Category: Hollywood

Selma (US 2014)

selma-poster

This film has already generated much interest and nominations for a number of prestigious awards. However, a major Oscar was not one of the Awards that it actually won. The Hollywood Academy is not noted for its critical acumen, but this year’s major awards really do ‘take the biscuit’. Do people really think that Birdman is a better film, has a better director and has better cinematography? Of the major award nominees Selma is the best film that I have seen, apart from Ida in the Best Foreign Language Category. It may sound banal but maybe the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave last year sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers stereotypes such as Afro-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one thought. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. One aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or reactionary.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence is shot using noticeable cinematic techniques, which the film then tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

Martin and Coretta

Martin and Coretta

The film continues with scenes from private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual experience of the day to day for the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of Edgar J. Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.

Protesting the right to vote

Protesting the right to vote

Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of Non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film twice now, on both occasions there were good-sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence.

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars are coming to join them they break into a chorus of De.e.o.o.o.o. The film is also conscious on the issue of gender – at mealtimes and in other ways. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical, but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and dramatic overhead shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Just to highlight one scene. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist, John Lewis (Stephan James), in a car: whilst they are partly in darkness, as the conversation develops the light falls increasingly on King’s face.

The film was mainly shot on location. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, sitting regally in the Oval office.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue was mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action.

Marching towards a victory

Marching towards a victory

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anamorphic ratio – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.

Still if you see one Oscar-winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.

Glasgow FF15 #7: Why Be Good? (US 1929)

Colleen Moore as the 'hot dancer' . . .

Colleen Moore as the ‘hot dancer’ . . .

I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.

A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.

Foxcatcher (US 2014)

foxcatcher

I checked the posts and we have not reviewed this film, though we have posted on some of the other Academy Award Nominees. This is one of the better films in that selection. Certainly better than Birdman, which won the Best Picture and Best Director Awards. Selma is also a better film and is better directed than the 2014 winner. A word of caution regarding Foxcatcher‘s marketing. I saw the UK trailer and thought ‘this is not my sort of movie’. However, a couple of regulars at my favourite cinema commended it. So I went and saw it: I am glad I followed their advice; the trailer is misleading.

The film explores the relationship between two brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing |Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and John Eleuthère DuPont (Steve Carell), a member of the multi-million dollar entrepreneurial family. John wants to ‘coach’ a team of wrestlers for the US team for the 1988 Olympics. Mark and Dave have already won Olympic Gold Medals and are to be his stars. The film includes quite an amount of training for and participation in wrestling, including the 1998 Olympics in Seoul. However, the film is really about their relationships and about class in recent US society: not a focus that is that common in mainstream Hollywood films.

The film enters this world in a slightly tangential fashion: it took me about 25 minutes to get really interested in the film. But then it gets into the complexities of the US psyche, especially in terms of class and masculinity. It is not the usual ‘hard work pays off with sporting success’ common in sports films. But it does explore the motivation of participants and their backers in the in increasingly commercial worlds of international sport.

The acting by the central protagonists is convincing. Mark is for much of the film out his depth in the world of lauded over by the super-rich. Dave fails to see what is developing beneath the surface. Whilst John increasingly reveals the distorted personality that such an incestuously rich family can spawn. Steve Carell won the Best Supporting Actor Award from the Academy for his performance. And there is an extremely effective cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as his overpowering mother.

The film is ably directed by Bennett Millar, also Capote (2005). The cinematography by Grieg Fraser makes excellent use of the interiors, often containing the characters, and the landscapes provide ironically beautiful settings for this privileged world. As in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Fraser’s use of colour emphasises the unspoken aspects of the relationships: shadows portend the darker stages of the film. Note though it was shot on celluloid but circulates in a 2K DCP: unfortunately some of the long shots lack definition. The sound track is excellent, with a fine balance between dialogue, noise and music: quite few of the recent films, including Birdman, seem to have a lack of balance between these inputs.

The film is based on actual people and events. I had a vague memory of these from the 1980s, but so little that the film was full of surprises as the story developed. I think it works better this way. Both as an increasingly riveting study and as a critical view of ‘America’, this film is to be recommended.

American Sniper (US 2014)

american-sniper

I had warnings about this film beforehand – not that great reviews and less than positive word of mouth. The film lived down to my expectations. Mainly this was because of the reactionary politics that provide its basis. The film is based on the actual career of a SEAL sniper, nicknamed ‘the legend’, fighting in Iraq where he scored over 160 kills. We follow gun-toting yanks riding round Iraq shooting down the hapless natives – be they civilians, collaborators or the opposition. The battle scenes were rather like a computer game, with bodies falling everywhere: the amount of firepower makes the film rather loud. This is nothing new: US films tend to present body counts of something like 50 or a 100 to one in their own favour. And the stereotypical and negative representation of the ‘other’ has a long track record.

On top of this the film was not that engaging. The production values are pretty good, but the protagonists do not seem to engender much sympathy or identification, though both are clearly intended.

When I returned home, as is my habit, I read the review in Sight & Sound (February 2015). This was one of the longer reviews; by Nick Pinkerton. It stimulated me to think again about the film. The comments on the film are really interesting, though finally I found them not fully convincing.

Pinkerton’s main point is to argue that:

He [Eastwood] has made a movie that embodies, with awe and horror, the national romance with firearms.

In arguing this point of view Pinkerton fails to address the main point – that the Iraq military adventure was a neo-colonial assault on an oppressed people. One of the main characters, Taya (Sienna Miller) tells her husband Chris Kyle (the sniper of the title – Bradley Cooper) that

This is about us, not them.

This appears to be the stance of a large proportion of the US population, of the book from which the film is adapted [Kyle’s bestselling memoir], of this film version, and the review itself.

The nearest the review approaches to the violence inflicted on the Iraqi people is,

While in the country, Kyle witnesses – and inflicts – horrors untold. Many people die and die badly, women and children first.

That is as close as Pinkerton gets to addressing the major silences of the film. It is clear that Kyle has little comprehension of the politics of this war. The film itself is mainly silent on these, and whilst we see atrocities committed by the Iraqi opposition, there is no mention of those perpetrated by the US military, despite much of the film being set in Fallujah.

There is a hint of criticism in the film, (overlooked in this review). Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL is Marc (Lee Grimes). At one point he starts to voice his doubts about the war: Kyle silences him. Marc is killed in action and his last letter home is read out at the graveside by his mother. The letter appears critical of the US war: however, you cannot be sure because the mother’s voice is racked with sobs that make her words inaudible.

The review is stronger in its focus on the US gun culture. Guns are endemic in this film: not just toted by yanks in Iraq but also in the flashbacks to Kyle’s childhood and in his parenting of his own children later. However, Pinkerton’s emphasis on the film’s treatment of guns seems to me to overstate the case. The aspects of the film that he points to are mainly in the mise en scène, cinematography and editing. He may be correct in attributing this to a conscious stance on the part of Eastwood; however, I rather doubt that with a film intended for a mainstream audience that visual style alone is sufficient to carry messages. The audience has already contributed over $250 million at the box office.

One point that Pinkerton’s picks up on is the commencement of a flashback:

We are on the rooftop in Fallujah where Kyle is lining up his first kill. Then, with the sound of a rifle report, we are in a patch of wood in Texas some 20 years earlier, with Kyle – not much older than the boy he is about to kill – and his father.

His comments on the father-son chain in US gun culture are pertinent: but the equation of an Iraqi child and a deer is troubling.

Then he points out a sequence late in the film, with Kyle and Taya married with two children.

Kyle, on the morning of his death, prowls around his house with an upholstered six-shooter, playing a game of stick-‘em-up desperado with his wife . . .

This scene is disturbing. But it is followed by the onscreen title explaining how Kyle died – shot by a Vet he was helping to rehabilitate. Kyle has been working with disabled Vets, mainly taking them to shooting ranges. The prior sequences where we see a vet shooting at target seems to be played entirely straight, no hint of irony. The film implies that Kyle’s work with Vets helps him resolve his own post-conflict traumas. Cooper plays Kyle as tight-lipped; not revealing his inner troubles. The sequence where they surface is at a family garden party. Typically of Hollywood we are shown Kyle attacking, not a human, but a playful border collie: the dog survives, apparently unscathed.

We see over the final credits the funeral sequence that follows his death. It shows Kyle honoured as a hero, with innumerable Stars and Stripes visible. The endings of films usually have a special privilege in endorsing particular values in the film. Here we have the endorsement of the US adventure in Iraq and [it seems to me] Kyle’s obsession with and use of guns.

Pinkerton thinks that

American Sniper is a movie that says one thing and shows another …

He compares the film to Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Examining the apparatus of myth-making as it applies to real human lives. First you print the legend, then you bury him.

It seems to me that Flags of Our Fathers is a much better and more critical film than American Sniper. The latter film uses the flashback mode, the earlier film set around the battle for Iwo Jima, is constructed around a complex series of sequences that range back and forth between past and present: pointing up the contradictions embodied in the story. The first depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima turns out to be a re-enactment. It is 70 minutes into the film that we finally see the actual event. Eastwood allows us to see the price that the characters pay in that film: and indeed to see their own awareness of the cost. Moreover, Flags of Our Fathers presents the social and economic context in the USA at the time. The film does focus on the experience of the US military and citizens, as does American Psycho. In both films Eastwood’s sympathies are clearly with the ordinary ‘grunts’: but American Sniper fails to move beyond this. And Flags of Our Fathers was accompanied by a fellow film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which presented (less successfully) the Japanese experience. It is a shame that Eastwood did not care to provide a film that presents the experience of the Iraqi people during the war.