Selma

And the occasional speaking engagement

SELMAAva DuVernay’s Selma is one of the most timely films in recent memory.  It’s not only an invigorating subversion of the flood of “white savior” films from the past few years, but it speaks to exactly what we as a country (an expression I deplore, but what can you do) have been facing in our recent history: Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and myriad race-motivated violences going unreported or ignored.  It’s not just a biopic about Dr. King; it’s a reminder of how far we are from (but how close we could be to) realizing his dreams.

Like 2012’s Lincoln, Selma is focused on one particular effort in the timeline of the influential person in question: the film concerns Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) quest to grant African-American people their voting rights in the south.  But here’s the thing: they already legally have the vote, and are being bearded by the racist registrar and county authorities, who are seen forcing Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) to jump through ridiculous hoops, such as naming sixty-seven obscure white politicians, to even be allowed to register.  Dr. King decides that Selma is the ideal place for a peaceful demonstration, and during a rough patch in his marriage to Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), he organizes a march from Selma to Montgomery.  If you need plot details from here, you should be reading biographies and history texts, not movie reviews.

Oyelowo’s role as Dr. King has been plenty lauded, but should be highlighted as one of the most important in any recent film.  DuVernay, where lesser filmmakers may have focused simply on plot action (since most of us already have our own image, however blurry, of who Dr. King was), zeroes in on his personal life and motivations.  He’s not portrayed as an infallible superhero; long scenes are dedicated to the relationship between himself and Coretta, whether they’re discussing the motivations of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), the potential violence that will result during the march (President Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, insists that it will be “open season” if Dr. King parades African-Americans through the artery of Alabama), or their own personal future.  Infidelity is highlighted, and Dr. King’s actions are never blamed on the notoriously manipulative and paranoid FBI under J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker here; depicted in far more films and TV series in the last few years than he really deserves).  The speeches he gives, whether or not paraphrased or rewritten due to copyright issues, are truly moving, and not used to transparently echo today’s race relations: all of that is already there in front of us; it’s just a matter of being able to see it, and furthermore, to refuse to ignore it, however exhausting it may be.

The ensemble cast is expertly used by DuVernay, who never overwhelms scenes with star-power. Martin Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. don’t show up until two-thirds of the way through, and they do what they need to do without lingering in needless shots, while John Doar (lesser-known Alessandro Nivola, who’s had a pretty good year on film) receives a heavier share of scenes.  Keith Stanfield, perhaps the possessor of the greatest ratio of Most Adept to Least Known, and who shone in last year’s Short Term 12, appears here, albeit briefly, as Jimmie Lee Jackson, the unfortunate deacon/family man/activist/martyr whose murder inspired the marches.  His portrayal in the film, as well as that of the actions of the state troopers who savagely attacked him, his mother, and his eighty-four-year-old grandfather, is so poignant because it isn’t sensationalized or opportunistically embellished: these things happened.  These things still happen.  These things could stop happening.

The film also contains, just before Common’s unbelievably heart-rending “Glory,” the most unapologetic “where are they now?” end-titles ever, highlighting the Klan murder of Viola Liuzzo (Tara Ochs), and retaining absolutely no sympathy for that hick George Wallace (Tim Roth), whose apathy enabled much of the brutality that occurred in his state (even Johnson, whose actually-quite-fair portrayal here has drawn complaints from white people who need every film to be about them, wants nothing to do with this guy).

For once, here’s a mature film with something to say, something real to show, but that doesn’t capitalize on the horrors of history in order to win a bunch of filmmaking awards: Selma is a true call to candid thought about what every one of us is willing to ignore, and to nonviolent action to make real change in a world where the racket of bullets and explosions are enough to make us forget that any such thing exists.

Selma (2014); written by Paul Webb and Ava DuVernay; directed by Ava DuVernay; starring David Oyelowo, Carmen Egojo, Tom Wilkinson, and Keith Stanfield.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

What happened to Maggie Q?

Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol makes a few more good moves than it does bad ones. It’s funny in the right ways, well-paced, well-acted, jives with the series’ continuity (mostly), and its length makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul with its characters.  And as I said in my Knight and Day review, Tom Cruise and I are “okay” now, so I felt like I could go in with an impartial mind (despite, as always, knowing what I was getting myself into).

The film begins with a Surprise Demise when IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, in his first film role since starring on Lost) is whacked by femme fatale Sabine Moreau (the prolific Léa Seydoux) in Budapest in the midst of recovering nuclear launch codes.  Hanaway’s supervisor and lover, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) then runs an operation to rescue IMF frontman Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from prison.  Why he’s there, we’re not yet told, but he seems to know exactly what’s going on.

In an effort to regain the launch codes from projected terrorist Curt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), Hunt reassembles his IMF team while being pursued as a criminal by Russian intelligence.  Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who debuted in Mission: Impossible III, returns, and along with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who doubles as a super-agent, joins Hunt and Carter as a four-member rogue cell determined to stop Hendricks from starting nuclear war.

The global stakes are higher than they’ve been in any M:I, and somehow things seem personal, too.  Hunt and Carter have both lost friends.  The team’s exploits take them to the beautiful Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where Tom Cruise performs a stunt that may qualify him as clinically insane.  The film continues the traditions of the “face maker” device and the in-and-out-without-anyone-knowing-we-were-there schemes of the TV show, which didn’t truly surface in the films until the third installment.

The most egregious offense the film commits is cast abuse, which is par for the course when an action movie is given an ensemble cast.  Michael Nyqvist, one of Sweden’s great actors (who starred as Mikael Blomqvist in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays the main villain, but is given less to do than his henchmen.  Josh Holloway, who won a Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television, is given a character we’re allowed to grab hold of, but is eliminated before the opening credits.  Léa Seydoux plays the most interesting villain, a French assassin with whom the film’s deuteragonist has a vendetta, but she’s disposed of halfway through the film, leaving us with the underdeveloped “main” bad guys, who, after the amazingly well-crafted, acted and edited scene on the Burj Khalifa, seem like leftovers.  None of them compare to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, Owen Davian, from the third film.  Ving Rhames, the only actor to appear in every M:I film aside from Cruise, thankfully appears, but only in a cameo, as does Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt’s wife, Julia, a major character in film three and a plot device in this one.  Tom Wilkinson appears as the IMF Secretary, a character never seen before, who gets one short scene.  Again, why?

In addition, the continuity takes a turn for the confusing when Hunt claims “the four of us are all that’s left of the IMF.”  You can chalk it up to the entire team being disavowed because of certain spoilery events, but what happened to Laurence Fishburn’s IMF boss from M:I 3?  How about Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who played Hunt’s loyal team members in that film?  The movie seems to want us to remember them, going so far as using the exact same shot for Paula Patton getting out of a car that J.J. Abrams used in the previous film when Maggie Q, in an equally eye-popping getup, exited a car to perform very much the same role in the operation that Carter does here.

Some have complained to me about the overt humor and gadget absurdity, but lest we forget, the linchpin of the TV series was the sci-fi gadgetry.  When a film in the action genre tries to take itself too seriously, it begins to skirt self-parody, and Bird wisely avoids this, though it’s easily achieved by giving Simon Pegg tons of lines.

In a nice twist, the film also refers even to the first film in the series.  Somehow, Bird found the actor who played Max’s (Vanessa Redgrave) Fabio-lookalike bodyguard in the original movie, who forced Hunt to wear a black mask while meeting with his boss, an arms dealer.  Hunt meets with a different arms dealer in this one, and is confronted with the same black mask by the same bodyguard, who regards Hunt with a charmingly knowing eye.

Stumbling here and there, the film is worth its run time.  The actors don’t all get their due, and the tone is sharply changed from that of the first film, but it’s the only installment in the series to feature a fight between two important female characters (a barefoot scrap on the umpteen hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa).  The wisest move in the film, though?  Using a hyphen instead of two colons.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; written by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.

The Debt

Transylvanians Vs. Nazis

Let’s be clear about one thing: Jessica Chastain carries this film.  I realize giving Helen Mirren top billing is a better marketing strategy, but y’know, credit where it’s due, and all that.

The Debt, as told by Matthew Vaughn and John Madden (director of a great adaptation of Proof, not the blowhard football commentator), is a remake of the 2007 Israeli film by Assaf Bernstein.  The story follows Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain in the sixties, Helen Mirren in the present day) as she recalls her days as a Mossad agent.  In the sixties, She and her partners, Stefan (Martin Csokas, Tom Wilkinson) and David (Sam Worthington, Ciarán Hinds) are dispatched to Berlin on a secret mission to capture Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen).  The film opens in the present, after Rachel’s daughter (Romi Aboulafia) has published a celebrated book on her mother’s life, most notably Rachel’s capture and killing of Vogel.  After watching the actual events of the sixties timeline, however, we learn that Vogel escaped Mossad custody, and the trio of agents decided to tell a lie in order to get out of Berlin.

The film’s performances are passionate and impressive, despite some of the flaws in the writing of the characters themselves.  Rachel, as played by both Chastain and Mirren, is complicated, emotional, dedicated, and ever zealous.  Stefan and David take the Good Agent/Bad Agent roles, which comes off as easy characterization but also gives Sam Worthington an actual role to play, as opposed to just shooting at animated people and rattling off tired one-liners.  The gifted Christensen plays Vogel as your garden variety mustache-twirling villain, completely unashamed of performing horrific experiments on Jews during the war, and perfectly able to turn the trio of protagonists against one another while captured (which brings back unfortunate memories of the mediocre Suicide Kings).  It’s amazing to see how Nazis, as portrayed in film, have become almost caricatures of evil – psychological masterminds who physically embody the concept of manipulation.  If there is a group of people from history that should be demonized, it’s surely the Nazis, but this exact characterization is becoming routine in films.  When was the last time you saw a Nazi character who wasn’t a master manipulator and/or genius?  I wonder what effect this will have on folks studying history a hundred years from now.  In addition, the absence of Jewish actors in a film about Jewish characters is a bit disconcerting, as are the exaggerated accents, which made me wonder at times whether the characters weren’t from Transylvania.

Despite these issues, as well as the morally challenging and outright confusing ending, the film remains solid and engaging throughout.  Jessica Chastain goes above and beyond her previous roles, and her scenes in a doctor’s office (posing as a patient at Vogel’s OBGYN during the plot to capture him) render Rachel as vulnerable, both physically and otherwise, as any character you’ve seen in any one predicament.

It would be nice to see this film’s actors get some recognition for this project.  At least give Jessica Chastain’s legs an award for Best Fight Scene.

The Debt (2011); written by Matthew Vaughn; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain, Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Jesper Christensen.