Posts Tagged drama

BlacKkKlansman

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Spike Lee.  Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.

About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.

Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)

It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.

Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.

At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.

For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.

If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.

Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.

Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.

Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.

There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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Elephant

Year of release: 2003              Directed by Gus Van Sant.     Starring John Robinson, Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, and Eric Deulen.

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It is certainly not uncommon for films to age poorly. What seemed groundbreaking or provocative at one time appears tacky, contrived, or even offensive ten, twenty, or thirty years later. However, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003, is a uniquely appalling example of a film that has aged so poorly that watching it one has to frequently remind themself that cultural awareness now is not what it was a decade and a half ago.

I will readily admit that recent events do not help this movie age, but Elephant is still one of the most offensive trainwrecks I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. Literally, the only good thing about it is that it is a relatively short 80 minutes, even if it doesn’t always feel that way when watching it.

A story of a fictitious school shooting, inspired by details of the Columbine massacre, the film approaches the subject by using the multiple storyline technique, showing the same interval of time leading up to the school shooting from the perspective of various students. Pointless tracking shots randomly follow students from several high school cliques, except never long enough that the students become anything other than stereotypes. At the end of one of the segments, there is a brief shot of two kids carrying guns who tell one of the kids to get away from the school.

I watched this film cold, completely unaware of anything related to the storyline, but at that point I was able to figure out where it was going, and I spent the remainder of the film hoping I was going to be wrong, until I wasn’t. The lack of personality of all the students meant that the film only viewed them as statistics, so there was nothing tragic in the way it portrayed their inevitable loss of life. However, more problematically, since the film used the Rashomon technique of replaying the same time frame from different perspectives, it inevitably meant that the first moment of release and resolution would be when those different threads came together. That moment by default was the school massacre.

I am sure the filmmakers intended to build to the massacre and have it be the apex of the horror; however, because of the style of filming, it ended up being one of the most callous and offensive uses of teenage death I have ever seen in a film.

Finally, the portrayal of the two shooters is even more problematic. The film teases at motivations for them: they play violent video games, they’re secretly gay and bullied, inviting the viewer to speculate whatever motivation s/he wants. Considering the way such excuses have recently been used to blame victims of school shootings while subsequently implying that bullied or outcast kids are secretly psychopaths, the suggestion here is outrageous regardless of when this film was made.

As to the meaning of the title, it could either refer to the expression “the elephant in the room” or the story of six blind men who each feel a different part of an elephant and all conclude it is something completely different. The “elephant in the room” would presumably refer to the outcast kids and the impending shooting which no one expected, but based on the film’s presentation, there would be no reason to. Since there are so many different storylines covering different points of view, those could suggest the second interpretation of various fragments of reality coming together to reveal an horrific whole.

Elephant is the sort of arty film that invites its viewers to draw any conclusion they want, whether that is in regards to the meaning of the title or why the school shooting happened. In approaching the tragic subject matter in such a way, it dulls the horror and only seems interested in eliciting a response of “fascinating” to a school shooting, because it’s too pretentious to actually care about its characters or the tragedy other than for exploitation.

 

Personal recommendation: F

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A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

Year of release: 2017     Directed by Sebastián Lelio.   Starring: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, and Nicolás Saavedra.

Winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman tells the story of a transwoman who must confront her older partner’s grieving and increasingly hostile family after his sudden death due to a brain aneurism. The film functions as a chronicle of daily discrimination punctuated with magical realism as she sees her lover’s ghost wherever she goes, which functions as both an escape and a comfort to her.

Honestly, I must confess that I’m really not sure what to make of this film. On the one hand, Daniela Vega gives a fantastic performance (pun not intended), and she was a consultant for the experience of transwomen, so perhaps I should give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. It is clear that the film wants to be a call to treat everyone we meet with compassion, and it gives visibility to a part of the population which is often overlooked. On the other hand, there’s a sort of savage glee the film takes in depicting the abuse and degradation Marina (Vega) suffers over and over and over and… Yes, I’m sure many transpeople face that level of discrimination, but here it comes across as a manipulative stacking of the deck for two reasons.

First, similar to The Help’s ridiculous caricature of racists, which enables many white people to pat themselves on the back and think they’re not racist while refusing to challenge any ingrained cultural racism they harbor, the transphobic characters here are so extreme that they create a sort of security bubble for any nominally progressive person watching this. And if we’re honest, ninety-nine percent of the people who watch this will most likely be some degree of progressive. I’m sure there are many more people this degree of transphobic than The Help’s sort of racist, but the portrayal comes across as a cheap shot at moral superiority.

Further undermining the film’s depiction of transphobia is the scenario in which Marina encounters her lover’s family. She meets them after his death, and they want to prevent her from attending the wake and funeral, solely because she is transgendered. The idea that anyone might harbor resentment toward the person who broke up their family regardless of their gender identity is never seriously considered. Conflating the two motivations undermines both the bigotry of the former and the more reasonable, if selfish, anger of the latter.

Secondly, heaping on the discrimination and abuse so heavy-handedly means the only way we can identify with Marina is to pity her. She’s an object for our pity, which I don’t think is a positive portrayal of anyone. Thankfully, she’s not raped, but it would have been perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film if she had been. A few scenes break away from the misery of the rest of the film when Marina can be herself or dream about the world as she wishes it was, and they’re welcome reliefs both dramatically and thematically.

However, I have to give the film credit for Vega’s performance as she does a very good job at creating a nuanced character trapped in an utter hell. She is a hundred times better at portraying a transperson who is an actual human being than Eddie Redmayne was when he portrayed a preposterously concocted straight man who liked to play dress-up in The Danish Girl. While it’s possible the filmmakers are just depicting the hellish world Marina is forced to inhabit, I’m not convinced they aren’t perpetuating that hell with some of their stylistic choices – the filming of a physical examination due to a creepy and prurient social worker comes foremost to mind.

When Marina first meets her lover’s adult son, he inquires whether she’s had sexual reassignment surgery, because he cannot know how to act toward her unless he knows what kind of genitals she has. She tells him never to ask that, and the notion that we can treat people as human beings regardless of their gender is made strikingly apparent. However, after that scene, the film takes a coy, nearly voyeuristic interest regarding where Marina is in her transition, repeatedly teasing the audience and inviting them to speculate how much of a woman she is, while simultaneously saying how wrong it is to do so.

Postscript: when I Googled Daniela Vega to make sure I was spelling her name correctly for this review, the top search term was, “Daniela Vega before.” Based on the film’s treatment of her and its obsession with the state of her transition, that makes sense.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

Content advisory: A non-sexual but nasty assault, several scenes of nudity, some obscene language, non-graphic love-making.

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

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The Shape of Water

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Guillermo del Toro.   Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones.

Last Sunday in church, the Gospel reading was the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for, among other things, casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. This past Sunday I also watched The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest dark fairytale in which fantasy and myth give a voice to the voiceless, empower the weak, and cast down arrogant, powerful villains.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro literally creates a tale to give a voice to the voiceless. Sally Hawkins plays the mute Elisa, a cleaning woman working at a government lab with her good friend and black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa lives above an old movie theater with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an out-of-work artist with reasons of his own to be downcast. As the film takes place in the early ‘60’s, this trio of characters all has reasons to feel rejected by society.

When the lab acquires a mysterious amphibious man from Amazon (Doug Jones), who is guarded by the sadistic Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa sees him as not as a foreign dangerous species, but as another reject of society for being different, as she is. Soon Elisa and the creature are bonding over hard-boiled eggs, LP’s, and sign language when she manages to sneak into the containment facility unobserved.

Being a fairytale, the story beats for The Shape of Water are broad archetypes, and at times some of them are a little too broad. Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland could easily be construed as too cartoonish, especially from his first interaction with Elisa and Zelda as they are cleaning the men’s restroom, where he flaunts his odd hygiene habits (or lack thereof). Giles suffers several rejections, in both his professional and personal life, some of which are not set up particularly well. And the ease with which the central plot point is executed would be unlikely.

However, nitpicking those plot details forgets that this story is a fairytale, and it is meant to symbolize an exaltation of the lowly. Therefore, that is what happens, and del Toro’s filming of it splendidly gorgeous. Nearly every scene is saturated with greens and blues, making the screen shimmer with an iridescence that reminds us of the mysterious beauty of the creature, breathing life and joy into all of the world. The only exception is Strickland’s home which is permeated by a harsh, stale yellow, showing how thoroughly he has cut himself off from joy and compassion, to the point that his life and soul fester like the finger injury he sustains.

Del Toro also finds joy in old movies from 1930’s Hollywood. Giles wishes to use cinema as a means of escapism, so he can forget the civil rights movement and his closeted sexuality, both of which cause him too much discomfort. However, Elisa’s attitude toward the old pictures shows how fantasy can be used to uplift, inspire, and communicate what words fail to say, which an exquisite black and white sequence demonstrates.

Sally Hawkins is incredible as Elisa, masterfully conveying a wide range of emotions with her facial expressions and sign language. The scene where she explains to Richard Jenkins’ sympathetic but incredulous Giles why she has to rescue the creature from the laboratory is one of the most moving of the year. Octavia Spencer plays off her silence perfectly as a supportive friend and coworker, effortlessly changing her demeanor depending on who is nearby.

The stories of Samson and Ruth are used as two recurring Biblical allegories, both of which are interwoven with the main theme of casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly. The foreigner who leaves her home behind for something greater receives untold blessings, and the philistine who thinks he’s invincible as God’s anointed is struck down by his own prisoner.

By setting the film in the early ‘60’s with the civil rights movement occurring in the background, del Toro is able to give a voice to multiple groups of people who would have been rejected by society as “lesser” at that time: women, blacks, gays, and the disabled. That decision makes the film feel applicable to any time, even as parts of it are clearly a rebuttal to America’s current administration. More remarkably, there are two villains in the film who attempt to crush the meek in their thirst for power: the nationalistic American capitalists and the communist Soviets. Michael Stuhlbarg’s Soviet spy who defects to a greater cause demonstrates the narrow but noble line of rejecting two opposite and equal evils.

Finally, the epilogue is practically a prayer one could say to God. Even though we cannot see Him, we seek Him, finding Him where we least expect.

Ever since seeing Pan’s Labyrinth about a decade ago, I have looked forward to seeing del Toro’s newest films. Regardless of the narrative weaknesses that often plague his screenplays, he is an astonishingly talented visual stylist, and he uses wonderfully beautiful imagery to tell his stories in a way that is inviting and mesmerizing. As an allegory about recognizing the value of everyone who has been overlooked and denied their worth, where the simplest joy filled moments are celebrated in spectacular fashion, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best film in over a decade.

 

Personal Recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Semi-graphic sexual content with nudity, some gruesome violence, occasional profanities and obscenities.        MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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