Black Sea (2014)–The Darkness Beneath the Surface

 

The British-American disaster thriller Black Sea stars  Jude Law as a veteran (Robinson) deep-sea salvage captain, recently unemployed and divorced with a young son. While dejected and wondering what his future holds, Robinson has drinks with a fellow co-worker, Kurston, in similar circumstances.    Soon the two friends assemble a misfit crew to go after the treasure (rumored to be worth millions in gold bullion) from a World War II U-boat sunken in the Black Sea.   After meeting with a financial backer known only as Lewis, they set off on their adventure agreeing to a 60/40 split with Lewis. One of Lewis’s stipulations for financing is to include his minion, Daniels (David Threlfall), purportedly for monitoring the success of the mission.

The exploration begins in a mothball submarine with a crew half Russian and half British. As expected, personality clashes and differences of strategy develop almost immediately. Greed and desperation take control on their claustrophobic vessel. The increasing uncertainty of the mission causes the men to turn on each other.

Black Sea has complicated plot twists, many unexpected, including the ending. Suicide, murder, betrayal all add to the mix. Only one crew member is bilingual and therefore the essential communicator. The youngest member, Tobin, is mistakenly assumed to be a virgin–a bad omen according to the Russian crew.

One particularly hot-headed British crewman is Fraser (Ben Mendelsohn from the award-winning “Bloodline” Netflix series) who ends up in furious, self-destructive, and damaging relationships with almost everyone. Tensions continue to mount with the expected mechanical troubles but with surprising allegiances formed in order to survive. After multiple betrayals and double-crossings Robinson is forced to attempt a risky navigation through a narrow channel in deep water, against almost all crew members’ wishes. As the leader of this mission, Robinson finds himself in no-win situations, no allies, and left with no values or integrity.

The narrative is high-drama, both character-driven and plot-driven–a rarity, particularly in film of this genre. An engaging, crowd-pleaser for almost everyone, especially submarine movie fans. “Das Boot” and “Hunt for Red October” anyone? Black Sea belongs in the same category.

 

Phantom Thread: Moving Through Love, Death and Genius

[Bill Clark, Guest Blogger]

Phantom Thread

 

In an early scene of writer / director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy-Award nominated Phantom Thread,  Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) gazes across the dinner table at Alma (Vicky Krieps) who he hopes will be his next easy conquest. After all, he’s the renowned haute couture dressmaker in 1950s London who clothes royalty and celebrities. She’s just a waitress he picked up earlier in the day. She returns his look with her own dark-eyed steady gaze: “If this is a staring match, you’re going to lose.” And so it begins – a contest of wills and loves, desires and needs, beauty and death.

Alma, from the Latin meaning “nurturing, soul,” enters Reynolds Woodcock’s aesthetic hyper-sensitive world as a life-force determined to break through his hardened upper crust nonchalance. She will have him love her as she wants to be loved, as she knows he needs both to love and be loved.

Closely guarded by his sister / business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville), who’s wary of Alma’s effect on Reynolds, Reynolds flits around Alma, first as his principal model and then lover and inspiration, as a hummingbird, darting in and out. His self-protective indifference provokes and challenges Alma, wanting to become closer to her but driving her to her own obsessive acts.

As this courtship dance goes on, we feast on a visual banquet of couturier 1950s dresses, in deliciously colored fabrics, worthy of a young princess appearing at her favorite charity’s annual gala. You can almost hear silk swish as models walk the runway displaying Woodcock’s artistry.

Jonny Greenwood’s score provides an evocative musical background that completes the extraordinary and convoluted love story, Phantom Thread.

Can there be any doubt what the “phantom thread” is?

 

The Vietnam War–Closure or Catharsis?

The Vietnam War TV series
The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS masterpiece, The Vietnam War is a mournful, heartbreaking documentary: an essential expose and an unvarnished history of war. The refocusing of history using first-person stories is the most important “Ken Burns effect” producing his best documentary to date.

Burns loves to film everyday people’s “small” stories which give perspective and emotion to the larger picture.   The interviews are unforgettable and poignant–a viscerally searing reminder why there is no winner in war. The human faces, together with the visible psychological damage of all participants (American and Vietnamese), make The Vietnam War courageous and unflinching, staggering, raw and, at times, brutally honest. Decades of bad decisions are verified by archival footage from both North and South Vietnam and secret tape recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. A wasteful, dizzying vortex unfolds: devouring lives due to American overconfidence, arrogance and cultural ignorance on one hand and the relentless groundswell of Vietnam’s peasant resistance to foreign rule on the other.

The Vietnam War unwinds as a montage of the collateral damage of war. Pain is still palpable on the faces of all interviewees, American and Vietnamese, recalling a hellishly dark time they cannot forget. One American veteran articulates his loss succinctly:   “The other casualty was the civilized version of me.”

The Vietnam War’s overwhelming power comes from these oral histories, almost twenty hours of them. An American vet describes dragging insurgents’ corpses “to see who would cry ”. An upstate New York soldier’s mother remembers terror every time she heard the crunch of tires on her driveway. A North Vietnamese officer recalls entering a house abandoned by a South Vietnamese family, a dress half-sewn still lying on a table. A North Vietnamese grandmother is forced to look at her bombed son’s face. A US troop rapes a little girl, and one interviewee breaks down relating the incident that happened more than half a century ago. Rare footage of atrocities on all sides are not for the faint-hearted. The historical sweep and emotional punch are evident throughout: a minimum of 429,000 U.S. and allied soldiers and 533,000 Communist troops and civilians killed between 1954 and 1975 (according to Newsweek). Millions more were wounded. Many sources place the estimates far above these.

Burns believes that the Vietnam war begins in 1945, –not 1965 , when President Lyndon Johnson dispatched the first U.S. ground combat unit. The US could not lose a war, after having come out of World War II victorious.

We are introduced to France’s mid-19th century colonization of territories that would eventually become Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The French plundered the region of natural resources, impoverishing its workers while creating servile French-speaking native bureaucrats to carry out its orders, all largely financed by the opium trade. By the early 20th century resistance was on the rise. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of a nascent revolution, is betrayed by two American presidents culminating in the US installation of a dictatorial regime in Saigon and the canceling of free elections for the Vietnamese people. Now the American war was on. The U.S. installed Ngo Dinh Diem as South Vietnam’s autocratic ruler, and aided him in wiping out his enemies. In addition, the US government engineered an election that Diem stole. Ho Chi Minh, betrayed, becomes the brilliant tactician and leader of the resistance.

The Vietnam War also echoes today’s headlines, as in the subplot of foreign collusion in an American election. Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon had secretly requested that South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu stay out of peace talks with the North, in order to improve Nixon’s chances in the 1968 race. President Lyndon B. Johnson was aware of the deal through intelligence surveillance, knew Nixon was lying, but did not make that fact public. We hear Nixon’s lies on an audiotape of Johnson’s call. And Nixon’s paranoia about being found out in this lie partly contributes to Watergate.

The U.S. government begins justifying its growing military intervention in Vietnam, first under President Kennedy, then Lyndon Johnson. Washington policymakers redefine the war as a fight for freedom and democracy over communism. Both nations–the US and Vietnam– are torn apart.

The Vietnam War still holds out hope that we might learn from history, after presenting 20 hours of evidence to the contrary. This documentary no longer permits the US to evade the harsh reckoning that is long overdue. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not allow us to remain in denial about what we did in Viet Nam and why.

Note: The Vietnam War is brought into even sharper focus if watched with companion pieces, The Post, and I Am Not Your Negro (to be reviewed in my next post).

There are still buried landmines  killing people in Vietnam and international NGO’s are tasked with removing them.

“I Am Not Your Negro”–James Baldwin

 

I Am Not Your Negro

Nominated this year for the Academy Award for best documentary, I Am Not Your Negro is the best film in this category I have ever seen. An indie film (and PBS Independent Lens program) I Am Not Your Negro gives us a fuller understanding of the brilliant mind and soul of James Baldwin, a critical thinker, writer, and essayist, whose work is not as well-known as it should be.

At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1987, he left behind thirty pages of an unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, interweaving his incisive and excoriating psychological analysis of race, national identity, and morality. Filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the world through the author’s own words. Enabling viewers to appreciate Baldwin’s unmatched eloquence, I Am Not Your Negro paints a portrait of his rich intellectual power, emotional pain and literary achievement.

James Baldwin in France
James Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence, France in 1985.

Remember This House was supposed to be a personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.  And his letter to his literary agent becomes the template for I Am Not Your Negro,   interspersing lines from the letter to convey Baldwin’s emotions at the time of his friends’ deaths.   I Am Not Your Negro

 Though James Baldwin has been dead for over 30 years, I Am Not Your Negro speaks with unimaginable clarity and force to both the 1960’s Civil Rights movement of his generation and today’s Black Lives Matter. Some of the most compelling scenes intercut footage of police violence in the ’60s with similar violence today, using Baldwin’s words to conflate the two eras. Uncomfortable truths and stark lessons from the shadows of history illuminate Baldwin’s delineation of the psychological dimensions of racial conflict: a dialectic of guilt and rage. In political and social relations between blacks and whites, Baldwin commands this territory, zeroing in on the lengths that whites will go in order to wash themselves clean of their complicity in and denial of oppression. The seminal and stunning argument that Baldwin presents is that racism is the manifestation of an underlying, psychologically pervasive feeling of self-doubt and vulnerability on the part of bigoted whites. Impotence and violence are two sides of the same behavior. Baldwin mercilessly penetrates the psychodynamices of the racist personality: hate comes from fear (of one’s own fragility and weakness) leading to rage and violence.

For the most part I Am Not Your Negro ignores Baldwin’s identity as a homosexual. As early as 1949, Baldwin intrepidly wrote about being gay, a central theme in some of his fiction. As a black gay man, Baldwin’s intellectual excellence was demeaned on several fronts due not only to racism but also to homophobia (which the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover menacingly reported). One of the most overlooked political activists, Lorraine Lansberry (playwright of “Raisin in the Sun”), is seen with Baldwin, in a courageous standoff against an unempathetic Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, in their failed attempt to have him go down to Birmingham, Alabama to support a fourteen year old girl’s fight for integration of a whites-only high school. This is a moment in history that few of us knew…until now.

I Am Not Your Negro makes you think about the life of an extraordinary black gay 1950’s intellectual in our present overheated, anti-intellectual moment in history.

In a scene from “The Dick Cavett Show,” Baldwin tangles with a Yale philosophy professor who condescendingly scolds him for making everything about race relations. The initial spectacle is painful, but Baldwin’s mildmannered triumph of brilliance over credentialed arrogance is thrilling to witness. In what seems effortless, through James Baldwin’s own eloquence we see race not only as a black intellectual sees it but as American blacks all have been defined by it.

Many of Baldwin’s most acclaimed books were written as an ex-pat in Paris where he found the emotional and physical distance required to create his profound dissection of American life. With chilling clarity, the US history of injustice is evident.

Hollywood traffics in stereotypes of black menace and subservience. In a reflexive move, I Am Not Your Negro also becomes a commentary on a U.S. cultural and economic system devoted only to simplistic racial “types” and on perpetuating a fiction of America as the greatest purveyor of freedom, democracy, and happiness. Posters, ads and a particularly rich selection of period movies –some of them Walt Disney and Dr. Seuss–force the viewer to evaluate and draw conclusions about this country’s fear and denial of race.  Juxtaposition of images and footage of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter with Baldwin’s three civil rights icons serves to underscore the plight of the US in our so-called post-racial present. I Am Not Your Negro is a sobering reminder of how far we’ve yet to go.

Note: Baldwin’s own words:   “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.”

“I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. . . . I’m forced to be an optimist.”