Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Marshall (dir by Reginald Hudlin)


So, here I am.  January is nearly over.  The Oscar nominations have already been announced.  2018 is well under way and yet, I still have 158 films on the DVR that I need to watch and a few 2017 releases that I still need to catch up on.  At this point, I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never truly be “caught up” when it comes to watching movies.  But, that’s okay.  I love movies too much to ever regret having an excuse to watch more.

On Wednesday night, I watched Marshall, which came out last October.  A film about the early life of civil rights activist and future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Marshall seemed like a movie that would perfectly capitalize on the current political atmosphere.  The film starred Josh Gad and Chadwick Boseman and a lot of people — including me — assumed that the excitement over Boseman as Black Panther would also translate into excitement over a chance to see him in this film.  (For that matter, Josh Gad has also recently been proving himself to be a far better actor than I originally believed him to be.  Never again will I refer to Gad as being the poor man’s Jonah Hill.)  The film’s reviews were respectable.  Quite a few sites, including this one, listed Marshall as being a potential Oscar nominee.

And yet, when the movie was released, it fell flat at the box office.  On the week of its release, it finished in 11th place.  I guess there’s a lot of reasons for that.  Personally, I think it would have done better if the film had been released in November or December.  In a month that is traditionally dominated by horror movies and the last gasps of a few summer blockbusters, Marshall seemed somewhat out-of-place.  Perhaps Marshall would have stood a better chance if it had been given a limited release in December, with a big awards push for Chadwick Boseman.  Who knows?  As it is, it ended up losing money and it only received one Oscar nomination, for best original song.

Having now watched Marshall, I can say it’s a good movie, though perhaps never quite as good as you want it to be.  It takes place in 1940.  After making a name for himself defending blacks in the South, attorney Thurgood Marshall travels to Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) who has been accused of raping a white woman (Kate Hudson).  It soon becomes obvious that Northern justice is just as corrupted by bigotry as Southern justice.  A racist judge (James Cromwell) rules that Marshall will not be allowed to even speak in court.  Marshall ends up advising the chauffeur’s attorney, an insurance lawyer named Sam Friedman (Josh Gad).  All of Sam’s friends expect him to just make a deal with the smug prosecutor (Dan Stevens) and move on.  However, Sam believe his client to be not guilty and, with Marshall’s help, is determined to win an acquittal.

Director Reginald Hudlin never seems to be quite what type of movie he’s trying to make.  Sometimes, the film feels like a reverent biopic.  Other time, it’s an old-fashioned courtroom drama, complete with different flashbacks depending on who is doing the testifying.  And then other times, Marshall is an extremely stylish film that almost turns Thurgood Marshall into a comic book super hero.  Fortunately, Chadwick Boseman is such a talented and charismatic actor that he holds all of the disparate elements of the film together.  Not only does Boseman bring intelligence and righteous anger to the role, he also brings a sense of fun.  As played by Boseman, Marshall isn’t just outsmarting a prejudiced system and putting racists in their place.  He’s also having a good time while he’s doing it.  Boseman is a lot of fun to watch and he gets good support from Josh Gad and Sterling K. Brown.

Marshall may not be a perfect film but Chadwick Boseman is always watchable.  The excitement over Black Panther has proven that Boseman is a star but Marshall shows that he’s a pretty good actor as well.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2016: Elvis & Nixon (dir by Liza Johnson)


elvis__nixon_poster

When you think of actors who you could cast in a biopic of Elvis Presley, Michael Shannon is probably not the first actor who comes to mind.  And yet that’s just what the people behind Elvis & Nixon did.  They also cast Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon, a decision that, on the surface, makes more sense than Shannon playing Elvis.

And yet, in the finished film, it’s Shannon who gives the memorable performance while Spacey often seems lost in the role of Nixon.  Fortunately, with Kevin Spacey’s role largely being an extended cameo, Michael Shannon is the one who is in nearly every scene of the movie.

Elvis and Nixon is based on a true story.  In 1970, Elvis Presley asked for a meeting with Richard Nixon who, if the film is to be believed, wasn’t quite sure who Elvis actually was.  It turns out that Elvis was very concerned about the growing popularity of illegal drugs.  In between consuming prodigious amounts of legal drugs, Elvis formulated a plan.  Perhaps he could go to the White House and convince Nixon to deputize him.  Elvis could be a special agent of the FBI.  Even more importantly, maybe Elvis could get a FBI badge.

So, was Elvis sincere or was he just crazy?  Elvis & Nixon walks a thin line between those two possibilities, suggesting that Elvis may have been a bit unblanced but he was also achingly sincere.  Michael Shannon plays Elvis as a man who is blissfully out-of-touch but who truly wants to make the world a better place.  As played by Shannon, Elvis is defined by ennui.   He may be the biggest star in the world but he still struggles with the feeling that he hasn’t accomplished anything.  This is a film that asks, “When you’ve reached top, where else can you do?”  Elvis wants to make the world a better place by combating the spread of drugs.

And he also really, really wants that badge.  There’s an almost child-like petulance to Shannon’s Elvis.  He may be sincere but he’s also very much used to getting whatever he wants.

For that matter, so is Nixon.  And Nixon really doesn’t want to visit with Elvis.  Of course, that’s before his White House aides mention that being seen with Elvis could help him with the youth vote when he runs for reelection.  And then his daughter says that she wants Elvis’s autograph….

Anyway, it all leads to a meeting in the Oval Office and a scene that would have worked better if Spacey’s performance as Nixon was a bit less of caricature.  That said, the scene still works because Michael Shannon totally invests himself in the role of Elvis.  When he’s talking to Nixon and showing off his karate moves, Elvis is happier than we’ve ever seen him.  He’s performing on the biggest stage of his career.

Elvis & Nixon came out earlier this year.  It’s an enjoyable film, even if it’s never quite as good as you might want it to be.  If nothing else, this film proves that Michael Shannon can pretty much do anything.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Yet Again #37: The Sound and the Fury (dir by James Franco)


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by the end of Thursday, December 8th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

the_sound_and_the_fury_2014_film

James Franco’s 2015 adaptation of William Faulkner’s classic novel, The Sound and The Fury, aired on Starz on November 2nd.

You know what?  Haters are going to hate but James Franco does more in an hour than most people do in a month.  Not only is James one of the most consistently interesting actors working today but he’s also a writer, a painter, a teacher, an activist, and a film director.

Indeed, it’s his work as a director that might be the most overlooked part of James’s prolific career.  Since making his directorial debut in 2006, with The Ape, James Franco has directed over 30 movies, television episodes, and short films.  As a director, James Franco has shown a talent for strong visuals and a willingness to take on difficult material.

For instance, can you imagine any other director who would have the guts to try to make a film out of The Sound and The Fury, the classic novel that may be the most unfilmable literary work this side of Finnegan’s Wake?

Told through the perspective of four related but very different characters, The Sound and The Fury details the fall of both the once mighty Compson family and the old South that the Compsons represent.  Benjy Compson is developmentally disabled and sees the world in a disjointed, nonlinear style.  Quinton Compson is fragile and sensitive and, while his section of the book starts in a fairly straight-forward enough manner, it quickly becomes nearly incoherent as Quinton’s mental state starts to deteriorate.  Jason Compson is cruel and evil but, because of his ruthless and self-centered personality, his section is the most straight-forward and the easiest to follow.  And finally, there’s Dilsey, the Compson family servant who is the only person to understand why the Compsons are in decline.  Faulkner utilized stream-of-consciousness throughout the entire novel, to such an extent that readers and critics are still debating just what exactly is happening and what Faulkner is actually saying.

In short, it takes courage to adapt a novel like The Sound and The Fury.  It takes even more courage when you’re an actor-turned-director who has his share of jealous haters.

Now, I should admit that James Franco was not the first director to attempt to make a film out of The Sound and The Fury.  In 1959, Martin Ritt made a version of the film, which reportedly did away with the nonlinear structure and centered the film around the straight-forward Jason.  (I haven’t seen the 1959 version.)  James Franco, on the other hand, not only adapts The Sound and The Fury but also adapts Faulkner’s style.

James Franco replicates the novel’s nonlinear structure and even takes on the role of Benjy himself.  It makes for a film that is occasionally frustrating and difficult to follow but which is also undeniably fascinating.  Filled with haunting images, James Franco’s The Sound and The Fury is a visual feast, one that perfectly captures the atmosphere of a decaying society.  The South, in this film, is trapped between the possibly imagined glories of the past and the harsh reality of the future.  There’s a dream-like intensity to the film.  It sticks with you.

As well, James Franco does an excellent job casting his film.  Tim Blake Nelson brings an enigmatic combination of grandeur and threat to the role of Mr. Compson and Jacob Loeb is haunting as the fragile Quentin.  Scott Haze dominates the film as the cruel Jason.  Though you never sympathize with Jason, you can understand how he became the man that he is.  Jason may not be a good man but, unlike the rest of the Compsons, you never doubt that he’s going to survive in one way or another.

James Franco took a big chance directing The Sound and The Fury and he succeeded.