I’d seen this long ago, but thought it worthy of another look, and I’m glad I took that opportunity.
Big Night is an indie movie with a meta-subtext. Paradise, the restaurant run by brothers Primo and Secondo, is a quality venue that lacks patronage because of the big flashy Pascal’s across the street. Paradise offers the best food Primo can create. Pascal’s offers “what the people want”. Big Night cost a little over $4 million, and got its money back … did $12 million in the U.S., and I don’t know how much overseas. But in domestic grosses it finished 116th for the year. For comparison purposes, Independence Day got more than $300 million in domestic grosses.
None of this is to say that Big Night is a good movie, or Independence Day a bad one. I like them both. But it’s an interesting undercurrent to Big Night.
I will say that a second viewing convinced me that Big Night was better than I remembered. The various dishes Primo concocts are made with such care, and presented in such an enticing fashion, that they are like characters in the movie. But Scott, Tucci, and writer Joseph Tropiano (Tucci’s cousin) don’t let Big Night get too precious. They remember to create human characters with as much care as Primo makes his timpano. Big Night is an orgasmic treat for food lovers … I watched it on TCM, where it was introduced by Anthony Bourdain, who is a big fan. But it’s also an actor’s delight, and it’s easy to understand how they were able to get such a strong cast: Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Minnie Driver, Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, Allison Janney and others.
Big Night sits out there in Indie Limbo. It isn’t on any of the They Shoot Pictures lists. There was a DVD release in the early days of that format, but to the best of my knowledge it’s out of print, and there has never been a Blu-ray edition. You have to catch it at random, on TCM or streaming on Netflix. It’s worth it. 8/10. I’m having a hard time thinking of other restaurant movies … Ratatouille? You could do worse than simply watching the TV series Treme.
When writing about Shoah, I noted how some subject matters resist film criticism. Slavery would seem to be one of those subjects, but I’ve seen enough movies about slavery in the U.S. to know that there are good ones and bad ones and ones that are complicated (good and/or bad). 12 Years a Slave does not approach slavery the way that Mandingo did, or that Django Unchained did. The latter two are exploitation flicks, while Steve McQueen goes out of his way to make a film that is unblinking about slavery without appealing to prurient interest. It might be argued that the over-the-top nature of the exploitation movies is a better way to get across the vileness of slavery than a more genteel approach. And Mandingo must have made an impression on a few people … Tarantino has cited it as an influence, and the box office was good enough to inspire a sequel, Drum (which at least featured one of the great bits of dialogue in movie history, when Pam Grier asked Warren Oates if he liked big titties, leading to the immortal reply, “Oh, you KNOW I loves big titties!”).
You won’t find anything like that in 12 Years a Slave. And I’m not saying you should … 12 Years a Slave is up to something different than exploitation. But there is a slight distancing. McQueen wants us to come to his story and his characters without banging us over the head, and the result is a movie that is fine and intelligent and all the better for lacking the exploitation factor. But those other movies offer a hint to what McQueen gives up by making a classy film like 12 Years a Slave.
I don’t know that McQueen was positioning himself against the exploitation genre. In the context of film history, 12 Years a Slave is better compared to something like Gone with the Wind. There are no slaves in McQueen’s film that want to be slaves, and it would be pretty hard to imagine anyone watching the movie and wanting to be a slave, themselves. In that sense, 12 Years a Slave is a realistic portrait of slavery, one that doesn’t feel the need to rely on the romantic claptrap of GWTW or the charged-up fireworks of the exploitation movies.
But the emotional connection for the audience relies largely on the excellence of Chiwetel Ejiofor (who is always excellent). He is the perfect choice for his role … Solomon Northup is forced to maintain a front of illiteracy and ineptitude in order to survive, and Ejiofor’s ability to “act with his eyes” allows us to see both the feigned ignorance and the intelligence behind the playacting.
Too often, films about minorities are filtered through sympathetic white characters, which won’t work here … the slaves are African-American. And we can’t fault McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley for their source material, the actual life of Solomon Northup. But Northup’s existence as a free man with a wife, two kids, and a solid place in what looks like the middle-class community of his town, makes it inevitable that a central plot thread will be Northup’s attempt to return to his family in the North. It’s as if slavery is bad because it keeps Northup away from his real job and family. But slavery is bad for everyone, including the slaves who are left behind when Northup is finally rescued and allowed to return home. The emotional core of the film culminates when he sees his family once again, and pushes aside the experiences of all the other slaves who might not have come from a middle-class situation.
12 Years a Slave is good enough that the things I mention are mostly trifles. It’s a better movie than any of the others I mentioned, far better in most cases. It’s the quality of the film that makes me want it to be even more perfect. #140 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 9/10. For a companion piece, maybe McQueen’s Hunger, which is equally strong, and my comments about that film seem to match some of what I say here: “Much of the film is presented in a rather dispassionate way … what we see inspires deep emotions from the audience, to be sure, but somehow McQueen maintains a certain distance from the material.”
Documentary about Mark Hogancamp, who was beaten by five men, suffering extreme brain damage. He concocts his own therapy by building a 1/6th model of a Belgian village during WWII, using dolls and other paraphernalia. Hogancamp seems guileless, which one person in the film points out is crucial: the village would be entirely different if it were informed by irony. Director Jeff Malmberg manages to keep the irony out of his work, as well, leaving a deceptively slight tale.
I’ve written the same thing about Wes Anderson films for many years, and I feel like I shouldn’t just recite those past comments one more time. So I switched, and quoted something I wrote about another movie. Wes Anderson builds his films the way Mark Hogancamp built his Belgian village (without the brain damage). Nothing in his movies is quite like “real” life. He creates entire worlds out of his own creative fantasies, and regularly succeeds at placing his visions on the screen intact. This is not an easy thing to accomplish, and it’s a sign of an artist in full command of his medium.
He receives critical acclaim, which has become more impressive and consistent in recent years. Metacritic ratings for the last three features he directed: Fantastic Mr. Fox 83/100, Moonrise Kingdom 84/100, The Grand Budapest Hotel 87/100.
My response to his movies has been consistent as well. Beginning with The Royal Tenenbaums, I have seen all of his features except The Darjeeling Limited, and have given them all the same 6/10 rating.
I wonder if Fantastic Mr. Fox is the ultimate Wes Anderson film. It’s animated … there is no mistaking it for the “real” world. Yet in some ways, the foxes in that movie are more like the human beings you’ll meet during an ordinary day than the characters in Anderson’s live-action movies. I wrote about Mr. Fox, “But Mr. Fox et al are not foxes at all. They walk on two feet, dress in human clothing, and seem to aspire as much as anything to living the life of an ordinary human being.” One thing you can say about the characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel is that very few of them aspire to living the life of an ordinary human being.
I’m still buried in the ongoing discussion about the important of “the filmmaking” in movie criticism. I know I’m too much the English professor about movies, that I foreground plot and acting more than “the filmmaking”. But I think it’s no coincidence that the author of the linked-to piece, Matt Zoller Seitz, has written a highly-regarded book about Wes Anderson. Wes Anderson is a filmmaker … he is an artist. He is probably best appreciated when you come to his films with the willingness and expectation to give yourself over to the worlds he creates.
I think I liked this one a teensy bit more than I liked the other Andersons. Mostly, it reminded me of a film scripted by T.S. Garp. But after all of these films, it is clear that more than usual, when it comes to Wes Anderson, your mileage may vary. When I read reviews of his films, when I talk to friends who love his movies, it is evident that for the most part, we see the same things. But then I say 6/10, and they say 87/100. If they explained “why 87”, I’d understand the explanation … I saw it for myself. But I’m unimpressed. Which makes Wes Anderson the King of Taste Preferences. 6/10. For a companion piece, choose another Wes Anderson film (duh), or maybe one directed by Noah Baumbach … I liked The Squid and the Whale more than I like most Anderson films. You could also try Marwencol.