Archive for the History Category

Red Army

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on February 14, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Red Army photo starrating-3stars.jpgRed Army is a documentary about hockey in the Soviet Union. More precisely, it concerns a nearly unbeatable unit known as the “Russian Five” on the national team. But even more specifically it profiles one member, hockey captain Slava Fetisov. It’s his point of view that shapes the perspective.  The film is essentially a chronicle of how cold war politics played a role in his life.

Most Americans knowledge of US-Soviet hockey centers on what went down at Lake Placid in 1980. Gabe Polsky’s documentary certainly addresses the American hockey team’s victory at the Olympics. However that is presented as merely an aberration in “ the most successful dynasty in sports history.” The Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament between 1954 and 1991. The groundwork was set by coach Anatoly Tarasov. His development of innovative training techniques centered on passing. The intricate maneuvers of the Soviet team are compared to the grace of the Bolshoi Ballet. Their mental strategies correlated to that of a chess player. Indeed watching the Soviet team skate circles around the cruder tactics of the Americans is a startling contrast. Then in 1977, the coach that everyone loved was replaced by former KGB agent Viktor Tikhonov – the coach everyone hated, at least by the athletes. He was even more successful making the Soviet team the most dominant in the world. Despite his accomplishments, he does not come across well. Their life is a nightmare under a totalitarian regime. He puts the players in training camps isolating them from their families for 11 months out of the year. Yet there is a link between his dictatorial methods and the well oiled machine that he elevated under his tutelage. Not surprisingly Tikhonov declined to be interviewed. He died on November 24, 2014 so his voice remains silent here.

Soviet Player Viacheslav Fetisov or Slava, as he is known, is front and center in this documentary. His transformation from national hero to political enemy is the dramatic arc of this tale. He’s a cantankerous old man and director Gabe Polsky doesn’t hide this fact. Right from the start, Slava keeps his interviewer waiting while he fiddles with his cell phone, even flipping him off (and the audience) when asked a question. It’s a defiant behavior that pops up occasionally throughout their conversation. A former KGB agent trying to speak about politics is constantly interrupted by his young granddaughter playing nearby. It’s these unexpected asides that make the account a bit odd at times. Mostly the parallels between sports and politics are highlighted. The rise and fall of the Red Army team with that of the Soviet Union forming the underlying background for everything that happens. Their success was proof “that the Soviet system was the best system”.  Fetisov’s career is profiled with various ups and downs. Through it all he remains a very patriotic fellow despite remaining embittered toward his past coach. Perhaps the “bad old days” of the brutal regimen under which he trained weren’t really so bad in his eyes after all. You’ll understand when you see how this ends.

Mr. Turner

Posted in Biography, Drama, History on January 11, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Turner photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn Mike Leigh’s world, artist J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall) is a buffoon. An uncouth slob who grunts when he’s content and grunts when he’s despondent. An unpleasant beast that possessed a lot of skill but wielded it much in the same way a laborer would paint the walls of a room, with little care for passion or joy. The usual road for a biography such as this would be to present the master as a hero and tempt the audience with his impressive level of talent. There is no question in my mind that Turner was a genius in real life. I’ve seen his art. I knew this going in. What I was expecting was a deeper appreciation for the artist’s craft, technique or style. Oh you silly silly critic, I thought 75 minutes, merely halfway, into this interminable slog. This is a Mike Leigh movie. When has the director ever done what is expected? Unless of course it’s pitching a meandering chronicle with little plot or purpose. Then he sticks to the blueprint with rigid tenacity.

Mike Leigh’s filmmaking method is legendary. His lack of structure is pure catnip to those who worship at the altar of non conformity. In some circles, I suppose that’s the highest compliment I can pay – it’s a Mike Leigh production. The director has long been the cultural zenith for people who hate films that adhere to the norms of storytelling like having a climax or being like, ya know, interesting. Perhaps the lack of preparation has been exaggerated into more of a myth by now. No script. No order. Just a discussion with the actors on where to take the characters. The “story” will happen organically as the actors interact. Only after these improvised acting exercises does the narrative take shape. At least one would hope it comes together. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that.

Mr. Turner spotlights the painter’s final quarter century of life when his more experimental side was being explored. He’s already in his 50s at the beginning of this tale. Leigh’s aim is to offer little vignettes in Turner’s life that almost subvert the traditional biopic. To Leigh’s credit, he doesn’t elevate his subject, so I guess that’s unexpected in a drama detailing the work of a great artist. The director’s focus is to wallow in the depths of a boorish clown – a man more inspired to shag his housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson) than to paint great works of art. His biography could hardly be used as a way to learn about the man. An array of historical figures are paraded before the camera with no regard for establishing who they are or why they‘re important. I learned more information from the first paragraph of Turner’s Wikipedia article than I did from this nearly three hour film. But for those who like some facts, Turner is a preeminent British painter, “the painter of light” noted for his gorgeous landscapes. The production’s biggest merit is the cinematography where several cinematic vistas are captured that do convey the picturesque subjects Turner paints. Unfortunately most of Mr. Turner is a limp portrait presenting a repulsive man that happened to create transcendent art. If that’s Mike Leigh‘s idea of an ironic joke, I’m not laughing.

01-11-15

Selma

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on January 2, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Selma photo starrating-4stars.jpgSelma begins with a bang – literally – showing the horrific 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That terrorist act by white supremacists became a catalyst in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – a spiritual wake up call. The quiet solitude of pretty little girls in their Sunday best, interrupted by the deafening blast is a frightening crime that hangs in the viewer’s mind. It’s an inflammatory start that incites anger over the attack on innocent life. Selma recounts the three protest marches that traveled the 54 mile highway from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery. These were to challenge segregationist policies designed to keep black people from exercising their right to vote.

David Oyelowo is the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is impassioned yet understated and utterly believable as the heartfelt orator. His addresses to the masses have all the influence you’d expect from an individual responsible for one of the most famous speeches we still quote. Yet his “I Have a Dream” speech never appears here. No Selma concerns the movement King spearheaded that contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. A big part of the film is the relationship between President Lyndon B. Johnson (a memorable Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King. The reverend exhorts Johnson to sign the proposed legislation into law. The provisions of which abolished the poll tax and other means of keeping blacks and poor people from voting. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was already in place but King argued it didn’t go far enough. Their back and forth negotiations in the political halls are an interesting and sometimes depressing window into the deal making of the political process. His backroom sparring of words with the President are captivating.

Dr. King is aware that Alabama, under the leadership of Governor George Wallace, had a poor reputation when it came to civil rights. If Johnson comes across as more of a troublesome stumbling block that King needs to convince, George Wallace is the unrepentant racist devil that with whom King cannot reason. The pro-segregationist policies of the governor largely credited by his critics for creating an atmosphere of intolerance. King courts the cruelest nature of man with his civil disobedience. He understands that gentle protests confronted with the expected violent response will show the American populace the need for change. Indeed the first march ends with 600 peaceful citizens attacked by state and local police with batons and tear gas. It’s a galvanizing scene of epic proportions. The result has the desired effect. The horrific sight resounds as a call to action to every God-fearing churchgoer watching TV in the comfort of their own home. The demographics of the next march joining Dr. King is now a mixture of both black and white Americans from near and far.

David Oyelowo is mesmerizing at Martin Luther King, Jr. However it is important to note that the title of director Ava DuVernay’s movie is Selma and not King. For this is not a biography of the man but a chronicle of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. The narrow focus affords the story the consideration needed to handle the detailed issues involved. The account does justice to a very specific moment. The narrative even details the various infighting amongst fellow protestors that don’t always agree with King’s methods. These are enthusiastic people and their passions frequently engage the audience. The drama judiciously extracts raw anger at the trampling of freedoms we take for granted. It’s hard not to get caught up in the blatant disregard for human rights. The police brutality on display resonates even more strongly today. It’s almost impossible to ignore how perfectly this tale corresponds with recent events. The story couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. It makes Selma an even more powerful film.

12-15-14

The Ten Commandments

Posted in Adventure, Drama, History with tags on April 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Ten Commandments photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgLavish, Technicolor extravaganza shot in VistaVision is Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most celebrated work. Remaking his own 1923 black and white silent movie, The Ten Commandments is a sumptuous religious epic. Pure soap opera is woven into the Old Testament story about a man whose perspective changes when he realizes his true origins. Few films have attained such an unqualified level of sheer excess. Over the course of almost four hours, the picture dramatizes the life of Moses. That the script treats this topic with only the most holy reverence, is never a question. A viewing is akin to a religious experience. However it presents its subject with such unrestrained grandiloquence that at times, the exhibition verges on pageantry. Nevertheless the drama is an unqualified success.

Two mesmerizing performances highlight the saga. Charlton Heston is front and center as the main character. He embodies every bit the part with honor and authority. Cecil B. DeMille had been responsible for his breakthrough as a circus manager in The Greatest Show on Earth. As successful as that picture was, The Ten Commandments would prove to be much more iconic. “Let my people go!” he demands in one of his signature lines. Matching Heston for sheer magnetism as his arch nemesis is Yul Brynner as the Pharaoh Rameses II. He will not relent seemingly ending every proclamation with “So let it be written, so let it be done.” For Yul Brynner, 1956 was a phenomenal year. The Ten Commandments was sandwiched right between The King and I which had come out 3 months prior and Anastasia which was 2 months away. His subsequent Oscar win for playing the King of Siam overshadowed his work here. It was well deserved but Yul is quite extraordinary as the unrelenting pharaoh. This is Heston’s film but Brynner’s importance cannot be underestimated. He is a charismatic villain yet he engenders some sympathy. One would not expect a ruler who advocates slavery to have any redeeming qualities. A scene where he pleads with a statue of a falcon-headed Egyptian god to resurrect his firstborn son has an unexpected emotional nuance.

Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t know the meaning of moderation and thank goodness for that. Ornate sets, crowds of extras, special effects, it is a magnificent spectacle unlike any other. A director with a well tended ego, he even appears as himself at the beginning intro. Perhaps in an effort to silence critics of the liberties he took with the story, he freely admits that the narrative is compiled from sources that include other ancient texts. Occasionally the script veers into unintentionally hilarious dialogue. Perhaps chief among them, “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” These actual words are uttered by Anne Baxter as Nefertiri, a part enhanced by her lustily exaggerated dramatics. She’s joined by a host of solid supporting performances. These include blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson in a comeback role. He is memorably evil as Dathan, the unethical Israelite who betrays his own people.  There’s sultry Yvonne DeCarlo as Moses’ loyal wife Sephora.  This was before achieving TV fame as Lily Munster.  Joshua, a young slave played by actor John Derek, later known for launching the career of wife Bo Derek, and  Jewish slave girl Lilia, portrayed by 50s starlet Debra Paget. Even Vincent Price and John Carradine show up in minor roles.

The Ten Commandments is certainly extravagant. It was the most expensive film ever made up to that point. All exterior shots were actually photographed on location in Egypt. It employs a cast of thousands with 70 speaking parts. In an era where they really had to hire all of those people you see in the background, this was truly an epic undertaking. No computer animation. This is all practical effects. In a surprising bit of restraint, only 3 of the 10 plagues are depicted: the water turning into blood, thunder & hail storm, and killing of the oldest sons. The latter features an Angel of Death imagined as a thick, green mist that creeps through the streets claiming the lives of Egypt’s firstborn sons. As memorable as that was, it pales next to one of the greatest special effects sequences of all time that follows the Exodus of over 12,000 extra. The production culminates in Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the climatic scene. Even now it’s a visual feat to be admired. It was nominated for 7 Academy Awards winning 1 for Best Visual Effects. To this day, the movie is the sixth most successful ever when adjusting for inflation. It remains the yardstick by which all biblical stories must be measured..

P.S. I’m well aware Ben-Hur is technically set during biblical times but it’s NOT a biblical story.

04-23-14

300: Rise of an Empire

Posted in Action, Drama, History, War with tags on March 9, 2014 by Mark Hobin

300: Rise of an Empire photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgOkay let’s see now. Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Blood, Pecs, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, BREASTS, Pecs, Pecs, Blood, Blood, Pecs Blood, Pecs. That pretty much sizes up the narrative formula of 300: Rise of an Empire. This is the sequel (prequel) to 300, the once cutting edge action/fantasy movie based on the Dark Horse comic by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Released back in March of 2007, its innovative visual style borrowed from Sin City, favored the appearance of a comic book. Now almost a decade later, the look has been copied (The Spirit, Immortals) and even parodied (Meet the Spartans) to the point where innovative spectacle isn’t enough. We require a story.

Stepping into Gerard Butler’s leather briefs as the star this time around is Sullivan Stapleton who plays Greek general Themistokles. He’s leading the charge against the invading Persian army. The Persian people are once again represented by Xerxes, the giant god/king. You might remember him from part one. He was the eccentric that looked like he was dipped in bronze, adorned with gold chains and then applied Joan Crawford eyebrows. He’s ticked off because Themistokles killed his father. Xerxes thinks he’s calling the shots, but he’s really just a puppet of Artemisia, the queen/commander of his naval fleet. As portrayed by Eva Green, she is the real star of the show. Following years in captivity after being raped by a gang of Greek soldiers, she is out for revenge. That is a pretty good reason to be upset. So after you hear her side of the events, you’ll switch allegiances and root against the Spartans. As the most memorable character, she rises above the mire with her wickedly scene-chewing performance.

Unfortunately characterization, story and drama are pushed aside solely in favor of a dated style that isn’t innovative anymore. Gushing fountains of CGI blood garnish a scene like parsley on a plate. The super slo-mo sepia toned plasma streams across every battle scene. Oh and there are a lot of battle scenes in this picture. It never lets up. Throats are cut, men are beheaded, women are raped. The amount of slaughter shows no subtlety or justification. It’s merely offered up as entertainment for an audience that might have to pay as much as $19.50 to see this filth in IMAX 3D. And let me tell you, the dichromatic visual palette is dark, muddy and not impressive. So save your money and see it in 2D at a bargain priced matinee, if at all.

There are some hilarious lines however. 300 seemed kind of oblivious to the homoerotic subtext of so many half naked muscular gym bodies in a historical context. Seriously, why don’t these men wear armor? On the other hand, 300: Rise of the Empire seems to not only embrace it, but exploit it. “You’ve come a long way to stroke your c*** watching real men train,” quips Sparta’s Queen Gorgo upon Themistokles’ arrival. Later Themistokles proudly states, “I have spent my life on my one true love — the Greek fleet.“  Naturally he says this right before a most ridiculous sex scene between him and the seductive Artemisia. There is so much punching, choking and hair pulling, it’s unclear whether they’re making love or physically assaulting each other. Once they’re done she deadpans “You fight much harder than you f***” on his performance. Ouch!

The triumph of the few against the many was unquestionably a more engaging plot point in the first film than the ugly tale of revenge on display here. You can laugh at the unmitigated excess of the saga and try to appreciate it on that level. Unfortunately all the carnage without any redeeming value gets pretty mind numbing after awhile. 300: Rise of an Empire is too witless to really enjoy. Surprisingly this became a huge success which proves that an interesting script is not required of a hit.  300: Rise of An Empire did $45.1M in its opening weekend.  Expect studio execs to dust off other 7 year old properties now. Wild Hogs 2 anyone?

Cutie and the Boxer

Posted in Biography, Documentary, History with tags on January 29, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Cutie and the Boxer photo starrating-3stars.jpg“The Boxer” is 80 year old Neo-Dadaist artist Ushio Shinohara. “Cutie” is his long suffering wife Noriko Shinohara. The two live and work in New York City and have ever since they originally met in back in 1973. Both were transplants from Japan. Back then he was 41. She was 19. He was a painter and sculptor – a rising star in the art world. She was a student. They got married and she not only became his wife but his de facto assistant as well. For you see, she put her own vocation on hold so she could support her husband’s career.

Ushio is still producing art. While he struggles to affirm his legacy, Noriko is finally getting some deserved recognition. We see him creating his paintings by punching the canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. He also creates “junk art” sculptures composed of found objects with garishly colored paint. Motorcycles are a common theme. Her work consists of a progression of whimsical drawings depicting her own life with Ushio entitled ‘Cutie and Bullie’. Light animation has these figures parallel their real life counterparts at appropriate times throughout the documentary. Her voice representing a quietly fuming display of resentment.

Cutie and the Boxer is not so much a story about artists but rather people in a 40 year relationship. The couple is a most curious pair. Ushio is small but physically scrappy. Although his work has been displayed at high profile museum exhibitions, his creations haven’t seen a great deal of monetary success. We see the two converse in a cluttered apartment in Brooklyn, surrounded by sculptures, scattered materials and cats. Their marriage comes across like a series of “what-coulda-beens”, “if-onlys” and “I -wish-I hads”. In speaking with the camera, Noriko detail a singular existence obsessively focused on her husband’s art career. She admits it has had an effect on their now 39 year old son. Alex is also a struggling artist and clearly uncomfortable on screen. His uncharacteristic upbringing hampered by his father’s alcoholism which now seems to afflict him.

Cutie and the Boxer is mildly interesting, but it’s a depressing watch. There isn’t a lot of insight, but there is nuance. The director’s POV sides with Noriko for having set aside her own ambitions to take care of essentially two children, her son and husband. Ushio is seemingly oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his wife’s regrets. Her own artistic pursuits only now receiving some attention. Together the couple exhibit a competitive alliance regarding their individual careers. Because of all this, the production has an air sadness to it. Yet it’s a relationship that has endured for quixotic reasons, but there is hope here. Ushio inquires of Noriko, if Cutie hates Bullie. “Ah, Cutie loves Bullie so much,” she responds.

The Act Of Killing

Posted in Crime, Documentary, History with tags on January 7, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Act of Killing photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe Act of Killing is hard to watch, espeically when you know the history behind it. By the early 1960s President Sukarno’s support and protection of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was to the objection of the army and Islamic groups. In 1965, a group calling itself the September 30th Movement tried to overthrow the government. The attempted coup d’état was countered by Suharto-led troops and was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. This led to the destruction of PKI and Sukarno’s replacement by Suharto himself. Suharto’s anti-Communist stance won him the economic and diplomatic support of the West during the Cold War. However what wasn’t widely reported was the subsequent suppression.

Estimates vary, but in the weeks following the coup from 1965 and on through 1966, somewhere between 500,000 to 3 million alleged communists were murdered. The victims, which included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals, were basically anybody the government decided they didn’t like. They were simply labeled a communist to make the carnage more acceptable. That’s the history behind this chronicle, but it’s not the focus. No this presents the boasting of the actual thugs who were directly responsible for the massacre of millions of souls by their own hands. These self styled gangsters point out that the word ‘gangster’ means free men. Free to rape torture and murder in the name of suppressing communism.

The Act of Killing is a documentary based on over five years of filming. Petty thugs Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry were scalping movie tickets before they were promoted to leading the most notorious death squad in North Sumatra. One of director Joshua Oppenheimer’s conceits is that he has those responsible reenact their killings utilizing a variety of different film genres: western, gangster, musical. Herman Koto is another hooligan that is heavily featured in these replications. Hefty in size, he repeatedly performs in drag wearing a tight satin gown. Other more serious large scale productions take place on the very same killing fields where the bloodshed occurred. These include small children and extras ostensibly descendants related to those murdered. The concept is shocking enough and the resulting display is even more surreal.

These aren’t even the most successful parts of The Act of Killing. There are moments here that will leave you absolutely dumfounded. I’m struck by a scene where Anwar Congo demonstrates how he strangled his victims with wire to avoid spilling too much blood. As he watches it back on a TV monitor, he complains that he shouldn’t have worn white pants during their reenactment. In another scene he instructs his grandsons to apologize to some baby ducks they accidentally hurt while handling. Later Congo wraps a wire around his own neck and asks Koto to tug on it in order to mimic what he did. “Josh, is that how my victims felt?” Congo asks the filmmaker. (long pause) “Well I’d say they felt much worse because while you were pretending, they knew they were going to die.” By the end, Congo gets the dry heaves as he is supposedly coming to terms with what he did. I didn’t buy the sincerity of that gesture for a second, but it still doesn’t make his “performance” any less telling.

The Banality of evil is a term coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt meaning that evil occurs when ordinary people are put into corrupt situations that encourage their conformity. The phrase was used after he witnessed the trial of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann who seemed to him as the most mundane individual whose heinous deeds were orders dictated by the state. That idea floats throughout this documentary particularly when Congo happily speaks as if he is a hero because his behavior was backed by the government.

The Act of Killing is one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen. I suppose there are at least two responses one could greet Joshua Oppenheimer’s examination into the mind of these killers.

•    Reaction #1 These people are monsters and director Joshua Oppenheimer is unfortunately giving them indefensible attention.

•    Reaction #2 The only way to have the murderers open up like this is to make them believe that they are being celebrated. In this manner, the director allows the death squad to expose themselves for what they truly are.

I’ve had time to reflect and I’ve come to the conclusion that I side more with reaction #2. At times the documentary can be a bit obtuse as it’s not always clear where Oppenheimer is going. But ultimately what comes through is that this shines a light on a pernicious evil that has gone unaddressed for far too long. It refuses to look away and while providing a voice for the murderers, it indirectly provides a voice for the incredible number of people whose lives were ended. Not only were these perpetrators of mass violence never prosecuted for their crimes, but many Indonesians view them as heroes today. Conversely this also shows that many citizens continue to live in abject fear of them as well. This chapter of Indonesian history has been mostly shielded from public view. It’s good this document exists. I’m glad that I saw it. Now I never want to see it again.

12 Years a Slave

Posted in Biography, Drama, History with tags on November 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

12 Years a Slave photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore the American Civil War, a free black man named Solomon Northup lives in New-York, the north. But in 1841, he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. There in Louisiana he is kept in bondage for 12 years until 1853. The story has been adapted by screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) from Solomon Northup’s memoir as told to white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. The autobiography was a moderate hit, selling 30,000 copies in 1853, but then fell into obscurity for years until it was re-discovered by historians and republished in 1968.

There are moments in 12 Years a Slave that are excruciating. Director Steve McQueen’s gaze is unflinching as it lingers over the brutality in long extended takes. The dehumanization of slavery is presented as something for the audience to reflect upon. From the second Northup wakes up chained in a cell, there is no relief from the constant outrage. He is given a new name and sold as if livestock. An accomplished violist, he is reduced to destroy the very instrument he once held so dear. Time and again we see a litany of atrocities–humiliation, beatings, rape–for our evaluation. Northup standing half-strangled in a noose on his tiptoes, hands tied behind his back, is a positively agonizing scene. Though not the most physically bloody example onscreen, and there are several, it is nevertheless, agonizing to watch. The camera persists at a distance in one very long protracted sequence. His feet barely touching the ground, interspersed with his gasps for air, we see slaves in the background: children happily playing and women doing laundry.

12 years a Slave is an influential film. Its depiction has contributed to the ongoing examination of slavery in the U.S. Django Unchained (2012), Beloved (1998), Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), Roots (1977) have all been a part of the canon, but 12 Years a Slave is different. The uncompromising portrayal of the horrors of slavery is its raison d’être. This isn’t an apology, but rather a condemnation. Extreme degradation is represented in unwavering barbarism throughout the entire running time. Much in the way that The Passion of the Christ exhibited the unrelenting gore of the crucifixion. For anyone not aware of the violence, it’s likely to be heralded as a revelation. I almost find praise for the drama’s supposed eye-opening spectacle troublesome, as if one’s complacency has been newly awakened to the perniciousness of slavery. For those who had an epiphany while watching, questions should be asked. How did your opinion of slavery change? What was it before?

Certainly Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the essence of the picture. It’s tragic to see a character who has his hope for rescue continually quashed or beaten out of him. His transformation from a carefree and happy family man to the downtrodden of society would be heartbreaking in anyone’s hands. However he maintains the humanity that we so desperately crave amongst the execrable representation of mankind on display. With his expressive eyes and quiet demeanor, he single-handedly commands our attention even amongst more flashy characterizations from his fellow actors. It’s a role that is subtle in its patience. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he professes. His understated work further affirms that he is an actor with exceptional talent.

12 Years a Slave is a significant movie because it just might possibly be the first to truly flaunt the savagery in unexpurgated detail. What the historical epic does well is illustrating the lack of humanity that would cause one man to enslave another. There’s value in wallowing in the mire of its unpleasantness. But is graphic sadism enough to challenge your audience? I find the narrative doesn’t go far enough. There is such unspeakable physical and mental torture, I searched for answers. A great work of art would have dissected the mentality of the monster that could do this to another human being. Even after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am no clearer on why this ugly chapter in American history existed than I was before. There is craft in director Steve McQueen’s brutal reality. No film has done this in quite the same way before. For now, I suppose that‘s enough to add to the discussion of slavery, but the conversation is far from over.

20 Feet From Stardom

Posted in Documentary, History, Music with tags on July 24, 2013 by Mark Hobin

20 Feet from Stardom photo starrating-4stars.jpgEver want to know more about the people who sing backup vocals on your favorite hit songs? No? Well to be quite honest, neither did I. Or so I thought.  That’s the beauty of this documentary. 20 Feet From Stardom takes a subject of vague interest and makes it captivating. On display are the contributors that rarely get mentioned, save for the microscopic print of the liner notes on an album. It’s a fascinating watch. 20 Feet From Stardom doesn’t purport to tell the story of all supplementary vocalists. What it does do is delve into a sampling of the prolific talent that has been harmonizing on songs you’ve loved for years but never knew who sang those secondary parts.

I suppose in some way this presentation speaks for all backup singers as it tells these stories, but it specifically recounts the detailed histories of Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Táta Vega. Every tale is unique with a distinct take and their own remarkable window into the world of popular music. The rationale for why these performers never became household names are multilayered and vary. For some perhaps racism and/or sexism. In others maybe just dumb luck. A simple lack of a desire to seize the spotlight is even suggested. In the case of Darlene Love, there was the megalomaniacal (albeit gifted) Phil Spector to contend with. Only one ego in the room please. Her drama is especially heartbreaking in the sense she sang on some of the most beloved songs without nary a credit. She along with Fanita James and Jean King, were founding members of The Blossoms. The trio sang backup on Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”, the holiday classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and countless others. They notably recorded the #1 hit song “He’s a Rebel” but Spector released that single under The Crystals, a completely different group, so Love and her fellow Blossoms never got the recognition or the stardom they deserved. Yet Love’s story inspires happiness nonetheless. They became first call, A-list session singers, highly in demand. Their voices are still infectious today. They are permitted to sing here and their talent speaks volumes that words cannot.

I always instinctively assume that the background vocals belong to the group/entourage associated with the artist on the single. But in many instances they are hired guns that come in, lay down their vocal tracks and then move on to the next gig. Director Morgan Neville’s document gently suggests various reasons for their lack of fame but allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. In the meantime we’re treated to some of the best music of the 20th century. These vocalists have worked with the likes of Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross, Sting, Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Bette Midler. Many of these legends appear singing the praises of these unheralded talents. By and large, the chronicle is an uplifting tribute. There’s something exhilarating in seeing these artists get their due. It’s amazing how pervasive their contributions are to pop culture. For example the Waters Family were featured on “Thriller”, “The Circle of Life” and even recorded dino-bird sounds for Avatar.  There are at least half a dozen sagas here that command your attention. Each performer could highlight their own movie. Perhaps none more so than that of Darlene Love. Her story is one of frustration, perseverance and ultimately joy. That’s the ultimate message of this wonderful film.

42

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Sports with tags on April 15, 2013 by Mark Hobin

42 photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe life of Jackie Robinson gets the treatment you’d expect in Warner Brothers’ perfectly serviceable biography. The chronicle is a suitable document of the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. Director Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight’s Tale) beatific depiction of Jackie Robinson is befitting of how Disney handles their sports pictures. It’s reverent, didactic and compelling. However given the magnitude of Robinson’s breakthrough, I was expecting a bit more grit. Perhaps in the hands of a more contentious director, the action would have seemed more controversial. There’s a brief moment of that in one particular scene involving actor Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the manager of the Phillies who vociferously opposed Robbins’s presence in MLB on the basis of his race. The scenes in which he taunts Robinson with racial epithets was even more disturbing than the many uses of the N-word in the movie Django Unchained. Perhaps that’s because this is a true story but also because of Robinson’s pacifist approach to the abuse that was forced on him. It’s is one of the few instances where you genuinely get a feel for the weight of his struggle.

42 is a polished biography. It’s got beautiful music, bright cinematography and is populated by some nice performances. Chadwick Boseman notably underplays Jackie Robinson in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s grasping for the Academy Award. He’s quite effective. As is Nicole Beharie who plays “the wife” but with an effervescence that made me want to see more of her in future films. Harrison Ford reminds us that he doesn’t always just phone it in. As Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers that signs Robinson to the team, he is truly engaging. 42 hits all the dramatic notes you’d except in a memoir such as this. It’s not particularly deep or insightful, but it is inspiring. Robinson becomes more a symbol through which other people unleash their racial hatred against. I would’ve appreciated a little more detail in the script about the man himself. More vignettes involving his personality as well as his athletic accomplishments in the world of baseball would‘ve been welcome. The lesson appears to be talent and money speak louder than hate. 42 is an admirable addition to baseball pictures that dutifully dramatize the subject in a way that is both pleasant and entertaining.

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