Filmed in the Amazonia region of Columbia in black and white, director and co-writer Ciro Guerra give us the life of a shaman, Karamakate, as a young and old man making the same journey, to find the rare plant yakruna.  The first trek is on behalf of a dying German ethnographer who has contracted a disease only the plant can cure; the second occurs 40 years later, as an American explorer seeks the plant for its rubber yield, a find that will aid the U.S. in World War II.  The young Karamakate is angry, as he points out the wreckage inflicted upon his home by the encroachment of the whites (essentially, the “rubber wars” of Chile and Peru, which resulted in the enslavement of some indigenous tribes).  In his second journey, he is wiser, resigned to complete a task unfinished in his youth.

This is heavy stuff with a strong reliance on Joseph Conrad.  Indeed, a Jesuit mission happened upon by Karamakate in his youth becomes a Kurtzian religious cult of a Jim Jonesian quality in the 40 years that passes.

The film drags a bit, but the back-and-forth keeps the pace quick enough.  The culture clashes are memorable and the political import, if not subtle, is fleshed out.  More importantly, save for a cheezy drug trip that feels more like Epcot than kissing the sky, the look of the picture is gorgeous.

A brilliant, haunting and meaningful re-creation of the 1966 University of Texas Tower spree shooting that melds old footage, modern day interviews, and animation, the last of which renders the victims, witnesses and heroes in a classic imprint. Gripping and poignant, without a hint of inauthenticity or exaggeration, documentarian Keith Maitland gets you into the head of the terrified people pinned to their spots by fear as well as those who overcame it and risked their own lives to save others and/or ascend the tower and kill the sniper. Maitland has said he opted for animation “to show the geography of the campus” after being told that actual re-creation would not be permitted, but the use of animation to show the interviewees in their younger guise adds to the dreamlike, unreal quality of the event.

The film is stubbornly focused on the terrorized and refreshingly devoid of interest in the murderer, thereby avoiding the grotesque algorithm that revels in the psycho and makes everyone else a statistic. With the exception of a truly discordant and moronic “we have met the enemy and he is us” clip from Walter Cronkite, there isn’t a misstep in this picture. It was premiered for television on PBS Tuesday so it may still be available.

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Three extraordinary African-American women work in segregated Hampton Virginia to assist NASA in its endeavors to put a man in space. Along the way, they confront everyday casual racism, structural impediments imposed because of their color and gender, and the general pressures of life. There are sweeping moments, a few speeches, some comic relief, and some genuinely tender exchanges (the best bits are between Octavia Spencer and Kirsten Dunst, respectively, underling and her supervisor, as they negotiate their roles, hidden frustrations and biases). At its best, this is a pleasant and occasionally winning semi historical drama. At its worst, it is Hallmark Channel tripe, uneven (the insistence on telling three stories short-changes all of them; there is just too much going on, giving the characters short-shrift) and unoriginal.

It took me a little time to find the analog to this picture, but eventually, I settled on it. Hidden Figures is very much like another inferior film that was all the buzz at Oscar time but proved entirely underwhelming in the viewing: The Imitation Game . That film was loaded with melodrama and schmaltz, and it too played fast and loose with the history in an effort to elicit an emotional response that, upon reflection, seemed the product of manipulation rather than honest presentation. In the process, it jettisoned a much more interesting reality – that protagonist Alan Turing’s homosexuality was not as closeted and did not create the frailty depicted in the film – to serve a well-worn narrative, the long-suffering, noble and unheralded hero, maligned for his essence whilst saving England from the Nazis.  Snooooorrrrreeeee.

In researching the fact versus fiction aspects of this film, I was struck by the following in History v. Hollywood:

Did Katherine Johnson feel the segregation of the outside world while working at NASA?

No. “I didn’t feel the segregation at NASA, because everybody there was doing research,” says the real Katherine G. Johnson. “You had a mission and you worked on it, and it was important to you to do your job…and play bridge at lunch. I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.” Even though much of the racism coming from Katherine’s coworkers in the movie seems to be largely made up (in real life she claimed to be treated as a peer), the movie’s depiction of state laws regarding the use of separate bathrooms, buses, etc. was very real. African-American computers had also been put in the segregated west section of the Langley campus and were dubbed the “West Computers.” -WHROTV Interview

In Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, she writes about a cardboard sign on one of the tables in the back of NASA Langley’s cafeteria during the early 1940s that read, “COLORED COMPUTERS.” This particularly struck a nerve with the women because it seemed especially ridiculous and demeaning in a place where research and intellectual ability was focused on much more than skin color. It was Miriam Mann, a member of the West Computers, who finally decided to remove the sign, and when an unknown hand would make a new sign a few days later, Miriam would shove that sign into her purse too. Eventually, the signs stopped reappearing at some point during the war.

Now, juxtapose this extremely interesting recitation of what actually happened from Johnson with the cookie cutter incidents used in the film. A colored only coffee pot – untrue.  Johnson having to go to the bathroom in a separate place – nope, she used the unmarked whites bathroom. Being mistaken for a janitor on her first day working with a made up character played by Kevin Costner – made up.  The smashing of a “Colored Only” sign with a sledgehammer by Costner – untrue (and at the expense of the great story about the cardboard signs so persistently and surreptitiously discarded by the real life figure).

So, the real Johnson states that she didn’t really even feel segregation in her workplace yet the screenwriters make it a factor in every single aspect of her work life. These decisions are bad decisions for two reasons. First, we have seen all of the standard tropes before. They tell us nothing new. They are boring. And they are so stale they feel counterfeit.  Second, and most importantly, they substitute Katherine Johnson’s real story, which sounds interesting as hell and very nuanced, with this comforting and comfortable pap written by these two:

(Writers of Mean Girls 2 and St. Vincent)

As with The Imitation Game, everyone applauded at the end, so, there’s that.

 

imageA man and his girlfriend attend a dinner party held in the Los Angeles hills by his ex-wife and her new husband for their coterie of friends from the days of their marriage, a marriage that ended two years prior due to a tragic accident.  I will tell you no more save for the following: this is a tense, sharp and often Hitchcockian thriller, it is currently on Netflix streaming, and you should read nothing about it before watching.

Viggo Mortensen, a survivalist and Noam Chomsky acolyte (not a snide dig using Chomsky; Chomsky is literally the spiritual and intellectual leader guide to Mortensen’s character), lives in the woods with his six children where he home schools and nature trains them (in the first scene, his teen son jumps a deer, stabs it for dinner and is rewarded with “man” designation).  Their mother, however, is away, battling mental illness.  When she passes, the modern Swiss Family Robinson treks to the home of her father (Frank Langella) who is the bad guy because he has dough, lives on a golf course and wants to take the children away from Viggo.  Along the way, Viggo condescends to his sister about what dullards her two boys are; prattles on about the empty consumerist nature of the United States; and sits the kids down at a diner, dangling awesome food possibilities in front of them, only to leave in high nutritionist dudgeon.

Mortensen, who is nominated for best actor, does the best with a character who is constantly whipsawed between rock-solid moral assuredness and deep doubt, such that at best, he seems like a mercurial preener and at worst, a total dick.  He constantly craps on the mores and standards of his sister and in-laws, only to give half-assed apologies, and his crashing of his wife’s funeral is an exercise in narcissism that makes any further action on his part highly suspect.  The kids are brilliant and self-sufficient but so underdeveloped that when they start to share their take on their current condition, it all comes from nowhere.

The family is laughably Hollywoodized – the girls don’t have hairy armpits, the kids don’t stink (they should) and the tenets of their creed are easily discarded for a few cheap yuks.

The ending is gruesome schmaltz, a family sing-along/send off for Mom to a tribal acoustic version of Sweet Child  O’ Mine.

I like this family’s version much better.

Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of the Broadway play is expertly cast, and his performance as the imposing and haunted patriarch Troy Maxon is both mammoth and intricate.  Washington’s turn is equaled by the performances put in by Viola Davis (as his long-suffering, devoted and stoic wife), Mykelti Williamson (as his mentally-impaired brother), Stephen Henderson (as his lifelong friend) and the rest of the cast.  August Wilson’s screenplay, adapted from his own stage play, crackles with raw and poetic renderings of regret, loss and anger.  As Maxon stalks his family and curses the sky from his tiny rowhouse backyard, he seems to become smaller and more vulnerable in each scene.  His ethos of “trust no one, owe no one” becomes more minimizing as the film progresses.

All that said, this tale of a familial Goliath negotiating his lost opportunity, youth and vigor, as well as his brutal past and his current-day demons, has a few slow spots, and while Washington’s direction is capable, there is no compelling reason to see what is essentially a stage play in the movie house.   Wait for DVD/streaming and enjoy.

A funny and wry comedy about an improv group in New York City that is splintered when one of its members makes it to “the show”, a stand-in for Saturday Night Live called Weekend Live. The elevation exposes fissures within the group, eventually sealing its doom . Nonetheless, through the process of promotion and disintegration, the members realize how integral the group is/was to their lives and how their involvement fits into their ambitions.

This is a sweet movie, written and directed by Mike Birbiglia, who also stars as one of the improv group members. Some of the drama is beyond the talents of the actors, almost all of them are immediately recognizable from some Comedy Central or other endeavor, and it is on occasion a little gooey. But, otherwise, this is good clean fun, bettered by a biting, almost cruel caricature of Lorne Michaels as the head honcho at Weekend Live.