I Am Not Your Negro: words by James Baldwin and narration by Samuel Jackson. James Baldwin passed away on December 1, 1987. This documentary film, directed by Raoul Peck, is proof that Baldwin’s writings are as valid and insightful today as when they were first penned. At the time of his death, Baldwin had started a manuscript bearing the working title Remember This House. His premise for the book was telling of his interactions with Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Peck’s film goes beyond these three individuals and their assassinations; it presents a deeply meaningful exploration of racism in the United States. Part of the brilliance of this 95 minute film, in addition to its wide ranging sound track, is its scene selection from the past through the present, including reactions to Black Lives Matter. I Am Not Your Negro may be the best documentary on the subject of race in the United States. Using Baldwin’s commentary on race relations in America, the film viscerally presents the dialogue that both Clinton and Obama, in their very different styles, tried to begin in this country. The film is organized around thoughts and concepts rather than chronology, and Peck keeps you involved, in part, because you don’t know where he’s going next. The film was deservingly nominated for Best Documentary Feature. While OJ: Made in America won the Oscar and 13 was a strong competitor, my vote remains with I Am Not Your Negro. OJ tells the race story by focusing on an uniquely athletic individual who, as an adult, seemed more comfortable among Whites than Blacks. 13’s focus was on an undeniably important issue, prisons and prisoners. In his film, Peck gives you the full race relations picture without requiring you to invest multiple hours of viewing time as with the OJ documentary. I don’t know many folks who would watch OJ a second time due partly to its length. However, with Baldwin’s dialogue and a run time of less than 2 hours, I think Peck’s film will be viewed more than just once. Peck draws on a wide range of Baldwin’s writings, particularly The Devil Finds Work, a 1976 publication dealing with Baldwin’s Hollywood experience and “white innocence” as to the history of discrimination and racial violence. Both this film and the excellent PBS documentary on Maya Angelou effectively use the scene from “The Dick Cavett Show” wherein Baldwin reacts to Yale professor, Paul Weiss, who scolds Baldwin for dwelling too much on race. The Cavett scene, however, is the exception; Baldwin probably appears more in the Angelou documentary than in the film by Peck. It is the strength of Samuel L. Jackson’s voice speaking Baldwin’s words together with a candid visual presentation that gives this film its awesome power. I will close my comments with a Baldwin quote: “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. I’m forced to be an optimist.” Peck’s film is true to James Baldwin’s spirit. Once in a great while, a film appears that I wish every American would go see. This is one of those rare films.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
Toni Erdmann: a German comedy. This may be the first time I’ve ever written the words “German” and “comedy” in consecutive order. This film, written and directed by Maren Ade, has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category. When I read that Jack Nicholson had signed a contract to do an American version of the film, my curiosity was peaked. The role of Toni Erdmann would be an ideal exit character for Nicholson. Toni Erdmann opens with a FedEx delivery of a package to Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek). The person answering the door tells the FedEx person that the package is for his brother who was recently released from prison for bomb making. The person walks away from the door shouting for Winfried then reappears in a different costume with more bomb jokes. We learn that Winfried is a divorced music teacher with a propensity for pranks. A bit later, we meet Winfried’s adult daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller), a businesswoman consumed by her career. There is a palpable tension between Ines and her father. Ines is a business consultant and is currently on assignment in Bucharest. Winfried unexpectedly appears at Ines’ workplace; Ines unexpectedly invites Winfried to join her for a reception at the American Embassy. She tells her father that if she is speaking with a gentleman named Henneberg, he is not to intervene. Henneberg is the CEO of the company with whom Ines’ wants to secure a consulting contract. For Winfried, of course, Ines’ warning is like honey to a bear and Winfried promptly strolls into the conversation remarking that he has hired a replacement daughter because Ines is too busy to spend any time with him. Following is a scene where Winfried is leaving his daughter’s apartment to return home to Germany. We then learn a bit more about Ines and her work and, a few days later, we see Ines with two female friends at a bar. This is when Toni Erdmann appears and presents himself to Ines and her friends. A bizarre conversation among the four ensues followed by a series of events and interactions among Ines, Toni and various third parties. One could never have predicted some of the scenes that occur during this 162 minute movie. It becomes clear that Winfried has adopted the Toni Erdmann character to help his daughter learn to enjoy life. Toni is not merely a prankster, and amidst the comedic routines, important issues concerning familial relationships are addressed. Some of the scenes go on a bit too long and the film could have been more tightly edited. The film works due, in large part, to the strength of Simonischek’s performance. You can clearly see Jack Nicholson as Toni, which is not to diminish Simonischek’s performance. This is the film’s second week in Honolulu and, unless it wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, I suspect it will be gone for good after this week. I am looking forward to Maren Ade’s next movie. Her Toni Erdmann character is truly unique and makes you wonder what’s up next from this very talented writer/director.
Monday, February 13, 2017
The Salesman: Iran’s Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language film. This is writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s most recent creation, and the story that is told cannot be predicted based upon the opening scenes. The film begins with what appears to be an earthquake. The male lead, Emad (Shahab Hosseini), is awakened by his neighbors yelling to abandon the building. We learn that Emad is married to Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). The building is rendered uninhabitable due to the sustained damage. Emad is a high school teacher. Emad and Tana are also actors and are in rehearsal for Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where Emad plays Willy Loman and Rana plays Willy’s wife, Linda. As the film unfolds, the play begins its commercial run. Short clips from the play are shown throughout the film’s 125 minutes. Because this is an Iranian movie, you may seek political connections between the film and the very American Death of a Salesman. However, from what I could surmise, this film appears to be Farhadi’s attempt to show the universality of the story he is presenting, which becomes particularly evident in Linda’s final soliloquy following Willy’s death. In the course of things, an individual connected with the theater tells Emad and Rana of an apartment he owns and available for rent. We learn the former tenant, who we never see, is a prostitute. The story Farhardi is presenting and resulting in numerous awards is revealed more than a third of the way into the film after Rana has been badly beaten, off-screen. Everyone surmises the perpetrator is a former customer of the prostitute. Notwithstanding the extent of the beating the police are never called, which is presumably one of Farhadi’s political commentaries. Being an Iranian movie and not an American one, the film does not morph into a police drama. Rather, it is a tale about family relationships, male chauvinism and the isolation of women in traditional Muslim society. Farhadi won Best Original Screenplay at Cannes. Hosseini won Cannes’ Best Actor award; frankly I was more impressed with Alidoosti’s performance. I have not seen all the nominees for Best Foreign Film but, at a minimum, The Salesman is a strong candidate. Subtitles and there is a lot of dialogue.
Friday, February 3, 2017
Julieta: a Pedro Almodovar film. This film was submitted to the Oscar Academy as Spain’s entry in the Best Foreign Film category. Although it did not reach the Final Five, this drama about life and death is deserving of your attention. The film opens with a middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez) packing up her Madrid apartment and moving to Portugal. We then see Julieta walking through town and happening upon a close friend of her daughter from many years ago. We learn that Julieta hasn’t seen or heard from her daughter in a long time. Julieta learns that her daughter has three children. We flashback to Julieta as a 25 year old (Adriana Ugarte) traveling on a train - - - the two actresses who play Julieta look amazingly similar. An older gentleman sits across from Julieta and tries to begin a conversation but she feels uncomfortable and abandons her seat. She walks to the dining car where she meets Xoan (Daniel Grao), a young fisherman. Xoan becomes Julieta’s lover and eventually her husband. Off-screen, the older gentleman commits suicide. Julieta and Xoan have a lovely daughter who is played by Priscilla Delgado when young and by Blanca Pares when 18 years old. At 18, the daughter goes off to a retreat and then disappears from Julieta’s life. During the course of this 96-minute film, the action moves between middle aged Julieta wondering what happened to her daughter and the events which resulted in the daughter’s departure from Julieta’s life. Julieta is a complex individual whose relationships with the significant people in her life bear comparison to her profession, the teaching and the translation of Greek tragedies. The complexities of love, life and death are all presented in a sequence with her father and arguably Julieta’s life has a similarity to that of her father. This film is consistent with many of Almodovar’s prior films, which feature strong and complex women. For anyone who has admired Almodovar’s work, this film is a must see. If you are not yet familiar with his work, Julieta is an excellent introduction. The film is in Spanish and therefore subtitled.