February 25, 2017

Black Panthers Review (Agnès Varda)

A striking image from the 1968 documentary Black Panthers from Agnès Varda.

It’s easy to look back at the Black Panthers as a small piece of history from a chaotic time. Founded in 1966 and active until the early ‘80s, the Black Panther Party took a militant approach to black nationalism. On the other hand, they also promoted education and built social programs that made a difference in the community. Agnès Varda’s 1968 short film Black Panthers gives an up-close look at a group that was hardly one-note. Also known as Huey, this 28-minute documentary offers a human portrait of a complex organization.

The opening shot depicts a sign displaying the words “Black is Honest and Beautiful” in large letters. This statement reminds us that the Black Panthers had an uplifting message. Shots of kids playing and dancing at the outdoor event are quite a contrast from the usual images. Despite the live music and happy children, an unidentified female narrator reminds us that “this is no picnic in Oakland”. It’s part of the “Free Huey” movement to protest the arrest of co-founder Huey P. Newton for the shooting of police officer John Frey. Varda gives a snapshot of the Black Panthers at a specific moment in their history and reveals quite a bit in a short time.

Varda’s camera delivers some remarkable shots within the fly-on-the-wall framework. One stunning image presents an extreme close-up of a serious face in the foreground while a speaker addresses the crowd far in the back. It shows both the commitment and the education from the Black Panthers all in one shot. The speakers include Stokely Carmichael, who makes a convincing case that the U.S. has “declared war on black people”. It’s easy to connect his words to what we’ve seen recently with the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many more.

There’s also an interview with Newton, who talks about his poor conditions in prison. He seems optimistic about his case but recognizes that the deck is stacked against him. Newton was only 26 at the time and looks even younger, but he makes valid points. It’s tricky because we only have a small portion of the story. Varda is French and presents the Black Panthers from an outsider’s perspective, but also with respect for their views. This empathy makes it easy to understand their struggle, especially given the forces marshaled against them.

Varda also focuses on positions of power for women in the Black Panthers and their choice to go with natural hair. Kathleen Cleaver is a memorable figure that speaks passionately about her role in the party. She’s now an accomplished lecturer and academic, and that’s no surprise after seeing this film. It’s clear from her brief scenes that she’s intelligent and committed to making a difference.

Black Panthers plays differently in the Trump era as many of us look for ways to resist his policies. A statement that describes the U.S. as “this racist nation” rings true when you consider our current leadership. Militant actions may not be the best choice today, but the commitment that we see from the Black Panthers does connect to the struggle now. An effective mix of activism, greater education, and a convincing message should help to change the tide. It helps to know more of the past, and this film offers a glimpse at a small part of the bigger picture.

Black Panthers is currently streaming on Filmstruck in a restored version.

February 13, 2017

The Lobster and Cults of Singular Thinking

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz run for their lives in The Lobster.

It’s become easier with each passing week to understand dystopian films. Elected officials make statements that would seem hilarious if they weren’t so frightening. This is especially true when it comes to basic ideas of identity and respect for differences. When a candidate thrives under a message of bigotry and ignorance, it indicts all of us. This moment also gives close-minded thinkers the belief that they can speak freely with intolerant views. These issues all connect to the absurd world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, particularly ideas on romantic relationships. The strict rules of that society don’t seem as far-fetched when you consider them while under a potentially authoritarian leader.

The Oscar-nominated screenplay from Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Efthymis Filippou depicts The Hotel — the world’s worst singles retreat. Residents like David (Colin Farrell) have 45 days to find love or will become an animal of their choosing. He chooses a lobster (hence the title), which doesn’t seem like the best idea. There are many rules to follow at The Hotel, including the partner you choose. You can’t just lie and say that you love another person. A specific personality or physical trait has to match the other person. It’s eventually clear that these rules do not just apply to The Hotel. They are a core aspect of The City on the whole. Even the animals must find companions or risk extinction. The entire society thrives on coupling.

This premise is absurd on its surface, and it appears more outlandish because everyone plays it straight. No one but David even gets a character name in the credits. Ben Whishaw’s character is known as Limping Man, though you could also call him “Man Who Smashes His Nose to Get the Girl”. The set-up works as a comedy, and there are plenty of funny moments. It also clicks as an indictment of our culture, and that idea has only grown for me with each passing day. I’m married but can remember the days of probing questions from relatives about girlfriends and marriage. Loners are regarded with suspicion, and relationships that differ from the norm receive scrutiny. Fear of anything out of the ordinary remains a common trend in society.

What makes The Lobster more than a comment on marriage is the way it presents The Loners out in the woods. A lesser film would depict that group as free-thinking rebels like Denis Leary’s gang in Demolition Man. Instead, they also have restricted views and employ brutal punishments to offenders. People who flirt can face the “red kiss”, and I don’t even want to consider what the “red intercourse” punishment would be. Lea Seydoux plays the Loner Leader with a stone-cold detachment, and she enforces the strict rules without compassion. The Loners seem even worse than The Hotel because their choices defy our expectations.

The connective tissue between the Loners and The Hotel is the cult of singular thinking. This lack of nuance hits home when you consider the frustrations of our current political divide. It’s all or nothing, with little in between the sides. When David and the Short Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) fall in love, the response from the Loner Leader is quiet but vicious. She can justify the move with the rules, but it’s really just a cruel act. This type of logic is dangerous, particularly when it goes to people in power. Others will fall in line just to avoid a similar fate.

The Lobster works as a comedy and includes wonderfully odd moments, especially at The Hotel. John C. Reilly fits right at home in this setting. The romantic interactions are painfully awkward as characters look for any way they connect. If a couple starts to struggle, you can always give them a kid to change the landscape. It’s such a nihilistic look at relationships! The only true romance happens by chance, but there are few opportunities for long-term happiness. A society built on restrictions will stamp out anything that veers from the model. Lanthimos reminds us to stay vigilant against normalizing these rules; they can only lead to our destruction.

The Lobster is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime and highly recommended.

January 30, 2017

Hidden Figures and the Joy of Movies

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer star in Hidden Figures.

It’s a scary time with horrible news lurking around every corner. Here in the U.S, the Trump administration is revealing terrible plans on a daily basis. There are many ways to combat these policies, including protests, calls to senators and representatives, and personal interactions. Where does art fall into the mix? It’s easy to dismiss movies as less essential during serious times like our current era. That is true in a certain way; there’s a lot more to do than just watch films. On the other hand, even prominent commercial releases can play an important role. They bring us together and can spotlight voices that are pushed to the background too often.

A perfect example is Hidden Figures, which arrived in theaters as just the right time earlier this month. The crowd-pleasing film tells a story that few of us know about the early days of the space program. It also provides three standout roles for African-American women that are far too rare. This isn’t a case where a white guy dominates the story and becomes the central figure. Instead, it’s the incredible work from Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Octavia Spencer that takes center stage. All three give award-worthy performances as strong, intelligent women that worked behind the scenes at NASA during the Mercury program.

Cynics might dismiss this film as a conventional story that just makes audiences feel better about themselves, but that isn’t a fair assessment. Instead, it clicks because we’re on board with the characters from the start. It’s fun to just hang out with this trio even when they aren’t solving problems at NASA. That’s no easy feat. Katherine G. Johnson (Henson), Mary Jackson (Monae), and Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) aren’t just symbols of overcoming an oppressive system. They come alive on the screen as fully fledged characters with real hopes and dreams. It’s a joy to spend two hours with them and see their ultimate success.

Jackson’s big speech before a Virginia judge (Frank Hoyt Taylor) is a good example. The only way she can enter NASA’s engineer program is to take certain night classes, but they’re only at an all-white school. Jackson’s speech is pure Hollywood, but it still works because Monae injects such feeling into it. The way that she sells the judge on being “first” is brilliant and makes the scene crackle. Director Theodore Melfi brings the camera in close to focus just on the faces of Monae and Taylor; he makes it a personal moment between two people. Monae owns this scene and reveals (along with Moonlight) her impending stardom.

This human connection is at the heart of why Hidden Figures shines for such a wide audience. The crowd in my theater included kids, adults, and grandparents from diverse backgrounds, and there was huge applause at the end. I could tell it was connecting with most of us, including my seven-year-old daughter. The best Hollywood filmmaking feels effortless, and that airy feeling is all over this movie. Henson is the centerpiece as Johnson, and she endures a lot from the condescending white guys in her Space Task Group. It never feels like too much cruelty, however. The script from Melfi and Allison Schroeder strikes the right balance in showing the hardships while still delivering an inspiring story.

Henson delivers what is easily one of my favorite performances of 2016. Johnson is brilliant and knows she’s smarter than her co-workers yet follows the rules of that environment. Her gruff boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) understands her value but will only do so much. He fails to recognize her daily strife of running across campus to the bathroom until she breaks down. Costner’s hero moment in tearing down the sign doesn’t feel earned for him, but it draws a fist pump because it’s a victory for Johnson. Henson charms us from the start, and we’re definitely on her side. When a possible romance starts with Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), we won’t accept him until she does.

It's convincing to see the institutional racism that each woman faces every day. The rules are written to keep Jackson from becoming an engineer, and people treat it like a fact of life. Johnson must drink from a separate coffee pot, use a different bathroom, and dodge other hurdles. The sexism from her all-male co-workers on Harrison's team is accepted as normal. Some of them mean well, but that accomplishes little under a rigged system. There's no margin for error for Johnson in this group.

Spencer earned an Oscar nomination last week for Best Supporting Actress, and she deserves the acclaim. She wonderfully underplays Vaughn’s intelligence and understanding of the office landscape. Vaughn recognizes the dangers of the IBM computers to their roles but sees the opportunities in mastering it. Her changing interactions with the stuffy Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) reveal her growing power. By using her mind and understanding the technology, Vaughn subverts a system designed to keep her down. Her heroic scene in leading the women of the West Campus to their new jobs is thrilling and quite a change from the cold NASA hallways.

I did not expect Hidden Figures to receive a Best Picture nomination because it’s such a crowd pleaser. There’s joy emanating from the screen, and the audience keys on that excitement. Certain beats are predictable, but that doesn’t mean they fail. Even relaxing moments like watching the three stars dance remain engaging. Each lead gets her chance to shine. With a modest $25 million budget, it’s also the type of film that’s become less common from the big studios. In looking for the big payday, they often miss the importance of telling new stories that connect with a general audience. See this film, and make sure you take your daughters with you.