Mudbound


In Mississippi, things are always black and white.

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Lucy Faust, Dylan Arnold, Rob Morgan, Kerry Cahill, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rebecca Chulew, David Jensen, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Henry Frost, Peter Schueller, Roderick Hill, Cynthia LeBlanc, Samantha Hoefer. Directed by Dee Rees

 

The generation that fought the Second World War has been called the Greatest Generation and who am I to argue? The fact remains however that not everyone in that generation was treated greatly. The African-American soldiers who fought for freedom were ironically denied it when they returned home. It would be 20 years before the Civil Rights era would be able to effectively call attention to the plight of African-Americans in a meaningful way.

Jamie McAllan (Hedlund) returns home from fighter pilot duty to his brother Henry (Clarke), their dad Pappy (Bans) and Henry’s wife Laura (Mulligan) trying to make things work on a farm that is literally a muddy bog especially when it rains which it does frequently in Mississippi. Henry sees the land as a symbol of his failures. Constantly denigrated by his racist father Henry isn’t a bad man but he is a weak one living in the shadow of his popular younger brother. Jamie though is partially broken; suffering from PTSD after his war experiences,

Also coming home from war is Ronsel Jackson (Mitchell) but to far different circumstances. His father, preacher Hap Jackson (Morgan) is a sharecropper on Henry’s land – well, kinda Henry’s land – who is exploited terribly by Henry who uses Hap as labor regardless of whether Hap is needed on his own farm. When Hap’s mule dies, Henry lets Hap use his own mule – for a price, a hefty one that benefits Henry who is having financial problems of his own. However, it not only adds a burden to Hap’s debt it makes it harder for him to pay it off. On top of it all Ronsel is back to being treated like a second class citizen after getting a taste of freedom in Europe. It is somewhat ironic that he is treated better in the country he helped conquer than in the country he fought for.

Jamie strikes up a friendship with Ronsel; the two men have shared experiences that bond them together. However, a friendship between a white man and an African-American man is simply not done in that time and place. It threatens the social order, and there are horrific consequences  for that.

After making a big splash at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix purchased the film which has been one of the most prestigious in its current library with no less than four Oscar nominations (Netflix gave it a brief theatrical fun to qualify it). Critics fell all over themselves praising the movie as you can see by their scores below and there is certainly much to celebrate in this film but to be honest, it is also flawed.

The movie is badly undercut by narration made by various characters in the movie. The narration is often florid and draws attention away from the movie, the worst kind of narration possible. I’ve always wondered why filmmakers don’t trust their audiences to understand the images and dialogue they see and hear. Narration isn’t necessary; it’s intrusive and redundant.

The flip side is that the movie is beautifully shot. It isn’t so much beautiful images – the poverty and the rain-soaked mud fields aren’t what you’ll see on the average screensaver – but Rachel Morrison, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer, gives the images a dignity that uplifts the movie overall. And then there are the performances – few films are as well-acted as this one. Blige as Florence, the wise and compassionate mother won most of the kudos (and the Oscar nomination) but for my money it was Mitchell who was actually the real deal. Fresh off his triumph in Straight Outta Comption Mitchell is the moral center of the film. He is a man of pride but he’s also a man of compassion and conscience. He is able to respect a white man despite the wrongs done to him by white men; he is able to feel sympathy for his friend and the demons that haunt him. He is haunted by many of them himself.

The narration is a major problem that prevents me from really loving this film. To the good, it is a timely reminder that we live in an era when America was great according to the slogan. It wasn’t terribly great for those who weren’t white though, and that is part of what those sloganeers are attracted to. The attitudes that shape the movie have never gone away completely; they only went underground until 2016 when our President emboldened those who identify with Pappy to express their racism openly.

There is much good here although as I said this is a very flawed film. Any Netflix subscriber, particularly those who like their movies to be thought-provoking, should have this on their short list of must-see films on Netflix. It’s one I think that bears repeated viewings. Rees is certainly an emerging talent who has plenty to say. Now if we can just get her to stop using voiceovers…

REASONS TO GO: The cast is uniformly wonderful. The cinematography is downright amazing.
REASONS TO STAY: The voiceover narration is a bit obnoxious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence of the war variety as well as a graphic depiction of racially-motivated violence, profanity including racial epithets as well as some brief nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Blige became the first person ever nominated for an acting Oscar and best song Oscar for the same film, and Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Giant
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Silencer

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Admiral (Michiel de Ruyter)


Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

(2015) Historical Epic (XLRator Media) Frank Lammers, Charles Dance, Barry Atsma, Sanne Langelaar, Rutger Hauer, Derek de Lint, Roeland Fernhout, Hajo Bruins, Egbert Jan Weeber, Nils Verkooijen, Daniel Brocklebank, Colin Mace, Filip Peeters, Tygo Gernhardt, Victor Löw, Pip Pellens, Aurélie Meriel, Will Bowden, Ella-June Henrard, Lieke van Lexmond. Directed by Roel Reiné

You’ve probably not heard of Michiel de Ruyter unless you were schooled in the Netherlands or are a European history buff, but you likely should have. One of the most revered figures in Dutch history, he was a naval genius who kept his country from being invaded on several occasions by the English and the French, and at a time when his country was in political turmoil he was a stabilizing figure whom many credit for keeping his nation from plunging into civil war during a turbulent era.

As the movie opens, the 20,000 ship Dutch navy is under the command of Maarten Tromp (Hauer) but during the Battle of Scheveningen he is mortally wounded, although he does succeed in repelling the English. While King Charles (Dance) schemes in England, new prime minister Johan de Witt (Atsma) knows that the Dutch Republic, already a government teetering on the edge of a possible civil war with the Orangists, a monarchist group that wants William of Orange (Weeber) to rule, needs an admiral to defend the Netherlands from the rapacious British and their allies of convenience the French.

He recruits de Ruyter (Lammers), a stocky and unlovely man who is more interested in retiring to the country with his wife Anna (Langelaar) and two daughters. However, he is also a deeply patriotic man and is convinced by de Witt and his brilliant brother Cornelis (Fernhout) that the sailor is desperately needed.

Time and time again de Ruyter uses brilliant naval tactics to stave off the Brits while court intrigue between the de Witt brothers and the Machiavellian Kievit (de Lint) keep the Netherlands in chaos. As the years pass, the monarchist party slowly begins to take the upper hand – but will that advantage come at the expense of the entire nation?

Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele characterized the movie as a Michael Bay treatment of Dutch naval history and a more succinct summation of this film couldn’t be asked for. There is a good deal of large scale mayhem, with ships being hit by cannon fire, bodies flying in the air in all sorts of directions, splinters and wood dust coating everything. Some of the warfare sequences are pretty grisly, although not as much as the depiction of a historic lynching which ends up with various body parts being pulled out of the bodies of those possibly still conscious.

For most Americans, the history is going to be a bit vague. I doubt that the average American knows anything about the Anglo-Dutch War, let alone that there was more than one. Some of the stuff I learned here about the politics of Europe in the 17th century was fascinating; certainly, I never knew any of it which goes to show you how ignorant of history we Americans really are. Of course, I love this stuff and eat it up like candy but I’m sure those moviegoers who find history to be a bore will not have the same appreciation for it that I do.

War buffs will appreciate the naval strategy that is shown here, much of it innovative for its time. The rest of us may not be quite as appreciative of the overhead shots of the deployment of ships. However, film buffs will definitely be a little hosed that the CGI of the various fleets and the damage done to them is not very impressive; there are some very fine effects houses in Europe and certainly there could have been a better job done with the special effects.

The acting is very solid. Some of the finest actors in Europe appear here. While most in America are familiar with Hauer, de Lint and Lammers are two of Holland’s most respected actors. Lammers in particular does a good job with the stocky, somewhat awkward de Ruyter who was nonetheless beloved by those who sailed under him – his men nicknamed him ‘Grandfather,” a sign of affection and respect. Lammers physically captures the look of the man but also the indomitable spirit of one of the Netherlands’ greatest heroes.

The big problem here is that the movie is way too long. It is just over two hours long and captures 24 years in the life of de Ruyter but it feels like a good half hour could have been trimmed. There are only so many naval battle scenes you can take before they start to run together. Even with that there is some solid entertainment here that with a judicious pair of scissors and a little extra dough in the effects budget might have been a lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent production values. Lammers and cast do fine work. Insights into Dutch history most of us are unaware of here in the States.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too freaking long. The score is annoying. Underwhelming CGI
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, a graphic and gruesome lynching scene, some foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A special version of the film was created that was less gruesome in depicting several historical deaths so that schoolchildren in the Netherlands could view the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 300: Rise of an Empire
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Carriers


The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

The police department of Ferguson, MO makes sure that Topless Day is a big success.

(2009) Horror (Paramount Vantage) Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Pine, Piper Perabo, Christopher Meloni, Emily VanCamp, Kiernan Shipka, Ron McClary (voice), Mark Moses, Josh Berry, Tim Janis, Dale Malley, Jan Cunningham, Mary Peterson (voice), Sequoyah Adams-Rice, LeAnne Lynch, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Alex and David Pastor

Zombies are all the rage in post-apocalyptic horror, but as scary as the living dead might be, what could be scarier than a monster you can’t see: a virus. It is not the virus itself that frightens, although the results end up the same whether infected with a virus or having your brains munched on by a walker but what the virus turns us into.

Danny (Pucci) and Brian (Pine) are brothers. Danny, once bound for Yale before higher education became more of a school of hard knocks, is the more reserved and the smarter of the two. Brian, more of a working class stiff, is the more pragmatic particularly in terms of survival. Along with Brian’s girlfriend Bobbi (Perabo) and Danny’s friend Kate (VanCamp) they are headed to the coast, to Turtle Beach, a resort where Danny and Brian have fond memories.

They have some hard and fast rules which essentially boil down to stay away from those who might be sick which is essentially everyone. They carry bleach and surgical masks which they wear whenever they venture out of the safety of their stolen car. The more they can keep to the four of themselves, the safer they’ll be.

As they drive west they run into a father (Meloni) and his daughter (Shipka) who is infected. They’re trying to make it to a complex where a cure is said to be. At first Brian says no way Jose but eventually circumstances force him to help the other two. For their troubles, Bobbi gets infected although she tries to hide it at first. However, there’s no hiding the horrors that are to follow.

 

In some ways this is a bloodless film (although there are a couple of scenes where the infected burble up blood through various orifices). There is little in the way of gore and hardly any violence. Even when the girls are confronted by survivalists who have rape on the minds comes to naught when they discover that Bobbi is sick after they force the girls to strip down to bra and panties. Followers of Joe Bob Briggs and Drive-In Cinema will be sorely disappointed – back in the 70s and 80s there would have been pustules exploding blood, bodies dripping with gore, knife fights and of course the girls would have been naked and likely raped. Ah, the good old days.

But this is a different era and audience sensibilities are different now. This is meant to be more of a psychological horror film as we watch the tight-knit group slowly disintegrate. You have the natural conflict between brothers which always makes for good cinema, but even that is watered down some and the writers gave them the golden opportunity of having one brother be intellectual, the other working class. I mean, how much more conflict do you need?

Apparently plenty because in the hands of the Pastor brothers this is a kinder, gentler apocalypse, one that is suitable for prime time network television. The moral decisions here are fairly basic – survival versus compassion and in a situation such as this, well, there’s really only one decision so even that conflict feels forced and artificial.

Pine, who went on to Star Trek fame not long after this was filmed, has plenty of presence and charisma as he acts the role of leader here. There is a nice dynamic between him and Pucci, who is more of the conscience of the group. Eventually the roles get reversed but while it is a bit jarring in the way they do it onscreen, the actors manage to make it believable nonetheless.

This is a pretty flawed movie which the studio essentially gave up on before Pine’s success brought it out of the vaults and into a brief release. This isn’t the greatest of post-apocalyptic horrors – it could have used a little more edge – but it has its merits and Pine is worth seeing in this role before he went on to become James Tiberius Kirk. Ladies be warned though – he spends a good portion of the film with a surgical mask on.

WHY RENT THIS: Pine and Pucci make an effective team.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Extremely grim and lacks visceral thrills.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, plenty of disturbing images and a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After being filmed in 2006, Carriers was shelved until Chris Pine’s success in Star Trek motivated the studio to dust it off and give it a brief limited release.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.8M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix DVD, Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes, Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin Fever
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Coherence

12 Years a Slave


Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

Could this be the next Best Picture Oscar winner?

(2013) Historical Biography (Fox Searchlight) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupito Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Isiah Jackson, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhane Wallis, Devyn A. Tyler, Willo Jean-Baptiste, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Ashley Dyke. Directed by Steve McQueen

The question we sometimes have to ask about a movie depicting a horrible epoch in human history is why. Why should it be made? After all, it’s not exactly a secret that slavery was a terrible, shameful practice. But do we need to be reminded of that?

I believe that we do. In the same way movies like Schindler’s List reminds us of the holocaust, or Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the horrors of genocide, we need to remind ourselves periodically of the depths of inhumanity that man practices upon other men. We need to be reminded as Nicol Williamson once accurately (albeit bombastically) said in Excalibur that it is the doom of men that they forget.

Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a prosperous man in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he is a black man, he is nonetheless freed and is well-known as a magnificent violinist but also a hard-working carpenter. His wife Anne (Scott) is highly respected as a great cook. They have beautiful children and as African-Americans in the mid-19th century go, a pretty wonderful life.

Then, he is approached by a couple of men calling themselves Hamilton (Killam) and Brown (McNairy) who represent themselves as entertainers in need of an accompanying musician. They are going as far south as Washington, DC. The money is good and the company congenial so Northup agrees to lend his services.

He awakens in chains in a slave market. Gone are his clothes, his papers identifying him as a free man and even his name – he is to be called Platt now. He is sold by the dealer (Giamatti) to Ford (Cumberbatch) who runs a sugar cane plantation near New Orleans. There he goes with the disconsolate Eliza (Oduye) who has been separated from her children. However, Northup gets into a fight with the cruel and barbarous carpenter Tibeats (Dano) who for some reason has it out for Solomon (possibly because Northup was a better carpenter) and for the safety of his slave and of his plantation, the kindly Ford is forced to sell Platt to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who runs a cotton plantation.

Epps expects 200 pounds of cotton to be picked by each one; those who fail are lashed cruelly. The best cotton picker is Patsy (Nyong’o) who does three times what the burly men of the plantation can do. Epps has taken an unhealthy sexual interest in her which infuriates his wife (Paulson) who visits cruelties and mutilations upon Patsy. Solomon for his part is keeping his head down low, making sure nobody knows that he can read and write. When Solomon meets an itinerant Canadian carpenter (Pitt), he knows his last chance to get word to those in the North of his whereabouts may be staring him in the face.

Based on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, I’m told the film follows the book pretty closely – McQueen insisted on it. While I can’t personally vouch for that, I can say that this is an incredible story told with as much authenticity as the filmmakers can muster. That this is a British production is somewhat ironic that it takes a foreign eye to shed light on an American disgrace.

There is a good deal of brutality. When slaves get whipped, pieces of flesh fly from their back and the resulting cuts are hideous to behold. It’s not easy to watch but this was the reality of what happened. Too often Hollywood portrays a whipping as a grunting actor, jaw heroically clenched against the pain as lines of red appear on his back. In reality, whippings were horrid affairs with a good deal of screaming and bloodshed. To his credit, McQueen doesn’t turn the eyes of the camera away and we see the brutality in unflinching detail.

Ejiofor has long been one of those actors who has been patiently waiting the right role. He’s finally found his. One of the best actors you’ve never heard of out there, he plays Solomon with dignity, with fear and with humanity. Solomon is a smart guy and occasionally able to manipulate Epps but his own inner fire gets him into trouble sometimes. He is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination come January and is an early favorite to win it.

Fassbender has been busy of late and might get a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his layered and nuanced performance as Epps. Certainly Epps is a cruel and vicious master, but he is also henpecked by his wife to a certain degree and a slave to his own lust for Patsy. Epps could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of a plantation owner; yes, there is evil here but it isn’t cartoon evil but the evil that slavery creates in the slaveowners.

Nyong’o is a newcomer but her performance as Patsy may bring her the kind of notice new actresses dream of. Patsy is the face of despair in the film and Nyong’o handles it with a certain dignity that at once is moving and disturbing. When the despair overwhelms her and she begs Platt to end her misery, one wonders how many slaves took that road off the plantations. Probably many more than we realize – when hope is dead, the will to live generally dies with it.

This is a movie that is certain to be considered for Oscar gold this year and is going to make a lot of year-end top ten lists. While it may be considered an education about slavery, I see it more as a metaphor for the continued inhumanity that we enforce on others. The message here isn’t that slavery is  bad; I’m pretty sure we all get that. It’s how we treat each other today and how our ability to enslave others has informed that treatment that makes this movie so important. While I would hesitate to bring small children to see this, I think parents should bring their teens. Opening the eyes of a younger generation isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

REASONS TO GO: Impeccably acted by Ejiofor and Fassbender. A living breathing testament to the horrors of slavery.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and brutality can be overwhelming at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence and scenes of torture and cruelty. There is also some nudity and sexuality, as well as a few graphic images that may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Henry and Wallis both co-starred previously in Beasts of the Southern Wild, also distributed by Fox Searchlight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 97/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amistad

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Italian for Beginners