Friday, January 30, 2015

Away from Her

AWAY FROM HER        B+               
Canada  (110 mi)  2006  d:  Sarah Polley

Scenes from a marriage that play out like a Bergman chamber drama, filled with somber chilly undertones and brilliant performances from the leading actors, the resplendent Julie Christie who, as a member of the hospital staff points out, is still “a lady,” elegant and regal, smart and inquisitive, delivering one of the most powerful performances of her career, vulnerable yet always eloquent in her manner, and her husband Grant, Gordon Pinsent, an Erland Josephson stand in with the same beard, a retired English professor with a stern countenance, a stodgy old guy who taught Icelandic myths, always with a bit of frostbite in his look.  The two live on a cabin overlooking Lake Ontario where they enjoy cross-country skiing until one day Fiona (Christie) can’t remember her way back, a telling sign after several earlier signs all leading to the same truth, that she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and needs long term care, announcing at a dinner party “I think I may be beginning to disappear” after she can’t remember how to pronounce the word “wine.”  After visiting Meadowlake, an upscale assisted living facility, Grant is devastated, expressed in an excruciating time lapsed scene when the residents are sitting around with their families, all crowded into a common room, but one by one the various family members disappear, erased from the image, leaving the residents isolated and alone, distraught and helpless, all common themes in the film.  Grant doesn’t like the place, but Fiona is wise enough to realize they’ll never find the kind of place they like, but this one will do, as what she really needs is a place where she can retain some sense of grace. 

Adapted by the director from the Alice Munro short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the film flows in intersecting threads, each intercutting the other, using brief flashbacks as well as spoken reflections from earlier times, all of which feed into the present, which is rapidly deteriorating.  The observant nurse, Kristen Thomson who is nothing less than a revelation in each and every scene, cheerful and helpful in every respect, empathizes with the family, whose time and visits are only fleeting, making it difficult to let go, a contrast to the staff administrator who is stiff and artificial, always remaining aloof from it all while enforcing the Meadowlake policy that forbids visitors of any kind for the first 30 days, allowing the residents time to settle in and discover their own comfort zones.  When Grant returns, she’s transferred her feelings of affection to one of the other residents, a nearly unrecognizable and uncommunicative Michael Murphy, who is confined to a wheelchair, the two becoming inseparable, treating Grant like a pestering visitor who won’t leave them alone.  Again, Grant who was never comfortable with the idea of bringing her there, becomes even more flabbergasted, feeling more alienated than he could ever imagine, as if forces were conspiring against him, believing she may be punishing him for a long since past indiscretion which may now be the re-prioritized focus of her attention.  Despite being heavily racked in guilt, he keeps visiting, trying to maintain his 44-year marriage, but he blends so comfortably into the background that one of the other visitors just assumes he’s a lonely resident without any visitors.  In an unusual scene, using humor to assess emotional devastation, one patient is a former hockey play-by-play announcer, who offers his amusingly unstoppable play-by-play commentary of his experience being whisked down the hall, interjecting upon seeing Grant hiding his face against a wall, “There’s a man who is heartbroken, his heart broken into a million pieces,” before continuing his monologue.  Throughout this ordeal, the role of the nurse takes on greater impact, where she possesses a kind of down-to-earth realistic clarity that Grant lacks, where all his education brings him no closer to grasping the effect of his sudden insignificance in his wife’s life.  There’s a wonderful conversation between Grant and the nurse when he realizes that much of what he previously felt mattered now feels so superficial, aware that what was a comfortable distance between them now feels like an insurmountable gulf.  This event is eerily similar to childbirth, only with an agonizing grief of loss instead of the joy of the newborn, where your life suddenly feels small and secondary to the more pressing needs of this “other.”       

While there are no startling directorial innovations or lapses, there are repeated motifs, such as the director’s preference for close ups, some lit in a glowing white light that suggests transcendence, hospital corridor sequences utilizing slow tracking shots that follow the eyes of a visitor, or an overhead camera looking down on inhabitants in bed, a similar Atom Egoyan device (a producer on the film), while most of the film takes place in the slow frozen chill of winter.  While there is a beautiful and tender use of K.D. Lang singing Neil Young’s song “Helpless”Away from Her & Helpless - YouTube (4:10), this is not a film with attention-grabbing fireworks or melodrama, but instead respects the slow descent into forgetfulness, where the dignity of the characters is maintained throughout.  There are wonderful literary passages Grant reads to his wife, with his eloquent, perfectly enunciated words, which adds a bit of poetic reflection, not to mention an appreciation for the written word, which after all is the sacred tool of communication.  Without it, we are all at a loss, caught in the emptiness of an unending void.  Even the Apostle John from the New Testament of the Bible recognizes this epic significance, “In the beginning was the Word.”   This film is a different kind of journey, one with no real political or religious message, but is a human story that anyone can understand, as it respects the ties that bind us together, the memories, the shared lives, an assembly of lifelong experiences.  So when all that suddenly vanishes and disappears without a trace, what are we left with?  How do we continue to know each other?  Anyone who’s ever visited the elderly in hospitals or nursing homes knows just how lost they can become from the rest of us.  How do we keep them from slipping away?  Of course, it’s “our need” to hold onto them, while in the later stages of life it may become “their need” to let go.  It’s a daunting distinction swallowed up in a fragile and ever elusive realm that is largely outside all human comprehension, and therein lies the unexplored territory that is the unusual focus of this highly intelligent and quietly tender film.  

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Still Alice

STILL ALICE           B+              
USA  France  (101 mi)  2014  d:  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Night flight to San Francisco; chase the moon across America.  God, it’s been years since I was on a plane.  When we hit 35,000 feet we’ll have reached the tropopause, the great belt of calm air, as close as I’ll ever get to the ozone.  I dreamed we were there.  The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening.  But I saw something that only I could see because of my astonishing ability to see such things: Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning.  And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them and was repaired.  Nothing’s lost forever.  In this world, there’s a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.  At least I think that’s so. 
―Tony Kushner, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, 1993, read to Alice (Julianne Moore) by Lydia (Kristen Stewart)   

Any film that graphically depicts the harsh personal struggles of dealing with a debilitating disease is going to be a tearjerker and a challenge for the viewing audience, as it can’t help but make people feel uncomfortable, much of it bordering on real life horrors.  Up until now, perhaps the definitive film on Alzheimer’s Disease has been Sarah Polley’s Away from Her (2006), centered by such a superbly crafted performance from actress Julie Christie, where the essence of the film, featuring a slow descent into forgetfulness, is maintaining the dignity of the character.  Coming nearly a decade later, Julianne Moore is rather remarkable in conveying the deteriorating effects of losing her memory, especially considering she is the focus of every single shot throughout the entire film, where time plays such a significant factor, as she has such little time left where she can remember anything.  Written and directed by real-life partners, Richard Glatzer was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, where one imagines this may offer special insight and sensitivity toward the material.  Continually attempting to avoid cliché’s, what these two films have in common, besides powerhouse performances and such intelligent lead characters, is a delicate approach to the subject, where the overwhelming effect is revealed by the accumulation of tiny details.  Adding to the overall drama is the audience getting to know Alice (Moore) at age 50, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, a celebrated professor at the height of her career who specializes in the art of communication, where her entire focus in life has been elevated by her unique and uncanny ability to express herself and say exactly what she means.  When words start to fail her, it has stunning ramifications particularly in her case, because the more intelligent you are, the quicker the noticeable deterioration of dementia.  While she has a loving husband in Alec Baldwin as John, a biologist somewhat absorbed in his work, and three grown children, including aspiring doctor Tom (Hunter Parrish), expectant mother Anna (Kate Bosworth), and aspiring actress Lydia (Kristen Stewart, once again excellent), there is an existing family dynamic that becomes more evident as her disease progresses.

The film is based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 bestselling novel of the same name, where the author has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard.  As Genova’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, discovered in her mid-80’s, she became fascinated by the progression of the disease, wondering what it was like from the view of the person with Alzheimer’s.  Genova did a considerable amount of research and study on people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when they could still describe their impressions of having the disease, reading every book she could find, interviewing neurologists, physicians, research scientists, genetics counselors, and social workers, while exchanging emails daily with people around the world living with early onset dementia.  Genova describes recollections of her grandmother in an interview with the Alzheimer Research Forum, Interview with Lisa Genova - Alzheimer Research Forum

We cared for her, but there was little we could do but watch this disease systematically disassemble the woman I knew as my grandmother. She didn’t know her kids’ names. She didn’t even remember that she had any children. She didn’t know where she lived. She couldn’t remember to go to the bathroom when she needed to. I would watch her looking at her own face in the mirror and not understanding the image she saw reflected back. She would care for these little plastic dolls as if they were real babies. It was heartbreaking.

As a result, the film gets the tiny details right, where more than 60% of Alzheimer’s patients are women, twice as likely to develop the disease upon reaching age 60 than breast cancer, and they are more likely to be the caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s.  While the film starts out with only minor incidents of forgetfulness, nonetheless Alice visits a neurologist on her own without telling her husband.  By the time John is brought in, the diagnosis has been confirmed, a rare incident of early onset dementia, where Alice is trying to come to terms with the inevitable while he’s in a state of denial and disbelief.  One of the most horrifying realizations is the extent of genetic transmission linked to their children, where the entire family is personally affected.  While she tries to maintain her independent lifestyle for as long as she can, she forgets pertinent subject matter during her lectures and eventually has to resign, where she’s seen exploring assisted living homes, where they assume she’s there on behalf of an elderly parent.  One of the most startling revelations in the film is the shame involved, as patients get lost, can’t figure out why, and can’t describe how they got there, as it’s an invisible disease with no cure, where Alice actually suggests she’d rather have cancer, as that’s at least something people can identify with.  Alzheimer’s patients simply disappear from their own known consciousness and are required to spend their lives in hiding, lost to their families and the people they love.  Alice has a modern family that is computer literate, doing much of their work on computers, while constantly communicating with each other on their cell phones, though Alice expresses her worries and concerns for her wayward child, Lydia, on cross-country skype visits.  One of the most effective devices used in the film is the grainy use of home movies, which serve as Alice’s reflections into the past, where over time she is unable to distinguish between the separate time barriers between the past and the present, where it all runs together into one stream-of-conscious present, often at odds with the “real” world.      

The marital dynamic is challenged in the extreme, as John is in his prime earning years, where this medical condition can last indefinitely and sap the family resources.  Knowing she has limited cognizance, she suggests they spend a year together in the remote isolation of a romantic locale by the ocean, as this may be her final year as herself.  In most families, this may not be economically feasible, which is John’s concern, especially as he’s being offered a prestigious once-in-a-lifetime position that he’s worked his entire life to obtain at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  Believing he can’t turn down the offer, Alice has no interest in leaving everything that still remains familiar to her.  This kind of disruption is at the root of what families are forced to face when dealing with this disease, as it often comes so unexpectedly, where one’s life is literally turned upside down, where the patient requires 24/hours-a-day care, which is not inexpensive.  To ward off the inevitable for as long as she can, Alice relies entirely on her Blackberry, reminding herself of things to do while asking herself five questions every day.  When the day finally comes when she can no longer answer the questions, she instructs herself to go to her computer and follow the instructions of a specifically labeled file, where she has eerily left a message for herself, reminding her who she was, how smart she was, and what she needs to do next, simply a shattering moment that couldn’t be more heartbreaking.  The devastation of the moment is a poignant reminder of the personal deterioration, where it becomes harder if not impossible to maintain anything resembling a close relationship with someone who often no longer knows who you are.  Much of the film accentuates Alice’s strengths and unique abilities, where Julianne Moore, without being showy, offers the most nuanced performance of the year, showing a maturity in the role and a range of emotion few can hope to achieve, while also reflecting the kinds of difficult discussions family members must have in order to make the painful decisions involved, where they ultimately have to decide what to do with Mom.  Perhaps not surprisingly it’s Lydia, the wayward daughter, who beautifully channels a sense of “exasperated compassion,” where the film uses a Tony Kushner passage from Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika that rises to a poetic moment of shared transcendence, a wisp of humanity that truly challenges our role in dealing with these extraordinary moments of personal crisis. 

Monday, January 26, 2015


Early poster naming Lee Daniels as the director  

Amelia Boynton being cared for by an unnamed marcher after being knocked unconscious in a police attack on Selma protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7th  

The 2nd attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is forced to turn around on Tuesday, March 9th  

Martin Luther King and wife Coretta lead marchers across the Alabama River on the first day of the Selma-to-Montgomery march on March 21st  

SELMA           B     
USA  Great Britain  (127 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Ana DuVernay            Official Site

The movement is a rhythm to us
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
Justice for all just ain't specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin' us
Truant livin' livin' in us, resistance is us
That's why Rosa sat on the bus
That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, "Stay down" and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is one
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory

One supposes that each generation needs to revisit their relationship with history, especially events recent enough to still be fresh in our minds, where the release of this film comes on the heels of the marches in Ferguson, Missouri, precipitated by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, an unarmed 18-year old black youth shot by a white police officer.  Written by first-time white screenwriter Paul Webb, with considerable uncredited rewrites by the director herself (specifically some of Martin Luther King’s speeches, as the rights had previously been obtained by other film studios), SELMA is a historical drama of events during the Civil Rights movement, African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68), taking place in the early months of 1965, coming after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination, but the powers to enforce the act remained weak, making it difficult for blacks to register to vote, where the film documents the non-violent methods of civil disobedience implemented by Martin Luther King in the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that turned into an all-out assault by the local police, smashing heads with Billy clubs and beating several marchers unconscious, images broadcast across the nation that eventually lead to an outpouring of support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law several months later on August 6, 1965.  The film shows how the past is still relevant to the present, and that progress is never guaranteed, especially because the events of the past bear an uncanny resemblance to events of today, particularly the number of young black men being shot and killed by police officers, making this essential viewing.  Just as importantly, on June 25, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (Oyez: Shelby County v. Holder) essentially struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws overnight without Federal oversight, where incredibly Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his majority opinion that the law was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”  With Republicans making dire warnings of predicted “voter fraud,” even with no evidence or previous history of fraud, 13 states quickly passed more restrictive voter ID laws, as scores of election laws were suddenly enacted banning same day registration, a common practice in some states, and requiring voter ID’s in a blatant attempt to thin the ranks of poor and minority voters, where according to this November 5, 2014 article, How Much of a Difference Did New Voting Restrictions Make, by Wendy R. Reiser, a former NYU Law School professor, the changes already had a significant impact as recently as the November 2014 elections that ushered in a Republican landslide, where once again millions of disenfranchised voters across the country were legally turned away from polling booths, 600,000 in Texas alone, exactly as they were half a century ago. 

While SELMA is considered a “black” film, largely due to the historical civil rights subject matter, where this is the first fictional film depicting Martin Luther King and is actually that rare Hollywood film directed by a black woman, but only three out of eleven producers backing the film are black, including billionaire television mogul Oprah Winfrey, the director herself, and Paul Garnes, an executive producer from the Tyler Perry Studios.  With one Latina working out of Hollywood, all the rest are white, including Brad Pitt and two other execs from his Plan B Entertainment studios, and four British/Irish producers associated with British film director Danny Boyle.  While this is as racially diverse as Hollywood allows, an industry where black history is almost exclusively projected through an all-white lens, using blacks in front of the camera with whites thoroughly entrenched behind the scenes, much like Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013), although recent low-budget independent films like Fruitvale Station (2013) have attempted to change that perception by showing a day in the life of a young, unarmed black kid eventually shot by police before the night is over, where at the moment it is estimated that police kill a black man, woman, or child every 28 hours.  Nearly half have no weapon on them, or anything resembling a weapon when they are killed, though in more than a third of the cases the police allege the victims displayed a weapon, often disputed by witnesses on the scene, as only 18% (less than one in five) are actually armed.  Blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of other Americans, while the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males, and if that black male drops out of high school the number skyrockets to 50%.  While other films like The Central Park Five (2012), In the Land of the Free... (2009), and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006) document the lengthy prison terms served by blacks who were wrongfully convicted, according to The National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 blacks constitute nearly half of all wrongfully convicted cases, where the disparity is greatest in sexual assault cases, as black defendants constitute 25 percent of prisoners incarcerated for rape, but 61 percent of those exonerated for such crimes.  Still, according to a December 31, 2014 article published by the Chicago Reporter, Data: Black Chicagoans at higher risk of being shot by police, Chicago police are 10 times more likely to shoot blacks compared to whites, where the city pays out millions of dollars in damages each year to settle related lawsuits involving police misconduct (specifically $45.5 million from 441 lawsuits between January 2009 and November 2011), most based on excessive force and false arrest allegations, where a third of these cases involve repeat police offenders, with 4 out of 5 of them retaining their jobs, as rarely are members of the police force found culpable. 

With this in mind, SELMA is not a new radical approach in cinema, but seems more instrumental in becoming a teaching moment to reacquaint a new generation of viewers to this recent chapter in Civil Rights history, a timely look back, drawing parallels into our modern world, using the Spielberg model of emotional manipulation in an attempt to hook the most amount of viewers.  Spielberg is a contentious director to cineastes and art film devotees as the measure of his success has largely come in dollars and cents instead of artistic accolades, where he has always ridden the wave of convention instead of carving out new roads.  Spielberg always associated his historical dramas like AMISTAD (1997) and Lincoln (2012) with teaching moments, which included handing out educational materials with the release of his films, much like blockbuster films use merchandising.  Similarly, pamphlets and free educational materials have been made available to the teaching community with the release of this film, where the director Ana DuVernay has indicated the film is a teaching tool that she hopes will trigger curiosity in students, though she cautions that the film condenses 13 years into 120 minutes, where she hopes educators will fill in the history gaps in classrooms nationwide.  The film is not without controversy, however, as President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), after an early career voting against racial equality became a strong proponent who helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but was more interested in advancing his War on Poverty agenda that he introduced in his January 1964 State of the Union address and felt the time was not yet right for Selma or voting rights, believing this could undermine the southern votes needed for passing his own legislation.  While taped conversations between King and Johnson confirm that the President supported King’s cause, many watching the film will assume that Johnson was an obstacle for civil rights leaders, as the film shows Johnson meeting with King ahead of time and is adamantly against his intentions to march in Selma, fearing it could lead to a bloodbath, while also well aware of the divisive racial power of voting rights in the South, that passage of the bill would for all intensive purposes hand the mostly Democratic South over to the Republicans for generations to come (which indeed it has).  The film actually demonizes Johnson, suggesting he attempted to sabotage King’s efforts in Selma by endorsing the dirty tricks of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to discredit King and his wife, where the timeline of the movie events are set by FBI agent surveillance reports where King and his supporters are referred to as agitators and black militants. While Johnson certainly had access to these files and no doubt listened to FBI tapes (as do all Presidents), there is no evidence suggesting Johnson directed or controlled the sinister and malicious actions of J. Edgar Hoover and his illegal spy operation known as COINTELPRO.  The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness, where as early as 1962 Hoover himself penned an FBI memorandum, “King is no good,” claiming he was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.”  Shortly afterwards in 1963, Time magazine chose King as the “Man of the Year,” and later in October 1964 at the age of thirty-five he won the Nobel Peace Prize, at the time the youngest recipient to ever win the award, an honor which elicited Hoover’s comment calling King the “most notorious liar” in the country.

The opening sequence blends together the FBI smear campaign against King, his trip abroad to receive the Nobel Prize, the racially motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of a Birmingham church in September, 1963 killing four young black girls, and the eerily cruel attempt of Selma resident Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to register to vote when the white registrar makes the outrageous demand that she name all sixty-seven names of the Alabama county judges before he’ll grant her request, stamping “rejected” on her application.  While highlighting the role of King, the film is not a King biopic, but a snapshot of a particular place and time, a moment in history that still resonates today with astonishing power.  David Oyelowo, a classically trained British-Nigerian actor spent seven years campaigning for the role of Martin Luther King, but Lee Daniels, the original director on the film didn’t believe he was right for the part.  Due to the slowness to materialize, most of the original cast and Daniels eventually left the film project, where it was Oyelowo who suggested Ana DuVernay as the director, as they worked together in an earlier film she directed, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2012).  What Oyelowo brings to the role is the familiar cadence of King’s speech that the audience immediately recognizes, while another British-Nigerian actress Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King, where each bring the required level of dignity and reflection to their relationship, which is tested throughout by continued FBI leaks to King’s wife.  By the time King arrives to Selma with religious leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in January, 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a collection of white and black volunteers, mostly college students, had already been leading a voter registration drive since 1961, having received considerable resistance in their efforts from white county law enforcement officials, where in the summer of 1964, three SNCC workers, James E. Chaney of Mississippi, and Michael H. Schwerner and Andrew Goodman of New York, were killed by white supremacists.  While Selma had a population that was 50 percent black, only 1 percent of the town’s black residents were registered as voters.  King proposed the two organizations work together, combining forces against Selma’s racial intransigence, organizing a series of demonstrations in front of the Dallas County Courthouse, bringing national coverage to their efforts, hoping to build momentum from the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to win federal protection for voting rights.  On February 17, protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) was fatally shot by an anonymous Alabama state trooper in a full-out night assault against marchers, events that were not captured by television cameras due to the cover of darkness. 

In response, a protest march from Selma to Montgomery was scheduled for Sunday, March 7, where six hundred marchers assembled in Selma, including Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) from SCLC and John Lewis (Stephan James), then SNCC chairman, now a prominent U.S. Congressman from Georgia who has been re-elected nine times since 1986, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge (now a U.S. National Historic Landmark) over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery, the state capitol.  On the other side, however, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police led by Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who ordered them to turn around.  When the protesters refused, to the cheers of white bystanders the officers shot teargas and charged the crowd on horseback, beating the nonviolent protesters over their heads with Billy clubs, including John Lewis who still bears the scars, knocking several unconscious, including one of the organizers, Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint), a longtime friend of both Martin and Coretta King, where a picture of her lying on the Edmund Pettus Bridge was broadcast around the world, ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people, a day now commonly referred to as Bloody Sunday.  Outraged by the events, King called upon supporters to come to Selma for a second march two days later, where he was encouraged by the outpouring of support from clergy and other sympathizers across the nation, but also warned by the Justice Department to wait until the courts could rule on whether the protesters deserved federal protection, as Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) refused to intercede.  Still conflicted, King led the second march on March 9, but after kneeling in prayer he turned the marchers back before crossing the bridge, a momentary pause for mutual reflection.  That night, however, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb (Jeremy Strong), a minister from Boston who heeded King’s call to come to Selma for the second march.  King’s actions exacerbated the tension between SCLC and the more militant SNCC, who were pushing for more radical tactics that would move from nonviolent protest to active opposition against racist leaders and institutions, where in the late 60’s SNCC changed their name and eventually became a black nationalist group advocating black power, where an attempt to align themselves with the Black Panther Party failed, with the organization largely disappearing after that in the early 70’s, where only small local chapters remained.  Several weeks afterwards on March 21, however, the historic final march included federal protection, leading to the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 several months later. 

While the weakness of this film is an uneven script that often stumbles into poor melodrama substituting for history, one of the real surprises is how King is not portrayed “only” as the noble hero, like he’s always been depicted in history lessons or Black History month, but as an ordinary man who takes out the garbage and appreciates a lively conversation over a home-cooked meal, while he’s also a great orator with unique abilities to stand up to extraordinary pressure, whose human flaws are exposed alongside an acknowledgment that the movement under his direction made plenty of mistakes, often paying too high a price by underestimating or miscalculating damaging outcomes.  History is never a perfect picture, but DuVernay does do an impressive job revisiting this unique moment in history, making a compelling case for remembering the hard-earned lessons of the past and learning from those mistakes, as otherwise those same problems are likely to reemerge and haunt future generations.  The film quite clearly demonstrates how a nation’s past shapes its current form, where there seems to be a strong urge among many, including Supreme Court Justices, to dismiss any disadvantage minority groups still have today by ushering in phrases like “that was 60 years ago,” but films like this show that national policies made hundreds of years ago still have consequences that are being felt today.  One can’t talk about race, or even poverty or social injustice, without acknowledging how we arrived at this point in time.  It is essential, therefore, that we examine our own unvarnished history without a Hollywood lens.  The LBJ inaccuracies in the film are no worse than Ben Affleck’s intentional distortion of the truth in Argo (2012), dismissing the role of the Canadians and once again creating a fictitious version of Hollywood heroism, yet that film won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  In American Sniper (2014), audiences are clearly willing to whitewash history in the Hollywood style and overlook the racist component of the American soldier in their zealous rush to support our troops and label the film heroic and patriotic, while in SELMA it’s a much harder sell to stare into the face of American racism and see how it impacts upon our lives today.  In attempting to be honest about history, whatever SELMA may be, it’s not the condensed or sanitized version that Argo and American Sniper are, fictitious Hollywood films that feed into a false mythological impression of America.  The disinterest in SELMA at the Cineplex suggests America is not yet interested in reliving the past or in addressing the message of racism while instead preferring movies with a toned down and mostly white Hollywood view.  Yet only by conscientiously acknowledging our past and seeing how it shapes the present do we have any hope of understanding the myriad of complex racial problems that continue to plague us in the present. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

American Sniper

Bradley Cooper (left) portrays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (right) in the adaptation of Kyle’s 2012 autobiography American Sniper

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle

AMERICAN SNIPER             C              
USA  (132 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Clint Eastwood                    Official site

This is a perfect example of utterly conventional Hollywood filmmaking, as it takes a simplistic, one-dimensional approach to war, patriotism, and serving one’s country, becoming a jingoistic portrayal of an American warrior who thinks he knows what his country stands for by asking no questions, where no reservations are expressed, instead it typifies the gung-ho spirit of the armed forces in much the same way as pro football player Pat Tillman was made the military poster child for enlisting in the Army in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  His idea was to kick some terrorist ass in Afghanistan and Iraq, filled with an ideological certainty that borders on brainwashing, much like the nation’s bullheaded approach for invading Iraq in the first place, where it was inconceivable in Tillman’s eyes that America wouldn’t prevail.  Unfortunately, as the Amir Bar-Lev documentary The Tillman Story (2010) points out, it’s much more complicated than that.  This glorification of heroism is a throwback to Howard Hawks’ SERGEANT YORK (1941), released just months before America’s entrance into World War II, the story of a World War I sharpshooter that became a war hero, one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I even as he was a devout pacifist, which won Gary Cooper an Academy Award for Best Actor.  Even Gary Cooper, however, was reluctant to play a “too good to be true” character, but reconsidered after meeting Alvin York, the real person the film was based upon.  Interestingly, according to Eastwood himself, that was the first movie he ever saw, so it obviously left an impression on him, just as the images from movies and historical photographs leave impressions on other young soldiers about how to behave during wartime, where they often emulate what they see.  Similarly, a bulked up and more bland, ideologically toned down Bradley Cooper is excellent in the real-life role of Chris Kyle, a down-home Texas cowboy who rode the rodeo circuit early in his twenties, but when he witnesses the 9/11 attacks, he reconsiders his future, enlisting in the Navy SEAL special operations force at age thirty (age 24 in real life, initially rejected by the Navy SEALS due to rodeo injuries) where he also excels as a sharpshooter and is sent to the front lines in Iraq.  As a military sniper, his job is to protect the Marines on the ground by providing an overview vantage point they don’t have, picking off anyone suspected of initiating attacks against the Marine operations.  Adapted from Kyle’s 2012 book written three years after his military discharge, American Sniper:  The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, even the title leaves little doubt as to what the focus will be, though his modest, single-minded claim is always that he was simply doing his job by protecting the lives of others. 

While the film takes the viewer into the heart of ongoing military operations, almost exclusively seen through a guy’s perspective, it also has a stateside component where Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya offers a near-cringeworthy performance, though her character is horribly written and is equally one-dimensional, where she seems to have little sympathy or understanding for the unique adjustments soldiers must make upon returning home, as unfortunately they bring a bit of the war back with them.  Instead she nags at him continuously to be the person she married, telling him “I need you to be human again,” expecting him to adjust to her concept of a normal family life, while picking at him when he’s less than forthcoming about describing the horrors that he experienced.  Keeping much of his emotions locked in, it is only a matter of time before he is called back, as he is needed on the battlefield, eventually serving four tours of duty.  Easily the most overwrought and hysterical scenes are the ones when Kyle is in his sniper position in a moment of calm, casually talking to his wife back home, when suddenly a firefight will break out, cutting off normal communications, while she’s left whimpering on the other end of the line wondering what’s happened to her husband.  This guy is in special ops, for Christ’s sake, assigned the most dangerous missions, specially trained to be battle hardened, calm in the face of a storm, yet she doesn’t get it, remaining scared out of her wits and clueless about what this guy does for a living.  These scenes drain much of the energy from the picture, and there are several of them, where she becomes too much of a distraction, as it’s inconceivable to the public back home that wives would want to be on the phone with their husbands “during” military operations.  That’s exactly what could get them killed as it takes away from their primary focus at that moment.  The relationships with fellow soldiers may not get the same amount of screen time, but they are much more acutely drawn, as these guys understand each other, where they are trained to have each other’s backs, instilled with the same warrior mentality, yet they can also laugh in quieter moments, as they’ve each been through hell and back.

Certainly one aspect of war this film attempts to convey is the sense of urgency, where Kyle reflects the military mentality when he tells his wife that his family has time to wait, while the frontline soldiers don’t, which is what continually compels him to return.  Embellishing the mythic picture of an American hero, only Hollywood would come up with the storyline about a fellow sniper on the other side, a Syrian soldier fighting for al Qaeda named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) who is actually an Olympic medalist in shooting.  Each is the best in their field, where the storyline continually pits one rival against the other, where much of it breaks down into a mind game, maintaining the psychological advantage, where these men become mythical legends within their own ranks.  Kyle is actually called “The Legend” by his fellow soldiers, where stories of his prowess spread throughout the military branches, where there’s a price on his head, dubbed the “Devil of Ramadi (Shaitan Ar-Ramadi),” placing a bounty on his head that eventually climbs to $80,000, which distinguishes him even in the eyes of the enemy.  This elevates his importance, as it reveals how essential it is militarily for each side to knock out the other’s best sniper.  Both are capable of inflicting huge casualties and altering the success or failure of significant missions.  Much of this is oversimplified, playing out like a western in the American West, inevitably leading to an ultimate shoot out, the winner being the anointed hero.  In Eastwood’s film, however, it nearly brings his unit down, as it exposes their position, subject to an unprecedented attack.  Taking place in a sandstorm, it has a dreamlike quality about it, turning into a battlefield of the dead, as men around them keep dropping like flies, but more continue to storm ahead, taking the place of those fallen beside them.  It offers a feeling for the senselessness of war, yet it’s also combined with the solemn tributes paid to those making the ultimate sacrifice, as Eastwood’s depiction of a military funeral is easily the best thing in the film, perhaps the only scene that touches the right grace note, (2014) soundtrack - Ennio Morricone -The Funeral - YouTube (2:05).  Kyle’s successive returns back home become more detached, told with little fanfare, yet the war continues to intrude into his life, where one of the Eastwood touches is Kyle continually hears the sounds of war taking place even when sitting comfortably on his couch back home, thoughts and sounds he wants to tune out and forget, where he can barely make eye contact or even acknowledge a soldier who graciously thanks him for saving his life.  The brief glimpse in hospitals of wounded veterans in recovery feels essential, even though it’s barely touched upon, preferring instead to dwell on the more dramatic war footage, where only at the end does the Hollywood depiction take a turn into vintage archival material, showing the actual funeral of a fallen hero, leaving the audience in the solemnity of a hushed silence, where the closing credits play with no accompanying music.

While the film attempts to honor and eulogize fallen soldiers, but in idolizing this figure, what the film overlooks are the actual hate-filled views expressed by Kyle in his book, as his zealous American fervor is spewed with xenophobic and racist venom, where killing Iraqis is the answer to his own effusive bitterness and contempt, as he is unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy.”  “I hate the damn savages.  I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis…The enemy are savages and despicably evil.  My only regret is that I didn’t kill more.”  Chris Kyle is actually a younger version of the grizzled old Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski portrayed by Eastwood himself in GRAN TORINO (2008), where his prejudiced views separate him from the changing and more complicated world around him that he can’t begin to understand, as in his mind he’s narrowed it down to overly simplistic, black and white perceptions of good or evil.  In other words, we are right, and they are wrong.  Intentionally or not, much like John Wayne in a John Ford western, most particularly THE SEARCHERS (1956), this film makes a hero out of Kyle, a special ops patriot that took pleasure in killing and dehumanizing the enemy, recalling the frontier spirit of Ford’s westerns where “the only good injun is a dead injun,” which has now evolved into “the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi,” where there are a lot of Chris Kyles in the world who believe in God and country and the American flag, while anyone questioning this view is looked upon with traitorous suspicion and contempt bordering on hatred, equivalent to aiding and abetting the enemy, reminiscent of the derisive and often violent sentiments expressed in the pro-war slogan “America, love it or leave it” during the Vietnam era of the 60’s.  In the unquestioning eyes of the true believers, Kyle’s unambiguous belligerence represents not only the embodiment of America’s cowboy mentality (The Cowboy Myth, George W. Bush, and the War with Iraq), but may also explain his considerable success on the battlefield, as there is no soldier remorse, no guilt or crisis of moral conscience about the act of killing when he regrets none of his actions, where in this case his complete lack of subtlety or imagination is what makes him particularly emblematic of today’s American military hero.  When faced with the choice between depicting the truth or the myth, however, Eastwood decided to go with the myth, which should come as no surprise to anyone, as peddling myths is the very foundation of what Hollywood does for a living, which is also what makes the film so predictably conventional.     

Thursday, January 22, 2015


FACTOTUM               A-                   
USA  Norway  Germany  Sweden  France  (94 mi)  2005  d:  Bent Hamer

If you’re going to try, go all the way. 
There is no other feeling like that.
You will be alone with the gods,
and the nights will flame with fire.
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.
It’s the only good fight there is.  
—Charles Bukowski, excerpt from his 1992 poem Roll the Dice

The film is about fucking and drinking

There is an alluring Norweigan influence to this slow, perfectly paced, moody autobiographical adaptation of the life of Charles Bukowski based on his 1975 novel by the same name, a man whose sole desire seemed to be to stay drunk all the time, but who also had a strange fascination with words that kept bubbling out of his head, writing two or three short stories a week at one point, sending them off to would-be publishers (the Black Sparrow Press and The New Yorker) despite never hearing from them, supporting himself by finding a multitude of menial, dead-end odd jobs (Factotum – a man who performs many jobs) that held little interest, some that did not even last a day, the kind that blue collar workers and day laborers around the world are forced to take every day in order to survive, but here they provide a pay check to buy a drink.  Shot largely in a bleak, factory district of Minneapolis/St.Paul, there’s a terrific scene where he’s ordered not to smoke on the job, then immediately pulls out a cigarette and blows smoke out a window, where the camera pulls back until eventually Bukowski is a tiny speck in a vast expanse of brick and industrial waste.  Matt Dillon plays Bukowski (whose parents moved to Los Angeles from Germany when he was age 3), as a man with inner confidence and a quiet swagger, yet he narrates in a calm, steady tone, always shown at a very leisurely pace, at times barely able to get up off the barstool, mumbling, always polite, never as a man possessed, instead as a man who knows what lies within, who has utter faith in his abilities.  At one point, when reflecting on moments when doubts enter his head about his ability to write, all he has to do is read somebody else’s writing and he has no more doubts.

Lili Taylor is exceptional as his drunken girl friend, matching him drink for drink, who is completely in love with this unpretentious lowlife who does nothing but lay around and screw her up to 4 times a day.  After a few lucky runs at the race track, he starts dressing in style and buying more expensive booze, but she finds him a shell of his former self, a complete phony that has lost all appeal for her, as she prefers lowlifes, the lower the better.  There’s a wonderful scene as they both awake one at a time in the morning, each separately wretches in the toilet, he immediately grabs a beer, she a cigarette, and within this realm of shifting orientation, with a minimum of words, they inexplicably separate.  Penniless, spending his last dollar buying a drink for a girl in a bar (Marisa Tomei in her first onscreen nudity), she leads him to a temporary alcoholic promised land, where the drinks and lodging are all on the house, paid for by a sugar daddy who has younger lady interests to keep him company.  This vision of happiness is a temporary oasis, a mirage in a lifetime of facing up to the hauntingly grim realities that lie under each and every phony facade.  This is a film that exposes life on the edges, where he even returns home at one point, where mom shovels out a meal, but dad thinks he’s a worthless swine, so Bukowski offers to take dad out for a few cocktails, but he admits he’s looking to find a “piece of ass,” whereupon he’s thrown out on his ass, a wonderful scene that acknowledges how far he’s come from the world of decency.  He hooks up again with Taylor, but they shortly realize why they split up, and they soon meander off again into their wretchedly pitiful lives. 

There’s a highly personalized allure to this film, beautifully photographed by John Christian Rosenlund, capturing the poetic beauty of being alone with your thoughts in a dingy bar, with mesmerizing music by Kristen Asbjørnsen that couldn’t possibly sound more like solitude, where we come to accept the languorous pace of the film as a natural extension of  Bukowski’s imagination, which edges forward in small cinematic portraits, like sketches, offering precise language and details, much like the exquisite flavor of short stories, made more powerfully intense by the superlative performances of the 3 major players who are always inviting, who continually add a measure of interest and authenticity to the material.  By the end of the film, as Bukowski is a solitary customer watching a stripper in a surreal neon-lit landscape, you have a feel for the dreary ennui, for days that extend into nights, which could easily pass into an endless haze that stretches to infinity.