Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

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The 13th is Ava DuVernay’s latest film and was released through Netflix in October 2016. It’s a documentary about mass incarceration, in the United States, that disproportionately affects African-American men. DuVernay both directed and co-wrote the film, and it’s a follow-up to her Oscar nominated Best Picture biopic Selma, in which she also directed. The 13th was also nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards.

The 13th is a broad overview of a pressing American issue which was mentioned quite often during the 2016 Presidential Election. The film begins with the 13th Amendment, its subsequent abolition of slavery and covers the next 100 years including the Jim Crow laws, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Its central thesis is that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provided a loophole, which reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  The key words here are, “except as a punishment for crime.” Unfortunately, after the Civil War, many Black men were arrested and convicted of made-up offenses to essentially re-enslave them in the South.

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When that became an unpopular practice, the Jim Crow laws made sure that Blacks continued to be disenfranchised and second-class citizens. The progress of the Civil Rights movement and resulting desegregation was wiped away by the influx of drugs into minority and poorer neighborhoods.  This resulted in many arrests of dealers and users, once Republican President Richard Nixon cried out for a war on drugs and talked about bringing, “law and order.” This phrase is both frightening and an eerie carbon copy of what current President Donald Trump promised he’d deliver once elected. The problem became further exacerbated by Reagan’s policy of “Just Say No” and tougher sentences for crack possession over cocaine possession. This meant that 1980’s White Wall Street traders went largely unpunished, while their poorer Black counterparts got sent to Rikers Island for years for holding 10 times less.

These findings are backed up by shocking statistics that are highlighted in the film. For example, the film starts off with the fact that the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but holds 25% of the world’s prisoners. It explains that in 1970 there were 200,000 U.S. prisoners and in 2014 there were approximately 2,300,000.  Over 800,000 of these prisoners are African-American. In fact, a startling disparity DuVernay calls out is that 1 in 3 Black men will end up in prison at some point in their life versus 1 in 17 White men. This comparison is both heartbreaking and incomprehensible.

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DuVernay uses archival footage and 47 interviews with prominent activists, historians, pundits, and politicians like Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Van Jones, and Cory Booker. She starts with disturbing images of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and end-caps it with haunting pictures of Treyvon Martin. The film takes a wide-angle view at a multitude of issues that have led us to the present day problem. Starting with the verbiage of the 13th Amendment itself, to reconstruction in the South, Jim Crow, segregation, Civil Rights, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, drugs, ALEC (a non-profit organization that teams up with corporations to write legislation and pass it on to Republican members of Congress), the media, the privatization of prisons, the militarization of the police, and mostly never addressed in other films – the systematic elimination of powerful African-American leaders.

 

With so many causes covered, I couldn’t help but wonder if this film would have been more effective as a limited series on Netflix.  With perhaps an hour devoted to each of the items listed above.  The interview and story of Angela Davis’ was so powerful, she deserves her own documentary too.

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DuVernay uses music to transition between each of the issues and highlights the words of the songs. What’s fascinating is that since the Civil War, the songs all include lyrics about being locked up in chains from folk songs to rap group, Public Enemy. There were a few too many talking-head style interviews included, and the film felt like it could have been 10 minutes shorter. It seemed that a few of the interviewees’ points were shown multiple times just so the audience could hear the words, “mass incarceration” over and over again.

I didn’t personally learn many new findings having already been familiar with the unjust mass incarceration of African-Americans through my political activism.  But I felt the weight of the film and its potential to educate those with less knowledge on the matter.

It also felt strange that the audience was predominately White. I saw the film through DocuDay, an event that the International Documentary Association (IDA) runs.  They screen all the Oscar nominated documentaries on Oscar weekend. It made me wonder who is DuVernay’s intended audience?  Was she preaching to the choir at the event I attended?  Were most of the educated upper-middle class people in attendance going to go out, discuss it over dinner, and then go home and forget about it until they vote in 2018?

But I went to this specific screening for a reason. I could have watched it at home on Netflix on my sofa. However, Ava DuVernay was there for a Q&A after the film. She squeezed it in between her new film, A Wrinkle in Time, which is shooting in New Zealand, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the next day’s Oscars. I was grateful to hear from her and learn from her insights. It was moderated by Simon Kilmurry, the Executive Director of IDA. One great question  he asked DuVernay was, “What do you hope people will do after watching this film?”  She first said,”Let’s hope you do someting.”But then she added, “I’m really interested in how people change what they think about who a criminal is.”

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There were also some questions about her experience with Selma during the 87th Academy Awards and some sophisticated candor in her answer as to how she felt about that and what her expectations were for this years’ Academy Awards. Another question by Kilmurry was, “How do you see documentary film fitting into your overall body of work?”  She answered, “We have to look to the people that inspire us. And you know Spike Lee’s career really inspires me. Unfortunately there’s no Black woman that I can look to and see a career like the one I want to have. Because there are none that have been given the opportunity and the resources and the support and the amplifications to have careers where they’ve made more than four films in different formats with different ways in which their amplified…”  What’s ironic in this statement is DuVernay may not have any similar person to look to, to model her career after, but she is creating a pathway for future Black women filmmakers. She is the trailblazer.

Lastly, Netflix is offering to screen this film for free, for those that don’t have a Netflix subscription in public libraries, schools, and in gatherings of three or more people. This is excellent, and while watching the film I felt that it would be useful as a teaching tool. I went with my boyfriend and another male friend to the screening. They liked the film, and I think they learned something. And isn’t that the point?

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By Amelia Solomon

It was a new year of hope and change, and then the biggest blunder of 2015 to date happened.  Okay, the second biggest blunder, if you count that little snafu where the United States “forgot” to send a representative to the Anti-Terrorism Unity Rally in Paris.

Maybe Biden and Kerry had post traumatic stress disorder from childhood games of Red Rover.

On the morning of Thursday, January 15th, the nominees for the 87th Academy Awards were announced.  Some of the nominations were expected, some were unexpected, and then others were given the infamous Oscar snub.  A snub by the Academy is nothing new.  In fact, it happens almost every year to someone.  For example, in 2013 both Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow did not receive Best Director nominations, even though the films they directed, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively, were both nominated for Best Picture.  2014 saw Spike Jonze miss out on a Best Director nomination for Her.

My beard should make me a shoe-in.

With often only five nominees announced per category, it’s a given that not everyone will get honored.  But Hollywood doesn’t have its panties in a twist this go round for no reason.  This year was less about too many great films to choose from, leaving an unlucky person out of the running, and more about an obvious dismissal of works by African-Americans and women.

Where dreams come true. Or not.

Let’s break down the biggest offenses by category and then look at the numbers:

-The Best Picture category expanded from five nominees to 10 in 2009, in order to allow inclusion of pictures that picked up a nomination in a category like best writing, adapted screenplay, but wouldn’t have normally made it into the best overall picture.  This was also a way where smaller films, made outside the studio system, would have a chance to compete against the $100 million studio backed contenders.  So it’s surprising that this year the Academy only nominated the following eight films:  American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.  What’s also interesting is that every single one of these films revolves around a male main character.  It’s true that the number of films featuring a female protagonist are dismally low, but this category should have included Gone Girl and Wild.  Both films feature female leads and both films were deserving of a best picture nomination.  Gone Girl has made $167 million and has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Wild has made $33 million, which is quite successful for an indie, and has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  This isn’t about adding two films just because they had female leads.  It’s recognizing two films that have been both critically and financially successful and with two open slots, there seems no reasonable explanation for their omission.

It worked for James Franco in 127 Hours.

-The Best Director category this year includes Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The Imitation Game.  But where is Selma?  Selma has made $29 million and has a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Its story resonates with what has been happening in Missouri and New York recently.  It’s already proven its worth in various award circles where it was nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture drama and best director, won the AFI Award for movie of the year, nominated for best director for the Independent Spirit Awards, and won the freedom of expression award for The National Board of Review.  It’s placement in a multitude of additional film award programs is also not a fluke.  The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, were it to have garnered a best director nomination from the Academy, would have made history.  Ms. DuVernay would have been the first African-American woman to receive a best director nomination and only the fifth woman in the history of the Academy to receive a best director nomination.  But most importantly, Ms. DuVernay didn’t deserve a nomination because of her race or sex; she deserved a nomination because her film was one of the top films of 2014.  Whereas a film like Foxcatcher, lacked fine-tuning in terms of pacing and length, which is a misstep by the director.

Yes Ms. DuVernay really is a Director.

-The Best Actor category this year includes Steve Carell for Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper for American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, Michael Keaton for Birdman, and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.  Again, the missing film is Selma and the missing actor is David Oyelowo.  It’s another instance where an African-American didn’t make the list.  Oyelowo has already been nominated for best actor for a Golden Globe, for best male lead for an Independent Spirit Award, and for best actor for a Critics’ Choice Movie Award all for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.  I’d replace Carell with Oyelowo in a heartbeat.  Visionary leader simply trumps creepy guy with a prosthetic nose every time, especially when the latter was only a supporting character.

This looks familiar.

-The Best Adapted Screenplay category this year includes Jason Hall for American Sniper, Graham Moore for The Imitation Game, Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice, Anthony McCarten for The Theory of Everything,  and Damien Chazelle for Whiplash.  The biggest misses in this section were female screenwriter Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl and Nick Hornby for Wild.  Both Gone Girl and Wild were successful books, revolving around strong female characters, and were extremely successful films.  In order for this to happen, the writer who pens the adaptation must know what they’re doing.  Inherent Vice is a trippy comical farce, but it’s all over the place, lacking a clear plot and making sense only half the time.  Whiplash is about a young Jazz drummer who dreams of becoming the next Charlie Parker and his abusive college band teacher.  It’s a simple story, with lots of tension, but the locations are simple, there are few characters and it most certainly did not come derived from a novel with two points of view, told in both the present and past, or from a memoir relying heavily on flashbacks to enhance the current situations.  In other words, both Gone Girl and Wild were difficult books to adapt and that is the mark of a best adapted screenplay.

The Cool Girl Speech. Enough said.

There were many other misses in this year’s Oscar nominations, but overall the above mistakes highlight the fact that both deserving African-Americans and women were passed over.  It doesn’t matter if some films weren’t nominated because the screeners didn’t get sent out in time, which is really a reason being touted in the blogosphere.  Or maybe the reason is because 12 Years a Slave won last year, and the members of the Academy already awarded a film about African-Americans.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason, but I don’t doubt it.

Damn you, US Postal Service.

It’s also a shame when the conversation about how DuVernay and Oyelowo deserved nominations gets twisted.  Somewhere along the line it gets lost that they deserved the nomination not just to make history, and because they are African-American or a woman, but it’s because their directing, their acting, and frankly the film was that good.  The only reason race and sex comes into it is because the public is trying to understand why they weren’t commended.  The one explanation that makes sense is this is what results when the people who do the picking are mostly male and predominantly white.  But it’s important to remember that change doesn’t happen from the outside, it comes from within.  So the best thing anyone can do is not get discouraged, support these films, and go and make yours; in other words keep trying to affect change.

Remember when Congress was only white men?

 

 

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You’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard about the hackers, known as the Guardians of Peace, who infiltrated Sony Pictures’ computer network and leaked the company’s private records, including emails from the Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment Amy Pascal.  Never mind that innocent employees were unlucky recipients of unwarranted privacy invasion, the biggest story of last week was how Sony Pictures botched the upcoming Steve Jobs biopic.

One can follow every blunder like a trail of bread crumbs in a chain of emails between studio boss Pascal and Producer Scott Rudin.   The two argued like nursery school children over the course of 10 months.  Sony Pictures optioned the source material for the Steve Jobs biopic in 2011, and by the end of 2014 hadn’t made any progress towards making the film.  But the most gut wrenching part of the story isn’t that Sony lost the film to Universal.  It’s the disgusting verbal attacks that Producer Rudin made against women and that the only female studio boss could lose her job.

Sony Pictures Classic 68th Annual Golden Globe Awards Party

Rudin became angry when his first pick Director for the Jobs film, David Fincher, was also desired by Angelina Jolie for her project, Cleopatra.  Rudin attacked Jolie in multiple emails and wrote, “…I have zero appetite for the indulgence of spoiled brats….”  He threatens Pascal, writing, “YOU BETTER SHUT ANGIE DOWN….”  In another, he writes, “I’m not destroying my career over a minimally talented spoiled brat….She’s a camp event and a celebrity… and the last thing anybody needs is to make a giant bomb….”

Angelina Jolie is the daughter of actor Jon Voight and she may have gotten a nepotism boost.  But so have Michael Douglas, Beau and Jeff Bridges, Sofia Coppola, Laura Dern and Kiefer Sutherland, and, just like Jolie, they have proved their worth.  Jolie has directed two features, and the unreleased Unbroken is an Oscar hopeful.  She has eight Producer credits, including Maleficent which made $241 million domestically and is the sixth highest grossing film of 2014.

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Rudin further proves he takes unnecessary digs at women by offending Megan Ellison, the founder of Annapurna Pictures.  When she expressed interest in co-financing the Jobs biopic, Rudin called her a “bipolar 28 year old lunatic” and wrote to Pascal, “… if she took her meds, there’s some vague chance you can start this movie….”  Rudin must have forgotten that Ellison’s company has produced box-office and critical successes like Foxcatcher, American Hustle, Her, and Zero Dark Thirty.  Not to mention, I’m sure he’ll be receiving a complaint letter from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The release of these hacked emails is unfortunate and proves that a producer has no problem name-calling and insinuating that certain women lack talent.  It’s also a shame that the only female studio boss has messed up in a very public manner, because she is looked upon as a pioneer.  Although Pascal has admitted to her blunders in recent days, she may still lose her job.  This entire fiasco highlights the larger problem, which is if there was parity in the entertainment industry, her mistake wouldn’t seem so crushing to the argument that there should be more women in power positions in Hollywood.  The last thing women want is for people to use this debacle as a reason against having women in executive roles.  I hope that people will recognize that Rudin and Pascal are not the sole representation of their gender.

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jackreacher-mv-11Jack Reacher is the main character in a popular book series written by Jim Grant, under the pen name Lee Child.  The series includes 17 books in total, with the most recent released in September 2012.  The film Jack Reacher is based on book nine, titled One Shot.  Distributed by Paramount Pictures and made by Tom Cruise‘s own production company it, of course, stars Tom Cruise as the lead character, Jack Reacher.  If you miss the Tom Cruise of Top Gun, A Few Good Men, and the more recent Collateral, see this film.  Cruise, who reached his 50 year milestone this past summer, is on top of his game.  He plays the good hero, with an edge, infallibly.

Jack Reacher is an ex-military police investigator who served with several distinctions.  But now he lives off the grid, and only comes forward when he learns that James Barr, an ex-army sniper, has been arrested for the killing of five innocent people.  Reacher knew Barr in Iraq and investigated him for the unauthorized murders of several independent contractors.  According to Reacher, Barr confessed to him about killing the contractors, but was never prosecuted because the Army chose to look the other way.  Reacher promised Barr that if he ever did anything like that again he would come for him.

When Reacher arrives in Pittsburgh and meets Helen, the attorney defending Barr, he gets more than he bargained for.  Originally convinced Barr was guilty, he agrees to be Helen’s lead investigator and stay open to the fact that Barr could be innocent.  After a barroom brawl gets staged to run Reacher out-of-town, he realizes Barr is being framed and he sets out to uncover the truth.  This is not a spoiler because, if you are paying attention, the opening scene gives the viewer a clue as to whether Barr is guilty or innocent.  The mystery lies in who really killed these five people and why they committed such a heinous crime.

jackreacher-mv-12What follows is your classic action-thriller genre film with just the right amount of plot twists to keep you guessing and action sequences to keep you in a heightened state of anxiety.  Reacher has a penchant for “borrowing” cars and conveniently ends up in a Chevrolet Chevelle SS during a police chase.  I only cringed when he took a hit from another car and damaged the front end, not because I worried Reacher would get caught (we all know the hero always evades the cops in the car chase scene), but because it is a crime to bust up such a beautiful classic car.  Cruise, who usually opts to do all his own stunts, did his own driving in this film.  Maybe that’s why he looked like he was having a little too much fun.

Cruise, who served as Executive Producer on the film, surrounded himself with a great ensemble cast.  The British-born actress, Rosamund Pike, plays Helen.  Although her chemistry with Cruise is palatable, it is never tested.  Her character is all business and she never strays from her main goal of defending Barr.  Her father, played by Six Feet Under’s Richard Jenkins, is the D.A. and her main legal adversary.  His role is small, but he is one of the top-five character actors in the business today, and he delivers just the right amount of suspicious behavior concealed in fatherly concern.  His partner, Detective Emerson, is acted by the same David Oyelowo, who turned heads in this past autumn’s indie, Middle of NowhereRobert Duvall rounds out the cast as an old-time gun aficionado who befriends Reacher and serves as his back-up during the climax, which takes place at an old rock quarry.  Although Duvall only turns up in the fourth quarter of the film, his performance is priceless and he delivers one-liners like, “Get her number and let’s go,” that only he could do properly, with the possible exception of Clint Eastwood, and only prior to the RNC chair debacle.

Jack Reacher is both directed and written by Christopher McQuarrie.  His previous screenplays include Valkyrie and The Usual Suspects.  His director resume is quite short, with only one previous feature film under his belt.  In the wrong hands this film could have turned out like an 80’s action flick that you’ve only heard of because you were looking for something to watch on a cable movie channel for free.  The dialogue is often cheeky and if it was being delivered by an action-hero like Schwarzenegger or Stallone, I’d roll my eyes.  But Cruise knows how to walk the thin-line between schmaltz and funny.

No matter what you’ve read in the tabloids about Cruise’s personal life this past summer or how you feel about Scientology, you’ll want to pat him on the back after seeing this film.  I couldn’t think of a better role for Cruise to play to reinvigorate his career and remind us why he is a star.  It is roles like this that he should be recognized for and remembered for when reflecting on his acting history.  With 16 other books in the Jack Reacher series, the door is open for a sequel and it could be a bankable franchise for Cruise.

rustandbone-mv-1The theatrical trailer for Rust and Bone doesn’t show much more than a Killer Whale, a woman who appears to be drowning in the water, and a couple frolicking on the beach.  After seeing it several times I’d already put this film on my “do not watch list.”  But a message through the film community started to spread that Rust and Bone shouldn’t be missed.  The truth lies somewhere between.

Rust and Bone is a French Film directed and written by Jacques Audiard.  It stars the talented Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts.  Some of Cotillard’s more popular American films include Contagion, Inception, and Public Enemies.  Schoenaerts is pretty much an unknown in the states, but he managed to hold his own in scenes with Cotillard.

The premise of the film is simple.  Cotillard’s character, Stephanie, is hurt in a freak accident where she works, at Marineland.  Having met Schoenaerts character, Ali, who worked as a bouncer at a nightclub, only once, she then calls him for help after her accident leaves her a double leg amputee.  The one impression Ali gave to Stephanie was when he asked her why she dressed like a whore?  So it is somewhat of a leap to believe that Stephanie would ever call Ali, no matter how alone, desperate, and depressed she felt.  But Ali comes over to Stephanie’s place and what results at first is a friendship.  It is also unclear why Ali would respond to Stephanie.  The only logical assumption is that he is a bit of a loner and besides working nights as a security guard, boxing at the local gym, and having one-night stands with women he picks up, he really doesn’t have anything better to do.

In a predictable fashion their friendship turns sexual, but only in the confines of a friend helping out another friend.  The person in the seat next to mine whispered to me, “That is some friend.”  He was referring to the fact that Ali would bed Stephanie at all, since she had lost both of her legs from the knees down.  After the climax of the film, which I won’t detail in order not to spoil it, the film becomes even more predictable when both Stephanie and Ali realize they’re in love.

I really didn’t think this film was original.  In fact, it was just a retelling of a story that has been told a hundred times before.  But where the film stands out is in its performances by the two leads, its visual effects, its comedic writing despite such a dark premise, and some of the feelings it invokes in the viewer.

rust and bone 2Cotillard’s name will be tossed around this upcoming movie award season and it is because of Rust and Bone.  She gives a powerful performance throughout, of a woman who has lost everything and must learn to find the pleasures in life again.  One scene in particular that really shines, is when she awakes in the hospital disoriented.  Like any of us would do she tries to prop herself up, but doesn’t seem to move an inch.  In a last-ditch effort she throws off her sheets and the viewer is exposed to the fact that her legs are gone.  Does Stephanie know this?  She panics and falls out of bed.  Dragging her upper body across the floor, she screams for help and then yells over and over, “What did you do to my legs?”  It is the type of scene that makes you grimace and your stomach twist.  But Cotillard played it perfectly.

rustandbone-mv-5In Ali, Schoenaerts plays a despicable character.  He is rude to almost everyone, has a son that he barely takes care of and when he does he ends up physically abusing him, and engages in an illegal fighting ring where he feeds off his ability to bloody his opponents into submission.  Despite Ali’s attempts to help Stephanie, he is still unlikable.  The character never really wins over the audience and it takes real acting talent to play this type of role.  Everyone loves a Prince Charming, but what is harder is to play a man with so many wounds he is almost irredeemable.

The visual effects in this film mostly center around Cotillard’s character’s legs.  In scenes where she is in a wheelchair, she is likely just sitting on them.  But in the others, where she is sliding on the floor or learning to walk with her blades, computer-generated imagery (CGI) is used.  The editors did an amazing job making Stephanie look like a real person with two amputations.  There is only one scene in the film, where one can see the outline of Cotillard’s legs.  It is during a swim in the Mediterranean Sea on a sun-filled day.  Ali carries Stephanie out of the water and for a brief second you remember this is all make-believe.  The bright sun reflecting off the sea must have been too much for the color correction editors to battle and they missed fine-tuning the absence of legs for a few moments.

Rust and Bone has a dark undertone and a script that needs some work.  But there are parts of the dialogue that invoke a laugh or two.  Most of it is sexual innuendo and at the hands of Ali, but it really is funny and adds a layer of levity to the film.

The other thing that this film does right is its scenes with the Killer Whale.  In the beginning of the film, prior to the accident, we catch a glimpse into Stephanie’s work world.  She is a trainer at Marineland, the French equivalent to SeaWorld.  Before a packed crowd of eyes, she uses different hand gestures to control the enormous Killer Whale.  The spectators clap, hold balloons and are entertained by a group of cheerleaders, pom-poms and all.  Popular rap anthems from the early 1990’s blast through the filled arena, ramping up the crowd even more.  And then the camera goes underwater.  We see the Killer Whale swim in its prison like tank and hear what it sounds like beneath the surface.  It is a combination of a loud roar and something similar to a stampede.  I’m sure representatives from most aquatic parks would tell us the whales are used to all the noise, but it seemed to me the film was reminding us that this isn’t normal.  These whales aren’t only being tortured by swimming the rest of their life in captivity, but also by the obnoxious crowd of patrons who gear up to watch a trained mammal do a trick.  They act like they are seeing the final touchdown at a Super Bowl game.  The scene was so effective in pointing out the absurdity of it all, I actually felt a little guilty for my past trips to SeaWorld.

rust and boneWhere this scene, right before the accident, invokes a feeling of shame and terror because if anyone has seen the trailer, they know something bad is going to happen; a scene later in the film does the exact opposite.  It uses the Killer Whale to show both the change in Stephanie and the relationship bond that can form between animal and human.  With her new-found confidence, thanks to her blades and sexual relations with Ali, Stephanie pays a visit to her former employer.  She stands behind a giant glass wall that is a window into the tank where the Killer Whale resides.  She puts her hand up to the glass and waits.  And then, after a few minutes, the whale comes to the glass and puts his nose right up to Stephanie’s hand.  It is a heart-felt moment, because we see how Stephanie feels about these mammals she has trained.  Even though her job resulted in a horrible life changing event, she still connects to the whale and doesn’t hold the animal accountable.  If the first scene at Marineland echoes an environment of disgust, this second scene details the beauty in life and the ability for the human body and mind to heal from tragedy.

Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair have a few key things in common.  They are both historical films with amazing costume and set design.  But more importantly, they tell stories of forbidden love.  I was highly anticipating Anna Karenina and reluctantly went to see A Royal Affair.  Although, I walked out of the theater after seeing A Royal Affair pleasantly surprised and left Anna Karenina somewhat disappointed.  Let’s take a deeper look at these two films and see what made them tick.

annakarenina-mv-1Anna Karenina was directed by Joe Wright, of the critically acclaimed Atonement, and stars Keira Knightley.  It is based on the novel by the same name, written by Leo Tolstoy.  I have to admit, I never read Anna Karenina.  So I walked into the theater, not really knowing the story.

Within the first five minutes, I found my mind wandering and thought I had just paid $15 to sit through a Disney type musical.  But I gave it a chance, and once Knightley’s character, Anna, shared the screen with Aaron Johnson’s character, Count Vronsky, I perked up.  Their chemistry undeniable, you immediately start rooting for them, even though Anna is already married to Jude Law’s character, Karenin.  Although Anna knows it is wrong and she might be disgraced, not just from her husband but from aristocratic society in St. Petersburg, she carries on with her affair, because her love for Vronsky and his for her is just that deep.  Unfortunately for Anna, it ends rather tragically.

But for me, the story of forbidden love was no match for the wonderfully detailed 19th century costumes, masterful set designs,  and fluid movement of the characters throughout each scene, and from scene to scene as if they were in one two-hour long choreographed dance.  The amazing framing of the shots also caught my eye, whether it was Anna in a field of flowers, carrying a parasol or Anna and Vronsky laying in bed naked, wrapped in white sheets and fitting together like a lock and key.  Director Wright also chose a pastel coloring for the first half of the film, making each scene appeal to the viewer like freshly spun cotton candy.

The cinematography is also exquisite.  The DP, Seamus Mcgarvey, uses the device of freeze-framing the peripheral characters while Anna and Vronsky interact, best used during the ballroom dance scenes.  Mcgarvey also utilizes dolly zooms to move rapidly out of a scene making you literally dizzy.  The biggest accomplishment is that almost every scene in the film is entered through the opening of curtains or doors.

It is for these reasons alone, that I’d recommend Anna Karenina.  It truly is a sight to see.

aroyalaffair-mv-2Where Anna Karenina is more about the fluff than the story, A Royal Affair is all about the story and hits home on themes that are still relevant today.  Set in 18th century Denmark, it centers on a young princess of Wales, Caroline Matilda, who is sent to Denmark to tie the knot with Christian VII of Denmark.  Shortly after the arranged marriage she learns Christian is mentally ill and not well-respected in the Danish court.  But she is stuck in this arranged marriage and resigns herself to a life of misery.  However everything changes, when Christian hires  Johann Friedrich Struensee, a German doctor, to be his royal physician.  Dr. Struensee is a follower of the Enlightenment, and before Queen Caroline even says “Voltaire” the two are sneaking off to carry on a secret affair.

With her new-found alliance, Queen Caroline and Dr. Struensee manipulate Christian VII, to make changes in the cabinet, and they begin to bring the Age of Enlightenment to Denmark by feverishly passing cabinet orders.  They create an orphange for motherless children, mandate inoculations against small pox, abolish torture, abolish censorship of the press, reduce the army, and minimize revenues for nobles.  Unfortunately, Dr. Struensee himself becomes too power hungry for his own good and once word of his affair with Queen Caroline leaks from the aristocracy to the masses, his days are numbered.  Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of The Tudors, but it becomes quite clear that Queen Caroline and Dr. Struensee’s unethical behavior will come back to haunt them.

What is most fascinating is that although Dr. Struensee may have gotten trapped by his own ego, his heart was in the right place.  Most of his changes to the laws of Denmark were for the common people.  But after passing so many public programs, he becomes shocked that Denmark is out of money.  Which highlights the argument we hear over and over again today; how is the government going to pay for that?

It also blew my mind that over 220 years later, our own country is fighting some of the same battles the followers of the Enlightenment fought.  Separation of church and state was the most obvious correlation between this film and modern-day society.  Although it is 2012, we just witnessed an election cycle where some candidates were trying to go back to the days of where religion dictates policy.  It is both eye-opening and frightening that if Dr. Struensee were alive today he’d still be facing opposition.

A Royal Affair had tremendous attention to detail when it came to costumes, make-up, and sets.  It transports the viewer to Copenhagen in 1776 seamlessly.  But what really stands out are the ideas behind the film and how it reminds us the world is still an imperfect place.

cloudatlas-mv-87I went into Cloud Atlas with no preconceived notions.  My only worry was that the almost three-hour long film would be slow and tedious.  Luckily, my fears were never realized and I walked out of the theater thinking I just saw a mind-bending film.

Brother and (now) sister team, Kurt and Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer, the mastermind behind the German cult-favorite, Run Lola Run, really challenge their audience and make us work to decipher the six storylines that run congruently.  It is hard not to get hung up on trying to figure out which actor is behind the amazing make-up and which character is another character in a different time-period.  But if you stop trying to figure out the spiderweb the directors wove, and really focus on the three prominent narrators and what they are saying, you will realize you are listening to true poetry.

The two things that are most clear are the overarching themes of  love and revolution.  Both transcend time in this film and more than one character says, “Your life is not your own and you are bound by others.”  This is an interesting premise and perhaps because reincarnation is something that most wonder about it becomes easy to take this journey with Tykwer and the Wachowski’s, and suspend reality as you travel through time from 1850 to 1931, to 1975, to modern-day 2012, to the future of 2144 and to another world so far ahead, time is told by “112 winters after the fall.”

The Wachowski’s are most known for their ground-breaking film, The Matrix.  They stamp the scenes in Cloud Atlas that take place in 2144 in Neo Seoul, the new part of Seoul, Korea that is not under water, with a heavy Matrix seal.  But it is only these scenes that make you remember the directors’ previous work.  The other time periods are depicted historically accurate and each one takes on the elements of its location and time.  For example, the journey across the Pacific Ocean during the mid 1800’s is full of color, hope and promise, but the depiction of the 1930’s in Brussels, Belgium is gray and dreary.  There is not one cinematic look, but several.  The directors have created multiple films all wrapped into one.

They even throw in a level of humor throughout the film that was unexpected, but somehow works.  It’s almost as if they are reminding the audience to lighten up, don’t think so hard, and enjoy the ride.  One storyline turns into a farce about four elderly folk who are trying to escape from a nursing home.  They hatch a plan and escape to steal a car, but none of them knows how to start the engine because there is no key-ignition, just a button.  Almost everyone in the theater laughed out-loud and it certainly helped release some of the tension developed in the other nail-biting stories, like the revolution in Neo Soul to end cloning of indentured women and Halle Berry‘s quest to take on the evil proprietors of a nuclear power plant in Northern California.  Maybe the filmmakers are reminding us that life is strange and you often don’t know how it will turn out.

I imagine I will have to see this film a second and even third time, to fully grasp everything being told to me.  But I appreciate a film that makes your brain hurt, that has you coming out of the theater trying to piece it together as if it were a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle.  Essentially, that is what art is supposed to be.  Film is just another medium where someone can look at it, or in this case watch it, and perhaps conclude what it is about.  The great thing is that there is not one single answer and everyone’s interpretation may differ, but we can all learn from each other’s viewpoints.  If that was the intended goal of the team behind Cloud Atlas they were quite successful.