I’ve managed to squeeze in theater visits to see several of the recent big movie releases over the past three weeks, and have been saving up my comments. Of the four mentioned above, I think “12 Years a Slave” is the most consequential and should be first on anybody’s list, even though it is not as yet quite so easy to find.
The company marketing this movie is rolling it out slowly, hoping that good reviews and word of mouth will build momentum and make it a hit. I think they shouldn’t have been so cautious, because it is a fantastic movie, with excellent script, direction and editing and a very talented cast, and could have done well with a wide release. There are few widely-recognized names in this cast, which may have induced the caution, but the standard of quality is high. A little cameo appearance by Brad Pitt in a supporting role might help it along some; he is also a producer on the film, and committed to its promotion worldwide. This is an important film because it is a rare attempt to try to dramatize an African-American slave narrative that was published before the Civil War, with a degree of verisimilitude calculated to explode revisionist nostalgia about the pre-war South and to force audiences to confront the reality of life under the draconian slave codes in effect in this country during the first half of the 19th century. Will people actually go to see this, having been forewarned that this is what they will see? They should, because it is also a grippingly dramatic tale, very well told. I think “The Butler” goes some way towards this direction in realism, but this movie takes it the next step, perhaps because the tale it has to tell is older and thus more alien to a modern audience. I hope that momentum does build and propel it into a monster international hit. People should really see this!
After that, the next most consequential of these films, in my view, is Captain Phillips, because of the unflinching eye it casts on a modern phenomenon that occasionally surfaces in the headlines but is worth our concentrated attention: how dismal conditions in parts of Africa have driven young men to piracy on the high seas. Most of the attention, naturally, would focus on the captain of the American-flag freighter that was boarded by pirates off the coast of Somalia, and his subsequent abduction leading to a confrontation between four pirates in a small life-boat and three big ships of the U.S. Navy. (This film was obviously made with the cooperation of the Defense Department, and it has the naval officers coming off as sensitive diplomats. How realistic this is, who knows?) But I think this film is strongest when it tries to probe the characters of the pirates, and it could have stood with some more of that. (The Hollywood Star at the center of the story tends to soak up the screen time and attention, making the story about him.) Like “12 Years a Slave,” this was based on a memoir, this time by the merchant ship captain, Richard Phillips. As in the case of the other film, one might question how “objective” a story is when told from the point of view of one of the participants. But the idea of “objectivity” in story-telling is a false herring. It is really impossible to achieve; there is always a point of view. And here, the story is told from the point of view of the merchant ship captain, but I think the story could have been even more consequential were it told entirely from the point of view of the pirates. That’s just me being contrary, however. The filmmakers here do a good job in trying to project the human complexity of the pirates, and the emotional devastation to the captain, especially at how the impasse was resolved. This is a serious adult drama, but also an exciting action film, which deserves its current status leading the domestic box office.
“Rush” and “Gravity” strike me as less consequential films. “Rush” is also based on a true story, though not, I believe, a memoir by one of the participants. It uses the device of first-person narration, mainly by the actor playing the part of Nicki Lauder, an Austrian race car driver whose competition with the British James Hunt in the Formula 1 competition is the subject matter. I would not normally bother going to see an auto racing movie — it is not an activity that holds my interest — but I had seen previews that did their job of making me want to see this by intriguing me with the contrasting characters of the two competitors. The movie is, as one would expect, fast-paced, and there is plenty of humor as well as intensity, and the racing scenes are thrillingly depicted – lots of good editing here, I think. The story certainly held my attention, but I don’t think the film had a deeper message, other than to tout the fierce determination of these two competitors to surmount any obstacle to be the champion. The level of blood and gore is pretty high for a film that isn’t a war story — one expects blood and gore in “12 Years a Slave” and, to some extent, a movie about piracy on the high seas. In this case, however, “Rush” brings home how dangerous high stakes auto racing is. Do these drivers have a death wish?
Finally, of the recent releases, I saw “Gravity”, the special effects extravaganza about an accident in earth orbit that tests the resourcefulness and courage of two American astronauts. I saw this one in 3-D, which is the only way to see it, really. It would be so less interesting in the more normal two-dimensional configuration. Some might find this film boring for long stretches because it channels the slow-moving (relatively speaking) nature of movement in space, as did the first important movie in this genre, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” –one of the films I loved as a kid, mainly because of the classical music on the soundtrack and the incredibly handsome young actor playing the lead. “Gravity” has its chilling moments, and I will not spoil the ending for anybody here by making any big reveal, but I think in terms of plotting and execution there is a high degree of formula in this film, and not so much originality. The CGI effects are so spectacularly handled as to give one an impression of realism, even though numerous experts have now weighed in as to the impossibilities of this plot actually happening in this way. Science fiction becomes less persuasive as it moves further away from anchoring in actual science, but when it is well done it can be entertaining nonetheless. On that front, however, I think the new Star Trek movies are better cinema, because the interaction of the characters is more involving.
Now, the not so recent…. At the beginning of this concert season, I attended an unusual program in lower Manhattan presented by Salon/Sanctuary concerts, a presentation bringing together excerpts from baroque operas dramatizing scenes from the story of the House of Atreus. The format was to intersperse musical selections from a period instrument ensemble and two solo singers with dramatic readings from English translations of the ancient Greek and Roman texts by three actors, who moved about the performance space will delivering their lines. One of the those actors — the one who made the most favorable impression on me – was Ethan Peck, the only one of the three who had actually memorized most of his script and spoke it with passionate involvement rather than rendering a “reading” while carrying a script. Peck, grandson of the great actor Gregory Peck, has been building a career in theater, TV and film, but without attracting my attention prior to this. I sought out some examples of his film work, and ended up seeing two independent films in which he played major roles, “Tennessee” and “Adopt a Sailor.” “Tennessee” is the one to see, a compelling story about a charming young man with a fatal disease and the way he influences the lives of others. Peck, as the young man, gives a subtle and charming performance, radiating quiet confidence and intelligence. The other film, “Adopt a Sailor,” is a silly little piece about sailors on shore leave during NYC’s annual fleet week being “adopted” through the USO by New York families to afford them some native hospitality. Peck plays the sailor, and as the part is written, the sailor is a bit of a hick from the central rural USA sticks (fresh off the Arkansas farm), who is not all that articulate but manages to come out with surprisingly sage observations. I thought Peck played the part nicely, given what he had to work with, but the three-character plot seemed awkward to me, and I can understand why this film pretty much disappeared without a trace. “Tennessee,” a more ambitious film, deserves better, and anybody who collects films might want to have it, not least for an early record of Ethan Peck’s work. I think he has the potential to develop into a really solid actor — he’s already pretty much there — and now the issue is to land roles in bigger films.