An Inspector Calls–Nothing Will Ever Be the Same


An Inspector CallsThe BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, , announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

As the Inspector interviews each family member, the investigation progresses, unfolding secrets and lies. The family’s past actions are brutally exposed. Inspector Goole lays bare the family members’ lack of awareness of the impact their callous behavior has had on Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other,” the Inspector admonishes.

In one-to-one interrogations with the husband, wife, daughter, fiance, and son, Inspector Goole dissects the family’s hypocrisy, self-delusion, and cowardice. Arthur’s wife (the extraordinary Miranda Richardson) thinks the worst fate is a loss in social standing, unconcerned with the death of Eva Smith. Their daughter is also complicit. The fiance has unclean hands as well. The mother and son combine to finally push Eva over the edge. In addressing each of the family’s self-absorbed, self-protecting attitudes and behavior, Inspector Goole addresses how deeply damaging their actions are and what constitutes human decency.

An Inspector Calls is perhaps most provocative for its sharp rebuke of the family-centered, but highly insular and exclusionary views of Arthur and his wife, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families at all cost, regardless of consequences to others. One may never know how actions may affect another, perhaps even throughout another’s lifetime, and so one must be aware and be kind. No actions are without consequences.

The plot is simply superb, tightly woven, and relentless in ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The lessons ring as true today as they did in 1912. David Thewlis performance is so understated that the effect is even more spellbinding.

An Inspector Calls is a clarion blast, warning human beings to care for those beyond their own inner circle, demonstrating a more inclusive attitude and empathy for those with less good fortune. The play is about identity and tribe–nothing will ever be the same.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

“The Look of Silence”–Beyond Words to Forgive

The Look of Silence movie

This film (2015) is a companion piece and powerful account of the 1960’s genocide in Indonesia, a follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut and Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012). Less horrific but more emotionally compelling, “The Look of Silence” is a haunting revisiting of the killing fields of Indonesia and the US’s role in the carnage. (The US purportedly promised gifts to those who rid the country of “communist resisters”.)   More than a million people were slaughtered.

An Indonesian eyeglass salesman named Adi Runkun is investigating the brutal murder of his brother back in 1965 during the dictatorship’s purge of “communists”.   While selling eyeglasses and giving eye exams, Adi discovers the men responsible for the murder. As a metaphor perhaps for “seeing”, the eyeglasses that Adi provides to to the murders still prevent them from comprehending the enormous suffering and ruin that they have inflicted on millions of survivors half a century after.

The scenes are startling and unforgettable, filming family members who have to live in the village alongside the murderers of Adi’s brother and the brutalization of his father. In between investigating the background of the killing fields (=holocaust), Adi and his mother are shown bathing his fragile emaciated father, who was also a victim of the holocaust. “The Look of Silence” is brilliant in focusing on one family’s pain and suffering fifty years later, still reeling from the unthinkable loss, with the killers still in power and exhibiting no regret or remorse.

At times government officials even boast as they revisit the killing fields. Adi forgives them, but the viewer will not be able to forget! “The Look of Silence” is a documentary not to be missed about government’s inhumanity in the name of fighting communism. It is not easy to watch.

Note: Rated PG-13 but definitely NOT for that age group!  Available on Netflix as a DVD.

 

 

“In Secret”–Family Casualties

In Secret movie

In Secret depicts the desperate life of an orphaned girl as she becomes a  sexually repressed young woman. This 2013 American erotic thriller (previously titled Thérèse), is based on Émile Zola’s  classic novel,  Thérèse Raquin.  

In 1860s Paris, Thérèse Raquin (Elizabeth Olsen) is trapped in a loveless and sexless marriage to her sickly cousin, Camille (Tom Felton who played Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series). Thérèse is forced by her domineering aunt, Madame Raquin (the extraordinary Jessica Lange), to accept his marriage proposal, which essentially binding her to becoming a full-time caretaker. She spends her days languishing behind the counter of her aunt’s small shop until she meets her husband’s alluring artist friend Laurent LeClaire (Oscar Isaac). whose sexual charms she finds irresistible. Later Madame Raquin is incapacitated by a stroke and Thérèse’s caregiving role expands. The psychological tension rivals Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment. Who understands one’s motives? Although it’s not easy to empathize with any of the characters, we can follow their flawed neurotic devolution into a dark and frightening world of unforeseen consequences.

In this captivating drama the lines are brilliantly blurred between hero and villain, lover and traitor. The viewer will quickly discover that there are no characters to cheer: one moment there is empathy and the next, repugnance.   The ensemble cast depicts these multi-dimensional characters fraught with mental aberrations almost effortlessly and with brutal honesty, capturing the devastating effects of attempting to achieve freedom and happiness no matter what the cost.

So cleverly ambiguous is the moral ground constructed by Zola that a powerful, intense, shocking human tale of lust, revenge and tragedy unfolds.  In Secret is a sleeper of a movie not to be missed!

 

Note: Available on DVD from Netflix.

RBG–Truth to Power

 

RBG the movie
RBG movie poster

Regardless of your political tastes, the documentary RBG offers an insightful peek into the life and work of a lifelong advocate for equal rights for women and minorities.

As one of three female Supreme Court justices serving on the nine-judge bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural icon and something of a “fan-girl” sensation. We are entertained by the T-shirts and costumes depicting RBG as a superhero. Early in her career as counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg argued more than 300 gender discrimination cases, including six in front of the SCOTUS, five of which she won.

The inspiring story of the 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive and shy but formidable  judicial powerhouse, begins with her upbringing in Brooklyn, the daughter of Russian Jewish parents. Personal interviews with Ginsburg’s childhood friends, family members, colleagues and young millennial fans reveal her impact on US law, as well as her contribution to social change.

 

RBG can’t contain its love for this remarkable legal mind. And rather surprisingly, this documentary is a valentine not only to RBG but also to her supremely proud and supportive husband, Martin–and their love story is very moving and poignant. Meeting at Harvard Law School, the young couple married and carried each other through school, sickness, and parenthood from 1956 until his death in 2010. (Martin was considered one of the top tax attorneys in the country and an endowed chair at Georgetown Law School bears his name.)

RBG the movie

After her husband’s death RBG has taken on even a more courageous, energetic stand in the Supreme Court and was given the moniker Notorious RBG after the rapper Notorious B.I.G. for her feisty style of resistance. Author and activist Gloria Steinem at one point describes Ginsburg as the “closest thing to a superhero I know.”

What ultimately emerges in RBG is a touching portrait of a brilliant Supreme Court justice– described as shy and retiring but with “a quiet magnetism”– a work horse and a master legal strategist in the tiniest and most unassuming of figures. A force of nature, RBG is a glorious homage of truth to power today.

 

Note:  For a charming portrait of the quirky little-known aspects of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, see Jeffrey Toobin’s March 2018 article, “Heavyweight”.

 

Seven Seconds–Black Lives Matter?

 

Seven Seconds Netflix Original Series

The Netflix Original  series Seven Seconds (premiered February 23) is about race, corrupt police and unequal justice. In the opening scene a hit-and-run of an African-American teenager by a white Jersey City rookie cop (Beau Knapp) is covered up by three other members of the police force.

The story is harrowing and complicated, with several subplots that are not resolved. But the seminal theme is clear: does a hit-and-run crime against a young black fifteen-year-old go unpunished, no matter what the evidence or the commitment of the prosecutor?

In ten episodes, Seven Seconds gives us an unflinching portrayal of a mother’s grief over her son, the brutal streets he had to survive in, and the demands of her religion. The opening scene and a number of subsequent ones display the ragged splashes of blood in the snow, the only remaining trace of the teenage bicyclist.

There are two main characters, both black women.   Prosecutor KJ Harper (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is sexually promiscuous and given to drunken stupors and self-doubt. Although from a privileged family, KJ uses none of her family’s status to enhance hers in the city’s power structure. Blunt and emotional, floundering in her personal life and in the courtroom, we see her undercut her own case. Nonetheless, KJ perseveres pursuing the hit-and-run case together with a cop, “Fish” (Michael Mosley), recently transferred from another precinct.

The other main character is the teenage victim’s mother, Latrice Butler (the extraordinary Regina King). She is determined to have justice be served based upon the love she has as a mother. She fights to win the affirmation that her son had existed, a human being not accorded the validation he deserved.

These two characters are the pas-de-deux of the story, the dynamic dance and driving force between what they hope for and what will happen. Veena Sud, the show’s creator (also showrunner for the award-winning The Killing), tackles the anti-hero as female, deeply-flawed, and often unappealing. KJ and Latrice are characters not often associated with film and television. At once unsympathetic but so vulnerable and damaged, both KJ and Latrice reveal how they must maneuver as black women in a white and often dangerous world and remain determined to have their voices heard, no matter what, no matter how painful.

Challenging stereotypes not only of race but also of gender, sexual identity, religion, and military service, Seven Seconds does not so much answer questions as raise them.  This mini-series is Netflix at its best: courageous, intelligent, and beautifully written. There are subplot holes, but the drama nonetheless is riveting and some of the writing is exceptional. Watching it is like reading a good novel, with commitment and depth: binge-viewing with few interruptions makes Seven Seconds even more powerful.

 

Note: Although Seven Seconds has been critically acclaimed and binge-viewed by its fans, Netflix announced this week that Seven Seconds will not be renewed for a second season. Why? This is a travesty!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Internet’s Own Boy”: The Story of Aaron Swartz

 

The Internet's Own Boy

Chronicling the life and tragic death of computer wunderkind Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), “The Internet’s Own Boy” is a documentary that pulls the viewer into a life too brief and incredibly brilliant as we witness a young boy’s intellectual development as well as his emotionally opaque inner life. The testimony of those who deeply loved him and grieved over his untimely death at the age of 25 is sensitively and truthfully conveyed.

A master in software development (some would argue the computer programmer equivalent of the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking), Aaron was reading novels by kindergarten. When he was 13, Aaron had started the equivalent of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed, but it failed to attract attention. He went on to create watchdog.net, a precursor to change.org, but nothing came of either of those. Why did Wikipedia and change.org become Internet giants while the Web sites he developed at the age of 13 and 14 were failures? Probably because the gatekeepers in the fields of technology did not take seriously the insightful, prescient programming of a barely pubescent boy.

Later, Aaron drops out of high school and yet is accepted at Stanford. Then Aaron leaves the university’s computer science program after one year, because the classes were “pointless and boring”. Funded by Y Combinator, an “incubator” firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aaron starts Infogami, eventually merging with another Y Combinator start-up, Reddit, which is sold to Condé Nast. Aaron becomes a millionaire at the age of 20.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” gains more momentum as a dramatic thriller, after the historical overview of why Aaron Swartz’s life matters. Beyond the contributions this young savant has made to the Internet as we know it, we witness the FBI’s two-year surveillance of every move he makes. Why the surveillance? After becoming a millionaire, Aaron Swartz turned to political activism, developing software for open access to public information, including medical and legal documents. After all, corporate websites saw these databases as a source of revenue. The public had to pay to gain access, charging for information sponsored by nonprofit institutions or undertaken with government funding. Neither the corporations nor academia were pleased with Aaron Swartz and open access.

Swartz was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic medical database JSTOR. [For those of you who have googled a medical problem on the Internet, JSTOR is one of the primary databases for medical research. After one or two sentences describing research from a prestigious university, the user has to pay several hundred dollars to read the entire university report.) JSTOR filed a complaint with the US government, in conjunction with MIT (even though MIT’s computer system is open to anyone on campus).

Soon after his arrest, he returned the data he had taken, and JSTOR considered the matter settled. For reasons that are unclear, MIT continued to cooperate with the prosecution, despite many efforts, internal and external, to dissuade it.

Aaron Swartz was also concerned about the relation between political candidates’ wealth and their electoral success, and, while successful candidates’ financial disclosure records were available on the Internet, unsuccessful candidates’ records, while public and digitized, were not online. If you wanted to see them, you were required to make paper copies in a library, but Swartz wanted access to the digital files so he could analyze the data. With the help of fellow programmer Alec Resnick, they spent days in a library attempting to hack into the files. But the government had not forgotten about Aaron’s mission to make public records accessible. Resnick was held in jail overnight and then released.

Next Swartz went to a library in Chicago and downloaded twenty per cent of the pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database for public documents. He then gave the data to the Stanford Law Review for publication. As the FBI investigation was in its infancy in 2008, Swartz and a few other hackers wrote the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.” Meanwhile , the FBI conducting surveillance on his parents’ house, near Chicago.

Shortly after Swartz was arrested, the prosecutors subpoenaed Quinn Norton, his ex-girlfriend. This is perhaps one of the most devastating scenes in which we see how the US prosecutorial team manipulated Norton, in order to compel her to cooperate with the investigation.  His family was horrified. There was concern that he would commit suicide if he went to prison.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy” has relevance that has never been stronger than it is today with the manipulation of Facebook by unseen agents . Swartz’s belief that the influence of money in American politics was so enormous a problem that he wanted to devote his considerable programming genius to expose the influence of wealth on the political process.

But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that has us all deeply in his debt. This film is Aaron Swartz’s personal story about the price we all pay when we accept the business models undergirding their profits  on one hand , and misunderstand or ignore the power of free access to public information. The privatization of public information is at stake.

“The  Internet’s Own Boy”, a  moving portrait of a computer genius whose mission was to provide a better world through digital access to information, reveals how powerful information is and how access to it is hoarded and brutally protected by corporations and government agencies. Timely exposé indeed!

 

Note:  “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” (2014) is available on Netflix (DVD).

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Allred–A Hero Before #MeToo

 

Seeing Allred

Seeing Allred, which premiered at Sundance in January (and now available on Netflix,) gives us a new portrait of the revolutionary Gloria Allred, the feminist lawyer who singlehandedly took on legal cases including the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass in Congress), and Roe vs. Wade. The list of men Gloria Allred has taken to court on violation of women’s rights reads like a Who’s Who of the not so great: Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump.

What propelled Gloria Allred to become the woman she is–an intrepid fighter for women’s rights, the rights of minorities, and LGBT? That is the major theme of “Seeing Allred”.

In the opening scene at a 1977 taping of the Dinah Shore show, Dinah asks the female audience to vote on what their husbands want most when they come home from work– a hot meal or seeing their spouses in a sheer negligee. A thirty-something diminutive Allred stands up and defiantly challenges the vote: “I think we have a uterus and a brain and they both work!” The camera pans to shocked faces in the audience, and, finally, someone cheers.

A master for calculating the public’s reactions on camera, Allred is, in sharp contrast, a deeply private person. You can see her reluctance to this filming.  

“Power only understands power,” Allred responds when asked about her decades of warfare that her opponents as well as talk-show hosts have called shrill, unlikable, and a lying, money-hungry bitch. Gloria Allred is at her best: in front of reporters where she often argues her case before the court of public opinion.

Almost prescient, Allred battled for gay soldiers to serve in the military and for the first lesbian couple wanting to marry in 2004. She opposed different treatment for men and women for their insurance, dry cleaning, and wages. Almost all of these battles Allred won. More than 45 years ago, she represented McCorvey in Roe v. Wade before the Supreme Court.

In my opinion, the most spellbinding moment in the film, is when Allred reveals she was raped at gunpoint at the age of 25 by a man she trusted. After the sexual assault, she became pregnant, had an illegal abortion (the only kind available) and almost died. Hemorrhaging, she reports in her memoir that a nurse told her: “This will teach you a lesson.” And Allred realized a lesson she wanted to teach others. She wanted women’s rage turned outward, not inward. Now we know her heart and her mission.

Allred’s feisty, fearless persona as an attorney is sharply contrasted with her devotion and close relationship with her daughter, Lisa Bloom. Very close in their mother-daughter relationship, Allred divorced her first husband when Lisa was five and raised her mostly by herself.   Bloom is also an attorney representing women’s rights.

Perhaps what is most startling in watching Seeing Allred is observing her two sides, the remarkably sensitive but highly dramatic attorney who feels the pain of the women she represents and the more protective private woman who stiffens and shuts down at any personal questions.   This is the attorney who dangled a chastity belt at a California state congressman for denying passage of an abortion bill early in her legalization campaign. An interlocutor unafraid to argue her point, she’s loved and treasured by many, receiving the spotlight at last year’s Women’s March in Washington, DC.

Allred used humor to her advantage in 2012, when a Canadian transgender beauty contestant was disqualified from a Miss Universe pageant owned by Trump. Taking up her case, Allred called a press conference:

“Mr Trump, we don’t care what your anatomy looked like when you were born, and you shouldn’t care what her anatomy looked like when she was born.” Trump retorted in swaggering fashion.: “Oh, Gloria would probably love to see what’s under my pants.” Allred countered she didn’t have a magnifying glass strong enough to see something that small. The transgender contestant was reinstated; another win for Allred.

Allred represents Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” suing Trump; a woman who accused Roy Moore of sexual assault; and 33 women who have accused Cosby of sexual assault.

Seeing Allred ends with the filing of new suits against Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein.

The Shape of Water–E.T. Meets Aqua Man

 

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (2018  Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize.   The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.

The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.  The Shape of Water

Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.

In The Shape of Waterthe damage is more psychological than physical.  Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.

Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.

Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.

Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?

Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.

Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.

Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must   communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.

Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!

Memento–Remembrance of Things Past

Wesley Saunders, Guest Blogger

[Professional basketball player for Kataja Basket of Finland, Harvard ’15. Stop by his  Instagram: @saunders.wesley and watch his  Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8mC0KC_BZU&t=10s]

Memento movie

Memento (2000), a psychological thriller, is one of director Christopher Nolan’s earliest films, incorporating a couple of Nolan’s signature styles of film making– most notably a dual-plot line and non-linear narrative. Memento follows two distinct story lines, both narrated by the main character, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). After a head injury sustained during a burglary in which his wife was raped and murdered, Shelby is no longer able to create new memories, only remembering events that occurred before the tragedy. Shelby is haunted by the memory of his wife and her final moments and takes it upon himself to solve his wife’s murder.   His mission: to exact revenge on the person who murdered her and left him with amnesia.

From the onset of Memento Nolan draws us into the first storyline (filmed in color), driven by revenge. In the first scene Shelby exacts revenge and from there, we are shown in reverse chronological order, not only the events that led up to his wife’s brutal murder but also his attempt to reconstruct the past he no longer remembers.

The second narrative is the story of Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) presented in chronological order and filmed in multiple black-and-white flashbacks. These flashbacks pre-date Shelby’s amnesia, taking us back to Shelby’s time as an insurance agent. During this time, Shelby was assigned a case in which Sammy Jankis suffers from the same type of short-term memory loss. Shelby uses Sammy as a way to understand his condition as well as a guide for what to beware of.

While both of these story lines are presented to us simultaneously, Nolan adds his next cinematic device. Similar to some of his later films — Batman Begins: The Dark Knight and The Prestige,– in Memento Nolan cuts, edits, and merges scenes, skewing the viewer’s perspective of time as well as memory. Some scenes are repeated multiple times, truncated only to be finished later on. All of this contributes to the mystique and the mystery of Memento, while also forcing the viewer to pay attention to minute details within each scene that may not have been previously noticed. This style of film making puts the viewer in the shoes of Shelby.

In some instances, the viewer shares Shelby’s confusion– not sure of what has already occurred, or what information another character may or may not have. We too in some ways experience his amnesia and try to put the pieces of the mystery together along with Shelby. Nolan does a masterful job of placing us in the mind of the main character and of giving us an idea of the inner struggle and frustration he faces. By the end of Memento we are left with some answers but many more questions. We have been on a journey of how memory functions, an involuntary process of discovery and concealing.

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?

 

“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.”