Category: Hollywood

The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

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The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

The Girl on the Train (US 2016)

The world from the train window . . .

The world from the train window . . .

The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

Tom (Justin Theroux) and Rachel (Emily Blunt), the divorced couple . . .

The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie – trapped in the town which is a "baby-making factory"?

Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) with her baby, Evie, trapped in the town – which is a “baby-making factory”?

I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The psychiatrist, Dr Abdic (Edgar Ramírez) and Megan (Haley Bennett)

The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.

The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) and The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)

Kurosawa's original with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

Kurosawa’s original Seven Samurai with Mifune Toshiro in the foreground

The new 'Seven' led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new ‘Seven’ led by the man in black (Denzel Washington)

The new version of The Magnificent Seven is an entry in a major global franchise. The universal elements in the film’s story have been around for a very long time. Robin Hood, for instance, is a story in which a group of outlaws protect villagers from the Sheriff’s men. But the specific story structure of seven ‘professionals’ recruited to protect a village comes from the imagination of Kurosawa Akira and his collaborators and the folk tales and history of 16th century Japan that created the 1954 film Seven Samurai, widely regarded as a classic action film. Seven Samurai prompted the original Hollywood remake in 1960 and several sequels. In his chapter on ‘Remaking Seven Samurai in World Cinema’ in East Asian Cinemas (eds Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, I. B. Tauris 2008) David Desser explores the influence of the film on a range of productions in Hong Kong and India as well as in the US. My interest is in the extent to which the new film draws on Kurosawa and how much is lost through the process of adaptation. The scriptwriters of the new film, Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, are credited alongside the original writers Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu and Oguni Hideo. I note that Pizzolatto is a novelist who has written for the TV serials True Detective and the US remake of The Killing, and that he has also taught writing – all of which might give some hope that he could make good use of the original script.

There are certainly aspects of the original script still present, but the new film is 133 mins long, roughly 65% of the running time of the Kurosawa film, so quite a lot is missing (there is no ‘padding’ in Seven Samurai). The location of the story has moved north from the 1960 version and re-located in the Sierra Nevada (“three days from Sacramento”) in 1879. This makes sense since Seven Samurai was similarly based in the mountains in an isolated village. The date and setting make the new film a ‘mountain Western’ with gold mining. Here is the first problem in that the townspeople of Rose Creek don’t have a visible farming community and their attachment to the land is symbolic rather than being portrayed realistically. (In the original, the bandits have already been to steal the rice harvest and are expected again for the barley harvest.) The new script isn’t quite sure what to do with the gold miners and it doesn’t have time (or enough imagination?) to represent farming. Instead it introduces the villain as a capitalist exploiter and the main motivation of the townsfolk to be expressed through Emma (Haley Bennett), a woman who wants “righteousness” after her husband was killed by the exploiter “but will take revenge”. A similar figure was a minor but important character in the original. Apart from the preacher, none of the other townspeople is given a narrative function as such. Because of this, Kurosawa’s main theme is lost.

Seven Samurai is about a distinctive clash of caste and class presented as a humanist epic. The farmers in the isolated village normally despise the samurai, whose societal role as warriors employed by feudal lords is under threat during the 16th century when many of them are unemployed, becoming ronin or ‘masterless samurai’. The samurai who are recruited to help the farmers are poor and hungry – they will fight for three bowls of rice a day. But they are also men of honour, so they will fight to maintain that honour. Kurosawa makes this explicit and deeply moving by a decision to employ what was already becoming his trademark, the ‘master and apprentice’ roles within the group of samurai. Shimura Takashi as Kannei is the ‘master’, the older man who is a wise warrior, a skilled fighter and a leader of men. Katsushiro (Kimura Isao) is the young man, the devoted follower and the one with most to learn because he is distracted by a young woman from the village. Shimura was the actor used most by Kurosawa. But he isn’t the star of the film. That’s Mifune Toshiro. Mifune plays Kikuchiyo, the man who would be a samurai. His secret will only emerge later when we learn that he was a farmer’s son and that he had been abandoned as a baby during a raid by pirates. Kikuchiyo forms the bridge between the samurai and the farmers. He understands both and despises both, yet supports both. It is his human story that reveals the film’s theme. The genius of the Seven Samurai script is that we learn about a wide range of characters – so there are individual stories – but those stories also inform the overall narrative about a society in which both farmers and samurai/bandits are suffering (but in which the farmers will be the long-term winners).

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

Emma (Hayley Bennett) becomes a sharpshooter – and the effective leader of the town.

The script for the new film struggles to find the same sense of coherence. We do learn something of the ‘back stories’ of ‘Chisolm’ (Denzel Washington) Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and a few others, but these stories don’t relate to the overall narrative in the same way as they do in Kurosawa’s film. Chisolm does have a personal reason to fight, but like Emma’s motivation it is about revenge against the villain, not about honour. Revenge is not a motive to trigger carnage on the scale depicted here. At the end of the Seven Samurai, the three survivors are the ‘master’, the ‘apprentice’ and the second in command. The other four samurai have been killed and the master observes, as planting begins for a new crop, that the farmers have won. I suppose I shouldn’t spoil the ending of the new version, save to note that what it seems to do is to highlight the new ‘diversity’ amongst the defenders of the village. Yet the weirdest thing about the whole film is that presence of a black law enforcement officer (Chisolm), an East Asian gunslinger, a Comanche warrior and a woman leading the townspeople is never really commented upon. Director Antoine Fuqua has said that he wanted to make the kind of Western that he watched as a child with his grandmother. In this sense his film is ‘colour-blind’. But this is a film set in that period of Western history when the four ‘minorities’ he presents in the narrative were actively engaged in conflicts in the ‘real West’ as well as the Hollywood ‘revisioned’ West of movies from the 1970s onwards. It’s as if movies like Harry Belafonte’s Buck and the Preacher (1972) never happened. In The Magnificent Seven we see the gamblers and saloon girls leaving town when the attacks begin, but in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1973), the brothel-keeper played by Julie Christie is a new kind of female entrepreneur to stand alongside the school teacher and the homesteader as a new female type – and a representative of capitalist enterprise. Instead of running away she would consider selling out to the kind of capitalist exploiter who threatens the town in the new Seven. The East Asian character is again not investigated in any way, even though 1879 was some 10 years after Chinese workers had helped build the first transcontinental railway in the US. Chinese migrants (and therefore East Asians generally) would have been part of the life of many Western towns. I’m not sure how a Korean would have got there, but the point is that Fuqua seems fairly cavalier about both ‘real’ history and the myths developed during the declining years of the Western as a mainstream genre. By contrast, Kurosawa’s historical representations were essentially ‘realist’ with careful research to get things ‘right’.

Kurosawa famously built his village in the mountains, for the most expensive film in Japanese history at that point. He built it to specifications with the various action sequences in mind. Fuqua presumably built his own town on location for the same reasons. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have thought so much about how to shoot the action scenes. The only thing I remember from the great battle is the bizarre sight of Denzel Washington performing a riding stunt worthy of a Roy Rogers movie in order to shoot a bad guy. Fuqua did choose to have a church at the centre of the action and this was a good decision, conjuring up a whole host of Westerns, but again I don’t think it was thought through fully. Kurosawa set his battle in the midst of howling winds and torrential rain with swordsmen struggling in a sea of mud to great effect. Nothing as exciting happens in the new film. However, I should record that I actually enjoyed watching Denzel and co. even as I was ticking off the missed opportunities. The film was entertaining, it just wasn’t ‘special’. Seven Samurai still stands at No 19 on IMDb’s all-time list of the Top 250 movies and for good reason. It has a great story, human values, engaging characters, terrific performances, photography and editing rarely bettered, a wonderful score and Mifune on fire. See the trailers below for a quick summation of the differences.

 

US Presidential Election Movies

Clinton 'faced' by Trump

Clinton ‘faced’ by Trump

With only a short time left before the actual voting for and election of the next US President I have been expecting some enterprising exhibitor to offer a selection of the many films that feature this process. I know from experience how effective revisiting films that become topical can be. At the 2007 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto we had one of the last screenings in the D. W. Griffith programme: The Struggle (1931, a sound film). An opening sequence set in an open-air bar has a group of men discussing the state of the nation. One character opines to the effect that “we need a change of president.” This line was greeted by a roar of spontaneous approval from the rear of the auditorium, where it appeared many of the visitors from the USA were sitting. There are indeed many films that touch on US elections, some including a representation of a Presidential election : some featuring other US elections: and  some where the road to the White House figures in some way. I thought it would be interesting to revisit the best or the most interesting. There are even some films that feature a US female president, and even more television dramas.

Gabriel Over the White House 1933

President Judson C. “Judd” (“Major”) Hammond (Walter Huston) is elected to tackle the country’s depression and international threats. His presidency marks him as an almost fascistic leader who makes Donald Trump look like a wishy washy liberal.

First Lady 1937

Washington in the throes of an election with Stephen Wayne (Preston Foster) running for Oval office. But the key player is his wife and perspective First Lady, Lucy Chase Wayne (Kay Francis). A comic take on politics and power.

Keeper of the Flame 1942

George Cukor directs. Spencer Tracy as journalist Steven O’Malley writing a biography of Robert Forrest, who, before his untimely death, was seen as a potential President. O’Malley seeks an interview with the widow Christine Forrest (Katherine Hepburn, the great partner with Tracy in innumerable films). As O’Malley investigates it becomes clear that Forrest was a fascistic leader planning to subvert US democracy. His untimely death has saved the nation.

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State of the Union 1948

Frank Capra made several films that critique the Washington political class. In this production Spencer Tracy is would-be candidate Grant Matthews. Newspaper magnate Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury, the mother in The Manchurian Candidate) backs him until he starts to utter what he thinks are home truths. When he withdraws and voices his views on public radio [just like Franklin D Roosevelt] the media attempt to silence him.

The Last Hurrah 1958

Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is running for re-election in a major city [Boston]. The election is an example of old-style Tammany Hall politics versus the new politics of media. In the character of his young opponent, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Kevin McCluskey), there appears to be a satirical reference to an earlier US Presidential election. This is a John Ford film with a fine cast of veteran Hollywood actors.

The Best Man 1964

Two Presidential candidates, William Russell (Henry Fonda) and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) vie for the endorsement by the retiring President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy). You can guess from the stars or the character’s names who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. The background of a Party Convention makes the film even more interesting. And the biting script by Gore Vidal is excellent.

The Manchurian Candidate 1964

This is the best of the two film versions of Richard Condon’s novel. The main plot point is an attempted assassination, but that is part of a wider conspiracy. The climax takes place at a Party Convention where Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra, himself a would-be Presidential assassin in Suddenly, 1954) confronts Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey). We get both the ‘red scare’ of the earlier decades and a candidate, Senator John Yerkes Iselin  (James Gregory),  who might be a relative of Donald Trump.

The Candidate 1972

Bill Mackay (Robert Redford) runs as a Democrat for a senatorial post in California. As the campaign develops he learns the reality of political contests in the USA.

Voter and candidate.

Voter and candidate.

The Dead Zone 1983

This was a novel by Stephen King, directed in a film adaptation by David Cronenberg. It would be the key movie for 2016. Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) suffers an accident and then develops psychic powers. When he touches a person he sees and hears their secrets, past, present and future. The traumas of these powers turn Johnny into a recluse. He also asks himself the question, if he had touched Hitler and seen his future should he have killed him? This question takes practical form when he meets and touches Senatorial candidate [and a Presidential candidate to-be] Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen, playing the exact opposite of President Josiah Bartlett). When you see the film you will realise why it is so apt.

Dave 1993

David Kovic (Kevin Kline) is the ‘stand-in for President William Harrison Mitchell (Kevin Kline). The latter is another sexpot whose fortunate stroke turns David into the President [only short term]. He is a virtuous President, aided by wife and widow First Lady Ellen (Sigourney Weaver). An ingenious but implausible method for replacing a President.

The American President 1995

This film has Michael Douglas as President and widower Andrew Shepherd who, whilst courting lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), worries with his chief of staff Lewis Rothschild (Michael J Fox) over his poll ratings and a future re-election. Director Rob Reiner and writer Aaron Sorkin offer an early version of what would become so successfully on US Television The West Wing’s President Josiah Bartlett. In fact Martin Sheen has a supporting role in the film as a confidante and ‘Chief Domestic Advisor’. Early on one character describes visiting the White House as ‘Capraesque’ and it is this sort of narrative essayed in the film. As a good Liberal and Democrat Andrew Shepherd wins his girl and beats down Republican Senator and sound bite purveyor Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss).

Absolute Power 1997

President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) is another philandering leader, this time with the wife of his mentor Walter Sullivan (E. G. Marshall). His nemesis this time is high-tech cat burglar Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood). Another example of Hollywood scriptwriters coming up with methods for disposing of undesirable commanders-in-chief.

Acting President Kathryn Bennett.

Acting President Kathryn Bennett.

Air Force One 1997

Whilst monogamous James Marshall (Harrison Ford) is off fighting terrorists, predictably led by Ivan Korshunov (Garry Oldman) Vice-President Kathyn Bennett (Glenn Close) gets to act as President for a few hours. We appear to be in a cycle of alternating Presidential personas – philanderer followed by virtuous type.

Primary Colours 1998

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is running for President, supported by his wife Susan (Emma Thomson). Stanton is also running to hide a sexual scandal. This thinly veiled dramatising of history is probably the movie that Hilary Clinton would least like to see re-released in 2016.

The Contender 2000

Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) s a contender for US Vice President, but information and disinformation about her past surfaces in a way that threatens to de-rail her confirmation. She is no Hilary Clinton who presumably feels equally strongly about the invective directed against her. And we have in Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) someone who sounds like Donald Trump.

The Ides of March 2011

Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is a ‘staffer’ in the Presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), Democrat. But his naive eyes are opened, both by the conduct of the candidate and the machinations of the party machines.

Independence Day: Resurgence, 2016

Yet to be seen, the return of an alien invasion sees a female President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward). Plot Spoiler – she dies. Wish fulfilment by a Trump supporter?