Sunday, October 27, 2013

MOVIE: Anita

Anita: an excellent documentary that focuses on what Anita Hill has done with her life since the Clarence Thomas hearing.  The first half of this 85 minute film places Hill’s testimony in the context of being heard by an all-male, White judicial panel addressing a subject that most of them probably never spent any time thinking about:  sexual harassment.  If the same testimony was given today, I’m quite sure the final confirmation vote, if it even got to that point, would be different.  As it was, the vote was the narrowest favorable confirmation ever for a Supreme Court justice, 52 to 48.  I had forgotten just how close the vote was.  The film clips used by the director, Frieda Lee Mock, included a scene of female members of the House of Representatives, including Patsy Mink, walking up the Capitol steps with the intention of addressing the senators on the issue of sexual harassment.  They were not given the opportunity to testify.  The movie notes that there were other women prepared to give testimony consistent with Hill’s but the committee chose not to call them.  The 1991 Senate clips are not lengthy.  There are segments of interviews with individuals in whom Hill had confided in the previous 7 years regarding the exact events in which Senator Spector tried so hard to create disbelief.  The film also shows the brilliance of having Thomas use the phrase “high tech lynching” in his defense and ignore the substance of Hill’s testimony.  The lack of either a female or a non-White on the judicial panel had historic impact.  But this film is not just a retelling of an historic event.  The movie explores Hill’s positive life and actions during the 20+ years since the hearing.  She has been active with community groups addressing the all too present issue of sexual harassment.  Hill left her tenured position at the University of Oklahoma law school  for a professorship at Brandeis University.  Frieda Mock previously won a documentary Oscar and this film could result in a further nomination.  The movie immediately gets your attention as it opens with a phone message recording Hill received in 2010 from a person identifying herself as Ginni Thomas, Clarence’s wife, asking if Anita was finally ready to apologize for her testimony.  The recording is real but no one knows if the speaker was actually Ginni Thomas and, if so, why it was made on a Saturday morning to Hill’s office number.  The film leaves no doubt that Hill has no reason to apologize and also how one does not let a single event control one’s life.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

MOVIE: Mandela

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom:  the man overwhelmed both the screenwriter and the director.  The movie, especially the first half, is a series of sketches of Nelson Mandela’s life history, almost a Cliff Notes presentation.  I think most people viewing this film already know some of Mandela’s history and many of you reading this review know a great deal.  However, if your knowledge of South Africa’s history is limited, this highlight reel will not be very educational.  Mr. Mandela’s life is extraordinary and this film attempts to tell the entire story.  Although it runs for 152 minutes, it is not enough time to go from Mandela’s tribal childhood to the presidency of his country.  Further, by trying to tell the whole story, the film feels even longer than its almost 2-1/2 hour running time.  The contrast with a film such as Invictus, which told just part of Mandela’s story, is striking.  The movie style is reminiscent of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.  Nevertheless, there are some positive things to say about the film, especially with respect to Idris Elba’s performance as Nelson Mandela and the even stronger performance by Naomie Harris as Winnie.   One subject this film does quite well is to explain why Winnie became so bitter in contrast to Mandela’s ability to forgive while never forgetting.  Both Elba and Harris may receive Oscar nominations for their strong performances - the actors did their part.  Another interesting element to the film and part of its problem was the decision by its director, Justin Chadwick, to open the film with tribal childhood scenes and to include adult tribal vignettes.  Based upon Mandela’s actions, the tribal presentation may say more about the two Englishmen,  Director Chadwick and Screenwriter William Nicholson, than the man they are presenting.  This opening five minute sequence is beautiful to see but it sends the wrong message.  The source material for the movie is Mandela’s memoir and based on my limited knowledge of him, I think the film is factually accurate.  But a little lightness would have helped as would have a greater emphasis on the person rather than the events. 


Sunday, October 20, 2013

BOOK: In Times of Fading Light

In Times of Fading Light: a German novel written by Eugen Ruge and translated by Anthea Bell.  The novel takes place primarily in East Berlin between 1952 and 2001.  Three central characters are Wilhelm and Charlotte, a husband and wife who are believers in Communism, and their grandson, Alexander.  The novel is subtitled “The Story of a Family”.  In a series of short vignettes, we learn about these individuals, their family and friends, and  the intrusion of a belief system that invades everyday life.  While this a story about family, it is neither an American family nor a traditional telling of family life.  The chapter headings are dates and not ordered chronologically.  I’ve commented before as to my dislike of flashbacks, however, in this novel, the author is addressing specific events and retells certain critical occurrences from the perspective of different characters.  The story opens with an introduction to Alexander after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The second chapter occurs in 1952 as Wilhelm and Charlotte are leaving Mexico, where they were employed, and returning to Germany.  We have six tellings about a family event, Wilhelm’s 90th birthday party on October 1, 1989.   Each telling is presented by a significant character in the novel.  In between, we learn about Alexander during his first days of compulsory military service, see him introducing his girlfriend to his mother and learn of other family events, all told with a Big Brother background.  There is even, through marriage, a  Russian element.  Eugen Ruge is the son of an East German historian who I believe did time in a Siberian labor camp.  This 307 page novel was awarded the German Book Prize in 2011.  The English translation was published this year.  This is Ruge’s first novel and he scores.  The light in the novel is presented with wit as it skips through time.  One chapter occurs in the year 1961 - Charlotte is debating democratization and Stalinism with her son Kurt while his son and his wife are feeding swans at a park with the catalyst for the discussion being the building of the Berlin Wall.  This book is well worth reading. 

MOVIE: Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips: a Paul Greengrass movie.   There are a few directors that if I know they’ve made a movie, I’ll make a point of seeing it.   With this excellent movie about Somali pirates and a ship’s captain played by Tom Hanks, Greengrass stays on that list.  As with United 93, you know how the movie will end because the film is based on true events.  In this case, what took place over 5/6 days is condensed into 134 minutes, including a preamble showing Captain Phillips with his wife before arriving in Oman and heading out to sea.   It is the British filmmaker’s camera work that initially draws you in, however, it is the excellent acting that keeps you involved.  Hanks is superb as Captain Phillips but what also holds you is the fact that the primary Somali characters are presented as real people.  Barkhad Abdi, as Muse, the “captain” of the small pirate boarding party, matches up quite well with Hanks.  Muse is the only member of the boarding party who is still alive; he is serving time in a U S prison.  These four pirates, as were the ones I read about as a youngster, are in it only for the money; they have no knowledge of the cargo they are hijacking.   One of the interesting twists in this storyline is that the cargo on Captain Phillips’ ship included a significant number of food containers from the United Nations’ World Food Program bound for various African countries.   There has also been some controversy over the incident.  A lawsuit was filed by crew members against Captain Phillips and the ship’s owner questioning whether the course navigated by the Captain was too close to shore; the movie has a scene where some of the crew raise this issue.  However, the movie points out that the pirates were operating from a mother ship and that the cargo ship itself was hundreds of miles off the African coast.  I believe the lawsuit is still pending.  A pirate side note: pirates also operate off the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines; the Strait of Hormuz is not the only area infected with pirates.  Although the movie focuses on Captain Phillips, it also shows that other crew members acted bravely.  Shane Murphy and Mike Perry, played by Michael Chernus and David Warshofsky respectively, are two of the crew who are highlighted.  What I found incredible was the merchant ship’s utter lack of any defensive weapons.  I understand this has now changed but even as of 2009 when the incident occurred, there had been sufficient pirate activity in the Hormuz Strait to render the total lack of any weapons shocking.  The SEAL rescue operation is all business with no light talk.  Greengrass has the reputation for being factually accurate while engrossing the viewer in a storyline we already know.  United 93 was one of the best films of 2006 and more people should have seen it.   With Tom Hanks being at the top of his trade, this film is deservedly receiving a wider viewer audience. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

MOVIE: Gravity

Gravity:  a simple story told with some of the greatest special effects you’ve ever seen.  Sandra Bullock gives the best acting performance of her career and George Clooney is his usual charming self.  Functionally , there are only two actors in this movie.  There is the voice of Houston, Ed Harris, and a third person you see in the opening sequence before things start happening.  But once the action commences, it is the Bullock-Clooney show.  The movie opens with Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) working in space on her NASA experiment and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski flying around having a joking dialogue with Houston (there are some funny lines in this movie).  Houston then announces that a missile has struck a Russian satellite creating a bunch of space debris.  The initial announcement is for information purposes only, however, a few minutes later Houston issues a warning that the debris is more extensive and dangerous than originally thought.  This is when the movie gets interesting.  I had no clue how they were going to end this relatively short film (91 minutes) and therefore, I won’t say anything more about the storyline.   Gravity was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also co-wrote the story with his son, Jonas.  The director of photography was Emmanuel Lubezki.  These two gentlemen, along with Tim Webber for visual effects, have earned themselves Oscar nominations.  A well done space film can be special.  2001: A Space Odyssey has been the gold standard.  Because the technology has improved, it now has a rival.  I strongly recommend that you see this film in 3D.  Most 3D showings are not worth the extra money, however, Gravity is the exception.  The film is not limited to its special effects and beautiful Earth shots.  This survivor story will keep you interested and is well worth seeing.  I’ve heard chatter as to the storyline not being realistic.  But like those who criticized The Butler for inventing a son and giving him an unrealistic life history, they are missing the glory of what Cuaron has accomplished using state of the art technology.  The scenes of silence are particularly spectacular.  I may see this film again.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

MOVIE: Enough Said

Enough Said: a comedy with adult humor and conversations.   Yes, the rare film that is funny without slapstick humor or a stream of what was once called foul language.   Instead, this is a movie about two intelligent divorced individuals, each having a teenage daughter who is a senior in high school when the movie commences.   Repeat: it is a film about two adults and it does not focus on the teenagers.    The primary character is Eve, a massage therapist working in LA played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus.   From Seinfeld, no surprise as to her abilities as a film comedian.  Male lead is played James Gandolfini.  As Albert, he is excellent.  His grin is enough to make you know this is a good man.  A very different role than the gangsters he frequently played.   I understand there is at least one more film to be released with Gandolfini.   He is an actor we are going to miss.  His role is secondary to Eve.   In the opening scenes we learn that Eve has been divorced for a few years and has no steady boyfriend.   Her friend Sarah (Toni Collette) invites her to a party where she meets two new people, Albert  and Marianne (Catherine Keener).    Marianne becomes a client.   Unbeknownst to Eve when relationship commences, Marianne is also the ex-wife of Albert.   As the movie unfolds, you have Eve developing a relationship with Albert as she is hearing negative information about the fellow from Marianne.   The setup allows for a number of funny scenes and the writer/director Nicole Holofcener expertly exploits them.   Her characters appear as real people living real lives.   Both teenagers are centered with relationships with both their mothers and fathers.   There is no Hollywood scene as to them becoming acquainted.   The script will probably get Holofcener an Oscar nomination for original script.    Humor runs throughout the movie but flows from who these people are.   The film is short, only 91 minutes.  Viewing this film will be one of the more delightful 91 minutes you will spend.