Friday, March 20, 2015
What I Watched: 2015, Week 5
What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):
Belle (Amma Asante, 2014)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014)
47 Ronin (Carl Rinsch, 2013)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, 2014)
I Hate Christian Laettner (ESPN Films, 2015)
Kobe Bryant's Muse (Gotham Chopra, 2015)
1. Since Taken in 2008, Liam Neeson has made eight non-CGI/non-super-hero/non-multimedia-property action films, almost all of which have been released in the first three months of the year. Along with Jason Statham, Neeson is basically the only actor making films like this, and they tend to be (mostly) pretty good. It's simultaneously one of the most bizarre and one of the most successful late-career reinventions an actor has ever undertaken. After several outstanding performances in period dramas like Schindler's List and Kinsey, this isn't exactly where anyone predicted his career would go, but here we are, and he's found a niche that he seems to enjoy and is really quite good at.
What's really fascinating to me, though, is that Neeson is one of the only actors in Hollywood to successfully use himself as The Brand, in the way that evokes classic Hollywood. The stars always used to be the brand; that was the Hollywood business model. Calling something a "John Wayne Movie," a "Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire Movie," or a "Clint Eastwood Movie" used to intrinsically mean something about what the product was, and the star is what made the product a reliable source of profit. That hasn't been the case for a long time. There are a lot of famous movie stars, but they're no longer reliably bankable. The idea of a "George Clooney Movie" or a "Matt Damon Movie" doesn't mean anything in terms of its likely financial success, or what sort of product it is. But Neeson defies that. A "Liam Neeson Movie" is a product labeling that makes sense to people, and draws in crowds based on brand alone. Taken 3 got absolutely wretched reviews, but it made almost 300 million dollars, which is incredibly rare for a non-CGI movie. That level of success is based on audiences wanting the type of cinema experience that they reliably expect from Neeson's films. In that sense, he's one of the only real movie stars we have left.
Oh, and Non-Stop was really quite good. It's probably not a movie that will stand up to a ton of plot-hole-vetting, but as far as just creating gripping and entertaining tension and not letting up, it succeeds very well.
2. On the other hand, 47 Ronin is everything NOT to do when making a genre movie. I know it was supposed to be terrible, but I thought it would at least be a vaguely enjoyable period samurai flick, as I enjoy that sort of thing. It was not. This is just not a watchable movie. I was out within the first ten minutes, when some ridiculous looking, poorly-CGIed mythical beast rampages through the Japanese countryside. So much for the idea of seeing a period adventure movie. Things just kept getting worse from there, with Keanu Reeves dramatically trying to sell tragic dialogue like, "I vowed never to use the magical powers they taught me." It's honestly much worse than you're prepared for.
3. I was also disappointed in The Homesman, though for very different reasons. I really liked Tommy Lee Jones' previous directorial effort, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), but none of the charms from that meditative, cheeky western follow over here. The Homesman is very quaint and very slow. It features reliably strong acting performances from its leads--Jones and Hilary Swank--but keeps its distance from anything that might make their characters or struggles actually engaging. The one major strength of the film is the Psycho-like plot twist that occurs at about the 3/4 point of the run time, but by then, it's already been too difficult to maintain full interest. And Hillary Swank, talented though she may be, is physically the wrong actress to make the twist narratively believable.
4. Belle was definitely the best film I saw this week. Dramatizing the true story of a mulatto girl being raised in the British aristocracy of the late 18th century, Belle is a great example of how a costume drama can overcome the inherent stuffiness of the genre to still engage our deepest emotions. The two great weapons deployed here are the acting chops of star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who also starred in last fall's Beyond the Lights) and the biting dialogue of screenwriter Misan Sagay. Mbatha-Raw is a revelation; she's so good I'd put money down right now on her becoming one of the best and most accoladed actresses of her generation. (If she gets enough good roles, which is always the struggle for actresses of color. Just ask Halle Berry.) There's a scene early on where Mbatha-Raw's titular character examines herself in the mirror and almost painfully attacks her own facial features, as though she can remold herself into a white woman. It's one of those risky scenes that would have come off as sadly comical in the hands of an actress with less ability to convey her pain, but Mbatha-Raw turns it into an image that sears into you. But all that emotive ability from the film's star couldn't have told the story so well were it not for the dialogue written by Sagay, who daringly used no source material and wrote Belle as an original screenplay. Obviously there was a compelling story to work with, but it's the strength of Sagay's words truly drive home the climactic scenes. Selma may have gotten all of the attention (good and bad), but Belle is 2014's best film about racial struggles.
5. Signaling the start of March Madness, two interesting basketball documentaries premiered this week, one on ESPN and one on Showtime. I shouldn't be shocked by this, but the Showtime one is better (though both are worth your time if the subjects interest you). I Hate Christian Laettner is a decent documentary about a topic that proves more interesting than I would have thought, because of the way it dives into the "why" of the hatred towards Laettner, as opposed to just documenting it. But that said, it still plays more like a (very) extended Sportscenter segment than it does as a film. Even if the interviews and historical footage are compelling, there's just nothing cinematic there. Not so with Kobe Bryant's Muse, which is one of the better sports documentaries I've seen. The first thing that stood out to me was just the difference in the way the films are lit. In appearance, Kobe looks like it could have been shot by David Fincher. It also digs deep, in ways that are both self-serving for Kobe, but also strikingly honest and candid. It is a bit frustrating for what's not included--while Kobe describes at length how difficult the 2004 season was for his personal life, the words "rape" and "trial" are conveniently never mentioned, and the comments Phil Jackson made in his book about that season are also never addressed. But those (semi-major) quibbles aside, Kobe Bryant's Muse effectively humanizes a subject who's always come across as a basketball robot, and no matter how calculated that goal may have been from the film's outset, it still couldn't happen accidentally. It's also a welcoming surprise from Kobe--for someone who's spent his entire career making seemingly every choice predicated on the "What would Jordan do?" corollary, here's a side of Kobe that Jordan would have NEVER let the public see. While Jordan took himself out of the league instead of letting us see his on-court decline from MVP-level, Kobe made a full movie about it, and explains why leaving the game would feel far worse than publicly failing at it.