Hard to see where ‘Napoleon’ is heading

Joaquin Phoenix portrays the title character in Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon.”

Jeff Mellinger Screen Shots(Dec. 2, 2023) — By all accounts, Napoleon Bonaparte was a complex man.

An inspiring presence to his men, he was an exquisite tactician. Fiercely devoted to his country and to his wife, Napoleon was also seen as a selfish, power-thirsty despot.

Director Ridley Scott does an admirable job bringing 18th and 19th century France to life in “Napoleon.” However, the same cannot be said for Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the title character.

Phoenix is an exceptional actor. He was phenomenal in “The Joker.” He just does not stretch himself far enough to truly capture what Napoleon was all about.

Part of the problem is that the script starts Napoleon out in his early 20s and takes him into his 50s. He changed a lot over those decades, but Phoenix has a hard time showing it.

Scott’s regular director of photography, Dariusz Wolski (“The Martian” “The Last Duel”), shoots “Napoleon” almost exclusively in low-light settings. He lights indoor scenes by candles, fireplaces and windowlight. Outdoor scenes are rarely sunny. Instead, fog, mist, snow and rain dominate the scenes. Wolski is one of the greatest cinematographers of his time; every scene is immaculately lit and shot.

Vanessa Kirby is admirable as Napoleon’s unfortunate wife, Josephine. Seemingly unable to provide him with a son, she bears the weight of her husband’s world. She does herself no favors with some of her behaviors, yet she gives as good as she gets.

It is hard to tell whether we are supposed to like Napoleon or be repulsed by him. Perhaps Phoenix aimed for somewhere in the middle. (The end credit titles give a good indication of Scott’s opinion.)

For someone not as well-versed in the Napoleonic era as I should have been, the film certainly sheds light on it. I just wish I had come away understanding the man himself more. B-

The horrors of ‘Thanksgiving’

Eighteen years ago, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released two movies (“Death Proof” and “Planet Terror”) that aired in theaters together under the title “Grindhouse.” During the intermission, audiences saw several previews for fake movies. Rodriguez soon turned one of those previews into the film “Machete.”

Perhaps the most revered preview was for an Eli Roth horror film centered around Thanksgiving. In 2023, Roth gives us the holiday film we’ve all been waiting for with his eagerly anticipated “Thanksgiving.”

Black Friday has become so wrapped up in Thanksgiving, Roth was smart to tap into that connection. His film opens with a mob anxiously awaiting the Thanksgiving Eve opening of a superstore. It is no secret what is about to happen, but Roth gives this scene the time it needs to develop.

We meet several characters as the suspense continues to mount. When the eventual riot happens, several people lie dead. Roth manages to capture comedy, horror and pathos in one 15-minute scene.

One year later, someone dons a John Carver mask and begins butchering those heavily involved in starting or proliferating the riot. There are some very gory deaths and some generally surprising scares. The Thanksgiving parade scene is especially well done.

Roth and co-writer Jeff Rendell do not rewrite the slasher genre. It plays mostly by the book, including the ending. Kudos to them for making the bulk of the characters likeable, though. All too often, it is easy to root against horror movie protagonists. Fans of the genre will appreciate the effort.

With the inevitable sequel(s) on the way, we can look forward to continually celebrating Thanksgiving with more good old-fashioned decapitations and eviscerations. B

Jeff Mellinger

Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. He lives in Concord.