The Joker is Wild (1957)

Jokerwild.jpgIt required quite the journey to make it to this film, starting out with a different joker entirely. My introduction to comedian Joe E. Lewis happened because of the late, great Jerry Lewis. Revisiting his life and work I made the discovery that the comedian changed his name to avoid confusion with two men. First, Joe Louis the stellar boxer of the 1930s and then Joe E. Lewis the comedian.

I had never heard of the latter and if you’re in the same boat, here is a biopic that gives a little more definition to his life and times. It seems desirable to actually turn back the clock and see footage of the man himself but if anyone has to play him why not have Frank Sinatra and he does a fine job with a performance that finds time to crack the jokes, throw back a few tunes, while still revealing the inner demons that befall even a funny man. Yet again Ol’ Blue Eyes proves he’s an acting talent to be taken seriously.

Lewis’s beginnings were nearly tragic as he found himself under attack by one of Al Capone’s enforcers who slit his vocal chords and left him for dead after he walked out of his current contract to sing at another club. Except he fought back and even with a shaky voice he found his way to burlesque shows and then stand-up comedy followed.

All the while he was supported by his piano accompanist and best friend (Eddie Albert) and even finds time for love or rather it comes to find him in the form of Jeanne Crain. However, with obligations in serving the troops and his own insistence that a marriage would never work, he balks at popping the question only to regret it for years to come.

Soon his alcohol problem is even more of an issue — even affecting his work — and the marriage he got into with one of his precocious chorus girls (Mitzi Gaynor) was doomed to fail from the beginning.  The self-destructive tendencies seem present in this life as they often are for those in entertainment. And far from rewriting the ending to his story, we leave Brown in a very real state. He’s no longer married and he’s still trying to break his habit for the sauce. It’s a very honest place to be and that’s to the film’s credit.

I will forever be a pushover for Jeanne Crain who always plays the most charming romantic roles and here it is little different. Though she’s older, her beauty is still as striking as ever. Furthermore, Mitzi Gaynor slightly subverts her reputation here delivering in a couple of scenes that aren’t simply song and dance showcases.

Meanwhile, Eddie Albert just might be the greatest second banana known to man because he instantly makes his star all the more lovable acting as their faithful foil in all circumstances. He was just so phenomenal in those types of roles building something out of almost nothing.

There’s little left to do but let the lyrics of All the Way carry us away into to the evening with a bit of melancholy:

When somebody needs you
It’s no good unless he needs you all the way
Through the good or lean years
And for all the in-between years come what may

Who knows where the road will lead us
Only a fool would say
But if you’ll let me love you
It’s for sure I’m gonna love you all the way all the way 

3.5/5 Stars

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).pngEmma Stone portraying Billie Jean King was an idea that I had never entertained before but there’s a certain resilience to her coupled with that winsome go-getter attitude which shines through her brunette locks and iconic frames. Simultaneously Steve Carell feels like just about the perfect person to embody Bobby Riggs a man I know very little about thanks only to hearsay and one caricature of a performance on The Odd Couple. Admittedly that’s not a lot to go on but Carell’s comedic background does it justice.

However, despite enjoying Battle of the Sexes thanks to its leads and it’s subject matter, there’s still something inside of me that can’t help but desire a documentary instead. Because it’s one thing for a film to graft in references to the cultural moment and quite another to be a cultural phenomenon in itself.

The Battle of The Sexes between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was that type of event being televised and publicized like nothing before it in professional tennis. In the film, we have moments like Howard Cosell delivering coverage with Natalie Morales edited in. The lines between the real and the fictitious are so closely tied together.

It’s all so well documented. Billie Jean King is still with us and it seems more ripe for documentation than a dramatized biopic because with such a project there’s a questioning of how the story is being framed. Have certain things been repurposed or reimagined or are the majority of the facts delivered to us as they originally were?

For instance, it’s easy to read the relationship of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court through the lens of the present day and where they fall across the social spectrum now. Would that have been so cut and dry in 1973? I don’t know.

However, what is undeniable are the statements made by the likes of Rosie Grier and Ricardo Montalban commenting on the match. Those things particularly interested me because the words were pulled directly from the moment they came out of. They are as close to reality as we can get.

As a young boy, I had enough wherewithal to know about this event but the gravity of the moment never hit me until years later because I could not quite comprehend why it mattered. It was just one of the greatest tennis players in the world facing off against some old guy who used to play tennis.

Perhaps that might be selling Bobby Riggs a bit short because though he was in his 50s, he was already a member of the tennis hall of fame and won quite a few majors in his prime. But that completely misses the point of the argument.

As put so crucially by Billie Jean in the film, she was never trying to prove that women were better at tennis than men or even equals necessarily. What she was trying to show was that they deserved the serious respect and attention paid their male counterparts.

Because the inequality of pay alone seemed ludicrous given the number of ticket sales for both circuits. Billie Jean King had pioneered a new Woman’s Tennis League in protest only to be pushed out of the Lawn Tennis Association for those very reasons. The old guard represented by Jack Kramer was not yet ready to concede women’s tennis as a major draw and Billie Jean and the rest of her contemporaries were fighting up an uphill battle. They needed a major victory to turn the tides.

The stage had been set with Court, another preeminent star, getting fairly trounced by Riggs on Mother’s Day. It all but confirmed Riggs continued assertion that men were the dominant sex.

You could make the case that Billie Jean King was hardly just doing battle against Riggs because he was simply a gambler, a showman, and a clown who made the event into a media circus. It was the majority that sided with him that she was after. The men who would never concede that women deserved to be thought of in more multidimensional terms than housewives and marital companions. They could play tennis too and play it well.

So in its most gratifying moments, Battle of the Sexes suggests the import of what Billie Jean King accomplished for the sport of tennis turning the final match into a true cinematic showdown between Riggs and King. A singular event that has so much riding on it. Thus, I’m less inclined to be interested when it attempts to become didactic. The history speaks for itself.

3.5/5 Stars

I, Tonya (2017)

I,_Tonya_(2017_film)Sufjan Stevens released a song not too long ago as an elegy to Tonya Harding. Being the modern-day folk poet that he is, he cast her as a tragic hero, championing her as a definitive portrait of an All-American girl, larger-than-life, unapologetic, and ultimately beaten back by society at large.

I will date myself and say that I don’t remember much about Tonya Harding because I was barely born when she was in the public spotlight. So, I come at the events as an “impartial” observer or at least one who lacks any clear understanding of what her story was really like in the heat of the moment.

Thus, Stevens’ song and this film, I, Tonya, were necessary for me as obvious mechanisms of empathy. Emphatically the film proves that Tonya Harding — at least for me — cannot be cast as a hero and I don’t necessarily think that she was expecting that. But what has been done on her behalf is equally vital. Finally, it seems like others have been willing to speak up on her behalf in telling a more multifaceted even sympathetic side of the story.

Her life and times as detailed in Craig Gillespie’s film functions as a nearly absurd black comedy as it plunges into familial discord and moments you could hardly make up if you tried. But what we would do well not to forget is that this is a dramatization of someone’s life — someone with inherent worth even as she’s being berated and abused by a mother and then abused by her husband and finally raked over the coals by the mass media.

If anything, this film is an indication that Tonya’s life does have meaning. The flaws are there but also present is immense trauma and the subsequent tenacity that made her the first female skater to ever land a triple axel.

Screenwriter Steve Rogers’ work employs slightly pretentious talking head moments and fourth-wall breaking monologues that were used in a similar fashion to Experimenter (2015), except it’s hardly a gimmick and there’s a great deal of resonance within the madness of narrative dissonance with a smattering of different perspectives colliding.

Because Tonya’s story really is recalled and remembered in so many different ways by all sorts of people with their facts conveniently conflicting. First, there’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie) who was the skating prodigy by the age of 4 and despite a lack of education, her enduring work ethic made her one of the finest American skaters to ever grace the ice.

Allison Janney is as acidic and foul-mouthed as they come, pushing the envelope as Tonya’s ultra-vitriolic mother LaVona who never seems content, continually berating her daughter in all regards because every penny she makes as a waitress goes into her lessons. Love is not in her lexicon.

Then there’s the infamous Jeff Gillooly with Sebastian Stan donning that regrettable mustache as the awkward boyfriend who no doubt loved Tonya at one point and yet still embroils her in an unhealthy and abusive relationship. His slobbish oaf of a friend Shawn Eckhart, who fancies himself a counterterrorism expert of some kind, is a surprisingly authentic caricature. He’s got grand delusions of how they will sabotage Nancy Kerrigan’s chances in the Olympics by unleashing an onslaught of psychological warfare.

Jeff condones the plans but soon he’s shelling out $1,000 that disappears after Shawn gives it to a pair of dubious contacts. Little does he know that this will devolve into “The Incident” after Shawn okays a hit and an equally vacuous nobody, Shane Shant, injures Kerrigan with a police baton. They’re so inept that the FBI is soon on their trail. First, it’s Shawn, then his fingers point to Jeff, and finally, Tonya is implicated. Right here we have the clearest embodiment of both the real-life farce the and tragedy of Harding all rolled into one.

The extensive soundtrack is utilized not only as casual character development but an instant accessibility point in denoting either an era or a mood. In fact, it’s one of the few constants in a story that regularly hurtles back and forth between different points of views, time frames, and the like. Hearing Norman Greenbaum, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, Chicago, Doris Day and a whole host of others offer instant touchstones throughout.

For these very reasons I, Tonya is the most inventive biopic in narrative terms that I can remember since Brian Wilson’s story told so evocatively in Love & Mercy (2014). There is a similar exploration going on here as we try and make sense of someone who has gained, in this case, so much notoriety whether it was totally deserved or not. And the beauty of the picture is that it never fully divulges the truth because in so many words “the truth” in the lowercase sense is relative and like innumerable pieces of history how are we to say that we have the definitive answer?

The media’s part in all of this feels almost damning and yet we cannot condemn them without condemning ourselves too. Some David Letterman footage articulates the ubiquitous reality that Tonya Harding became a punchline in the wake of the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 even as she received a lifetime ban from skating. Should I feel sorry for Tonya Harding? I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s a sorry affair.

Though it starts to paint some layers of Harding’s backstory and her working-class roots rubbing up against the protocols of standardized perfectly primped and costumed female figure skaters, that’s not necessarily the film’s allure. It gets its zing, admittedly from the almost soap-operatic twists. And yet with anything, if that is what gets you to stay and kept the media involved in the story for such a long time, maybe it’s good that time has passed.

Even as the script tries to put the pieces together it can hardly succeed perfectly though it does give us something to work with. Again, it all comes down to some form of greater understanding. But then again, Tonya Harding probably doesn’t care about what others think about her or about anyone trying to mount a defense on her behalf. So be it.

Now, all that seems left to make is a Nancy Kerrigan movie. Yes, she was cast as the perfect ideal, Snow White on Ice, but as with any media fixation, it cannot always serve true justice nor capture the hardships in a person’s life. Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and nearly every other person on God’s green earth is a testament of that. As Sufjan puts it only God knows what they are.

4/5 Stars

 

Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are

Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed

Triple axel on high
A delightful disaster
You jumped farther and faster
You were always so full of surprises

Are your laces untied?
What’s the frown on your face for?
And just what are the skates for now?
Tell me which is your good side?

Are you lonely at night?
Do you miss all the glory
And the mythical story
Of the Olympian life?

Yamaguchi in red
She had high rise and roses
And red-carpet poses
And her outfit was splendid

Nancy Kerrigan’s charm
Well she took quite a beating
So you’re not above cheating
Can you blame her for crying?

Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights

Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done

Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end

So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star

~Tonya Harding by Sufjan Stevens

 

Review Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James_Cagney_in_Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_trailer“My father thanks you, My Mother Thanks you, My Sister Thanks you, and I Thank you.” – James Cagney as George M. Cohan

I write this on Yankee Doodle Dandy’s 75 Anniversary on Memorial Day and I can say with much regret in my heart that it’s probably not nearly as resonant now as it was back in 1942. Perhaps, as it should be, because we are not living in the thick of WWII in a recently post-Pearl Harbor society. This was a film meant for a very particular cultural moment and it functions as such.

We look at the musical numbers and some are impressive routines with a full array of song and dance sprinkled throughout but there’s nothing outstandingly eye-popping about any of it. It’s true that this musical biography does suffer from a bit of Biopic Syndrome. By now we have been inundated with so many renditions that this version of George M. Cohan’s life is hardly revolutionary.

At best it’s a beaming tribute to an American icon with a bit of palatable wartime propaganda that never does anything unusual nor does it attempt to. At worst you could call Yankee Doodle Dandy overlong with a stiff script that lacks a lot of invention and shows more and more chinks in its armor over the excessive run time. But like Cohan himself, it’s an unabashed flag-waver and in that arena alone it does do some justice to its hero.

Certainly, none of these initial assessments can take away from the great appeal of the main players. More on James Cagney later but for now let’s just say he is incomparable and leave it at that. But we also have the estimable Walter Huston who had a notable career in his own right before being slightly overshadowed by his son John. In Yankee Doodle Dandy he plays the patriarch of the Cohan family, married to a lovely and talented woman (Rosemary De Camp) who is his partner and equal in both wedded life and on the stage. They are loyal All-Americans and they raise up their son and daughter to love their line of work and their country just as they do.

Thus, the Cohans are born as a collective entity, precocious Josie (Jeanne Cagney) and her ever cocksure brother George (James Cagney) who has a big head to go along with a load of talent. While his attitude gets him ostracized, his persistence as a songwriter ultimately earns him success after he unwittingly joins forces with another struggling writer Sam Harris (Richard Whorf). Somehow together they find a winning formula that for decades thenceforth makes George M. Cohan into a household name and subsequently an American legend. He is the undisputed king of unabashed, feel-good, good old-fashioned entertainment.

America’s favorite wartime ingenue Joan Leslie falls easily into the role of the love of George’s life, Mary, the impressionable young gal who fell for him at an early age and stayed by his side as the years rolled ever onward. Everything else changed but her love and faithfulness remained steadfast. With Mary by his side, she sees him through a string of successes, a few minor failures, the birth of WWI with the sinking of the Lusitania, and even the inevitable deaths of his kin. When it’s all said and done, he’s christened by FDR himself with a Congressional Medal as one of the great patriots capable of catalyzing the American Public with nationalistic fervor. So he serves a very important purpose on the Homefront.

The fact that Cohan’s life was practically born and lived out on the stage makes it perfectly suited for a musical adaptation allowing Michael Curtiz to seamlessly segue between vaudeville and Broadway routines and the formative moments that make up George’s life. They all fit together in a fairly straightforward manner that nevertheless is bolstered above all by the talent.

But the opening and closing framing device is unforgivably corny and is probably hampered most by a President Roosevelt lookalike who is so artificial it makes the genuine vivacity of James Cagney all the more disarming. It works the other way too. Cagney feels like he’s acting opposite a lifeless mannequin. And it’s true that as he always seemed to have the habit of doing Jimmy Cagney steals the whole picture.

He had left the gangster fare that had made him famous behind and in pictures such as Strawberry Blonde (1941) and Yankee Doodle Dandy he was given a true chance to strut his stuff and what dynamic stuff it is. Now I’m not much of a dance connoisseur so I have no reference point on where Cagney’s dancing could possibly begin to stack up to the likes of Astaire or Kelly, men who also performed their own choreography. Still, if anything, Cagney’s feet are constantly lively and self-assured as is his entire performance.

He seems like the perfect man to embody Cohan himself an Irish-American who started out as a song and dance man on the stage and whose blood ran red, white, and blue. First and foremost, he is a performer and his performance turns Yankee Doodle into something special, despite its various shortcomings.

Curtiz is a highly capable director but Cagney is the one we have to thank. Because while the film is never daring he always is and my estimation of him grows exponentially every time I see him act. Some performers have the knack of making every scene they’re in better by doing something exceptional that you remember — something that really catches your eye whether minor or grandiose. You only have to watch him tap his way down the White House stairwell to know James Cagney is one of the special ones, no question.

4/5 Stars

A Man Called Peter (1955)

A_Man_Called_Peter.jpgThe film’s tagline reads, “Your heart will sing with joy” and that about sums up A Man Called Peter.

Henry Koster was the director behind such underrated gems as The Bishop’s Wife and Harvey, and although this film is starkly more realistic, it shares the same unabashed earnestness of its predecessors. Its tone is similarly reverent of its subject matter, the story of the man Peter Marshall (Richard Todd), but that’s hardly a point of derision because its sincerity feels well-founded.

The narrative cycles through his changing life and times from his childhood days as a rebellious boy in Scotland to the defining moment when he truly resolved to follow God’s plan in his life. Following his days in seminary, he goes on to two parishes in Covington and Atlanta, Georgia. One church flourishes from humble beginnings and the latter, while boasting a large congregation is weighed down by apathy and financial problems.

It is there where Peter Marshall’s impassioned sermons begin to breathe life into the dead bones in the pews, leading people from near and far to take heed of his words. Like any charismatic speaker like a Dr. King or even a John Knox, his words are rich and passionate. To use a film term, the sermons become stirring monologues from the pulpit delivered unbelievably convincingly by Richard Todd.

He talks emphatically about the rationality of the Gospel and the idea of relying on a certain amount of faith.  He elucidates the character of the real Christ of the Gospels with tremendous vigor. He muses on human love and what that means for him and others — most of the young ladies present listen with baited breath.

One such admirer and a longtime faithful parishioner is the young college gal Catherine Wood (Jean Peters), and it is no wonder she falls for him. However, initially, her love for him is not so much unrequited as it is unknown. That is until the day she comes to meet her hero face to face. Their love story is equal measures tearful and romantically splendorous as they come together, pursuing what they truly perceive to be God’s will.

And they lead a humble albeit happy life before Peter makes the biggest transition of his pastoral career, moving congregations to a historical relic of a church which formerly had presidents in attendance. Now it’s a building half full of old hypocrites and a handful of apathetic souls, but once more Reverend Marshall comes with a fervency in his sermons, while still exhibiting an underlying graciousness. For lack of a better word, he drops truth bombs. Some people aren’t ready to hear, but many are.

What follows is a radical religious revival throughout Washington D.C. His congregation becomes a young people’s church and a welcoming haven for governmental officials still kicking the tires of religious faith. But Peter Marshall welcomes all in and in turn has an exponential impact on not only his community but the very fabric of this nation. He becomes trusted counsel to Congressmen, plays ball with local children and helps set up a local canteen for outgoing soldiers.

By anyone’s standards, it seems like Peter and his faithful Catherine have done so much good. But as often happens, tragedy hits their humble family with a vengeance. Catherine is stricken with tuberculosis which keeps her bedridden for many months. But together they get through it and she recovers, only to have Peter be offered a position as the chaplain of the Senate. However, once more, bad things happen to good people and Peter suffers a coronary thrombosis. Only days later he’s dead and it truly feels that only the good die young.

It simply does not make sense, but if we look at Peter Marshall himself for guidance, he gives us a roadmap of how we can try and cope. Even when his wife is sick, he encourages her that God does not trade retribution with us. It’s not like all the weight of our past misdeeds are stacked up against us. Still, he cries out to his God with the illness of his wife like the psalmists of old. He doesn’t have to be content with suffering, and he’s not, but he’s also fearless in his own life. He lives with almost reckless abandon, because of a certain confidence in his faith.

For some, this religious biopic will be admittedly pious and slogging but there’s a surprising richness to Marshall’s story, embodied quite excellently by Richard Todd. Its colored frames are rich equally matched by Marshall’s own mellifluous brogue and personable humanity. Jean Peters subverts my expectations once again with heartfelt depth. It’s a film made in an age when shot lengths could linger, allowing us to ride the waves of a single performance or a bit of dialogue. But most astonishing of all, it’s quite easy to draw parallels to now, because as it happens, there’s nothing that new under the sun.

It should make us beg the question, what if pastors and their churches were living out these kinds of lives? Genuinely loving other people well and dramatically impacting the communities around them — in a sense breathing new life into tired and weary people. If Peter Marshall is any indication, there’s a possibility for dynamic change. Reverend Marshall passed away at the age of 46, but it’s easy to conclude that his was a life well-lived. If only we were all so lucky. Thankfully there’s still time.

3.5/5 Stars

My Left Foot (1989)

My_Left_FootAs the film opens we watch a foot slowly wiggling its toes. It’s nothing extraordinary because we’ve undoubtedly seen this millions of times. If not on film then at least in our own lives. But it’s what the foot does that piques our interest. Quite dexterously but still straining, it manages to pull a record out of its sheath, set it down on the player, and lay down the needle before music finally emanates out. This simple act gives us some profound insight into the story that we are about to invest ourselves in.

My Left Foot, directed by Jim Sheridan and carried with an early tour de force performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, is an excruciatingly tortuous movie to watch at times. It follows the real-life narrative of Christy Brown, the future painter, poet, and writer who grew up in Ireland only capable of moving his left foot.

Neighbors in the community look at Christy as the bane of his family. He is his kindly mother’s unfortunate cross to bear. And true, his childhood existence is a humble one and his parents don’t quite understand how to empower him, but they still are devoted to him. His mother is the nurturing one and his father sees him as a cripple, but he loves him in spite of it.

As Christy is growing up there’s time for playing football, spin the bottle, and trying his hand (or rather foot) at watercolor. Because the truth is, Christy is a highly intelligent, creative mind only looking to express himself. And his mother continues to build him up with encouragement. In fact, Brenda Fricker’s performance brings to mind all the strong, grounded mothers in the vein of Jane Darwell’s Ma Joad. You can even find a little How Green Was My Valley or The Quiet Man in the family life.

However, it is speech therapy which becomes the next step in Christy’s development and his therapist does so much to open up his world. It’s hard for him not to feel attached and feelings of affection towards her. But as we find out over time, he’s as much a volatile creative force as he was an emblem of perseverance. Because he did not simply sit back, and when he learned to verbalize his thoughts there was a torrent of passion and perhaps even harbored anger that was finally released.

In no scene is this more evident than the one in the restaurant where his longtime therapist Eileen says she is going to marry another man, and aside from his pernicious words and his not ceasing to drink, Christy brings the conversation in the entire establishment to a standstill. In his defiance and anger, he breaks glasses, pulls off the tablecloth, and even threatens bodily harm.

But even when his pride is injured, Christy still remains faithful to his mother and father. His family life prospers even after the untimely death of his and pretty soon his career as an author flourishes after the publishing of his autobiography.

It’s up in question whether or not Christy Brownreal-lifeife received such a happy ending as this cinematic adaptation, but there is no doubt that the film gives the audience a jolt namely thanks to Day-Lewis’ complete dedication to his part. This film much like the likes of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or even the Theory of Everything allows for great performances, but it also relies on these same actors to use constraints to their advantage. Watching Lewis is a masterclass education in what it means to truly don a role. In this case, My Left Foot truly benefits from it.

4/5 Stars

Experimenter (2015)

Experimenter_PosterComing out of a psychology background I was familiar with Stanley Milgram’s famous social experiment back in high school during Intro to Psych. Even back then it was a striking conclusion on conformity and just how far people will go. It was also ruthlessly contrived and even more methodically executed. Inspiration came from Milgram’s own background working with psychologist Solomon Asch, as well as his own Jewish ancestry, nights watching Candid Camera, and a fascination in the Adolf Eichmann trial.

The results of his controversial deception are staggering. If people are told to administer an electric shock, even against their own will, knowing that the other person might full well be hurt, they will comply with benevolent authority. When you think about its moral implications, you wonder why no one had yet to make a film about it, but then again, now someone has.

Michael Almereyda appears to be the heart and soul of this film, and he brings together a mixed bag of talent, headed by Alexander Skarsgard and Winona Ryder, with various supporting spots filled by the likes of Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Dennis Haysbert, and Anthony Edwards.

This is a stripped down film of simple design, but it rocks us with potency because its basic premise is so intriguing. It’s difficult not to be fascinated by the findings of Milgram since they feel as startling now as they were back in 1962.  The scary part is that humanity has not changed all that much, not really when we get down to the base levels of human nature.

It puts the systematic genocide of the  Nazis into perspective, but it has even more frightening implications for all of humanity. It leads to soul-searching, personal reconciliation, and of course, backlash, against Milgram himself. As the moral issues are twofold. The participants subjected to such an illusion, with confederates playing along, are forced to figure out their own conscience — what this all means about them. Meanwhile, the man behind this deception is understandably under fire. The public cannot fully condone what they did, nor do they want to believe his results.

Milgrim would lose his tenure, but as the years rolled ever onward, he carved at a decent life for himself with his wife, kids, and a nice work circuit, giving lectures and continuing his social experiments on conformity.

These are the fascinating aspects of the film. It’s when it gets a tad pretentious, breaking the fourth wall and using obviously phony back projection to tell the story of Milgram the man, that it ceases being as interesting. Because we are intrigued far more by his work than him as a person. He’s hardly an anomaly and more the norm, so we begin to remember why a film was never made about him before. The narrative strands start becoming fairly thin.

But in some ways, Experimenter feels like an apt companion piece to the film Hannah Arendt, because they both examine two people fascinated with human kind’s capacity to commit evil by examining not simply Adolf Eichmann but a great many other everyday individuals. That alone makes it worthwhile viewing — especially those fascinated by psychology. Like the former film, it’s hardly perfect or even cutting edge when it comes to biopics, but it certainly gives the viewer something to grapple with.

3.5/5 Stars

Charlie Wilson’s War (2008)

charliewilson1With Aaron Sorkin’s script as a road map, Charlie Wilson is a character that Mike Nichols can truly have fun with. You can easily see him getting an undue amount of delight in this man who was able to do such a momentous thing while simultaneously walking on the wild side. It had to be a good story to warrant the director’s cinematic swan song.

It’s a film that’s surprisingly overflowing with talent, headlined by the big three: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. However, Amy Adams, a young Emily Blunt, and even the old veteran Ned Beatty pop up. Hanks is the undisputed star and Hoffman is the other standout among all the other players. Most of the female roles feel decidedly unsubstantial which is not too surprising given Wilson’s lifestyle. However, Charlie Wilson’s War also is a necessary piece of storytelling because it attempts to understand a period of history that for some reason is often absent from film. From 1980 to ’88 during the Carter and Reagan administrations, a lot happened — even as Dan Rather remained through it all.

charliewilson2In the opening moments, it becomes obvious that Charlie Wilson is not so much an easily corruptible representative as he is a sexed-up man who enjoys charming female company. He’s “Good Time Charlie” for good reason. He surrounds himself with pretty young things, doesn’t mind playing around a bit, and even has a cocaine charge hanging over him after a potentially objectionable night in Vegas. In fact, the attorney looking into his case is, interestingly enough, one Rudy Giuliani.

But the one thing that he had driving him was the desire to end the Soviets total obliteration of Afghanistan with their helicopters, and so he tried to spearhead the most extraordinary of covert wars which ultimately had considerable consequences. His keen ally Joanne Herring (Roberts) is resolute to get support for the oppressed people of the Middle East because it’s a religious issue. Meanwhile, CIA officer Gust Avrakos (Hoffman) battles with him over acquiring more funding. Although he’s not necessarily a great man, people like Charlie and it serves him well.

This film is fascinating, in a sense, for the implications it had for the cultural moment in which it came out. Could Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring have had any idea that these weapons used to fight the Soviets might have fallen into the wrong hands — the hands that orchestrated 9/11? That’s certainly a big jump and perhaps an utterly unwarranted presumption, but it’s a thought that nevertheless creeps into a skeptical mind. If nothing more it suggests that all history is so intertwined and interconnected. You cannot talk about the roots of the Cold War without starting with Word War II beforehand or you cannot attempt to get at the War on Terror without acknowledging the waning years of the Cold War that preceded it.

It’s troubling in a sense that we turned these things into a righteous war. Though it is understandable to want to do what is right, and oftentimes God is used to justify certain actions, it gets difficult when there is far greater ambiguity. It’s not always as easy as good vs. evil. We are all besmirched by greed, corruption, and the like. There’s no simple way to get around this fact, even bringing to mind Bob Dylan’s classic indictment “God on our Side” right about now.

This film carries those same undertones of religion and God that feel misguided since politicians and whoever else utilize him as their ultimate justification — their ace in the hole. Gus ironically feels the most honest for his general disdain for the practice. The war against the Soviets and the War on Terrorism are undoubtedly far more complicated matters, just as a discussion of God is a complex issue in its own right. Like the famed fable of the Zen Master, all we can really say is “We’ll see.” It takes a wise person to acknowledge they don’t know the end of the story, just like they don’t know all the answers to the big questions. They can only try their best to understand what will happen and act in the most sagacious way possible.

3.5/5 Stars

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

insidel2More often than not Llewyn Davis turns out to be a worthy character and I mean that in the sense that he is readily watchable. This probably isn’t the real folk scene of the 1960s, but it is the time and place seen through the Coen Brothers’ somber lens. Inspired by musician Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is his own unique entity entirely. The film itself has a dreary look of washed out tones mimicking the days that most of us now know from black and white imagery. There are folk tunes wall to wall, befitting such a melancholy film, adding layers of melody and ambiance to this austere world of isolation.

In fact, we first meet Llewyn in a low lit bar singing the ode “Hang me, Oh hang me.” He’s not some budding talent or has-been. He had a partner once, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. They had a record that came and went out almost as fast. The unsold copies sit in a warehouse somewhere rotting away with the rats. That’s really Llewyn’s life. He’s couch hopping his way through Greenwich Village, a pitiful wanderer with the cat he was entrusted with in one hand and his guitar in the other. In the frigid winter air, he doesn’t even have a real overcoat. He can barely afford it.

insidel4The film goes so many places only to return to where it was. So much goes on without anything happening and so on. Llewyn has it out with Jean, a transformed and caustic Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. How it could ever be Llewyn’s doesn’t make much sense, since she seems to despise his guts. Why would she sleep with him?

Llewyn alienates his sister with his misanthropic outlook and foul mouth. He loses and tries to recover the cat of his folk-loving friends the Gorffeins. How they ever became friends we’ll never know. A spur of the moment trip to Chicago comes up and with it, there’s the token John Goodman performance that feels like an absurd aside to the entire plot. Then again, the film’s only plot is the wanderings of Davis, so if meeting passengers while hitchhiker marks his journey it seems pertinent.  A trip to the Gate of Horn for an impromptu audition turns out to be unfruitful and it is the film’s most difficult scene. Davis lays all his heart and soul out there in a poignant performance and all he gets from the producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is that he should join a trio. He’s not solo material.

insidel5Llewyn returns to Greenwich dejected and things continue going poorly for him. So we end up leaving him about where we started. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez would come in time, but it’s the musicians like Davis that are a sadder tale. Those who faded away over the years. Who lay beat up in an alley for heckling a performance in a hole-in-the-wall bar. It’s the circle of life of a folk singer and you wonder if he would ever have it any other way. Undoubtedly this folk oasis was a more hopping, more welcoming place than the Coen’s painted it, but it does suggest something powerful.

Why would somebody subject themselves to this type of lifestyle? Unless they’re insane and like to suffer, it must be that they really believe in the music. They believe in bearing their heart and soul because the music makes them feel alive. Obviously, there is more to life than music, some would argue that point, but it is a brilliant starting point. We can respect someone who sticks by their convictions and their passions. Even if it means chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village looking for a cat. You would never see me doing that. Maybe if it were a dog. Maybe.

4/5 Stars

Review: Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's_List_movieWhat is there to say about Schindler’s List except that it is necessary viewing for its depiction of Shoah, suggesting that, literally, out of the ashes beauty and hope will rise. It would be rather callous to call Steven Spielberg’s film pure entertainment. True, he comes with a pedigree that includes such escapist classics like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. However, Schindler’s List is a far different creature and it is arguably his most significant film. It is so moving on a heart-wrenchingly beautiful level. Because great films are more than entertainment, pure and simple. They are affecting, tapping into some deep well inside of us that causes us to laugh, to cry, and have feelings.

Schindler’s List shows us the horrors of the Holocaust without dumbing them down. We see those getting shot. We see the naked bodies. We see the mass graves and the billowing ashes. It can be hard to watch. Abrasive in its content, but not in its form. The film itself is beautifully cast in black-in-white with the most moving of compositions by John Williams and poignant performances by many. But permeating through all of this is, of course, the tragedy, but with the tragedy comes the hope which is crucial to a story such as this.

Spielberg’s reference point is one man named Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who not only was a war profiteer and womanizer but a member of a Nazi party. He’s not afraid of ingratiating himself with the right people to make a pretty penny off the imminent war because in his mind it’s all good business acumen. And aside from his affiliations, what’s not to like about him? He’s well-groomed, a gentleman, and charismatic. It still would be a far cry to call him a hero, at least not yet.

With his main motive still being money, he makes contact with a Jewish man named Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who not only has the bookkeeping abilities he is looking for but also connections to the black market and Jewish investors. So as the ghettos in Poland fill up to the brim, Schindler is quick to capitalize, offering the Jews more practical resources in exchange for their money. They get something, but he’s the big winner. He begins to set up his factory for the production of pots and pans which proves to be a lucrative business, especially with most of the bigwigs on his side. At the same time, he takes on Jewish laborers since they’re cheap, and Stein is able to save them from a fate of a concentration camp or being shot.

Our primary villain, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) is ordered to start a new camp and just like that the ghettos are closed and the Jews are forced out. He is a despicable creature and a sadist to the max, exemplified by the many people he shoots from his balcony in the mornings. There’s no provocation for it. He just does it because he can. He is not the type of man you can seemingly deal with normally, and yet being a man with immense charisma, Schindler does just that, all in the name of business.

But Schindler too sees the chaos, destruction, and killing that is going on. He can not try to underplay it now since he has seen it all firsthand. But there is a point in the film where his focus slowly evolves from a desire to make money to actually saving Jews from complete annihilation. The most obvious moment occurs after he sees the little girl in the red coat lying in a wagon, dead. Moments earlier he had seen her scampering through the streets, an innocent beacon of color amidst the chaos. What is the world coming to when a girl such as this can be killed for no apparent reason? It begs for a response from Schindler. He can no longer be a passive observer and so he does take action.

With the aid of the ever faithful Stern, Schindler is able to construct a list of over a 1,000 Jews to save from the concentration camps. As the war is going poorly for the Germans, Goeth is ordered to transfer his prisoners to Auschwitz, and although Schindler almost loses all his workers, he is able to save them by literally buying all their lives from Goeth. He spends his entire fortune to save them as well as ensuring that his armament plant does not actually make any working shells. It’s bad business, but it is all in the name of one of the greatest acts of humanity he could perform.

In one final word to the people, Schindler protects his Jews one last time, daring the Nazis working at his factory to kill them or go home to their families as men. They silently choose the latter, and he flees the camp as a war profiteer.  He breaks down looking at the few possessions he has left suggesting that more Jews could have been saved with them, but the Jews in front of him, represented by Stern, point out the great good he did. They bestow upon him a ring with the inscription: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

He is gone now and the story of Schindler’s Jews is not yet complete, because they do not know where to go, but they head out with purpose making their way towards the future. And it is in this moment that their story stops being a memory and breaks on into the present. It is a wonderfully powerful device from Spielberg that evokes an overwhelming flood of emotion. In a line of solidarity, the Schindler Jews walk forward toward the grave of Oskar Schindler. Nothing can quite explain the feelings pulsing through the body as we watch actors and their real-life counterparts laying stones on the grave of this man, much like the Israelites laying stones down in remembrance of what their God did for them.  In one final moment, Schindler’s wife lays one final stone and Liam Neeson lays downs a final rose and we see his imposing but solitary silhouette off in the distance. It’s magnificent, to say the least.

Out of the many scenes that become ingrained in the mind, there were two that especially resonated with me. One of them occurs when the children were trying to evade capture and imminent death. In such a life or death situation they willingly resolved to literally swim in the urine of the outhouse. Another scene that got an immense reaction from me was when all the naked women, with their hair now cut off, are herded into the showers. Both they and the audience think this is the end of their lives so it is almost a cruel trick when water begins flooding from the shower heads. I’m not sure the last time I have felt so much anxiety as an observer. It’s hard to discount.

There are so many great performances big and small, but Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes are both superb. We always love a good anti-hero or at least a complex one, and Oskar Schindler fits that bill beautifully. Also, we love the same in our villain, and I must say although I absolutely despised Goeth for all his evil, I must admit that somehow I still felt sorry for him. He was only a cog in the machine, a lonely man who was really so insignificant, in spite of what he wanted to believe. He shoots Jews, beats them, and yet can have such a twisted and somehow intimate relationship with his Jewish maid Helen.

For over 20 years this film has been a beacon of hope and fragment of truth from a period of history that contains so much darkness. Hopefully, it can continue being that touchstone to the past so that there is never the danger that anyone would forget these catastrophic events, but also the heroes like Oskar Schindler who through their actions were able to do a great deal of good.

5/5 Stars