Showing posts with label 2016. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2016. Show all posts

October 14, 2016

The White Helmets Review (Orlando von Einsiedel)

An aid working scans the sky in The White Helmets, a new documentary on Netflix.

The White Helmets: An Up-Close View of Hell

The most recent U.S. Presidential Debate was a distressing experience for a lot of us. The candidates barely touched on some key issues because of the many distractions from Donald Trump. One exception was the segment on Syria, which included disagreements on the real culprits and solutions. Beyond the futility of the arguments, what bothered me was recognizing how little I know about that situation. I realize the situation is awful for the citizens, but it still feels distant because it’s happening on the other side of the world. This understanding led to my interest in The White Helmets, a new documentary released by Netflix in September. The 41-minute film by Orlando von Einsiedel (Oscar-nominated for Virunga) drops you into the action in cities that have become dreadful war zones.

The story opens on a black screen, and the only sounds we hear are bombs exploding and people scrambling for cover. Even without visuals, the horrors of war are clear. The first-person view from shaky handheld cameras immerses us in the chaos. It’s a cold open straight out of an action TV series, but the stakes here are very real. It’s disorienting and frightening; there’s no logic to this hellscape. The cold open lasts for a short time, but it makes an impression. There’s no slow build-up to an expected climax. Einsiedel wastes no time showing daily life in Aleppo, a place with no sanctity from the threats. People are constantly looking to the sky and keeping their ears open for the sounds of rushing fighters.

Working with brave videographers on the ground, Einsiedel gives us a rare glimpse at the destruction in Syria. The film’s title refers to the organization that works to protect civilians from the bombings. The White Helmets spend their days pulling kids and other people out of the rubble and risking their lives in the process. Formed in 2013, this group includes 2,900 civilians in 120 locations. It’s a large operation, but there’s only so much they can do against weapons of destruction. We see injured kids, dead bodies, and widespread carnage. The environment feels more like an apocalyptic film than anything that’s possible in our reality.

I’m a dad with two young girls, and it’s impossible not to imagine them here. There are shots of kids their age crying and dealing with serious injuries. I could envision my three-year-old daughter running in the streets, and it frightened me. A boy cries over his dad, and it’s a tragic scene. There are positive moments, however. One high point is the rescue of an infant that’s less than one month old. Trapped under the rubble for 16 hours, this “miracle baby” actually survived. That type of success motivates these guys. Their efforts seem futile on days with more than 200 airstrikes, but victories are possible. Seeing that baby as a toddler near the end reminds us why the risks are worth it.

The surprising part of The White Helmets is how much time we spend in Southern Turkey. The story focuses on three group members — Khaled Farah, Abu Omar, and Mohammed Farah. Their month-long training course in Turkey is the film’s centerpiece. I suspect this choice is practical; shooting too much in Syria could be deadly. It also reveals a sad undercurrent to their training. For these guys, it’s worse to watch the deaths on TV. They’re powerless to do anything and most hope their loved ones survive. One guy sits paralyzed by the phone and waits for news that his brother has died. The biggest challenge is maintaining hope from afar.

Despite the heroic efforts of the White Helmets, a prevailing gloom pervades this film. When the Syrian regime (and probably the Russians) targets hospitals in airstrikes, we’re entered new territory for war. There are no rules to this conflict, which is destroying the country and killing hundreds of thousands. The scenes in Turkey are a little repetitive, but they do show the bond among this group. These guys once were blacksmiths and tailors, but now they work to save all they can. The prevailing theme that “life requires sacrifice” pervades their efforts. These men (no women are present, sadly) have lost friends yet keep pushing forward.

The final shot in The White Helmets shows the men running back into the fray in Syria. They’re better trained and ready to make a difference. It’s interesting to note that it doesn’t matter who are the culprits of each violent act. The Russians are just another enemy inflicting destruction. Buildings are flattened and people are lost while the perpetrators fly away. What can anyone do to stop that type of attack? Einsiedel boldly presents the horrors of modern warfare. Airstrikes are clean in theory, but the bombs don’t only choose enemy targets. Our presidential candidates may have ideas to help in theory; whether anything can resolve this mess is another story.

The White Helmets is currently streaming on Netflix. To learn more about the White Helmets organization, check out their official website

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October 11, 2016

Luke Cage Review, Part 1 (Episodes 1-4)

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and Pop (Frankie Faison) sit outside the barebershop in Luke Cage.

It’s been refreshing to notice the different approaches with each new Netflix Marvel series. Daredevil is a dark action show with brazen stunts and high-flying battles. Jessica Jones looks inward and reveals the emotional demons of a powerful hero. There’s a formula to organizing the seasons, yet each one still feels unique. This trend continues with Luke Cage, which has more room to breathe. It’s fun to hang out in this world and meet the players that populate Cage’s Harlem. The barbershop scenes in the early episodes just show people talking, yet they’re far more engaging than the fights. There are still obstacles for Cage to overcome, but the story doesn’t focus solely on the next encounter.

I’m splitting my review into three parts with each article covering four or five episodes. I’ve read complaints that Luke Cage is too long and drags in its second half. However, I’ve noticed few slow points in the opening four episodes. The relaxed pace gives us a chance to spend time with both the heroes and villains and avoid rushing to the climax. Mike Colter (The Good Wife, The Following) made a strong impression as Cage in seven episodes of Jessica Jones, so there’s little need for much of an intro here. The heavy lifting for Creator Cheo Hadari Coker (who also writes the first two episodes) is introducing the rest of this universe. The Harlem setting feels lived in, and we join the action in the middle of an ongoing story.

Beyond Colter, the standout performers are Alfre Woodward as Mariah Dillard and Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes. Both have over-the-top moments (especially Ali), but neither goes into D’Onofrio territory. It’s entertaining to watch the characters spar with each other and their enemies. He’s open about being a criminal, while she hides behind a legit enterprise. Mariah is no more ethical than her cousin; she just prefers to keep her distance. Typically more serene on screen in shows like The 4400, Ali shines when Cottonmouth loses control. There’s a glee for the guy who’s usually above the fights to take matters into his own hands. When Cottonmouth pulls out the rocket launcher and goes after Cage, the excitement is all over Ali’s face.

Creating the Atmosphere

Luke Cage begins with a lengthy barbershop scene that may throw off some viewers. It’s needed to set up the pace and environment of this show, however. This sequence also immediately shows Cage’s close relationship with Henry “Pop” Hunter (Frankie Faison, The Wire). After even a few moments, I was already nervous that Pop would die. It’s an easy narrative move to remove the kind father figure and push the reluctant hero to jump back into the field. We don’t tune in to see Cage just wash dishes and sweep floors. The frustrating part is how predictable Pop’s death is for most of the audience. Colter sells Cage’s anger and sadness at losing Pop, but it’s too easy.

With that said, the second episode “Code of the Streets” is also the strongest of the opening four. The premiere creates the mood and allows the action to increase in the second episode and build to the barbershop shooting. Faison takes center stage while trying to help a young guy on the run from Cottonmouth. He brings humanity to the beloved Pop; the barbershop was Switzerland for everyone. Losing that haven will only increase the chaos to come. Cottonmouth is partially responsible for Pop’s death, but it’s also a sad moment from him. Unspoken rules about who’s untouchable don’t always translate to younger henchmen.

In the mostly white Marvel film and TV world, it’s refreshing to have a cast dominated by African-Americans. Actors that usually play supporting roles like Ali, Faison, and Ron Cephas Jones deserve more attention. Simone Missick also stands out as Misty Knight, a determined cop and possible match for Cage. Knight sees through the BS and recognizes something different in the big guy. She investigates on the other side with her partner Rafael Scarfe (a strangely over-the-top Frank Whaley) while Cage battles Cottonmouth on the inside. I’m not a comics expert but know that Knight is a familiar name; she’s unlikely to remain an outsider for too long. The unspoken chemistry between Colter and Missick clicks from their very first scene at the club.

A Battle of Wills

What’s surprising about Luke Cage is my lack of interest in most of the action scenes. It’s fun to watch Cage mow down hordes of guys in “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”, but it gets old quickly. There’s little tension when the bullets have no effect. What makes the fights work is the limited time we spend on them. The nightclub performance scenes are more energetic because they aren’t so familiar. I’d rather see Cage stare down Cottonmouth without throwing a punch than battle endless goons. After the many fights in Daredevil’s second season, the restraint in Luke Cage is a relief. When Cage steps up to the plate, it’s really earned. Of course, there are dangerous consequences to joining the fight.

I like origin stories, particularly on TV series. When done well, they enhance present-day events without making obvious links. The fourth episode “Step in the Arena” mostly succeeds in enriching Cage’s back story. Directed by Vincenzo Natali (Cube), it presents a time when Cage had normal strength and big hair. Charles Murray’s (Sons of Anarchy) script packs a lot of material into a single episode. We learn how Cage gained his powers and fell in love with Reva (Paris a Fitz-Henley). The prison setting and guards are familiar, yet the story largely clicks. It’s no stretch to see Cage (originally Carl Lucas) as a slave rising up to stop the masters. Although he largely fails, that choice creates Luke Cage the hero. There’s even a fun “Sweet Christmas” moment when Cage discovers his powers.

A Promising Start

After four episodes, I’d place Luke Cage alongside Jessica Jones as a contender for the top Marvel show. Daredevil is also great but stumbles a bit in its second season. There is a long way to go here, so it’s too soon to make a definitive statement. With a talented cast and plenty of interesting stories, its potential is sky high. There’s a definite ‘70s vibe, but it still adds modern touches to keep us engaged. It’s a slow burn, but I’m on board for the long haul. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Related Articles

Luke Cage Review, Part 2 (Episodes 5-8)
Agent Carter and the Joys of a Short Season

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October 9, 2016

13th Review (Ava DuVernay)

Angela Davis prepares for her interview in the Ava DuVernay documentary 13th.

It’s a tumultuous era in U.S. history, particularly in the political realm. A major national candidate regularly uses awful rhetoric on race and class yet has risen to prominence. The frightening emphasis on restoring “law and order” is familiar. There’s a reason politicians still use fearmongering; it often works. It’s good to remember that history goes in cycles, and our current experience is part of a much longer trend going back hundreds of years. A powerful new reminder comes from Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th. Released on Netflix this past Friday, its focus is the growth of mass incarceration particularly with African-Americans. However, it also presents a larger story of slavery and discrimination that’s alive and well today.

DuVernay is known as a dramatic filmmaker, particularly for the widely heralded Selma in 2014. Her directing career actually began with documentaries like This is the Life, though. She’s a natural story teller and recognizes why context is so important when presenting complex issues. It’s easy to look at the prison statistics and realize we have a serious problem. Taking the time to show the history is what separates 13th from a typical documentary. After introducing stunning numbers (U.S. has 5% of world’s population, 25% of its prisoners), DuVernay looks backwards to slavery and the economic conditions that made it essential to the South. Approaching the subject as more than just a moral issue shows the roots that still have an impact today.

This material is engaging because of so many smart and compelling participants. A wide range of academics, activists, and politicians come together well to explain the topic. It’s important to learn the cultural context of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and why it resonated with so many. Writer/Educator Jelani Cobb and others explain how the terrible representations of African-Americans connected. Even Woodrow Wilson held a screening! Arriving more than 50 years after the slavery ended officially, the controversial film exemplifies the continuation of a familiar narrative.

The structure mostly flows chronologically and reveals the stunning rise in the prison population over recent decades. DuVernay effectively uses hip-hop songs to bridge the eras. Displaying the lyrics on the screen in large letters energetically reinforces the message. We learn the real purpose of the “War on Drugs”, particularly during its escalation under Ronald Reagan. An audio clip from political consultant Lee Atwater clarifies that people of color were the target. I already knew some details about the goals of this “war”, but it’s still chilling to hear them.

Republicans weren’t the only perpetrators, however. The negative impact of policies passed when Bill Clinton was president (particularly the 1994 crime bill) receives attention. It’s nice to at least see him express regrets, but it’s a little late now. Looking much worse is Donald Trump in a series of video clips from his rallies. DuVernay skillfully cuts between Trump’s coded statements and atrocities under Jim Crow. It reminds us of the stakes of the current election; the next stage could be even worse.

The most surprising parts to me focus on the prison industrial complex and the influence of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). I knew little about this law-making organization and its corporate partners. What makes these revelations so distressing is the shift to prisons as profit-making enterprises. If you thought the latest season of Orange is the New Black was far-fetched, think again. The least convincing person in this entire film is the ALEC representative. He can barely look at the camera while trying to defend their moves. The shots of over-crowded prisons and stories of awful conditions strike home on the overhaul that’s needed.

In the final segments, DuVernay connects the rise of mass incarceration with the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, and many others. Ferguson was indicative of the system that’s gone horribly awry. To quote Midnght Oil’s “Blot”, the presumption of innocence was buried again. Viewing a series of videos of young men being killed for no reason is hard to bear. On the other hand, it’s essential that more of us recognize the truth. When law enforcement makes a presumption of guilt with citizens, bad things happen.

There are far too many effective speakers in 13th to list them all. One standout is activist and former professor Angela Davis, who successfully defended herself in federal court back in 1970. The archival footage of her comments from around that time is quite relevant today. Davis speaks from a stunning location, and that’s another plus for this documentary. DuVernay doesn’t forget the importance of visual style even when presenting straightforward interviews. This film moves smoothly and never feels like a dull history lesson.

Another surprise is the logic we hear from Newt Gingrich, who has stumped for Trump. He’s either putting on a front in the movie or in his public life. Either scenario is a problem, and this conflict gives a perfect example of obstacles to change the system. A guy like Gingrich may talk about the issues and even understand them, but doing something is another matter. 13th inspires me to learn more and look for ways to make things better. Voting is the first step, but it shouldn’t be the last. I’ll close with a simple message: you need to see this film.

13th is currently streaming on Netflix

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October 5, 2016

Westworld: “The Original” Review — With Great Potential Comes…

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores and James Marsden as Teddy in Westworld's The Original.

Few series have arrived this year with more anticipation than HBO’s Westworld. Loosely adapted from the 1973 film written by Michael Crichton, it strives mightily to become the next must-see drama. HBO has invested serious dollars (reportedly around $100 million) into building another hit. Creators Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy Nolan (Burn Notice) have solid TV experience but are facing massive expectations. Can they build a one-hour drama with real staying power? The premiere episode “The Original” shows great promise, but there are a few warning signs that could signal problems if they aren't rectified.

Before continuing, I should give you the obligatory spoiler warning. I will be discussing the entire episode in the upcoming paragraphs. Still here? Let’s do this!

“The Original” begins on the cold, dead eyes of Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). An unseen voice says “bring her back online”, so there’s little mystery on her status as an android host. The Nolans’ script dives right into the Westworld universe and forces us to keep up with them. It’s wise to avoid the big expository speeches (at least for now) and let the story breathe. After the prologue with Dolores, it’s time for gorgeous outdoor vistas and a town straight out of a vintage Hollywood Western. We also meet the upbeat romantic cowboy Teddy (James Marsden), brothel madam Maeve (Thandie Newton), and the usual outlaws and grimy types populating the streets. It all runs like clockwork, so it’s no surprise when the real architects appear.

The big reveal of the Truman Show-like view above the world comes just 17 minutes into the episode. Given what we already know from the original film and the marketing, it makes little sense to hold the twist back for too long. On a less confident show, this moment would happen at the end of the premiere. The reason it comes now is the importance of the humans (we think) that maintain the park. We spend a lot of time with the overseers and their internal politics, which isn't that exciting. However, this focus does expand the show’s world and allows for a larger mythology behind Westworld’s real purpose. Unfortunately, it also leads to some clunky and obvious dialogue.

Anthony Hopkins is the right choice to play the Hammond-like creator Dr. Robert Ford. He’s now a secondary figure that tinkers with his work and muses about what they’ve done. Hopkins finds the right mix of curious evil and regret. But he also utters lines like “they don’t make anything like they used to” while the corporate honchos take over. We get it. The humans are the real villains, and the hosts just follow their programming. This is hardly new territory, so I hope the writers find more nuance as the show progresses. Having programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) say “they all rebel eventually” is also way too on the nose about the main themes. He could basically just claim that “life finds a way” if we’re going to be that obvious.

The good news is that there is plenty to discover about the mystery. When the host playing Dolores’ father develops a “glitch”, the results are creepily intriguing. This is more than Yul Brynner killing tourists like he’s The Terminator. There’s history in Westworld that should be fun to uncover. The newcomers that patronize the park are secondary and barely register as real characters. It’s all about finding what’s behind the curtain. We do learn that Dolores is the park’s oldest host, and her perceived happiness masks a lot more. Shots of flies landing on the hosts’ faces are all over this episode, so a final scene with Dolores killing one says plenty.

One hesitation that I have with raving too much is the sadistic behavior throughout “The Original”. In particular, Ed Harris’ Man in Black gleefully beats and rapes Dolores early in the episode. The scene largely happens off-screen, but it’s still a lot to endure so early. He also tortures and scalps another host to gain information. Harris is a master at playing this type of grim character and leaves a strong impression. On the other hand, the show aligns a bit too much with the Man in Black. He’s portrayed like a cool loner on a quest for the game's next level. The Nolans must be careful not to condone such vile acts. Dolores may be a host, but she looks like a woman. Given our modern culture, it’s too easy for shows to follow typical gender stereotypes.

Westworld’s killer premise offers many opportunities for interesting stories. A theme park with hundreds of intersecting arcs is fascinating. It’s basically a “choose your own adventure book” that’s come to life. These are not just tailored scenes built for certain customers either. The loops happen even when newcomers decide to avoid them. It’s an evolution from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean attraction; the animatronics there still go through the motions even when no guests are riding the boats. The Man in Black is the equivalent of the guest that sneaks into Disney’s backstage areas. He’s presented as a human, but I have a theory that he’s an earlier model of the hosts looking for a way back to Ford. His pursuit feels too personal to just be from a guy that’s grown overly engaged in Westworld.

The skilled ensemble cast sells the potentially ludicrous material. There’s even a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott as Old Bill. Wright and Shannon Woodward also bring much-needed grace to the programmers on the front lines. Neither character seems thrilled with serving their corporate overlords, but they’re committed to fixing their products. The centerpiece in “The Original” is Evan Rachel Wood, who has the premiere’s most challenging role. Her drastic shift between glee and cold nothingness isn’t an easy switch, but she nails it. When Dolores experiences terror from The Man in Black and sorrow at Teddy’s death, we feel it right with her.

HBO is banking on Westworld to be its next prestige drama and follow in the footsteps of Game of Thrones. The premiere feels weighty and not always by necessity. It wants so much to be taken seriously but is rather silly when you think about it. There’s a brief moment where the bandit Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) reveals that B-movie energy while robbing the town. We need more of that style. It’s great to tackle serious themes, but sometimes it’s fun just to kick back and start a little mayhem. With the world building mostly completed, it should be easier to include more levity now. Having a piano play Soundgarden's “Black Hole Sun” is goofy, and I like the small touches. They help make the premise click and avoid falling into the trap of being too “important”. With some slight tonal adjustments, Westworld could become a thrilling series.

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