Home > Uncategorized > Some Fall Movies I’ve Seen

Some Fall Movies I’ve Seen

October and November tends to be a strong movie season almost any year, but this one has been especially entertaining. I’m not keen on most summer blockbusters, and I hadn’t been to the theatre since May before I went to “Gravity” on opening weekend, but since then I’ve seen more than I had the rest of the year combined. Here are my takes in case you care.


ImageGravity: One of the most visually stunning experiences I have ever enjoyed, and a technical masterpiece. I watched the whole thing with my mouth opened, stunned. Alfonso Cuaron, the director, performs more of his trademark long-take tracking-shots to great effect, this time as Sandra Bullock and George Clooney wheel and tumble through space. But notice that I didn’t say anything about it being a “movie,” because as a complete package, it falls short. The characters, despite great performances, feel like cardboard cut-outs with needless and distracting back stories. This film doesn’t need to be melodrama, and it’s a bit irritating when it is. But these annoyances barely distract from one of the most thrilling films I can remember. This movie must be seen on the big screen. Also, it was my first 3-D movie, and it was used to great effect, but the 3-D previews convinced me never to attend another 3-D movie unless it’s absolutely essential.


ImageCaptain Phillips: Sadly dwarfed by the cosmic “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” is an excellent Tom Hanks joint about Somali pirates taking over a cargo barge and then trying to win a hopeless standoff with the U.S. Navy. “Captain Phillips” is my favorite type of thriller: a story grounded in reality that builds tension around the suspense of watching regular human beings respond erratically to extreme situations. There are no evil masterminds with endless resources, no shootouts that are predetermined to leave the main character unscathed. In fact, it’s not even a real competition: underlying the tension in the second half is the absurd imbalance between four Somalis in a lifeboat trying to negotiate with four Navy warships hard on their wake. Tom Hanks, as you would expect, is great as the clear-headed captain, but his unknown Somali-American co-stars never seem overshadowed. The movie situates itself amid the politics of global capitalism and inequality without ever feeling preachy. The pirates’ motivation is explained without being justified. Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” the impeccable precision of the Navy SEALs steals the show.


ImageEnder’s Game: Knowing the endless problems that had to be surmounted just to bring this movie about, I came in with very low expectations, which made my disappointment that much more surprising and discouraging. At some point in the movie’s production, there must have been something that motivated the director, writer, and producers to put this novel on the big screen, but there’s no way of knowing what that inspiration was based on the film itself. Was it the battle school? You barely get two scenes out of it. The troubles of being a child genus? Ender is taken to being smarter than everyone else, but you never really understand why. The ethics of turning war into a video-game? This topic is given a dutiful nod, but briefly and without any verve. You never would imagine that the film was produced during a period of drone warfare. The film is at such pains to check-off all the events from the movie that it stretches itself thin. In one divergence from the book, a group of adults watching the final, climactic battle react not with cheers but with silence, confusion, and ambivalence. I know how they feel.



ImageTwelve Years a Slave: One of the best movies I’ve seen in years, one of the most difficult to watch, but one of the most important, too. Based on a mid-nineteenth-century slave narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave” has been rightly called the best movie on American slavery ever. This is a landmark, but one not terribly difficult to achieve: all it has to do is actually focus on, you know, slavery. Most movies on this topic are more interested in how whites think, talk, or respond to institutional slavery than what African-Americans actually endured (last year’s “Lincoln” is a prime, and excellent, example). Here, gone are the Atticus Finches and other noble whites; all we’re left with is the dignified but defiant Solomon Northrup, and the host of white characters that betray and abuse him. Like “Lincoln,” this film is hyper-conscious about its role as public history, and Northrup can occasionally feel less like a central character and more like a guide through the entire spectrum of American slave experience. He encounters a range of different masters and overseers, some conflicted about their role in the slave system, others wholly convinced of their absolute rightness. But this spectrum is deeply affecting: we see slavery from its most banal to its most pathological. One moment, a slave auction is held in a charming home accompanied by violin music to sooth the sentiments of buyers splitting up slave families; the next, a planter is forcing Northrup to whip a slave women who briefly escaped to a nearby plantation for some soap. Make no mistake: the camera does not shrink from the brutal violence of these scenes, and I think some viewers will find the lashes too much to stomach. Still, it puts to shame previous attempts to screen slave experience and sets a new benchmark for tackling America’s original sin. 

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