As I write this column I am still reeling from the saturation of quality films that opened and closed in the last 90 days in NYC and LA in order to qualify for Oscar Season. Some will be back in the next couple of months for all of you to see. We can thank my neighbor, Harvey Weinstein, for creating this frenzied template of release pattern. Missing was his much anticipated Grace of Monaco, (Nicole Kidman.) It had a bumpy debut at Cannes and disappeared almost overnight, Hmmm! I am getting ready to go to Park City Utah for Sundance, my favorite Film Festival in the world. And I encourage any of you who are planning a ski vacation in January, and love movies, to join me in Park City.
Let’s go to the movies!
War films: American Sniper vs Fury vs Unbroken.
I paid to see American Sniper. (No matter who I asked I was not invited to any press screening.) Clint Eastwood, whether you like his films or not, is a master of craft. I felt I should see it. My mistake! The press people must have known I would hate it. I did. This kind of mixture of blind patriotism and hyper-masculinity is the breeding ground of bullies, tea party politics and the mentality that creates the police code of honor that makes some cops think that they are above the law. Based on a true story, I do not mean to say the “hero” (played quite remarkably by a bulked up Bradley Cooper,) was not a well-intentioned man. But four tours of Irag destroyed that part of him that had survived his father’s bully training. Despite the casting of Sienna Miller, a strong actress, we have another one-dimensional Eastwood female character. It was disturbing to see how Eastwood dehumanizes the Iraq people. Twenty minutes into the film and eight minutes after his arrival in Iraq, Cooper’s character has “taken out ” his first two sniper killings: a woman and a boy. And than there is the cinematic tension between the Iraq sniper who has very long eyelashes and is the enemy, and Cooper the hero, doing the same kind of killing. Clint sets the tone. I endured the 2+ hour film and was angry when I left the theater.
It made me think that David Ayer’s Fury, in comparison was a very good movie about soldiers, bonding and loyalty. Brad Pitt stars along with Shia La Bouef, (a very good actor,) and newcomer Logan Lerman plays a boy growing up to be a soldier. I think Fury is far superior to American Sniper in exploring soldiers and their relationships to each other and their commander who above all else wants to keep his soldiers alive. Neither Fury or American Sniper asked what to me is a very essential question: “Why do we fight?” We know why soldiers went to fight in Iraq, but how has their motivation been affected after learning the American public was lied to by its own government, and by the almost universal rejection of their presence by non-enemy combats in both Iraq and Afghanistan?
Angeline Jolie’s Unbroken is also based on a real life story and is set in the so called “good war,” WWII. While it is a little over two hours in length it seemed to me like six. She has not mastered the art of direction and perhaps should sit at the knee of Eastwood before she directs again. The story is a a quite moving one of an Italian immigrant family with a teenage son on the path to becoming a petty punk who discovers he can run faster than anyone else. This talent saves his life and takes him to a gold medal, along with Jesse Owens, in the infamous Nazi Olympics. His discipline as an athlete prepares him well for a leadership role in the military. We meet him grown-up as a Navy Seal bomber flying over Southeast Asia. When his plane is downed he is one of the three survivors adrift on a raft until the Japanese pick them up and take them to a POW camp just outside of Tokyo run by an English-speaking sadist. It is not exactly clear why he is singled out for violent abuse, but he (and we) are treated to repeated beatings by this Camp leader. Unbroken is the feel good, heroic myth as seen through Jolie’s female gaze. It drags on and on as if she has the Dennis Hopper blues, but her director of photography, Roger Deakins, saves the film in more ways than one.
Selma (directed by Ava DuVeray)
This is a must-see movie! When a black female director, Ava DuVernay teams with a black female Producer, Oprah Winfry to tell the story of Martin Luther King at a historic moment in Selma, the story telling is very different to previous versions of events. After fifty years of a male-centric version of the Civil Rights movement in the US, women are finally upfront and are seen as partners and participants in the changing of history. Yes, Diane Nash is present (ever since Stanley Nelson’s excellent documentary Freedom Riders I have been trying to learn more about the woman who was the first person to climb back on the bus after the attack and ambush in Birmingham. (She was a role model of a respectful “No” to all the male civil rights movement leaders, who were telling the riders to get off the bus and go back home and just stop the Freedom Ride.) Selma in no way diminishes the role of black men. But the women’s presence acts to humanize what could have been one more mythic iconic moment of history. Martin Luther King was a young adult and that is how he is presented in his interactions, both with his wife and with President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson finally gets the deserved credit for being able to move the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, despite his attempts to slow down the Freedom Rides and the civil rights actions in the South. The ensemble cast work together to make cinematic history. Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson, and Tim Roth as George Wallace, shine, but the two actors who keep this film rooted in a dramatic personal, understandable life are David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King. The remarkable script is credited to Paul Webb, although it is well known that DuVeray was also hands on. The story moves back and forth and includes all the players in the context of a human drama that keeps our feet on the ground. The Kings are humanized and this is very important for young people today to see. Selma is a movie for all of us. That it is appearing at this particular moment is so important, for its audience to understand that yes, we ordinary people can effect change.
Red Army (directed by Gabe Polsky.)
A hit at this year’s New York Film festival, Red Army exposes just what has happened to competitive sports in the US and how the transformation of playing has moved from sportsmanship to the production of sports superstars. Red Army is about the legendary Russian hockey team that dominated both Olympic and international hockey for 30 years in the last half of the 20th century. Since Polsky played center on Yale’s hockey team for 3 years, he has an insider understanding of the difference between collectivist and US team playing with its current emphasis on creating superstars and paying them lavish amounts of money. Set in a time of political change in Russia, we see how collectivity under Communism was crucial to the team’s prowess on ice. A Russian hockey hero, Viacheslav Alexandrovich Fetisov, made the same amount of money as his fellow team mates, while being a member of the unbeatable Russian team worldwide. After Perestroika the Soviet government allowed players to join US hockey teams and many were recruited by US professional hockey scouts. Fetisov was one. But he quickly grew weary of the way team members were treated in America and he took his family and returned to Russia, as did a number of the other star players. He has been a government figure promoting policy and education of athletes since his return. As someone who does not spend a lot of time watching professional sports, I found this a fascinating documentary and it got me thinking about just what is wrong with professional sports today. It seems that sports agents and their representation of athletes has almost destroyed the communal competitive ethos of athletic competition.