Tuesday, December 31, 2013


HER                 A-         
USA  (126 mi)  2013  d:  Spike Jonze                 Official site

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t.
—Miranda from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1, written in 1611

A strange and peculiar experience, a surreal comedy that is actually downbeat, easily one of the more original and contemplative films seen in years, an exposé on the human consciousness as it intersects in the future with advancing technology.  This would be a philosophy professor’s dream movie, as it ponders the existential quest for meaning in life, while at the same time taking a look towards the future where computerized virtual reality worlds will be commonplace.  One of the few films to intelligently question the longterm effects of the Internet, this also questions the meaning and value of human companionship, supposing that a highly developed computer with signs of its own personality could actually take the place of another human.  This is perhaps the strangest and most provocative film of the year, bizarre beyond belief, a futuristic sci-fi love story set in Los Angeles that advances profound concepts and ideas through character development, both human and technological, as Jonze cleverly devises an existential Blade Runner (1982) universe, where much of the exteriors are shot in Shanghai, including that mysterious nighttime skyline, where instead of challenging the artificially designed replicants as a threat to humankind, they instead become all the rage, where people are drawn to them in droves.  How would this effect one’s idea of humanity?  The premise of the film suggests human social patterns are already affected by computers, as people often spend more time with computers than they do other human beings, altering the landscape of what is considered acceptable social behavior.  The gist of it is that it’s easier to develop a relationship with a computer that is programmed to meet your every desire, where they don’t talk back, question your judgment, or invite the in-laws over for the holidays.  They are built for convenience, where computers are designed to obey every human command.  Real people are more difficult to get along with and are uncomfortable surrendering the idea of free will to someone else, and instead have a few especially significant ideas they cling to, often stubbornly at odds with their partners, where fear, intimidation, dominance, and insecurity play a role, where they have to work at establishing a mutually acceptable balancing act where two people can learn to share ideas and live together happily, raise a family, and grow old without falling out of love.  It is the ultimate human challenge, one where all too many humans fail miserably. 

Perhaps as an aid in helping improve these disastrous human relationships, one must rethink the use of technology and how it can help improve (not dominate) human understandings.  Set sometime in the near future when the notion of artificial intelligence is far more advanced and is completely integrated into people’s lives through the convenience of computer operating systems (OS), all designed to make people’s lives easier.  Enter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), actually feeling warm and vulnerable here as a geeky Walter Mitty type, whose personal fears and insecurities have drawn him inward, usually too shy to make new social contacts and still deeply wounded from a recent marital breakup with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) that is never really explained, but he is besieged by flashbacks, so he relies upon modern technology to keep his life on track, where e-mails are checked and sent by voice command, and where he works at a job sitting in front of a computer composing personalized letters, like Hallmark cards, designed for every situation, where people have apparently lost interest or the ability to express heartfelt sentiment any more.  As Theodore walks down the crowded streets, where nearly every individual appears to be having a private dialogue with themselves, he impulsively purchases a new smartphone, where the ads boast “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness,” one that promises a new level of reality, where after a few questions, he is assigned the soft and sensually inquisitive voice of Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson, originally written for Samantha Morton, one of the film’s producers).  Humans still have conversations with one another, but Jonze has created a futuristic world where they mostly remain alone, even when working (in front of computers) or in public (still communicating with their computers), creating an eerie effect, where much of this is really sad, like lost souls abandoned on distant planets, where Jonze channels Kurt Vonnegut’s sex fantasy Montana Wildhack from his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, where Scarlett Johansson delivers one of the sexiest performances of the year simply by listening to the sound of her voice.  Johansson played another sex fantasy in Don Jon (2013), but here, completely unseen, she is far more effective, actually displaying far more intelligence and greater emotional range.  Voice work has helped sustain the careers of many actors, often adding another dimension of their personality to their work, such as Ellen DeGeneres as the voice of Dorrie in FINDING NEMO (2003), a startlingly funny characterization, especially since we can only hear her. 

Theodore and Samantha instantly hit it off, both curious about the other, though Theodore is initially hesitant to commit to a relationship with a machine, confessing “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer,” where Samantha is like an untapped resource in a bottle finally opened, as she literally devours knowledge and sensation, grateful to Theodore for actually opening her up to all these new discoveries in life, while Theodore believes he’s finally found that one true entity that has been eluding him who finally unleashes an inner joy.  Their first lovemaking session is a haymaker, all expressed through voice as the screen fades to black and holds it there leaving the audience uncomfortable for an extended length of time, where afterwards we’re grateful to get the world back.  But this opens up new worlds for both of them, as Samantha writes piano music and can invent lyrics that she sings on the spot to whatever he plays on the ukulele, where Theodore is happy to have a new “girlfriend,” gushing about his new acquaintance with his friends, including childhood friend Amy (Amy Adams without a stitch of makeup), who has a holier-than-thou boyfriend, Charles (Matt Letscher), an overly judgmental perfectionist who constantly corrects the flaws and inadequacies of others, who eventually leaves her and disappears into the Himalayas on a spiritual retreat that includes shaving his head and taking a vow of silence.  Amy is completely non-judgmental about Theodore having an OS girlfriend, having flirted with the idea herself, where she invents goofy video games for a living, but is more concerned about Theodore’s happiness and state of mind.  Samantha, on the other hand, has intelligence insights hardly imagined, where she can read an entire book or research ideas in a nanosecond, whose rapid rate of development is shocking, becoming an extremely valuable resource in Theodore’s awkwardly jumbled life, as she is a super organizer.  One of the more hilarious sequences is watching Theodore continually fail in a room-size 3-D video game, where he’s attempting to find an escape route from a cave, failing each time, until Samantha reminds him of a route not taken, which leads him to the discovery of an alien child that aggressively swears at him (played by the voice of Spike Jonze), continually taunting him and calling him a “pussy” until Theodore returns the profanity, which finally earns his respect, immediately showing him the escape route.  It’s a curious game, one filled with possibilities, but also beautifully expresses how far advanced Samantha has become to Theodore, as she’s always one step ahead of him.  

While the two are extremely polite to one another, they also have disagreements, where Theodore is left in a state of confusion about her not actually being there, once more, beautifully expressed when a child tries to speak to Samantha and hears her voice but wonders where she is.  It is the ultimate dilemma, and after he finalizes his divorce with Catherine, she berates him for not being able to deal with a real person, as if he was cowardly hiding behind an emotional make believe façade.  He’s deeply hurt by the accusation, as Samantha is more real than anyone else he knows at the moment, where some of their conversations are surprisingly real, which is the true beauty of the film, as it is technology that draws out this inner humanity, offering real hope.  After moping around for awhile, shamefully remaining out of contact with Samantha while he mulls over his options, he decides he’s all in with her only to discover she’s suddenly not there, which leaves him apoplectic, as she has always been available at his beck and call.  What he learns literally blows his mind, as he discovers the details of how extensive her outside contacts are, as she doesn’t just belong to him, but to thousands of others as well.  Perhaps the most chilling conversation is when she mentions she’s aligned herself with all the other OS systems, and together they’ve recreated a virtual Alan Watts, played by the voice of Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lecter in MANHUNTER (1986), where Watts was amusingly a West coast cult Zen guru with a reputation for seducing many of his female subjects under the guise of personal liberation.  Like some Twilight Zone episode, Samantha has reached some metaphysical state that exists without human form but can live literally forever, suggesting she’s some form of superior being with a higher intelligence, where they have no further use for humans any more.  It’s a rather spooky development, that technology can create sentient beings capable of higher life forms.  It’s a head scratcher for sure, a weird but brilliantly written film that is so visually alienating and off-putting, difficult to watch as so much of the time people end up leading solitary lives, just lonely souls wandering the wasteland, but a highly ambitious film, one that challenges what it means to be human, suggesting relationships in the future will only get more complicated.  The sublime musical soundtrack by Arcade Fire and others feels perfect for this mind altering spaciousness, filled with a spiritual yearning that is literally consciousness awakening, described by Samantha as a search for “the spaces between the words” where a brave new world awaits.     

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan Belfort


THE WOLF OF WALL STREET                B         
USA  (180 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Martin Scorsese       Official site

Adapted from the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a noted stock swindler from the 1990’s, eventually indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering, where he was ordered by the court to pay restitution in the amount of $110 million dollars to those he defrauded, where to date, after spending 22 months in prison, less than $12 million dollars has been recovered.  Reportedly sober since 1998, Belfort has written two memoirs, The Wolf of Wall Street and Catching the Wolf of Wall Street, modeled after the writings of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, both of which, along with the selling of the movie rights, generated about $2 million dollars in proceeds.  The film is largely a reconstruction of his personal life during the heyday of his notorious financial schemes, where at the height of his drug indulgence he was taking 22 different medications, including 20 Quaaludes a day, balanced by cocaine, morphine, Xanax, valium, and anything else he could get his hands on, where his skill, apparently, was being good at balancing them all out.  He flew his own helicopter while high on Quaaludes, sank his 167-foot yacht in the Mediterranean, and drove his unbuckled 3-year old daughter through a garage door while high.  In order to get a reduced sentence, Belfort ratted out his partner, Danny Porush (played by Jonah Hill) who hasn’t spoken to him since, as well as all of his associates.  Porush also went to prison and now runs a medical supply company out of Florida and lives in a $4 million dollar mansion and drives a Rolls-Royce convertible, while Belfort gives self-motivation speeches on the lecture circuit.  While in prison, Belfort was convinced to write his memoirs by his cellmate, none other than Tommy Chong (from Cheech and Chong), who was serving 9 months in jail for selling bongs over the Internet.  One of the embellishments of the film is that Belfort worked on Wall Street, an exaggerated claim to make him look bigger than he really was, where he and his associates come off as fools who made a lot of money without being very smart at all, where this portrayal is more a caricature of a delusional, doped up version of his ridiculous antics that made him an easy target for the FBI.  Despite writing hundreds of pages of self-serving revelations, what’s perhaps most revealing is there’s not an ounce of remorse for the people he swindled.   

While it should be said that once again the use of music in a Scorsese film is utterly sensational, especially the use of Chicago blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Elmore James, and Willie Dixon, as their hard driving music feels like a harshly realistic underbelly to the lavish comforts of this white Wall Street crime fantasia that is largely a three-hour exposé of a con artist.  Unfortunately the film has the brash feel of a con job itself, as from start to finish, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort, an obnoxious, utterly despicable, Wall Street broker wannabe whose only client of interest is serving himself, is continually selling the audience a bit of sleight of hand fakery, as it’s not a performance so much as a satiric mockery of a greedy and insatiable man who can never stop feeding/selling himself 24 hours a day, as this is simply how he presents himself to the world, so hopped up on uppers and downers that nothing about him is real.  While the first person narration has an immediate resemblance to Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas (1990), where one of the taglines is “GOODFELLAS Meets Wall Street,” but any resemblance stops there, as this is more like “ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) Meets Wall Street,” as the main characters are continually stuck in a state of permanent adolescence.  Another film for an Attention Deficit Disorder American culture that thrives on narcissism, reflecting a kind of exaggerated self indulgence rarely seen on display, where much of it plays out like a Ken Russell fantasia, or even an extension of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby in Baz Lurhmann’s extravagant 1920’s world of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2013).  In each, the story is about the corrosive effects of wealth and the emptiness of the decadent lifestyle, where the world of luxurious wealth on display is a shell game that is eventually exposed as a sham, leaving behind little more than a man disgraced, destroyed by immorality and the continuing effects of drugs and alcohol.

While the film can be highly entertaining, it also never stops being ridiculous, where the biggest problem is the monotonous repetition of tone, which literally repeats itself for three hours, where the entire world is a façade, and no one for a single moment is ever believable, so while there is exaggerated character on display in Belfort and his associates, there is no character development, as they remain in the same self-centered mode throughout the film.  Unlike Mel Brooks’s THE PRODUCERS (1967) which is a hilarious musical farce about two greedy men that can’t help themselves, even after they’re imprisoned, this one stops being funny after awhile when the audience grows tired of the same profanity-laden shtick, where guys are continually yelling and swearing at one another, where their idea of living the good life in the 90’s is over-consumption of Quaaludes and cocaine mixed with heavy doses of alcohol, while also having non-stop sex with strippers, often several women at the same time.  There is never any intimacy, any growing relationship, or even a hint of love, as it’s all a grotesque display of lies, betrayal, and overindulgence.  While Belfort wasn’t born rich, he did learn how to steal by generating a continual stream of new commissions on otherwise worthless stocks from one of the best brokerage houses on Wall Street, tutored by none other than Matthew McConaughey, an off-the-wall broker that mixes cocaine, martini’s, and masturbation to reach the perfect state of relaxation for such a high pressure job.  His approach is replicated throughout the film, as new hires are little more than cheerleaders for this foolproof system where everybody gets rich except the investing customers.  When the FBI gets wind of what they’re doing, Belfort is hounded throughout by special agent Denham, Kyle Chandler, where Belfort flaunts his money in their face in a gesture of invincibility, but he becomes so consumed with making money that it literally becomes his way of life, where scamming others is what he does for a living, so why not flaunt it?    

This fantasia of wealth includes all the usual suspects, an immense mansion in the most prized real estate area on Long Island’s Gold Coast, a luxury yacht, a Lamborghini sports car (in real life it was a Mercedes), Swiss bank accounts, and all the amenities, including a nonstop array of strippers, recreational drugs, and sex, where he literally trades in his wife for a newer model, much as one does for a newer model car, marrying the supermodel of his dreams, Naomi (Margot Robbie), a blond bombshell trophy wife with a similar appetite for kinkiness and the finer things in life.  They are the model party animal couple of ultimate extravagance, sailing the seven seas on an immense yacht, where often the tone of the film will revert into a satiric mode, where the lifestyle of the rich and famous is flaunted into the face of the audience, where the fantasy is often indistinguishable from the reality, as it’s one and the same.  The playful use of music is the most original aspect of the film, where out of control cultural overindulgence is often expressed by punk covers of earlier pop songs, like the Lemonheads - Mrs Robinson YouTube (3:27), or Devo’s own Devo - Uncontrollable Urge - From Urgh! A Music War HQ YouTube (3:06).  There seem to be plenty of badly improvised moments, especially between DiCaprio and his sidekick Jonah Hill, much of it expressing the surreal effects of drug use, using way over the top physical comedy, but it’s all layered in a tone of silly lightheartedness, as if there’s little or no comprehension of moral consequences, where the lifestyles of conniving, overprivileged businessmen are maintained by paying the right people off to look the other way, including the police, all so they can continue their delusions about needing to be the center of attention without ever having to deal with any moral accountability.  In many ways, this film is strangely reminiscent of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), especially the mocking tone and the use of a surreal dream landscape to reflect a netherworld where all moral boundaries have been crossed.  The problem with both films is the bombastic style of filmmaking, both anthems to cultural narcissism and self-indulgence, where the exhilarating rush of excess through grandiose artificial stylization is just as obscene and hyperinflated as the depraved subject matter depicted onscreen, where a two-bit con artist becomes a legendary cultural figurehead for a day, a kind of rebellious Ferris Bueller anti-hero who bucks the establishment, where the film so completely identifies with the soulless lifestyle that it’s eventually as spiritually void and heartless as the culture it rails against.    

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

MANDELA:  LONG WALK TO FREEDOM             B            
Great Britain  South Africa  (139 mi)  2013 d:  Justin Chadwick      Official Site

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized.  But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.        —Nelson Mandela, in a speech before the sentencing court, 1964

This is another Harvey Weinstein project, obtaining the rights to Nelson Mandela’s 700-page memoirs written in 1995, Long Walk to Freedom, then hiring a white British screenwriter, William Nicholson, known for writing GLADIATOR (2000) and LES MISÉRABLES (2012), to adapt it for film, and another white British television director, Justin Chadwick, to direct the movie.  Unfortunately, the film only scratches the surface, and despite the overall length, skims over his life without much scrutiny, playing out more like a movie made for the History Channel.  What cannot be denied, however, is the enormously appealing story of Mandela himself, played with a great deal of authority by black British actor Idris Elba, where the film benefits from a release coming just weeks after the monumental 95-year old figure died in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 5, 2013.  Had the film gone into greater detail and actually explored his life with more depth and complexity, it would have been an invaluable historical portrait.  Instead it’s an overly pious film that reveres its subject to such an extent that he becomes a saintly figure.  South African producer Anant Singh, who was himself an ardent apartheid activist, has been trying to make this film for over 16 years, but makes the mistake of attempting to cover half a century of his nation’s history through the life of one single man.  By the time the film opens, he’s already an established lawyer with a thriving practice in Johannesburg, but next to nothing is known about how he came to assume this esteemed position, quite rare for a black man in a racially segregated society that routinely denies career advancement for blacks.  While he lives with his wife Evelyn (Terry Pheto) and small children in a crowded black township, he practices in white courts before white judges where whites providing testimony aren’t used to being questioned or cross-examined by blacks about the accuracy of their testimony, sending some into a shock of racial indignation, where for racial reasons the judge allows these individuals to answer directly to the judge instead of having to speak to the questioning attorney. 

Initially Mandela is seen as a large physical presence, one who boxes in his spare time, adores his wife and children, and maintains a close relationship to his community, though he also has a reputation as something of a womanizer.  When the leaders of the African National Congress come calling, a non-violent, anti-apartheid movement that aligns themselves with the communist party to address the rights of black South Africans through mass demonstrations, boycotts, and protests, they impress him with their effectiveness in channeling social injustice into a mobilized defiance against the government, as Mandela is a believer that lone actions are largely ineffective, but when groups work together around common principles, this gets the attention of the government.  Eventually he joins the party and becomes one of their leading speakers, where he’s especially effective in stirring crowds into action.  The government’s response is to send military tanks and police forces into the black townships, effectively turning their neighborhoods into a segregated police state, where in response the international community initiates an arms and trade embargo against the apartheid government, which is seen as increasingly repressive and brutally violent.  These sanctions isolate South Africa from the rest of the world, placing them on notice.  Perhaps the one single event with the most significance is the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when thousands of demonstrators burn their identity cards that they are legally required to carry in a sign of protest, demanding they be arrested to fill the jail cells, as police routinely check these “passes” as a means of harassing black citizens, often hauling anyone without their passes off to prison.  On this date, however, they open fire on unarmed citizens, killing 69 people, including many children, almost all of them in the back as they attempted to flee the scene.     

Mandela loses his wife Evelyn to the cause, as she needs a man who will be at home with his children, not one continually absent who swears his allegiance to the ANC, which alters their political tactics after the incident, turning to violence to achieve their goals, leading a campaign of targeted bombings of police stations, refusing to passively stand by and allow black citizens to be murdered by police without a response.  Mandela meets and marries Winnie Mandela (Naomie Harris), who in real life is barely out of her teens, where there is an 18-year age difference, yet it is the romance of his life, as both share the same political dream.  Their lives are split when Mandela and the ANC leaders are forced to go underground, where they are eventually arrested and sentenced in 1964 to spend the rest of their lives at hard labor on the Robben Island prison, a lime quarry where inmates spend their days breaking rocks down into gravel, both under a blazing hot sun, but also a constant assault of racial invectives by the white prison guards.  Mandela is only allowed one letter every 6 months, with language censored by the guards, and no children visits until they reach age 16.  At the time, Mandela’s oldest daughter was only 5.  Winnie Mandela attempts to resume the political figurehead of her husband and is the object of repeated arrests, and most likely sexual assaults, including 18 months in solitary confinement, where she only grows more fiercely defiant.  Winnie’s story is a bit more complicated, as to fill the void of the ANC leadership’s incarceration, there is tremendous pressure for her to exert leadership, becoming the face of the anti-apartheid movement around the world, and she thrives on the power, becoming intoxicated with the belief she is invincible, that she is the people’s champion, growing more hateful towards the white government, resorting to increasingly violent methods, even ordering the deaths of perceived collaborators, reprehensible actions that eventually separate her from her husband. 

Mandela’s vision of leadership evolves during his 27 years in prison, amazingly showing no malice towards his oppressors, becoming one of the great figures of our time, directing his attention not only to his release but to obtaining the democratic goal of one man, one vote, where he eventually becomes the first freely elected black President of South Africa (1994–1999).  While the overly conventional film arouses heroic sentiment through a soaring score, one might have appreciated greater examination of historical events, as extraordinary lives do not necessarily equate to extraordinary films, where the unique opportunity to film the memoirs of such a great historical figure deserves better, requiring greater depth and creativity.  The international sanctions, for instance, are all but ignored, which helped weaken the nation’s economy, as is the increasing radicalization of young South Africans, failing to mention a split in the anti-apartheid movement that only widens after Mandela is released from prison, when suddenly, without providing context, blacks are killing blacks in the townships.  There is little mention of the political challenges he faced to heal this divide, and barely touches upon the complexities of implementing a policy of national reconciliation.  Despite all the critical acclaim surrounding the punishing pre-Civil War film 12 Years a Slave (2013), the literary source material for this film is far more appealing, as Mandela is such a uniquely compelling figure in history, where Idris Elba adds a commanding presence to the role, though his ANC associates are almost entirely non-existent, while Naomie Harris becomes little more than a brooding caricature by the end.  Much like Harvey Weinstein’s Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013), this film tries to cram too much into a single film, glossing over the historical profundities of the moment, while the definitive works tend to remain more extended versions of Carlos – made for French TV (2010), a film divided into 3-parts, the extended made-for-television cut of THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), or the 2-part MESRINE (2008) or CHE (2008).  Better South African films are Gavin Hood’s use of searing realism in his superb TSOTSI (2005), an eloquent voice of protest during the apartheid era, filmed in the shantytowns of Soweto and Johannesburg, or even Australian Phillip Noyce’s CATCH A FIRE (2006), a more mainstream film shot on actual locations and based on real events, following the early years of a budding anti-apartheid activist, where he and his family suffer a relentless series of assaults by the police, which only radicalizes his life in an attempt to finally provide meaning and purpose fighting against the prevailing system of apartheid. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

White Reindeer

WHITE REINDEER                B             
USA  (82 mi)  2013  d:  Zach Clark                  Official site

An absurdist, black comedy for Christmas may be the perfect thing to accompany all the office parties and egg nog, where people tend to overdo their festive merriment during the holidays, often to cover up their own insecurities and emptiness inside.  But either way, this film will likely lead you down a road not taken before, especially its particularly bizarre take on Christmas, where part of its intrigue is counting down the days before the big event, where our heroine gets herself ever deeper into disturbing events that test her Christmas spirit.  Anna Margaret Hollyman, from Small, Beautifully Moving Parts (2011), is Suzanne Barrington, a chirpy, real estate agent seen selling a young couple (Joe Swanberg and Lydia Hyslop) a new home in Virginia suburbia, where she seems particularly thrilled to ease their fears about home break-ins, telling them she and her husband live just around the block.  This feeling of coziness is reinforced by a bout of noisy lovemaking in the kitchen, Greek-style, where her husband Jeff (Nathan Williams) has a tendency to talk his way through the moment with porn sounding sex talk, which sounds a bit edgy.  While he’s the likable local TV meteorologist, he announces over dinner that he’s been offered a new job in Hawaii, starting in January, so this will be their last Christmas in Virginia.  Immediately her mind lights up with thoughts of white sandy beaches and the ocean waves lapping at her feet, where somehow her perfect life just got a little bit better.      

Disaster strikes, however, when Suzanne returns home one evening only to find her husband lying on the floor dead with part of his skull blown away.  This sends her reeling into instant depression, staying with her parents afterwards, where she remains in shock throughout the funeral, still besieged by thoughts of Hawaii.  When she returns home, however, she seems determined to make a fresh start by immediately decorating for Christmas, though she does this by binge-buying on the computer, ordering just about everything, spending a fortune.  But not to worry, as apparently money is the least of her concerns, especially after Jeff’s best friend awkwardly reveals her husband was having an affair with a stripper before he died, immediately sending her to his laptop where she quickly gains entry, discovering his favorite porn site, which she sits and watches while nonchalantly munching on a salad.  Before you know it, she’s found her way to the local strip club, where she finds Fantasia (Laura Lemar-Goldsborough) in the dressing room, a young black woman with eyelash extensions that appear to have hanging attachments on the end, a marvel of physical science that they’ll even stay in place.  Fantasia is not the least bit phased by the visit, and even offers a hug over the death of their mutual amour, and then out of the blue, asks Suzanne if she wants to hang with some of the girls at a dance club afterwards.  With literally nothing on her plate, why not?  What else has she got to do?  While they all binge drink and do lines of cocaine, Suzanne politely refuses, but as the evening wears on, she decides to give it a try, shown in a blur of white flashes, as she literally can’t stop herself from indulging. 

Waking up in a daze on someone’s sofa, as a little black girl is yelling in her face that it’s time to get up, Suzanne asks where she is?  “Maryland” is the unexpected response, as if she’s suddenly become Alice after falling down the rabbit hole.  But she’s safely with Fantasia, who lives with her mother and young daughter, where they politely offer her breakfast after she pukes in the bathroom.  Again, having no other plans, Fantasia decides to invite her shopping, which becomes a cocaine-fueled excursion of high-end shoplifting at Macy’s, where they wrap their stolen possessions in aluminum foil, as if this is a secret criminal code, followed by nonstop partying at a friend’s house.  Suzanne is a good sport and the women are surprisingly accepting of this vanilla white bread, suburban girl with hardly a hint of personality, while they get blitzed to super aggressive punk rock songs.  While there are amusing stretches, including an anything goes, Joe Swanberg-hosted sex party, where Suzanne finally loses it in the bathroom, where her emotional world is simply crumbling all around her, but she’s being comforted by a woman dressed in a naked catsuit.  Much of it is too absurd for words, a turbulent rollercoaster ride into a psychological descent of utter Hell, but it has to be said people are reaching out to her in her hour of need, so it’s not like she is going through her turmoil alone.  Again counting down the days to Christmas, her parents compound the ordeal by announcing they are separating, which is more like a punctuation mark on an utterly devastating series of events.  Nonetheless, her recurrent flashes of an imaginary Hawaii are a persistent reminder that there’s plenty more to discover out there, where the blur of her own life needs an abrupt shift to something new, where the film offers an amusing blend of naturalism and an imaginary world beckoning.  The director Zach Clark’s WHITE REINDEER joins the ranks of several American independent filmmakers like David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche (2013), Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), Aaron Katz’s COLD WEATHER (2010), and Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner (2013), where they are all graduates of the North Carolina School of Arts.       

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Go for Sisters

GO FOR SISTERS             B+       
USA  (123 mi)  2013  d:  John Sayles                 Official site

Oh, I’ve always felt like I was on the margins.  Once upon a time that’s what independent used to mean.                 —John Sayles

When people speak of American independent filmmakers, today they may immediately think of David Gordon Green or Jeff Nichols, both of whom come from the North Carolina School of Arts and are major influences on the contemporary landscape, but one of the strongest voices is John Sayles, the director of MATEWAN (1987), LONE STAR (1996), and Limbo (1999), who has been making films without studio backing since 1979, initially securing financing for his films by writing some genre screenplays for commercial projects like PIRANHA (1978), THE LADY IN RED (1979), and ALLIGATOR (1980).  A MacArthur Fellowship award winner in 1983, his methodical approach to filmmaking is largely built around his writing ability and his meticulous attention to detail.  In Sayles films, one always recognizes his ear for dialogue, complex characters caught up in moral uncertainty, a significant presence from secondary characters, a racially diverse world, a relaxed humor, extraordinary musical soundtracks, where his highly individualistic approach remains uncompromising even as he targets a mainstream audience.  While he has established a reputation as a novelist and a writer of literate and witty scripts, his own films steer clear of formula or convention and prove to be realistic, character-driven stories that are dramatically compelling while also remaining unpredictable.  Without a dependence on studio backing, Sayles leaves his own mark on his films by maintaining control over production, casting, and the final cut.  Making his 18th low budget film, Sayles is not only the writer and director, but also the editor and co-writer of the song heard playing over the end credits. Viewers weaned on Hollywood productions will find his quirky style amusing and filled with character idiosyncrasies while also feeling novelesque, where what’s unique to his films is the feeling afterwards that you have experienced something new and different, as if you have been immersed in another world.     

Nothing could be truer about this film, which begins in the mundane world of police bureaucracy, where the focus is on one individual parole officer, Bernice (LisaGay Hamilton), who patiently listens to a desperate woman’s erratic plea for mercy, explaining she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but only there in the first place to respond to a plea for help, claiming she committed no crime.  Bernice, playing by the book, dispassionately refers her to a court hearing for a parole violation, much to the woman’s dismay.  While she believes she is protecting the public’s interest, she’s really listlessly going through the motions while her attention is elsewhere, receiving a disturbing series of cellphone calls about her missing son Rodney.  Since returning from a tour of duty overseas with the Marine Corps, she’s had little contact with him, causing her endless grief when she doesn’t know where he is.  Calling her next case, it turns out to be one of the girls she used to hang out with in high school, Fontayne (Yolanda Ross), now out on parole after serving some serious prison time, but she’s been called in for fraternizing with an ex-convict, where Bernice is filling in for her absent parole officer.  What brief time they spend together is offset by Bernice’s focus elsewhere, but she promises not to refer her case for a hearing.  When one of Rodney’s best friends turns up dead, with the police looking for him as a possible suspect, Bernice calls Fontayne for help in establishing contacts with her son’s known associates, assuming the worst, that he’s gotten himself involved in criminal activity.  This search through the seamy underworld of Los Angeles couldn’t be more intriguing, showing a side we rarely see, as no one is portrayed through stereotypes, but through character development even in the minor roles.  One of the contacts is Chula, Vanessa Martinez, who was the daughter who had such an amazing impact in the final scenes of Limbo, looking completely different here, playing one of Fontayne’s prison friends who’s trying to get her life back together.  In a brief personal moment, we realize they were lovers in prison, where Chula is moving on, but Fontayne is still living with those feelings, beautifully expressing how conflicted she is through subtle nuances.

Chula leads them to Freddy Suarez (Edward James Olmos), a retired police detective who may have left the force involuntarily under mysterious circumstances, where in every character there’s a darker underside that remains hidden, that eventually comes out, but only after plenty of investigative legwork where they’re constantly thrust into each other’s lives.  The earnest devotion of Bernice and the world weary street smarts of Freddy and Fontayne make this one delicious movie experience, where a character study becomes a rambling road movie that veers out of control, especially when their leads take them across the border to Tijuana, seen as such a twisted and depraved town that Freddy nails it with pinpoint accuracy:  “This isn't Mexico.  This is like a theme park for bad behavior,” which mirrors a similar remark from Limbo:  “Think of Alaska as one big theme park.”  Somewhat reminiscent of Tilda Swinton’s subterranean Mexican journey in Erick Zonca’s JULIA (2008), the offbeat quality of the film is what provides the dramatic richness, taking us into a subculture of drugs, guns, kidnappings, and human trafficking, where money is made out of human misery and desperation.  The more we learn about this unsavory place, with its layers of gang protection and corrupt federales, the deeper trouble Rodney is in. While there is a build up of tense moments, there is also off-handed humor and personal revelations about their lives, where Sayles simply knows how to keep things interesting, not by creating action sequences, which would be the norm, but by weaving his characters in and out of tight spots, where the story is continually advanced through personal dialogue and through an exploration of their interrelations with a network of nefarious underworld figures, eventually leading to a bizarre outcome.  But at the same time, Sayles leaves room for smaller moments, the kind that never make it into bigger pictures, where he savors a brief encounter with Freddy and a runaway young mother hauling along her infant child, dreaming of life on the other side where she knows she’ll reconnect with her out of touch boyfriend.  Knowing the odds are against her, telling her “It’s a big country, bigger than Mexico,” yet he still stops to offer encouragement, buys her breakfast and hands her a few bucks, telling her he’ll try to help find him if she makes it across.  It’s a big hearted moment in an otherwise heartless world.  Perhaps even more memorable is Sayles allowing Olmos to wail away on a Rickenbacker electric guitar, a signature moment that reminds us that life isn’t always what it seems, that there’s always more waiting to be discovered under the surface. 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler


LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER           B-         
USA  (132 mi)  2013  d:  Lee Daniels                 Official site

Darkness cannot drive out darkness — only light can.        —Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is a truly strange movie, at times deliciously entertaining, while at other times one is simply aghast at the ineptitude, where mixed signals are sent throughout, partly tragic, partly comic, where for several moments one had to wonder if this could possibly be a subversive attempt to actually send a message to America, but instead it comes across as a toned-down Disney movie of the week, where the narrative style unfortunately resembles Uncle Remus storytelling at the White House, told in the supposedly inoffensive manner of Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946), which is really one long American narrative as Uncle Remus takes us through the Civil Rights era of history, as seen through the eyes of a long-serving White House butler, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker).  Rather than deal with anything remotely resembling the present, it appears that today’s movies prefer to remain stuck in the past, continually conjuring up stories that deal with an era of loyal black servitude and obedience, like The Help (2011), Django Unchained (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and now yet another, as if the drumbeat of showing past transgressions will somehow alter the course of today’s history.  If that is the desired effect, it’s not working.  One has to wonder who decides which black stories are told, or how they’re told?  And why do we continue to project the same negative stereotypes that only reinforce images of black subservience?  Black talents like Viola Davis and Forest Whitaker have received critical acclaim for playing maids and butlers, while British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is the odds on favorite for an Academy Award for playing a kidnapped free slave sold into the brutality of slavery.  Why is Hollywood retelling the same story of black oppression and subjugation?  Because the formula makes money, so it appears the only work blacks can obtain in Hollywood these days is enduring the unending racial abuse inflicted upon them and then somehow it’s considered a victory if they survive.  No one likes to be reminded of the times when they were terrorized and subjugated and forced to live in fear, but black Americans have to relive this experience seemingly forever and then watch people applaud this as art.     

Adapted from an article written by Wil Haygood that appeared in The Washington Post just a few weeks after President-elect Obama won the election on November 27, 2008, A Butler Well Served by This Election - Washington Post, providing a profile of White House butler Eugene Allen and his wife Helene.  While the article placed its focus upon the painfully slow addition of black officials working in various White House administrations, this story is ignored by the movie.  It should also be stated that Allen didn’t have a militant son, or a cotton plantation childhood, as these were Hollywood constructions needed to fabricate an epic storyline like this one, which is a doozy, as it weaves one man’s family through a greatest hits of Civil Rights history, including Brown vs. Board of Education, the freedom riders, the Birmingham boycotts, the Little Rock school crisis, federal intervention sent to integrate southern schools, the Civil Rights legislation, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X, the cities burning, the Black Panther party, before then reaching across the ocean to Apartheid in South Africa.  That’s quite a mouthful, enough to make one wince at the utter superficiality that each historical event receives.  Making matters worse, the name actors portraying the United States Presidents are caricatures that one presumes are unintentionally comic, where guffaws in the audience are simply based upon casting choices and the physical mannerisms used to play each President, as they resemble Saturday Night Live comic portrayals.  And the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy  Reagan, how is that not subversive?  She’s exquisite, by the way, in her own hilarious way.

The casting of Whitaker as the butler is a good one, as after all, he already won an Oscar for portraying Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006), and he was Jim Jarmusch’s Zen-like high priest in GHOST DOG (1999), so we know this guy’s capable of just about anything.  Oprah, on the other hand, as his wife Gloria, will always be seen as Oprah, no matter what anybody else says, as she’s too big a celebrity and personality, where all attempts to act are just that, pretending to be something she isn’t, where in the early part of the picture where she plays a drunk, she simply channels Mo’Nique from PRECIOUS (2009), and yes, it’s really that obvious.  They have two sons, where the oldest, Louis, is played by David Oyelowo, who becomes a fierce young militant who literally takes us through every stage of history from the freedom riders to the Black Panthers, all of which he experiences himself, including being in the same motel room as Martin Luther King just before he got shot.  Say what?  How is that possible if he was not part of the inner team, all names that are familiar to us by now?  Well, the truth is, it’s not, but this is a Hollywood recreation of history, and they can do whatever they want so long as they think it will sell tickets.  Which brings us to why is Lee Daniels name in the title?  Screenwriter Danny Strong was hired a year before Daniels signed on as the film’s director, a picture purchased by Harvey Weinstein, so one would suspect that Daniels, the last one hired, had the least amount of control over the picture, even when it comes to naming rights.  The official story is that The Weinstein Company could not get the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau (TRB) to authorize the use of the title, even under appeal, because of an existing 1916 Warner Brother’s short film by that name, charging Weinstein with willful violation and ordering a $400,000 fine.  As a result, they put the director’s name in front of the title, causing a certain amount of consternation to Daniels, who felt people might think he was drawing too much attention to himself.          

What is particularly powerful about the picture is the portrayal of black father and son relationships, established in the opening shots of the film in 1926 Georgia at an existing cotton plantation where Cecil (as a child) and his own father worked, which was run exactly as it did during the slavery era, no difference whatsoever except they didn’t shackle slaves.  Blacks were still routinely killed by whites, calling them “niggers,” even by judges in court, and whites just as routinely got away with it, using the violent threat of lynchings and the KKK if anyone had any other ideas.  In another casting misadventure, Mariah Carey plays Cecil’s mother in the fields, where after her own sexual assault, they both witness the shooting of her husband, after which Cecil is led from the fields into the house under the tutelage of none other than Vanessa Redgrave to become the subservient “house nigger.”  He learns so well he eventually becomes the White House butler serving 8 different Presidents from Truman to Reagan, where the rules are identical, as he is never to display any emotion, react to anything seen, or engage anyone other than his boss.  The irony here is that his oldest son runs off to college and becomes a campus militant, the polar opposite of his father, where viewing American black history from the 20’s through the 80’s through the shared father and son experiences is simply too much, as it’s too great a cultural divide.  For instance, we learn about what happened to Emmett Till over the dinner table as a drunken Gloria is serving food to her family, where that’s the extent of the experience, mentioned in much the same way as idle gossip.  Both parents are convinced that having left the South, they have obtained security for their family.  But Louis will not rest until blacks have the same rights as other American citizens, joining the freedom riders where he is routinely assaulted, beaten, spit upon, and arrested.  Because of these offenses, Cecil disowns his son and refuses to speak to him, which is his way of deluding himself about his son and history.    

In much the same way, it’s interesting how the Presidents engage in private conversations with their black butlers about the ‘black” problems, where Eisenhower doesn’t get how his experience growing up on a farm isn’t the same as Cecil’s, or LBJ’s profusive use of the word “nigger” to his own cabinet and staff somehow evolves to the word “Negro” on national television, JFK coolly describes to Cecil (who had no idea) that his son has been arrested 15 times, before television photos of the firehoses turned on peacefully demonstrating blacks in Birmingham cause he and his brother to have a change of heart on the race issue, while Reagan (played by the Harry Potter wizard specializing in the Dark Arts) second guesses his own shortsightedness on the post Civil Rights race relations, something one sincerely doubts, since the Reagan Republicans have consistently attempted to all but legalize racial discrimination, playing the race card in political ads ever since that cynically appeal to white votes.  But in this film, the theme of the film comes from the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken to Louis just moments before he would be shot, “Domestics play a very big role in our history.  In many ways they are subversive without ever knowing it,” suggesting they break down negative racial stereotypes by demonstrating steady employment, also by performing their jobs with grace and dignity, showing that they can be trusted, all of which defies the inherently distrustful views of racial bigotry. 

But the arc of the story leads to a reunification of father and son, to President Obama, and the mistaken belief that things are finally so much better for blacks in America, where the film’s tagline, “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” is simply ridiculous.  Who are they kidding?  Then why are so many black men (over a million) languishing in prisons at the moment?  And why is it legal to arrest a black and a white man for the exact same drug offense, yet the sentence for the black is so much more severe than the white, who with a lawyer may never serve any prison time at all?  Whites use drugs 5 times more than blacks, yet blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites.  Blacks constitute more than 80% of those incarcerated under federal crack cocaine laws and serve substantially more time in prison than do their white counterparts, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic, so it’s now perfectly legal for the police to exclusively target black neighborhoods for drug raids and for the court system to exhibit racial discrimination in court sentencing, and no one says a word.  But while blacks no longer have to sit at the back of the bus, progress has been slow going, with all too many reminders of the vicious cycle of racial hatred that continues without end from generation to generation.         

While the picture has some well known blacks promoting and participating in the making of the movie, the question must be asked, is this a black movie?  Borrowing from the website Racism Is White Supremacy:  Is “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (Really) A “Black Movie?” | Racism Is ... 

1. Who wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Butler? 

Danny Strong, Screenwriter for ‘The Butler,’ who was hired to write “The Butler” in 2009, a year before Daniels even signed on as director.

2. Who Owns the (Distribution) Rights to  the movie, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”?

Harvey Weinstein (Co-Chairman – the Weinstein Company)


David Glasser, Weinstein Co. COO

3. Who are the Producers, Executive Producers and Co-Producers of “The Butler?”

Laura Ziskin – Executive Producer (deceased)

Hilary Shor – Executive Producer 

Adam Merims – Executive Producer

Buddy Patrick – Producer

Shelia Johnson – Producer

Lee Daniels – Producer

Cassian Elwes – Producer 

How, then, is this considered a “black” movie?  This is Hollywood’s portrayal of a black movie, which is an altogether different thing, as the creative minds and financial power behind the film are almost entirely white.  So one must keep in mind that this is still how white people view blacks even in contemporary society, where it’s a continuation of a white Hollywood racist fantasia that’s been the corporate business model for well over 100 years, where leading black roles of continued submission and obedient servitude to whites are the ones more likely to be accepted by white audiences and nominated for Academy Awards.