Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Selma (2014; dir. Ava DuVernay) features as main characters people who actually lived and who in some cases are still alive. I lived through and paid much attention to the Civil Rights movements and its leaders. I know the faces of M. L. King, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and others. It was jarring in this film to see these figures played by actors who at best only slightly resembled them. I often struggled to identify them. This was a distraction, but not something the film could help. Eventually I recognized that the actor in overalls was Hosea Williams and that the man with thick-rimmed glasses played Abernathy. David Oyelowo’s work as King is excellent, and especially in the speeches he made he became a convincing simulacrum of the original.
Selma powerfully depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the march on Selma. It’s clear, I think, that one of the purposes of the film is to remind viewers of the sacrifices and risks made by the many participants in the movement, and to pay tribute to its leaders. The movie presents them as heroes, and that is what they were. But it also portrays them as human beings.
The film’s intelligence is reflected both in the three-dimensional portrayals of King and his wife Coretta and in how it shows King and others in the movement strategically planning the Selma march in order to bring the greatest amount of national attention. King is shown both as determined and hesitant, and when during the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge he pauses and then turns back, he receives much criticism from his supporters. This moment of apparent retreat is never fully explained. We hear various people attempt to understand it. King himself tries to explain it as the result of his concern for the people who might be injured if the gathered police decide to attack. Most importantly this moment contributes to the humanity and mystery of King as he is portrayed in the film. He is rightly regarded as a man of moral vision—we see this aspect clearly--but the film also shows him also as a politician and a strategist. It also shows him as a husband and father. A short scene in the film alludes to his affairs with women, and to the unhappiness this caused in his marriage to Coretta. It shows as well his anxieties over the welfare of his family, especially given how his leadership in the movement made him a target for violence.
Several scenes show the brutal abuse of Civil Rights protestors by white Southerners. The central scene is in the first march on the Pettus bridge, where police and gathered white crowds viciously attached the marchers. John Lewis’ skull was cracked. We see several murders and are told about others. It was painful to watch these scenes and tempting to view them as exaggerations. However, newsreel footage, photographs, and numerous reports from bystanders and participants make clear that these portrayals of violence and hate are accurate.
Malcolm X briefly appears in the film. He played a small role in the events surrounding the Selma march, and his inclusion was probably a gratuitous acknowledgement of a man who was King’s leading critic among African Americans during the early years of the 1960s, and whose activism represented an alternative approach to the nonviolent tactics of King’s strategy for working towards civil rights.
There are historical inaccuracies in the film. Many of them may be minor, but the portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a significant misrepresentation. Johnson was responsible for pushing both the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights act of 1965 through Congress. He was not an opponent of voting rights. At worst he and King differed over the timing of the bill. By the time of the events the film portrays, Johnson had already called for a voting rights bill to be drafted. Recordings and transcripts of public and private conversations and comments make clear his support for the voting rights bill. Selma makes out Johnson to be the opponent who must be convinced by the Selma march of the bill’s necessity. In fact, Johnson needed no convincing. Another issue is the omission of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, including the murders in Mississippi of three civil right workers. Those events together with the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention did as much as the Selma March to galvanize support for the voting rights act and to bring about its passage.
Although these are serious flaws, especially given the focus on a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement, they do not ruin the film, which is a dramatic, inspiring, and moving tribute to King and other leaders of the movement.
 For various opinions see Elizabeth Drew, “’Selma’ vs. History,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/film-fact-checking-is-here-to-stay-so-lets-agree-on-some-new-rules/2015/01/02/9698f87c-92a6-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/selma-fair-l-b-j; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’” http://billmoyers.com/2015/01/15/bill-moyers-selma-lbj/; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/24/selma_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_ava_duvernay_s_new_movie_is_to_the_1965_marches.html
Monday, January 26, 2015
In Silver Linings Playbook (2012; dir. David O. Russell) four main characters carry the film. Jacki Weaver is excellent as the worried and sometimes frightened mother who gets her bipolar son released early from the mental institution where he has been under treatment for six months. The look in her eyes makes clear that she doesn’t know what to expect of him (and of her husband, played by Robert De Niro) from one moment to the next. Bradley Cooper as the explosively bipolar Pat, and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, hyperactive and depressed over the death of her husband, are excellent. Without these characters, the hackneyed plot would be more evident—a young man who must recover from adversity and prove his worth; a young woman quietly seeking the attention of a man who often doesn’t seem to know she exists; two young people who are meant for each other but who first have to realize the fact.
Cooper is convincing as the young man struggling to recover and regain his equilibrium. But Lawrence was the best element in the film. She’s absolutely convincing. She brings an intensity and credibility to the role that makes us wonder how close to life it is.
This comic romance, with all its charms (and I did enjoy it) depends on our willingness to laugh at the difficulties and mishaps of the mentally ill. Part of our interest in Pat lies in our uncertainty about what he is going to do next—his fits of temper, his bursts of outrage (he is outraged when he gets to the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and wakes his parents at 2:30 in the morning to throw a fit). His wife has taken out a restraining order against him. In the first half of the film he is constantly on the verge of doing something that will get him sent back to the institution. All these episodes and outbursts are funny and entertaining. But my sense is that for those in mental and emotional distress, they are not so funny.
Friday, January 23, 2015
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
This novelistic approach in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (Viking 2013), to the story of how the 1936 University of Washington crew team won the Olympics gold medal uses a novelistic approach that left me wary. Brown describes the main figures of his story in detail, recounts their speech, tells us what they are thinking. Clearly some inventive license is taken. Yet his research notes and his account of his sources make clear that in writing the book he drew from letters, diaries, published articles, interviews with some of the characters and with their relatives in other cases, journal entries, newspaper articles, meteorological records, and historical studies. Detailed notes are included at the end of the book, and the author indicates his web site will list 1,000 endnotes (they were listed as “coming soon” when I checked).
Brown develops the book around the character of Joe Rantz, whose hard life as a Washington native made him an unlikely candidate for a crew team. He tried out for the team in an effort to find an activity that would help pay his way through college.
Other important characters are Joe’s girlfriend and future wife Joyce, his coach Al Ulbrickson, and the man who builds the “shells” on which the team races, George Pocock. Statements by Pocock serve as introductory epigrams for each chapter. They document his view of crew as a way of life, as a philosophical approach to living, an art. The epigrams make him the Zen master of this book, which is as much about perseverance and dedication to a craft as it is about victory in a competition.
The Boys in the Boat is a book in the vein of the Lauren Hillenbrand books on Seabiscuit and Louis Zamperini. Hillenbrand is effective at embedding her stories in the larger history of the times. Brown tries the same approach, and to some extent succeeds. However, he seems to force the issue a bit by trying to tie the story of the crew team members to the Dust Bowl and Depression, and this is not wholly convincing. He’s more convincing in his portrayal of the economic differences between the mostly working class University of Washington team and the upper class teams from the East—Harvard, Yale, and so on.
Photo credit: Univ. of Washington
I have to credit This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (2012), by Jason Pargin (under the name of David Wong), for inventiveness. It’s a follow-up to John Dies at the End (2001), which features the same two main characters: stoner dudes who take a drug at a party that gives them access to alternative dimensions and brings them in contact with all sorts of disturbing creatures and beings. With this premise the author has free license—he can have anything happen in the book, and it does. In this second book, we begin with a scene in which one of the characters wakes up in his bedroom to a spider-like creature that is crawling up his leg. In short order, his house is on fire, a policeman has been taken over by the creature, and all sorts of apocalyptic carnage occurs. The characters move back and forth in their town through portals that take them instantaneously to different locations. I don’t usually enjoy books like this one, but because of the two main characters, the fantastic situations they get themselves into, the unlikely ways they get out of trouble, and the author’s skill at building suspense and contriving bizarre and horrific situations, I was hooked. This book features a detective who drives a Porsche and is focused on being cool. He starts out as the nemesis of our two heroes, but ends up as their ally. It also features a literal deus ex machina, though in cardboard form. We have an interesting Labrador named Molly, and all examples of monsters, inter-dimensional beings, and secret government agencies. By the time it’s all over, I was exhausted and looking forward to the next book.
The Giver is a teenage novel by Lois Lowry that I have not read. Whatever its faults and strengths, it deserves a better film adaptation than the one provided in 2014 by director Phillip Noyce. The film portrays a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world in which the surviving members of humanity live in a community engineered to avoid conflict or inequality or unhappiness. When babies are born they are assigned to parents. Old people and, presumably, the sick, are remanded to a place euphemistically named “Elsewhere.” So too are people who don’t fit in. Everyone takes medication to suppress emotions, such as love. Love is all there is in this sappy film. Students attend school and when they graduate are assigned jobs: drone pilot, child bearer, etc. Our lead character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is assigned to be a “Giver,” who carries the memories of everyone in the community, who knows what many do not know. His mentor is played by Jeff Bridges, like Jonas a person who doesn’t quite fit, and who understands the real nature of the community, where love is suppressed, where rebels and the sick and the old are euthanized. Well, once Jonas learns the truth about the community, he sets out to set things right. The incredible amount of hooey and hoopla in this film prevents it from having to meet any standards of logic or even narrative coherence. Jeff Bridges in particular speaks as if his mouth is full of pebbles, or as if he has just been to the dentist. Meryl Streep, as the Chief Elder of the community, is severe and distant and autocratic and wholly bland and one wonders exactly what compelled her or Bridges to appear in this film. The whole effort seems half-hearted and sloppy, as if no one thought it worthwhile to write a script that made sense or had continuity.
The rollicking bluegrass music that accompanies parts of the film, especially the opening scenes, doesn’t seem appropriate to the content.
The best actor in the film, not surprisingly, is Meryl Steep, as a witch. We can joke about how often she’s been nominated for best actress, but if she’s nominated this time, it will be deservingly. Also excellent in the film is Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella.
The virtues of The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) lie in the craft with which it is made, the acting by Denzel Washington, and the deft way in which the film takes a well worn and formulaic plot and makes it fresh. It’s entertaining throughout, it doesn’t drag, it’s fast-paced and engaging. It’s also violent. The main character Robert McCall is a former CIA operative skilled in killing. He fakes his own demise after his wife’s death and goes to work at a store similar to Home Depot. When the plight of a young prostitute who hangs out at the same diner where he reads late into the night attracts his moral outrage, he comes out of retirement and takes action. You can predict the sequence of events from that point forward, but the artful way in which the film works commands your attention. Washington is effective as a pleasant, congenial, low-key man whose placid exterior gives no hint of his past and his capabilities. He spends his idle hours reading great books, a sign that he is a feeling and deep-thinking soul.
McCall’s victims in this film are evildoers—corrupt cops and the Russian mob--with virtually no redeeming value. They’re as evil as he is good. They’re also exploiting vulnerable and decent people. We’re supposed to accept that they deserve justice, and we do. In this way the film justifies its own violence, but there is no escaping the fact of the violence. McCall kills with precise and always effective skill, like a robot. Before he kills, he gives his victims the opportunity to make the right choice. He then pauses to watch his victims die, sometimes counting down the seconds until they lose consciousness. He’s the hero of this film, the avenger of the weak, and as such he commands our admiration and attention. But the fact that this film seduces us into liking someone capable of such viciousness—even when in the cause of moral righteousness—is disturbing. Yet I’d watch this film again.
The diner where Washington reads his books must have been modeled, loosely, on the Edward Hopper painting “Night Hawks at the Diner.”
The Interview is occasionally funny. It’s written on the level of a protracted TV comedy skit. It reminded me of one of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road movies from the 1940s and 50s. The acting is on that level. Seth Rogen plays himself, essentially, while James Franco (I don’t have a sense of him as a person) plays a fairly dimwitted and un-self-respecting cable TV interviewer who will do anything to get good ratings. Are ticket sales and ratings the objective of this film? Franco wants respect as a director and screenwriter. Rogen wants respect as a writer and comic actor. Surely both appreciate financial success. This film serves the welfare of neither. It’s just a stupid and pointless waste. Which brings me to a final question: did the U. S. government fund this film? Was it intended as propagandistic provocation?
Few of us understand what is involved in the decrypting machine Turing built or the ways one goes about deciphering an incredibly complex code. That part of the film we must take at face value because we lack the knowledge necessary to understand what was involved. However, accounts of Turing’s life make clear that his work during World War II was considerably more complex and challenging than the film portrays. He worked on a number of teams, many more people than Turing’s team were involved in decrypting the code, and there was no sudden breakthrough moment (as the film portrays). Rather, there was gradual progress. Moreover, Turing was not autistic, he did have a sense of humor, and he remained intellectually active to the end of his life (the films shows his intellect as damaged by the hormone treatments he agreed to take to avoid imprisonment after his conviction). As good a drama as this is, as incisive a character study as it purports to be (Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Turing), it is not good history, and the character it studies is not the historical Alan Turing. Rather, that character is a simulation of Turing—similar in some ways, different in others.