I am admittedly predisposed to movies like The Northman — bloody, epic revenge tales with a strange angle, a hyper-specific period setting, or both. I’m also a huge fan of The Lighthouse, the previous film from writer/director Robert Eggers, one of the most unique American films of the 21st century. So the hype level for this flick was more or less at carrying capacity at this week’s screening, and Eggers and Co. did not disappoint. Starring Alexander Skarsgård as the vengeance-bent Viking prince Amleth, The Northman has Eggers’s blend of folklore and historical fidelity all wrapped up in a potent, ferocious epic. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it has some of the most stunning storytelling you’ll see onscreen this year.
Much has already been written on Skarsgård’s insane transformation into Amleth, a beastly and primal performance that puts the mere term macho to shame. Of course it’s far deeper than machismo, and Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a vulnerability that makes the character — and thereby the picture — really work. He’s doing everything Leonardo DiCaprio did as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but unlike Glass, Amleth’s character is wholly defined by his relationships with others. His bond with his father and mother (Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman) and his hatred for his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) drive his every action. He’s frequently referred to as a wolf, and we see all sides of that metaphor: the young and uncertain pup, the lone stray seeking a home, the feral creature commanding a pack of other wolves, and finally the wisened alpha. Skarsgård goes all the way and then some, and Northman couldn’t exist without him.
Continue reading The Northman (2022)
I was pretty darn excited by Destroyer just prior to watching Destroyer. The fact of a female-led, female-directed crime film with such noir grit would’ve been enticing enough. That female lead, of course, is Nicole Kidman, which always helps in the Excitement category. But frankly director Karyn Kusama was even more of a draw, coming off her last effort The Invitation. While not altogether a classic, Invitation stuck in the mind for its slow-burn tension and creepy performances. It was almost a suburban spin on a haunted house tale, Ice Storm meets Amityville Horror, accomplished with confidence by Kusama on a comparatively small budget of $1 million. Destroyer upped the ante, left the suburban mansion for the L.A. streets, but the fact that it was still an original thriller was mighty exciting.
And I was even pretty darn excited by Destroyer just after watching Destroyer, because the ending was a deft twist with a songlike quality only hinted at elsewhere in the film. But I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Destroyer while I was actually watching Destroyer. As an upstanding member of the critical community, of course, I must admit, reader, that in entering the screening for Destroyer I simultaneously expunged every bias while still expecting, honestly, based on advertising, to be destroyed.
Continue reading Destroyer (2019)
The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.
That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.
Continue reading The Human Stain (2003)
At some indiscriminate point in the ’90s movie producers everywhere decided to simply stop caring about trying to get actors to do passable Irish accents. Can’t we try, begged writers and moviegoers and people from Ireland, at least try to make this sound accurate? We know it’s more appealing to have a major American beefcake rather than, say, an actual Irish guy playing the role of “actual Irish guy”, but can’t we spend the extra time/money to ensure this film won’t become a laughingstock in ten years, or five, or instantaneously? Please? Please?
We’ve charted a course backwards through movie time and discovered Far and Away to be one of the earliest and most egregious offenders. If not patient zero per se, Far and Away is effectively worse than the index case for presenting itself on the largest possible stage and thus spreading the Awful Irish Accent disease much more quickly. Prior to Far and Away a shitty accent was a shitty accent. After Far and Away, a shitty accent became a perfectly acceptable feature of a major blockbuster because Ron Howard and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman couldn’t be bothered to do better. Why should anyone else?
Continue reading Far and Away (1992)
Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
We discussed the possibility of defining an “epic” film in our review of Ed Zwick’s Legends of the Fall, concluding that it’s perhaps more of an impossibility due to the wide range of films that fall comfortably under the genre label. Despite this, we at least sought out the notion that the scope of the idea is infinitely more important than the scope of the production budget, and Lawrence of Arabia was one of the more obvious examples of true epic filmmaking in that respect. David Lean’s biographical account of the life of the adventurous T. E. Lawrence stands as one of the greatest films of its kind because the passion of the film lives up to the passion of the man, the scope of the ideas of the film seeming to mirror and amplify the ideas of the British explorer/officer/diplomat.
Lawrence is about to be back on the big screen in a supporting role in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, a film masquerading as a worthy companion of sorts to Lawrence of Arabia at least as far as the marketing campaign is concerned. As Herzog’s film progresses past the first quarter, though, it becomes painfully obvious that Queen lies on the other end of the epic spectrum in that it fails on almost every level to convey any passion. Nicole Kidman leads the film as Gertrude Bell, British explorer/writer (/archaeologist/political officer/spy/cartographer) who spent her time across Syria, Asia Minor, and Arabia in the decades following the turn of the century. Kidman is fine in the role — but it’s not her passion that Queen of the Desert lacks. It’s Herzog’s.
Continue reading Face Off: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Queen of the Desert (2015)
The first question one might ask about a movie is “what happened in it?” After all, the average viewer usually watches a movie to see what happens. However, in a strange way, what happens in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours does not seem to be the most important aspect of the movie. And while The Hours certainly does have a lot going on — three different stories and time periods, a couple suicides, more contemplated suicides, homosexuality, bisexuality, and historical and literary relevance with Virginia Woolf as a prominent character — the actual plot does not draw the viewer in quite like the acting, the dialogue, and the beautiful music. It doesn’t take an advanced movie critic to notice these aspects either; after all, they caught my attention almost immediately.
The masterful dialogue in the movie makes sense to a degree, for the screenplay was heavily influenced by Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same title and, of course, by the incredibly gifted Woolf. Listening to the characters converse, the viewer feels no less enthralled than if they were voraciously reading a page from any of Woolf’s great body of work.
Continue reading The Hours (2002)
Malice is without a doubt the odd duck in the Aaron Sorkin filmography. More so than possibly any modern American screenwriter, Sorkin is now synonymous with “politics”, with work that peers into the lives of the men and women who already live under intense scrutiny – The West Wing is possibly still his greatest example in this regard, but The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War deal in similar arenas. A Few Good Men also exists in this vein, as does the tech-giant exploration The Social Network; neither are about politicians per se, but “politics” is broader than simply politicians. Sorkin’s politics exist in the hot topics of today, whether it’s the relationship between foreign powers or relationship status between two of your friends on Facebook. One can imagine that Jobs, Sorkin’s upcoming biopic on the late Apple founder, will continue this trend.
But Malice, Sorkin’s second produced screenplay, isn’t about famous people. Instead, it’s about incredibly moronic people. Bill Pullman stars as Andy, mild-mannered loving husband to Nicole Kidman’s Tracy. One day they meet Alec Baldwin’s Jed, a hotshot surgeon who used to go to high school with Andy. They hit it off and Jed rents the room above Andy and Tracy because he’s new in town. Meanwhile, a series of vicious attacks on local women occurs – and when one ends in murder, things begin to hit closer to home for Andy.
Continue reading Malice (1993)
Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men first appeared as a play in 1989, three years before it would be adapted into a feature film from a major studio. Removing All Doubt and the one-act Hidden in This Picture, Sorkin’s first plays, would boost his reputation in the New York theatre scene prior to any associations with Hollywood, but it was A Few Good Men that would garner greater praise and sell as film rights before the play even premiered. Sorkin’s theatre experience would certainly inform his style of writing in his film and television scripts going forward, and the adapted script for A Few Good Men is a prime example of that influence.
Loosely based on a real-life series of events, A Few Good Men concerns itself with a murder at a Guantanamo Bay Marine base. Lieutenant and Army lawyer Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise, is ultimately assigned to the case along with Demi Moore’s JoAnne Galloway and Kevin Pollak’s Sam Weinberg. Resistance meets the defense team largely in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup, who tends to pop up only every now and then throughout A Few Good Men in order to steal scenes from under Cruise’s nose in typical Nicholson fashion. Cruise was at the time on a tear of Nicole Kidman collaborations (following Days of Thunder and Far and Away), so the military courtroom drama was likely a welcome change of pace.
Continue reading A Few Good Men (1992)