the darker aspects of the novel, the movie fails to capture those moments (which are as important to the book as its sense of alienation and desperation) in the novel where Sal is bowled over by the simple beauty of life. I understand that sort of tonal complexity is difficult to accomplish in a film but if you’re going to tackle such an important and beloved novel, it’s subtleties have to be respected.

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What I’m about to say will probably come off as somewhat ironic since I’ve been harping on how much I dislike Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady as an actual person, but he’s also without question the most interesting and dynamic figure in the work (though the increased attention given to Carlo Marx in the film helps make that more of a competition). Dean can’t stop moving. If he stands still for even a second, he gets bored. And his ever-present restlessness brings ruin down on everyone around him so thank the gods that the best performance of the film comes from Garrett Hedlund who plays perpetual motion machine Neal Cassady so well. He may not have the “hopped up on speed” mania that I got from reading the book, but it’s also easy to see why Sal began to swoon so hard for this man of undeniable magnetism (how homoerotic did that sentence come off). There’s a scene at the end of the film where Dean confronts Sal one last time that is heartbreaking as played by the talented Mr. Hedlund. I want to see more from this young star.

Others in the film seemed less well cast. Sam Riley seems like the premiere contender for most absurd casting decision ever. He looks nothing like Jack Kerouac so his mediocre performance can’t even be looked over for him at least having some type of physical resemblance to the man. If Sal is a passive observer in the books, the movie manages to make Sal Paradise seem even less interesting by comparison. Kirsten Dunst has never been well cast for a role in her life and it still boggles my mind that she has an acting career, and her Camille is no exception. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss shows up for all of five minutes to play a minor role and I kept wishing that she would have played Camille instead. Surprisingly, Kristen Stewart was an interesting take on Marylou and it reminds me that in Adventureland and Into the Wild, she’s a good actress. She’s just forced the awful Bella Swan on the public as her most famous role.

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If there’s one last positive thing to say about the film, it’s that one can’t fault the gorgeous cinematography from Eric Gautier who provided similarly impressive work on an earlier, better Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries. This review comes off as really harsh to this vision of one of the most well-loved novels of the 20th century, so I don’t want to give the idea that On the Road was a bad film. It just made a number of bizarre design decisions that distract from what makes On the Road so special and unique. I don’t envy anyone the task of trying to make a film on a novel that’s so personal to so many people. Lord knows that as a screenwriter myself, I would never want that burden. But, they volunteered to do it, and throughout the whole film, I had the thought at the back of my head that I wish it had gone differently.

Final Score: B-

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I’ve long thought about trying my hand at writing a war movie. Other than the clear obstacle that I have absolutely no military experience whatsoever, I’ve alays been plagued by my desire to not write your typical, American military film. If I ever wrote a war movie, I wouldn’t want to write about the winning side, or, in the fashion of Saving Private Ryan, at least not one who achieved anything more than a Pyrrhic victory. War films about glorious victors are too self-congratulatory and celebratory. The notion of “We won; you lost,” permeates every scene and they generally fail to capture the hellish realities of war. And, perhaps, that’s why my two favorite World War II films come from the perspective of the soon-to-be damned.

Up until last night, I would have said 1981’s Das Boot was the best World War II movie ever made. Wolfgang Petersen’s classic examination of life on a German U-Boat at the end of World War II captures the reality of “War Is Hell” better than any film ever made, except perhaps Grave of the Fireflies. And it achieved that through avoid any glorification of war whatsoever. These men’s lives were miserable and full of death, and even when they made it back to Germany, death awaited them. It was one man’s deconstruction of a glorious myth of his own people’s past, and it remains one of the finest war films ever made. 2004’s Downfall takes an even more stark and controversial route than Das Boot by daring to humanize the final days of the Third Reich.

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It is, in Germany, illegal to display most symbols of the Nazi party. Nationalist and hard-right political parties are illegal, and performing the Nazi salute is a prosecutable offense. German’s are sick, to this day, to their very soul by the horrors they committed in World War II, and what makes Downfall work so well is that, like The White Ribbon, it is both a cinematic excoriation of the darker side of German culture as well as an honest humanization of the men and women who oversaw some of the worst atrocities in human history. That the film dares offer a realistic and honest portrait of Adolf Hitler alone would have qualified it as mandatory World War II viewing, but the film is much more ambitious and far-sighted than that.

Based heavily on the testimony of Hitler’s personal secretary, Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Downfall is a painstakingly realized portrayal of the final week of the men in the Third Reich’s bunker in Berlin as Russian forces slowly but surely capture the city. Hitler (Wings of Desire‘s Bruno Ganz) lives in a schizophrenic state of absolute refusal to accept that his dreams shall not come to pass against sudden bouts of realistic acceptance and plans for his own imminent suicide with his mistress Eva Braun (Nowhere in Africa‘s Juliane Kohler). As  Hitler’s stability dwindles, his top generals and brass, including Albert Speer, Heinrich Himler, and Josef Goebbels, are left fighting amongst themselves on whether to obey’s the Fuhrer’s orders and refuse surrender or to ignore Hitler and save their people from total destruction.

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And as life in the bunker devolves into a daily race to see who Hitler accuses of being a traitor next (if for no other reason than not being able to follow his impossible demands), life above the bunker in the streets of Berlin is even worse. Goebbels has commanded battalions of children to serve as cannon fodder to slow the advance of the Red Army. Heinrich Himmler has removed all of the SS and most top government officials from the city leaving the remaining civilians to die of starvation and sickness. And what few doctors remain in the city are stretched threadbare amongst the surviving resistance. And, without fail, the Russians continue their march into the city itself.

Bruno Ganz’s performance as Adolf Hitler is one of the most remarkable and stunningly courageous performances in the history of the silver screen. Hitler is not the type of role any German actor would naturally gravitate towards, but Ganz brings him to life in a wrenchingly honest way. In a performance that can only be described as the exact opposite of his kind and sensitive angel Damiel in Wings of Desire, Ganz’s Hitler is by turns despotic, brutal, cruel, and unyielding. Yet, minutes later, he can be caring, gentle with women and children, despairing, and frightened. If any historical figure from the 1900s lends itself to over-the-top caricature, it’s Hitler, but even in his most explosive angry moments, Bruno Ganz keeps his characterization frighteningly realistic.

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And Ganz is supported by an exceptional pool of talented German actors and actresses. Anyone who’s seen Nowhere in Africa knows how talented Juliane Kohler is, and her Eva Braun is exceptionally different from her suffering Jewish wife/mother. She’s a manic creature who wants to manufacture a joie de vivre in the bunker even when she knows she will die soon. Alexandra Maria Lara brings the secretary to life, and you sympathize with her suffering even though you know she works directly for one of the most evil men in human history. Other stellar supporting performances include Corinna Harfouch as Goebbel’s zealously loyal wife, Christian Berkel as a nazi doctor, and Ulrich Matthes as Goebbels himself.

When the movie was released in 2004, it was fairly controversial for its dogged refusal to not simply make its protagonist monstrous caricatures. Yes, we see how truly monstrous these men and women can be. Hitler asserts repeatedly that the German people don’t deserve to live after the war because they have failed him. Goebbel’s wife, Magda, poisons her children in their sleep rather than let them live in a world without National Socialism. Many of Hitler’s men scheme to depose him now that the war is clearly lost. But, at the same time, the movie touches on the small moments of humanity these comrades share before their downfall. Eva Braun gives Traudl her best fur coat. Hitler walks his dog and congratulates his best soldiers. Goebbels leads his children in German songs to entertain the soldiers and the Fuhrer.

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The film never stops finding little moments like that. Though there is plenty of conventional warfare going on above the bunker (which is displayed in graphic detail), the movie’s most effective moments are in the character-building and day-to-day life at the end of a wannabe empire. This movie’s deliberate pacing may scare away more action-oriented war movie lovers, but for those who understand that the key to a successful war film (or any film to be honest) is character driven storytelling (so we’re invested in the outcome on screen), Downfall‘s dedication to character is a breath of fresh air.

At 110o words, I’m going to draw this review to a close because I promised my sister I would watch the Billy Wilder/Humphrey Bogart/Audrey Hepburn classic Sabrina with her later. Also, I’m very, very hungry. It’s 4:30 and I haven’t eaten anything today (although to be fair, I didn’t wake up until 2:30 PM). If you’re looking for a World War II movie that breaks the mold, look no further than Downfall. After some contemplation, it replaces Das Boot as what I consider to be the best World War II film ever made, and it’s deserving of a wider audience than it’s had over the years.

Final Score: A

 

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Perhaps it’s not the best way to approach art criticism, but it seems impossible to me to separate the content of a film from the form or structure supporting said content. The Birth of a Nation is without question one of the most important films ever made from a technical perspective, but its loathsome racist content makes it a shining example of an exceptionally talented director using his powers for evil. Leni Riefenstahl would follow the same path when she made Triumph of the Will for the Nazi government. With great talent comes great responsibility (to paraphrase Uncle Ben), and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a great talent. She has now made arguably the two definitive films on the war on terror, although I would never compare her moral lapses to D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, my respect for the filmcraft on display in Zero Dark Thirty is nearly overwhelmed by the morally reprehensible political subtext of this otherwise first-rate drama.

Because let there be no doubts, Zero Dark Thirty is easily the best procedural drama since Zodiac. At just shy of three hours long, Zero Dark Thirty is engrossing, intricate, and brutally honest in its display of the hunt for the most wanted fugitive in American history. Although it lacks some of the character-driven aspects that makes Zodiac one of the best American films of the aughts, Zero Dark Thirty is dedicated to presenting a realistic portrayal of the dirty work our nation’s intelligence officers embroil themselves in in order to catch the bad guys. But the film’s unwillingness to make a statement about the dirtiest of the dirty work compromises the vision of the film, but more on the political subtext of the film later. Let me simply lead then with the fact that I found myself simultaneously loathing and loving Zero Dark Thirty on multiple occasions during the film’s run time.

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The plot of Zero Dark Thirty is both as simple as it is complex and it’s a testament to the expert tapestry that is the film’s screenplay that it never becomes too difficult to follow this constantly weaving and shifting story. The surface is what’s simple. It is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But, it’s when you push past that simple log line that you realize just how intricate this film is. Focusing mostly on one C.I.A Agent, Maya (The Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain), whose obsession with locating and killing Osama bin Laden is ultimately what brings the man down. From her introduction to an al Qaeda financier being put under “enhanced interrogation” at a CIA Black site to a web of surveillance, bribes, and international terrorism, Maya and the team surrounding her exhaust every tool of the intelligence community to capture Osama bin Laden.

And that’s all I want to say for fear of spoiling the pleasure that is the intellectual gamesmanship that is on display as Maya and the others involved in the search risk their lives and occasionally their sanity to capture bin Laden. Much like Zodiac, this film relies on an honest display of an investigation (though this one actually ends with them catching the bad guy), and so you are sent on plenty of false leads, wild goose chases, and outright disappointments as they think they have something that turns out to be nothing. And the film does not shy away from displaying some of the loathsome tactics the American intelligence community was using to get that information. However, it’s the films unwillingness to make a statement on said methods (which becomes, essentially, a silent approval) that proves to be the movie’s only true flaw.

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Because, allow mew to make no bones about this, enhanced interrogation is torture. Water boarding is torture. Beating prisoners is torture. Locking them in a box that their bodies barely fit in is torture. Sleep deprivation is torture. Stripping a prisoner naked and leading them around on a dog collar is torture. You see all of these things happen in Zero Dark Thirty, and just when you think the film is saying it’s bad (by having Maya be rightfully disgusted at it happening), the heroine of the film stamps her approval on it by being even more efficient in her “enhanced interrogation” than the CIA agent we first meet in the film’s opening sequence. The film makes the case that we would have never caught bin Laden without these methods which may be true. But it also never makes the more important case that maybe that our nation’s moral high ground is more important.

The film constantly drives its silent approval of torture home by interplaying re-enactments of actual incidences of terrorism (the London bus bombings, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, the attack on a Saudi embassy) immediately after some interrogation technique fails to acquire results. The film makes the accurate point that every second a terrorist refuses to give up information, it allows the terrorists at large to do an attack. But by torturing, we simply feed the fuels for terrorist recruitment, and even the film admits that most of the valuable information came from non-torture interrogation techniques. But the very clear political message of this film is that you have to get your hands dirty to get the bad guys, and considering most of the empirical evidence suggests otherwise, that political aspect of the film is simply loathsome.

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For an actress whose name I didn’t know before 2011 (and I know most actors and actresses and their whole filmographies), Jessica Chastain has become one of Hollywood’s most consistently talented stars. Although I wasn’t sure why her performance was so Oscar-worthy at first (she was nominated but lost to Jennifer Lawrence), as Maya loses herself in the investigation to locate bin Laden, Jessica Chastain captures the obsession and desperation and alienation that take over Maya’s life. A character comments on how strung out Maya is looking halfway through the film, and before the movie’s over, Chastain’s physical and emotional transformation is enough to make the audience itself exhausted. And Zero Dark Thirty is chock full of great supporting performances including Kyle Chandler, Christopher Pratt, James Gandolfini, and Jason Clarke.

If you aren’t bothered by the film’s political message, by all means, watch Zero Dark Thirty right now. It’s an intellectual thrill ride through the modern intelligence community, and I found it to be absolutely enthralling when I wasn’t positively disgusted by it. If, like me, you have a moral conscience, you should probably still watch Zero Dark Thirty. From a technical perspective, it’s easily one of the best films of 2012, and if I didn’t find it so disgusting at times, I probably would have given it an “A.” However, Bigelow’s ultimate glorification of the truly awful and inhuman things the American government did to capture Osama bin Laden is wrong. And it’s wrong to use her considerable directorial talents for what may one day become a conservative propaganda film. So, instead, Zero Dark Thirty is a…

Final Score: B+

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Long time readers should remember that I am currently a political science major at West Virginia University. I’m fairly knowledgeable of not just current American politics, but the darker history of America’s political past. I’m an Aaron Sorkin junkie, and even if The American President overly romanticized the modern presidency, it still captured something refreshingly accurate about the modern legislative process (and had a great love story to boot). A biopic of Abraham Lincoln that pushes past the well-known stories of his presidency and focuses on his attempts to pass the 13th Amendment directed by Steven Spielberg (War Horse) starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) seems like it would be right up my alley. And while Lincoln is full of interesting historical anecdotes and shows Lincoln as an intelligent politician (not just the nearly divine figure he’s become in American history, though it does that too), the film lacks an emotional, human core to hold this history lesson together.

Although, let’s face it, other than Munich, Spielberg’s “serious” films of late have felt more like cold, clinical experiments in cinematic technique than the grand celebrations of a movie-lover with more tools than he knows what to do with. In the past, Spielberg’s movies felt so full of life and wonder. E.T. remains one of the purest cinematic portrayals of the innocence and wonder of childhood ever made, and A.I. is (to me) one of the three definitive science fiction films of the 2000s and marks the end of innocence of childhood in as tragic but beautiful way as humanly possible. Spielberg’s status as one of America’s most important directors has apparently gone to his head and so many of his most recent films (especially War Horse) are dry and devoid of the emotion and honest humanity that made his best works so brilliant. Lincoln doesn’t fall as far as War Horse, but it constantly left me asking for something more substantive.

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As stated, Lincoln is a narrowly focused biopic (a decision I actually applaud) that follows the last months of the Civil War and the efforts of President Lincoln to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment. For those not familiar with the U.S. Constitution, the 13th Amendment banned slavery (contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t ban slavery. It just freed the slaves in the Confederacy). With the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn), Lincoln must navigate the rat’s nest known as the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only must he contend with the factions within his own party (he needs unanimous support from the Republicans if it has any hope of passage), he must convince at least 20 House Democrats to vote for the bill they clearly loathe. And through the promise of patronage, intimidation, and outright bribery, Lincoln and his team get the job done (I hope to god that’s not a spoiler for you).

My primary problem with the film is that it consistently fails to humanize this mythic figure in American history. While the movie isn’t afraid to show the legally ambiguous/outright illegal tools Lincoln used (for good causes), he remains a deified figure throughout the whole film. He is rarely, if ever, shown as simply a man, albeit a man facing titanic pressure and seemingly insurmountable problems. Honestly, the only moment in the film that really explores the human problems Lincoln faced is a fight between Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), over whether to allow their son Robert (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the Union army. As we see just how crazy Mary Todd has become in the wake of the death of her son Willy, you get an idea of what Lincoln had to deal with in his personal life in addition to his now storied political gamesmanship. And it doesn’t help the film’s cause that Lincoln is shot in such gorgeous light so often that it seems like the film is trying to portray him as a god-like/angelic figure.

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Thankfully, then, the film had more amazing performances than it could have possibly known what to do with. Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for this film (although I honestly think Joaquin Phoenix did a better job in The Master) and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is as transformative as anything he’s done to date. Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite actor of all-time, but there were so many times in this film where it was easy to forget that I was watching my favorite actor. His Abe is as different from Gang of New York‘s Bill the Butcher as that was from The Age of Innocence‘s Archer Newland as that was from There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview. Although this performance lacked much of the emotional dynamism that I associate with Day-Lewis’s best roles, it’s still a master class on restraint and completely losing yourself in a part.

Although, with all respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, there were three other performances in this film that I found more compelling/interesting than his. Sally Field gave arguably the best performance of her entire career as the emotionally damaged Mary Todd, and I honestly have trouble believing that Anne Hathaway was better in Les Mis than Sally Field was in this role. David Strathairn (one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated character actors) shined as the tough and passionate William Seward who is as responsible for the passage of the 13th Amendment as Lincoln himself. But the real stand-out performance of the film was Tommy Lee Jones’ fiery turn as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He’s arguably the most moral person in the whole film (and easily the most idealistic), but Jones plays him with enough humor and passion and ferocity to turn it into one of the really memorable supporting turns of 2012.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because my sister and I are hanging out today and I want to spend some time with her (and not my whole evening reviewing a movie). Lincoln is certainly worth your time, if just for the endless great performances alone. I lost track of how many times I wrote in my notes while watching this film, “Hey, it’s [insert great character actor] here,” and almost without fail, the performances were all “A”-caliber. And, if you’re a history buff, you’ll be fascinated by all of the different things Lincoln and his team had to go through to get that bill passed. Ultimately, I just wanted to know more about Lincoln, the man, than the historical accomplishments I’ve already read about so many times before.

Final Score: B+