Posts Tagged ‘oscars’

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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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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.