Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Fruitvale Station



 

Director Ryan Coogler




  


FRUITVALE STATION         B+ 
USA  (90 mi)  2013  d:  Ryan Coogler

Coming on the heels of the Trayvon Martin shooting Shooting of Trayvon Martin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, many Americans view any young black kid as a threat and a thug, where some believe there is no value in his life at all and he likely got what he deserved, judging him instantly through racial perceptions, where they might be surprised he had never been arrested and never had any criminal record, yet there are literally millions who simply refuse to see Trayvon’s potential as making the least bit of difference in their lives.  Then a film like this comes along, offering rare insight into the complexity of a young black man’s life, yet what’s perhaps most troubling is it touches on perceptions already racially etched in stone, becoming a parable on race in America, a eulogy on the offspring of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  This is a film one can approach through a variety of different pathways, each of which might blur the vision of other viewpoints, where viewers tend to see what they want to see in projects like this one, based on a real life incident where an unarmed young black man was shot and killed after being detained by white BART subway police in Oakland, California, where coming into the theater people already have formed views and opinions about the subject matter, especially this one, which typifies everything that is wrong in America.  While on the surface it deals with troubling realities that tend to be sensationalized in the media—young, black, unemployed, hair-trigger temper, criminal history, blighted neighborhood, unmarried with child—all of which fit the profile of how America views “high crime,” barely batting an eye when the news spews out reports of daily shootings and killings, where life seems to matter less in racially segregated, crime infested neighborhoods, but this film digs beneath the surface and examines the day to day complexities faced by residents living there.  It’s perhaps too easy but altogether necessary to cast a racially incendiary slant on the story, where all too often white cops end up murdering black youth. 

Blacks are arrested at nearly 3 times the rate of other Americans, where the rate is even higher for murder (6 times) and robbery (8 times), while the likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 28% compared to 4% of white males and 16% of Hispanic males, and if that black male drops out of high school, the number skyrockets to 50%.  Matters have only been made worse by the War on Drugs, where in the past decade, the Department of Homeland Security has funneled $7.1 billion dollars in grants to local police departments, which have been used to provide local departments with military hardware, including tanks and armored vehicles, spying facilities and technology, access to national databases and infrastructure, and equipment for use against political protests.  While supposedly combating “terrorism,” the intended target tends to be urban areas with a large and highly condensed minority population, the regular sites for drug raids and arrests, where blacks in particular have a higher sentencing rate than other Americans, even for identical crimes.  So while this bias is built into the criminal justice system, it also reflects the mindset of local cops on the beat, where at the moment it is estimated that the police kill a black man, woman, or child every 28 hours, which is an increase from a few years ago when it was every 36 hours.  Nearly half have no weapon on them, or anything resembling a weapon when they were 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.  Even though women are less likely to be killed, in a glaring way they are included in a troubling number of these deaths, as 20% result from women initiating a distress call to police for domestic violence issues, where rather then removing the agitated offender, he is shot and killed.

While one may not know the exact statistics, most are familiar with an overall racial disparity *before* they see the movie, so many bring their pre-conceived perceptions with them into the theater, which the filmmaker addresses immediately, as the opening few shots of the film are readily available and already viewed by millions on TV or YouTube through blurry cell phone camera footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit cops beating Oscar Grant and his friends on a subway platform just after 2 am in Oakland, California on New Year’s Day, 2009, ending with a gunshot YouTube Oscar Grant Clearest Video Of Shooting Post it!!! - YouTube (1:59).  Oscar had already been detained and is lying on his stomach, head to the pavement, as one policeman tries to cuff him while another has his knee in his back, when inexplicably one of them draws his service revolver and shoots him in the back POLICE SHOOTING AT BART STATION - OSCAR GRANT - YouTube (3:28).  Since this is based on a real life incident, the outcome is already known by the opening shot of the film.  The filmmaker then takes us back into the preceding 24 hours leading up to that moment, shot in a cinéma vérité style using a handheld camera, where the life of the victim is the actual subject of the film, and based on the dramatic power of the performances, which are considerable, his life is not only memorialized, but humanized, where the film puts a face behind the heavy stream of statistics by asking us to spend a day walking in someone else’s shoes that may be unfamiliar to a majority of viewers.

The movie has already won significant awards, including the Best Dramatic Film and the U.S. Audience Choice Award at Sundance, while also winning the Best First Film in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes, where it received a rousing two-minute standing ovation.  In some ways, this film resembles BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), another character driven depiction of the everyday violence that consumes so many lives in South Central Los Angeles, but that film focuses on senseless gang violence.  While some may find this film to be a jolt of social realism that finally attempts to address the issue of racial injustice in America, including crimes against black men, but there isn’t a hint of police involvement in this film until the actual incident, as whatever trouble Oscar had previously with the law, which included two brief stints in prison for drug dealing, he has only himself to blame for getting himself into those situations.  Since he does nothing to provoke the officer, some insist this is a blatant execution, seen in strictly black and white racial terms, but it’s difficult to understand an intentional murder in front of so many witnesses, though the police do significantly overreact, especially on an evening that is already filled with overly rowdy, high or inebriated New Years revelers, where the outcome of this particular occurrence feels more like a tragic accident inflicted by an amateur cop.  The incident led to marches and protest demonstrations, even riots expressing a furious outrage at the crime.

Rather than address the social conditions that precede this incident, where the music and movie industry both go to great extremes to accentuate black stereotypes, including a thug culture that promotes street credibility, where prison time produces bragging rights among gangsta rap artists, which sells more records, the director cleverly assumes the audience is already familiar with all that.  So rather than a piercing piece of social criticism, Coogler chooses a simpler more minimalist route, where Michael B. Jordan plays Oscar with convincing believability as we follow the mundane details of his daily routine, including flashbacks years earlier when he was in San Quentin prison (where his mother’s visit is one of the most riveting scenes in the film), as we watch how he handles the various pressures of the day.  While he’s butted heads with a variety of people, he’s already walking on thin ice with his beautiful wife Sophina (Melonie Diaz), who recently caught him with another woman, has left a traumatized impression for being away so long with his adoring 4-year old daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal), and he’s hiding the fact he’s been fired by his boss for coming in late so often, while his mother (Octavia Spencer) watches him like a hawk, having had her heart broken once or twice already.  

This is largely a day-in-the-life film, where Oscar awakes promising to make a fresh start on the New Year, where the drama unfolds through his personal relationships with friends, family and various acquaintances, where much of the day is spent attempting to make amends.  Oscar is in nearly every scene, where the film’s authenticity is constructed by a build-up of low key sequences given a near documentary look, where because of the nuanced, understated subtlety involved, a major complaint could be registered against the way he is portrayed by the filmmaker, where the contrived goodness of his character is overemphasized, optimistically making him larger than life in the few brief hours he has left, almost as if he’s finally seen the light, which certainly has a manipulative feel to it, especially knowing the eventual outcome.  But rather than go overboard with scathing negativity, as some critics have done, one might simply conclude the filmmaker intended to express a view that Oscar, like Trayvon Martin, had the potential to do good.  The true power of the film, however, comes from the amazing performances that literally “make” the film, as the leads are quite simply astonishing, where the lasting mental impression is how articulate and fully developed several characters become in such brief screen time, as Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz literally nail their scenes.  But it’s Michael B. Jordan’s film and he deserves plenty of credit, rising to the occasion and ultimately making this film matter, providing the dramatic heft the film needs to expose the senseless tragedy of what has become an all-too-often, everyday occurrence.

Monday, July 29, 2013

This Is Martin Bonner


















THIS IS MARTIN BONNER              C+                  
USA  (83 mi)  2013  d:  Chad Hartigan               Official site

Like David Gordon Green, this director graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, but rather than be influenced by the sublime visual poetry of Terrence Malick, Chad Hartigan evolved from the school of mumblecore, reflected in his first feature film LUKE AND BRIE ARE ON A FIRST DATE (2008), which was shot in 5 days and made for just under $4,000 dollars.  While it took 5 years before his next film, costing 10 times as much to make, still an extremely low budget effort, winner of the Audience Choice in the limited budget Best of NEXT category at Sundance, this is a stylistic departure for the director, crafting a quietly unassuming character sketch following the lonely lives of two individuals whose lives intersect.  While we don’t realize it initially, both are lost souls whose lives are defined by a quiet desperation, though each approach their situation in life through differing paths.  Martin Bonner (Paul Eenhoorn) is something of a quietly relaxed Australian lookalike of Ian Holm, a father of two grown children, sporting a wrinkled brow with grayish hair turning nearly white, whose kindly accessible manner reflects the years he spent as a business manager for a Catholic church, a theology student who displayed a devotion to his faith throughout his career until he got fired after his divorce—something about violating the church’s position.  When we catch up to him he’s interviewing an angry black prisoner (Demetrius Grosse) for a faith-based non-for-profit organization in Reno, Nevada about a transition back into the community where they help prisoners adjust to the outside world.  While the interchange is extremely loud and confrontational by the prisoner, who only seems interested in getting his sentence reduced, Martin’s calm and matter-of-fact response makes no promises, but suggests they can be a positive and helpful bridge back to the outside.  While he’s new on the job, he seems to believe it, but the prisoner is cautiously pessimistic and openly defiant, which sets the tone for the film, which is about starting over after a lengthy period of disillusionment and pain, where it’s time to restore some degree of balance and harmony in their lives. 

In another encounter, Martin is seen picking up another prisoner who is just being released, Travis (Richmond Arquette), who is actually assigned to one of the other staff members, but Martin drives him into town and offers him breakfast before dropping him off at a non-descript motel.  The film then splits the screen time between these two men, where Travis literally has no one but the four blank walls of his motel, where his freedom only accentuates a feeling of abandonment, as if society has discarded this individual that it has no use for.  A clever device repeated throughout the film are brief spurts of wordless imagery, one of the few explorations of the interior realm, as Travis steps outside to explore his surroundings, set to hauntingly beautiful music of Keegan DeWitt, where the music feels like an echo effect to the aching loneliness he feels.  Martin routinely calls his two grown children, where his daughter recently had a baby, making him a grandfather, and is happy to hear from him, while his son works as an artist and never returns his calls.  This practice defines his non-existent family life, however, as it is surviving on the skeletal remains.  Travis is seen listening to the church sermon before joining in an overly polite Sunday dinner with his program sponsor Steve (Robert Longstreet) and his wife, both devout believers, where Travis is seen on his best behavior.  The banalities of the film’s dialogue (written by the director) becomes literally suffocating, as many would simply bolt before having to endure such insipid conversation.  This growing tedium actually defines the film, as it feels expressionless and downright boring.  And while it’s meant to stand for the enveloping emptiness that haunts these men’s lives, it does nothing to sustain the audience’s interest, which has to endure this unalluring monotony as well. 

But Travis eventually calls Martin, as he feels more comfortable talking around him, as his life is not so consumed by religion, where he seems more like a regular guy.  While Martin has a job, Travis has literally nothing, as society has quite literally cast out any sense of obligation to prisoners, even after they’re released, where he’s little more than a forgotten statistic, a non-existing entity.  Other than these religious outreach programs, there are few organizations that recognize his existence, exemplified by a trip to the local DMV where he hears the spiel about what he has to do in order to regain his driving privileges, where learning how to be an airplane pilot might be an easier route.  At least Martin befriends the guy over a cup of coffee, where Martin’s own shortcomings come into play.  Throughout the film there are continual attempts to find a way out of this deafening silence imposed by their societal isolation, but all they really hear is the sound of their own voices reminding them of how little progress they’ve made.  When Travis tries to reunite with his grown daughter Diana (Sam Buchanon), who he hasn’t seen in over a dozen years, she agrees to visit from Arizona by Greyhound bus and spend an afternoon, so he turns to Martin for help, as he has no confidence whatsoever in his own social skills which have eroded considerably while wasting away behind bars.  And true to form, when they meet, Travis is ridiculously inept in re-establishing contact, where there remain unresolved issues over what sent him to jail in the first place, as he was convicted of drunken vehicular manslaughter, inadvertently killing someone in an auto accident, an act that continues to plague both Diana and Travis with a great deal of shame.  This is a continuing theme hovering over both men, as neither are proud of themselves, haunted by their past failures, where they’re attempting to not let that define their lives, but guilt is a strong emotion, and despite their best attempts, it continues to latch onto them with an unbreakable grip, where really all they can do is lead lives that resemble the type of people they prefer to be, even if it feels like they’re only pretending.  Ultimately, this is a dramatically low key and nearly inert film about how difficult it is attempting to learn how to relive your life after an extended dormant period where you didn’t trust or believe in yourself, where the banalities of ordinary existence are all that’s left for you to cling to for support.   

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Les Bonnes Femmes

















Bernadette Lafont  Obituary by Ronald Bergan from The Guardian 

I don't usually get into posting obituary notices, something of a morbid habit, and certainly a reminder of our own impending demise, but this is one of my all time favorite actresses.

I never thought of her as one of the first New Wave actresses, just generally thinking of Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, and perhaps Bardot in ...And God Created Woman, but she was a driving force behind Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1972), where one of the key scenes was seeing Bernadette Lafont drown her sorrows by repeatedly listening to Edith Piaf sing her 1948 recording “Les Amants de Paris” seen here: (YouTube - La maman et la putain on YouTube 3:05), which remains one of the essential works of cinema.

My favorite Chabrol film remains Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), a completely unpretentious film about bored Parisian working class girls who spend all day waiting to clock out of their dreary jobs so they can go out at night.  While utterly realistic, it remains as captivating today as when it was made, largely due to the naturalistic performance of Bernadette Lafont.

I still think of  her as that young and vibrant force driving French films, not quite the screen presence as Anna Karina, but she was probably the working class version, which is why I always felt I could relate to her.  There was no distance separating her from the audience, as she felt like one of us, which is something you just don't experience anymore. 























LES BONNES FEMMES       A 
France  Italy  (100 mi)  1960  d:  Claude Chabrol

Before Chabrol started mocking the complacency of the bourgeoisie with artificially stylized whodunits, he made at least two stabs at a social realist film, BEAU SERGE (1958), a naturalistic rural drama, and this deceptively complex work that on the surface appears to be a free wheeling, light-hearted drama about the social patterns of young Parisian girls, shot in a near documentary style following events as they occur over the course of several days.  Balancing their time at work in an appliance store with no customers to speak of, where the highlight of the day is a hopeful visit from a delivery man, the film examines the lives of four young girls who work there, each more bored than the next where their low-end wages offer little hope for a better future.  While they tease one another at work all day and continue socializing at night, it is clear they exhibit an artificial cheerfulness to hide their otherwise empty lives, very much in the manner of John Cassavetes, particularly in FACES (1968).  In fact outside of Cassavetes, this is one of the best films to capture the emotional authenticity of young women and the difficulty they face enduring men who are exaggerated caricatures of themselves, all promising to be more than they are.  While the men are uncomfortably obnoxious, this is all part of the mating ritual where the social art of persuasion is a double-edged sword, where if you allow yourself to get lured in, you may suffer the consequences.  On the other hand, if you take no chances at all, you’re back where you started from, which is a neverending routine of endless monotony.  Chabrol, with help from cinematographer Henri Decaë, does an excellent job finding the rhythms of the streets of Paris which exude a wonderful sense of energy and hopeful possibilities while the oddly dissonant score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki may give some the creeps. 

Bernadette Lafont plays Jane, perhaps the most liberated and sexually audacious of the group, who through acts of exuberant spontaneity hopes to find happiness, while Stéphane Audran, soon to be the director’s wife, working in dozens of films together for some twenty years, plays her roommate Ginette, living a secret life as a singer in a variety revue.  Lucile Saint-Simon plays Rita, an attractive blond who is incessantly schooled by her fiancé how to please his snooty, overbearing parents, demanding that she change to become the girl of his dreams, while newcomer Clothilde Joano plays Jacqueline, a recent hire late on her first day on the job, a shy, quiet girl lost in her thoughts about a young motorcyclist (Mario David) who shows up regularly without so much as a word, staring at her through the storefront window, following her on his bike, always keeping his eye on her.  From an early sequence where a couple of the girls are followed by two guys in a white Cadillac, the audience has an idea what’s in store for them and can see these men are little more than goons, but the girls have a zest for living that typifies the sudden influx of boldly energized New Wave films.  What follows is a wild strip club sequence with a bon vivant Bridgitte Bardot look-alike that gets the guys pinching and grabbing, followed by an extended party sequence that plays out like New Years, where it’s all Jane can do to fend them off, which she does brilliantly until a night of champagne finally wears down her defenses.  Jane can be seen in the same clothes spraying perfume under her arms the next morning as she joins her roommate for another day at work, interrupted by a frantic run to the zoo at lunchtime where they interact with the caged monkeys, rare birds, and a stalking leopard before returning back to work where Jane ends up asleep.  One by one each of the girls is called into the boss’s office to be fondled and pinched, a day where time literally stops, counting the minutes until the work day is done. 

Interesting that the guys surrounding these girls are typically crude, boorish and ill-mannered, more interested in dominating any female desire to express themselves, like hunters caging wild animals or rare birds (“They don’t look rare to me.”), while the girls themselves couldn’t be more vividly gorgeous and appealing in their feminine charm, spending their days in dead end jobs filled with hopes and dreams that someday it might all be different.  There’s a strange swimming pool sequence where the original louts that picked up Jane decide to bully the girls, thinking it’s fun to throw them in the water and continually dunk them, like rude water polo, until they are rescued by the motorcycle guy who runs off the imbeciles.  In perhaps the strangest scene in the film, the motorcyclist takes Jacqueline for a ride into the country, where they walk deeper and deeper into the woods.  It is clear Jacqueline has never been happier, that she is finally, at this moment, herself, in a scene highly reminiscent of similar scenes with the happy and dreamy-eyed Giulietta Masina on her wedding day in Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), a walk in the woods sequence borrowed again by Fassbinder in BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980) featuring Barbara Sukowa as Mieze in the beautifully choreographed Part XII “The Serpent in the Soul of the Serpent.”  These are scenes of utter heartbreak and despair, shown without a hint of excess, probably the turning point in each film.  The ramifications are beyond description, the audience is in a state of disbelief, as this was thought to be a dizzyingly absurd New Wave comedy of sorts, was it not?  The final sequence is just as exasperating, as the tone has completely shifted to a stunned audience that can’t quite comprehend what just happened.  This brilliant change of gears offers a completely new appraisal of the film, adding a profound layer of depth to these girl’s lives, where Chabrol expresses a surprising level of sympathy for their stark vulnerability in such a harsh world that barely notices they exist.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Only God Forgives























ONLY GOD FORGIVES                    C+                  
Denmark  France  Thailand  USA  Sweden  (90 mi)  2013  d:  Nicolas Winding Refn    Official site [France]

An overly somber style over substance film, where except for the excessively violent subject matter, one might think this is a Wong Kar-wai film, as the lush visuals combined with the highly eclectic musical soundtrack written by Cliff Martinez add a hypnotic, near surreal color palette.  Stylishly impressive, set in the dreamy underworld of Bangkok, Thailand, but the characters all feel like they’re sleepwalking through their roles, not unlike Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID (2009), a director singled out in the credits by Refn, stuck in a netherworld purgatory waiting to be judged by a martial arts policeman named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), dressed out of uniform in loosely fitting and comfortable clothing, who like a spaghetti western Avenging Angel or God, restores order through brutal punishments, bordering on torture porn, but his judgment comes swift and decisive instead of inflicting prolonged agony.  Afterwards, in perhaps the most surreal moments in the film, Chang sings karaoke while his fellow cops sit around in uniform to listen.  While the surface effects can be near spectacular, as the composition of each shot couldn’t be more remarkable, along with an edgy use of lighting and a dazzling color scheme, shot by cinematographer Larry Smith who worked on three Kubrick films, recreating the spooky element of surprise in the long hallways shots of the Overlook Hotel, but there’s little to no interior involvement, where the viewer is never connected emotionally to anything onscreen.  The dialogue is so campy during some of the most violent showdowns that it borders on the ridiculous, adding an element of the absurd to the already over-the-top visualizations, making this a midnight run cult film at the time of its initial release.  Refn also dedicates this film to Alejandro Jodorowsky, a cult figure whose films depict picturesque horrors and humiliations, where Peter Schjedahl in his New York Times review calls EL TOPO (1970) “a violent surreal fantasy, a work of fabulous but probably deranged imagination.”  Jodorowski himself is quoted as saying, “Everyday life is surrealistic, made of miracles, weird and inexplicable events.  There is no borderline between reality and magic.”  All of which means this was meant to be a head-scratcher, something of a mindfuck of a movie, where the Argento-like atmosphere of menacing doom defines the film.

Ryan Gosling is Julian, who along with his brother Billy (Tom Burke), run a Thai kickboxing club, which we learn later is just a front for a major drug operation.  Julian’s demeanor is so calm and understated that he barely utters more than a sentence or two throughout the entire film, where he doesn’t act so much as sulk, but like Chang, he’s more of a presence than an actual character.  When his brother inexplicably goes berserk, raping and killing an underage prostitute, leaving her lying in a pool of her own blood, the sickening aspect is so acute that the regular cops turn to Chang, something of a specialized expert only called upon in the most hideous crimes, where his unique method renders immediate judgment, with no arrest, no trial, and no imprisonment, as if he’s not really a part of the human condition, but an elevated force to contend with, seemingly drawing upon supernatural powers.  Except for his lightning quick martial arts strikes, he does everything else in a Zen-like calm, in near slow motion, as if he’s hovering over the consciousness of these criminal suspects with their fates in his hands, outraged at hearing their pathetic, self-justifying defenses, demanding that they admit to their crimes, enacting a savagely vicious arm mutilation when they don’t answer swiftly enough.  In this way, the act of justice is decisively rendered and remains permanent, not some idealized concept.  When Chang allows the girl’s father to take his revenge upon Billy, it’s as if the world turns upside down.  Kristin Scott-Thomas arrives on the scene in an outrageously over-the-top performance as the diabolical mother mourning the death of her firstborn, still fuming and in a state of rage that Julian hasn’t exacted revenge for his brother’s murder, re-establishing her iron-like control over the drug operations, and ordering Julian around as if he was still an insolent child.  The scene of the film is a formal dinner sequence between mother and son, where Julian is joined by Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute pretending to be his steady girlfriend, where the vile flamboyance of the mother turns this into a classic scene and one of the memorable highlights of the year, a uniquely horrific and thoroughly embarrassing moment where Scott Thomas becomes a dragon lady that turns belittling and malicious humiliation of her son and his hooker girlfriend into an artform, initiating an assault of crude language so debasing that she’s a contender for the most evil mother in screen history, something of a parallel to the Albert Brooks character in Refn’s previous film Drive (2011). 

Thematically, a film this very much resembles is Taxi Driver (1976), another avenging angel film where Chang has to literally clean up the scum and garbage on the streets, holding the same contempt for moral rot and decay as Travis Bickle, using many of the same unorthodox methods as well, creating an eternal bloodbath as human salvation.   But Scorsese’s film is deeply rooted in an incendiary, character driven performance, something altogether missing here, as outside of the commanding performance of Scott Thomas, the rest may as well be zombies or the walking dead.  With each successive shot so perfectly rendered, Refn uses the photograph-like composition to advance each scene, where except for the violent action sequences, much of this film is a picture of stillness, an induced calm, like an oasis on the horizon, but something of an illusion covering up the internal turmoil hidden within.  The sins of the world are covered in a kind of toxic moral laziness, while Chang’s job is to root out each rotting soul one by one.  Scott Thomas blames Chang for allowing her son to be murdered, completely overlooking Billy’s own wretched acts, and sets into motion a series of blistering assaults on the police designed to remove Chang from the picture, but it’s as if he’s from a different realm, inscrutable and untouchable, surviving every attempt, until ultimately Chang finds Julian.  In exaggerated spaghetti western fashion, the two head for the ultimate showdown playing out in Julian’s own boxing ring, now nearly deserted except for a few miscellaneous cops, Mai, and  Julian’s mother.  In the emptiness of the room, Julian proves no match, as his opponent is a phantom, a demented godlike figure with a bloodthirsty appetite for inflicting pain, literally pulverizing his victims before walking away unscathed, leaving behind a grim and overly solemn world that resembles a morgue.  The film lacks the energy and entertaining appeal of any Bruce Lee movie, but overwhelms with its superb production design, ultimately feeling like an empty experience that is all surface visuals with little more to offer.  Lacking the well-crafted characterization of Sergio Leone, this feels more like a cartoonish homage to the macho revenge genre, where the Tarantino-ish, overly stylish bloodletting continues, but it all feels so meaningless after awhile, becoming a one note film that only grows more tiresome.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How to Make Money Selling Drugs























HOW TO MAKE MONEY SELLING DRUGS         C                    
USA  (100 mi)  2012  d:  Matthew Cooke

Eventually feeling like little more than a libertarian fantasy, where the film has the snarky tone of reality TV where they’re constantly “selling” something, playing fast and loose with the facts, which are in no way even a factor in this film, so pretty much anything sounding “on message” passes for reality, even if it’s blatantly untrue, such as the allegation that  90% of the inmates in prison are there due to alcohol-related crimes, where a quick fact check, Crime and Alcohol - Alcoholism - About.com, reveals it’s actually less than half that, closer to 40%.  But not to worry, reality TV is mythically inaccurate as well, so this simply meets the “anything goes” test, where the entire film is largely a propaganda campaign to legalize drugs, as the moral of the story, from the film’s point of view, is Americans should have the freedom to do what they please without the government infringing upon that right.  The argument is made that alcohol and cigarettes are responsible for more deaths than drugs, yet the government instead pours money into the drug wars, filling the prisons with drug-related offenders, where Americans are just 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we comprise nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population, almost exclusively black and Latino, as those are the targeted neighborhoods for making arrests, many receiving stiffer sentences than murderers.  One of the worse cases was a black mother of two children who left the city of New York looking for a better life due to living in such a dangerous neighborhood and moved with relatives in the Midwest, who happened to be selling drugs out of their home, which ended up getting the mother arrested and sentenced to 27 years in prison, even though she had nothing to do with drugs.  The severity of the sentencing matches the politicians decree to get tough on drugs, but it in no way matches the non-violent, uninvolvement of the accused, who posed no threat to anyone, yet must languish away inside a prison somewhere while her children grow up without her.       
 
The film is more of a bait and switch style, reeling in the viewer’s interest by suggesting anyone, even children, can make money selling drugs, witness the many young parentless teenagers who, having no other options due to no fault of their own, are suddenly thrust into the situation, always surprised at how many regular customers they can count on for selling drugs, outlining how to carry out each stage of the operation from local street vendor to running a drug cartel, where there are plenty of people willing to testify how easy it can be, as the first half of the film is an overly sensationalist owner’s manual guide that offers a get rich quick scheme to interested viewers.  But of course, while they’re reeling off information on how easy it is, they’re ignoring all moral concerns, figuring anyone who’s interested in the drug game would have to be criminally enterprising, ignoring any and all consequences in the event you do get caught, not to mention the effect this would have on your family.  Instead the mantra for making money, “It’s so easy even a child can do it,” is presented much like the high pressure techniques used for selling timeshares in Boca.  While it’s presented in a slickly packaged, overly satirical manner up front, literally making a mockery of the lucrative nature of the drug business, where no educational diploma is needed and the profits can even outweigh the potential jail terms if caught, as the money will be waiting for you when you get out afterwards, the tongue-in-cheek manner is a veiled cover for the real reason the film is being made, shifting gears midway through as the focus shifts to who’s really profiting, as it’s not the guy down the street who inevitably gets arrested, but cops, DEA agents, lawyers, judges, and prison guards, where the United States government is awash with billions of dollars of anti-drug enforcement money sent to various law enforcement agencies across the land, expected to reach $19 billion by 2014, where local police departments suddenly have money to upgrade their equipment, buy more sophisticated, high-powered weapons, add military vehicles as part of their standard operations, even aircraft, and then the government keeps feeding these budgets so long as statistics can verify substantial drug arrests have been made.      

All of this feeds the idea that you can arrest your way out of the drug problem, filling the prisons with mostly non-white offenders, where by 2011, 48% of all federal inmates were there for drug crimes, while only 8% were for violent crimes.  And while whites and blacks have virtually identical rates of drug use, blacks are ten times more likely to get arrested for pot, where the racial disparity is worse with crack cocaine, where blacks comprise over 80% of federal crack cocaine defendants, while whites are less than 7%.  While there are many more whites both buying and selling drugs in America, blacks are 4 times more likely to get arrested, where 90% of those convicted of drug charges are blacks or Latino, where more than 80% are for low level possession, where at least a half a million individuals are serving time for minor drug offenses, more than ten times the number in 1980, where in 1981 the government spent $1.5 million on the drug wars, while in 2012 the number was $25 billion.  While much of these fast and furious statistics have a way of overwhelming the viewer, as they continue to be spewed out throughout the film, better documentation is presented in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow The New Jim Crow - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, suggesting the War on Drugs is largely a tool for enforcing legalized racial discrimination, creating a prison-state apartheid policy that is largely invisible to the middle class, as a majority of young black men in large American cities are warehoused in prisons, labeled felons, often trapped in a second class status of American citizen with most of their rights stripped from them.  While Alexander views the behavior as racial injustice, this film has no sense of racial outrage, but only uses the numbers as they help favorably make their case for legalizing drugs, viewed as similar to cigarettes and the once prohibited alcohol, both of which pose a greater danger to society, worse than all the illegal drugs put together.  To demonstrate the absurdity of how out of control the drug policy has become, the police are viewed as little more than the Keystone Cops, where there is such a rush to arrest people that wrong-address break-ins occur on average at least twice weekly by overeager, trigger happy SWAT teams that break doors down in the middle of the night for suspected non-violent drug crimes, where innocent people are also shot on a regular basis during these often horrific confrontations, as these are, after all, imperfect, often insufficiently trained humans conducting these operations.  The film suggests this is like an unstoppable train racing dangerously down the tracks at our own peril, where we’ve spent billions of dollars transforming police departments into armed anti-terror squads that *will* come visit us in the middle of the night.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Hijacking (Kapringen)














A HIJACKING (Kapringen)       B            
Denmark  (103 mi)  2012  d:  Tobias Lindholm             Official site

The Danish put their own characteristic spin on everything, from the moody and melancholy tone of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the national support the country provides through a system of public grants provided to artists, funding theater, museums, and various film projects like this one.  The nation itself is a country of 5 million people populating a small collection of about 50 islands, where the national economy is built upon a huge commercial shipping fleet, where nearly every family has someone employed in the industry, including the director’s own father.  So in 2007 when a Danish cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, it became a personal story that nearly everyone in the country could intimately relate to, as someone from their family could be sitting out there in the middle of the ocean subject to the wild whims of heavily armed pirates.  The film is something of a follow-up of an earlier American documentary Stolen Seas (2012), which examines the impact of an actual November 2008 hijacking of the CEC Future, a Danish cargo ship traveling through the Gulf of Aden, events that alerted the world to the revival of this seemingly barbaric 18th century practice, becoming commonplace in the modern era along the East African coast of Somalia.  While that documentary does an excellent job recreating the hostage negotiations process, where much of what’s revelatory is gleaning insight into the little known Somali culture through the eyes and ears of the American educated Somali negotiator, who was not one of the original hijackers, but was hired exclusively due to his language proficiency.  In contrast, this film is a fictionalized recreation of real events that examines the impact that piracy has on the effected Danish families back home and the company executives in Copenhagen that must eventually come to terms with the pirate’s outrageous ransom demands, originally requesting $15 million dollars.   

Largely seen through the differing eyes of two individuals, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæck), the hijacked ship’s cook, spending most of his time at gunpoint in isolation with two other crew members, separated throughout from the rest of the crew, and Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling), the wealthy CEO of the shipping company, constantly seen in a cramped executive boardroom with the other major players, where what’s interesting is that both men are intentionally kept as much in the dark as possible, offering no clues that might in any way be considered helpful.  Instead the crew is continually bullied and intimidated, where they’re not even allowed to use the bathroom for the first month, forced to live in their own putrid stink in sweltering heat with no air circulation.  Meanwhile the suited executives have to deal with Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), often heard on the phone, but never seen, where they refuse to provide information about the crew, insisting they speak exclusively about money.  The company hires an expert on hijacking, but Peter refuses the advice to hire an impartial negotiator, insisting that he carry out his chief executive duties, which includes working in the best interests of the company and the crew.  What might surprise some is the polite and overly courteous language displayed between Peter and Omar, where neither wants to convey any hint of weakness, both crunching numbers, behaving as if they are dealing in the world of high finance.  While this is Peter’s specialty, he’s never before been threatened by the execution of his crew members if he doesn’t produce a high enough number.  At times, both sides crumble under the pressure, made worse by not knowing what to expect, often quickly cutting off phone lines to elevate the dramatic suspense.  While these death threats are typical piracy maneuvers and practiced techniques, one still never knows just what they’re dealing with on the other end of the phone line, where like police hostage negotiations, the important thing is to maintain regular contact and make use of what little trust can be established.

Time drags on and days turn into weeks, where the growing frustration eventually turns into months, where the families live in a state of hysteria, never knowing if their loved one is living or dead, where the company cannot provide any information, as they don’t want anything getting into the newspapers or television reports where it can be used against them.  The impact grows typically unrealistic, as the board can’t understand why negotiations can’t be wrapped up like any other high stakes deal, and family members are shunned from the excruciating pressure that falls on the shoulders of Peter, who really has to shut out all outside conditions to be able to stand what he’s doing, which is prolonging the agony of men’s lives and obliterating the hopes of the families that have lived for months without them.  Onboard, the ship quickly runs out of food and psychological tensions only escalate, where the hijackers finally allow Mikkel to call his wife, but interrupt the call screaming at the wife to demand that the shipping owner pay the ransom money, and then quickly hang up.  The effect is brutal, as are the lingering conditions onboard, which resemble the unbearable treatment of POW’s in Vietnam, thrown into the empty storage shell of the vessel, like living in a cave with no light whatsoever, losing whatever shred of humanity they have left.  In the end, both sides behave like animals, stripping themselves of that same humanity, showing literally no mercy whatsoever, as these are the terms of the game.  What sets this version apart is the understated minimalism, stripped down to the bare essentials, providing as little as possible, using a cinéma vérité style to show a wrenching documentary style realism, where brief moments of crippling emotional violence fill the screen, followed by an interminable silence, where one waits, but time needlessly drags on, turning this into a brooding and morbid exercise of prolonged misery and doom, where a feeling of helplessness prevails, as all tactics fail, yet both sides continue to wear down and eventually exhaust the other into submission.  This is a particularly gloomy film with ominous reverberations, exposing a tiresome and damaging process that may alter the lives of those who pay the ultimate price, like any soldier returning from the particularly catastrophic conditions of war, where the haunting ferociousness of the experience has the capacity to extinguish the human spirit.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Alamo Bay
















ALAMO BAY       D              
USA  (99 mi)  1985  d:  Louis Malle

The film that received such negative reviews that after making two more made-for TV American documentaries they drove Louis Malle back to his native France, where his next feature would be AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS (1987).  In a fictionalized recreation of true events that took place around 1979 – 81, shot in the Gulf region of Rockport, Texas, 15,000 Vietnamese refugees are placed in a highly concentrated, culturally backward poor white trash region of southern Texas where they are competing for shrimp in the same regional waters as families who have lived there for generations, causing not only an unwelcome, vocal opposition to the outsiders, but open hatred and hostility, leading to racist taunts and violence.  As a disgruntled Vietnam vet, young Ed Harris plays a white racist shrimper who typifies the views in his community, finding it offensive for a white girl to be seen talking to a Vietnamese, who he and others routinely call “gooks.”  Amy Madigan is excellent as the daughter of an aging owner of a fish business who’s willing to employ Vietnamese shrimpers, a girl who has her eyes on Harris, but he is using her to obtain needed money for his boat, as the bank is about to reclaim it for nonpayment.  When the bank finally refuses his loan and takes possession of his boat, it’s claimed by a Vietnamese family, which creates a community uproar as whites are fed up with what they perceive as anti-white government handouts. 

While the subject is controversial, the way it’s handled by Malle is not, as it’s simply bad, a poorly written, overly heavy-handed melodrama without an ounce of subtlety, adding a redneck romance in the middle of a race war, with all good guys or bad guys, or people in hysteria caused by their own cultural isolation and ignorance, where we may as well have seen any bad western where innocents are placed against heavily armed bad guys.  Here, the white town majority, armed to the teeth, actually turns to the Klu Klux Klan, of all things, to drive all the “gooks” out of town through a series of intimidation tactics that include constant insults, Klan rallies with burning crosses and hanging effigies, fire-bombings, shootings at the Vietnamese boats, and eventually murder.  In one grandiose scene, a line of white boats sails across the harbor carrying men in Klan white sheets with rifles and guns, even women in white t-shirts saying “white power” in order to drive all the Vietnamese boats out of the water.  If this wasn’t so ridiculous, it would be laughable, as the all-too predictable ending occurs. 

In a town where the law is all but absent, the lone white woman (Madigan) stands up to the racist taunts, and while witnessing Harris, whose name in the film happens to be Shanh, sounding very much like Shane, try to beat a man to death, she tells him to stop.  Even with a gun pointed straight at him, calling her a “Communist cunt!” he continues to mercilessly pound the man’s head into the pavement until she shoots to kill.  Miraculously, like a scene out of Romeo and Juliet, the Montagues and Capulets all join hands together in prayerful remorse.  In an instant, all the previously absent social services arrive, ambulances, police and the sheriff, the fire department, neighbors lend a helping hand, as this woman slowly walks through the town without pity where everyone in town is there huddled together on the street and silently stares at her in a hushed state of shock.  Don’t get me wrong, but despite the incendiary nature of things that did actually happen, this is one stinker of a movie, where the subject is covered much more realistically in the Robert Hillman documentary FIRE ON THE WATER (1982).  Madigan and Harris were married at the time of the film, which gives their scenes together greater poignancy, and there is interesting background music by Ry Cooder that plays throughout the film.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Just Like a Woman
















JUST LIKE A WOMAN                     B-                   
France  Great Britain  USA  (90 mi)  2012  d:  Rachid Bouchareb

European directors coming to America have a mixed record, especially those on the arthouse or independent film circuit, as they bring with them a different sensibility that doesn’t always translate well on the screen, often initially ignored and misunderstood by American filmgoers.  Certainly from a sociological point of view, Europeans aren’t shackled by the same history and bring not only fresh insight but a sense of openness into the racial and cultural divisions that tend to separate us.  Call them visionary, if you will, as these are certainly unusual glimpses of America.  

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) comes to mind, considered a huge financial flop at the time, now viewed as a beautifully abstract, experimental, ballet-like homage to violence, where his picture of America consisted of vintage automobiles, giant street billboards, radicals, police violence, capitalist cronies, endless desert landscapes and discontented youth, conceiving images that remain unique to cinema, an unforgettable image of out of control violence that remains a symbol of America, and a powerful reminder of what America exports around the world. 

Wim Wenders’ HAMMETT (1982), something of an oddity, an homage to noir films and pulp fiction, was another critical and commercial disaster, initially shot as an introverted, location-based character study where a writer disappears into his own fiction, but demands by American producer Francis Ford Coppola for protracted re-shoots while making wholesale cuts of the original film only led to a protracted fallout between the two artists.  By the time the film hit the screen, only 30% of Wenders’ footage allegedly remained, while the rest was re-shot by Coppola himself as the executive producer.   

Mira Nair’s MISSISSIPPI MASALA (1991), a film where the Indian director reportedly received substantial pressure by financial backers to cast a white in the lead role.  This is a sociologically edgy, multi-layered, and unconventional romance set primarily in rural Mississippi, gently probing the difficulties of a relationship between a black American and an Indian immigrant, still regarded for its poignant interracial observations.

Bruno Dumont’s 29 PALMS (2003), shot on the fly in Death Valley and the Joshua Tree Desert in a landscape resembling Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, the first of Dumont’s films to be set outside his native Bailleul, France, and remains his most divisive work to date, exquisitely photographed with a master’s eye for composition, featuring a sexually charged, but bored and loveless couple adrift in the American desert, but make no mistake, this is confrontational cinema of the highest order.

Wong Kar-wai’s MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (2007), where the unusual casting choice of American singer Norah Jones seems to have faded from our memories, as the Hong Kong director never seemed to find his footing on American soil, lacking his customary depth and any real emotional involvement, but the film still demonstrates his trademark cinematography and stylized visualization. 

Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place (2011), a weirdly elusive and strangely intoxicating road movie of the American west, as seen from an often amusing European vantage point.  The Italian director is one of the most original visual stylists working today, where his kinetically inspiring visualizations hold the key to the film, using the desolate emptiness of a desert landscape encased in wintry snow as a place that may as well be the end of the world, creating a highly impressionistic Americanized landscape and a revelatory road to redemption. 

But the film this most resembles may be Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985), a French director normally known for his subtlety and tender observations, but instead offers a particularly heavy handed illustration of American racism, showing how Vietnamese refugees transported to a particularly impoverished poor white region in southern Texas are subjected to hatred, open racial hostility, and unending violence.  While it’s a fictionalized recreation of true events, his clumsy depiction of ethnic strife feels overly contrived and awkwardly staged, missing the natural rhythm and grace of his earlier films. 

In a similar manner, Rachid Bouchareb, a Parisian born director of Algerian descent, whose earlier films DAYS OF GLORY (2006) and OUTSIDE THE LAW (2010) are somewhat strident historical observations recalling the 20th century clashes between Algerian and French cultures, yet his films are a strangely contemporary depiction of racism.  This film also has a clumsy, overbearing, painting by the numbers feel to it, feeling overly cliché’d, not to mention a host of other problems, yet there is something oddly compelling to be found if viewers stick around for the finish, as the film has a killer ending, changing the entire complexity of the film.    

A blend of Americana with the Arab world that combines anti-Muslim bigotry with sexism, the film takes place in Chicago following the routine life patterns of two distinctly different women in their 20’s, Marilyn, Sienna Miller, a free-thinking receptionist at a small computer repair firm, and Mona, Golshifteh Farahani, Best Actress winner at the Iranian Fajr Film Festival at the age of 14 for Dariush Mehrjui’s THE PEAR TREE (1998), also starring in Asghar Farhadi’s ABOUT ELLY (2009), a more reclusive, arranged bride from Egypt who is married to her husband Mourad (Roschdy Zem), where both live with his hostile and overbearing mother, Chafia Boudraa, while running a corner mini mart grocery story.  In a running parallel of racist anti-Arabic taunts, while the store has “Go home Sandniggers” painted on the window by vandals, Mona receives endless insults and threats of replacement from her vicious mother-in-law, complaining she’s damaged goods because after five years she can’t get pregnant, considered a fate worse than death in her culture.  In order to have time away from her, Mona takes evening belly dancing classes, as does Marilyn, an aspiring professional dancer with hopes of entering a Santa Fe dance contest. 

In quick order, both undergo major upheavals in their lives, where Marilyn loses her job and finds her layabout husband in bed with another bimbo, while Mona finds herself under a barrage of insults from Mourad’s mother, inadvertently mixing up her heart medicine, discovering her mother-in-law is not breathing in the morning, sending her away in an ambulance.  The oppressive situation literally buries both women in their own personal anguish, where both end up on the run in Marilyn’s convertible car heading for Santa Fe, where Marilyn hopes to turn her life around, dancing in several restaurants and bars along the way to earn a little spare cash.  Initially there’s nothing whatsoever subtle about Bouchareb’s direction, holding the bigotry and male dominated oppression in our faces, where the differing cultures take some getting used to, also the not so likeable characters, as well as the situations, where they’re dancing in redneck bars that inevitably explode into drunken mayhem, causing quick exits into the night. 

But once they’re out on the road, away from the hassles of an urban environment, the largesse of the landscape slowly starts to intrude, where the characters aren’t as rushed or in a state of nervous anxiety, feeling a newly discovered sense of freedom.  While the pastoral stops along the road may seem intentionally idyllic, setting up their tent alongside small lakes or in the middle of a majestic plateau, an odd place to see women belly dancing under the stars, and even the director himself seems to overemphasize exposure of the female anatomy, where liberation may also be viewed as objectification, their lives, however, remain in turmoil, especially when Mona reveals what she’s escaping from.  While the film bombards the viewer throughout with overwrought melodrama, initially the two actresses feel too lightweight, unable to adequately project the crushing weight of the world they’re carrying on their shoulders.  But as the film slows to a near crawl, where we witness the last of a series of seemingly unending, racially tinged atrocities, the oppressive tone of the film shifts, no longer moralizing or force-feeding the audience, having gotten that out of the director’s system, shifting to a greater use of abstract visualization, becoming a haunting tone poem of quiet reflection.  The somber tone at the end is stunning, beautifully realized in a montage of America that finally feels genuine and sincere, the first part of a planned Arab-American trilogy.