Saturday, May 20, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Good Night and Good Luck

            In the first instalment of this series, we examined a movie related to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.  This month, we turn the clock back another decade or so, to the heyday of the Second Red Scare in the United States, which enabled the cultural rise of the junior Senator from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, into a potent national figure.  Riding high on pervasive political and cultural paranoia that organized Communists stood ready to overthrow the United States government at a moment’s notice, McCarthy launched one barrage of accusations after another, alleging that the government was literally crawling with Soviet agents planning to destroy American democracy.  The unspoken message herein was that he alone was the one capable of revealing the truth and fighting back the global Red Tide that, according to him, was just around the corner.

            Until, that is, a group of journalists finally resolved to puncture the veneer of invulnerability McCarthy was projecting, digging into the meat of his accusations to determine how much truth, if any, there was to them.  The team that did this was led by Edward R. Murrow, already famous for his invaluable wartime broadcasts from London during the Nazi Blitz.  In his televised broadcasts, he laid into the more disturbing aspects of McCarthy’s campaign.  This, of course, prompted a ferocious response from McCarthy himself, but sure enough, this opened the floodgates; more criticism from all sides started to pour in, until the Senate itself reprimanded and silenced McCarthy, shunting him out of the limelight, to which he never returned. 

            This is the story told by the 2005 George Clooney film Good Night, and Good Luck; the title is derived from Murrow’s standard closing phrase for the program on which he aired his McCarthy broadcasts, See It Now.  David Strathairn, in one of the finest performances of his career, leads as Edward Murrow, and he is supplemented by spot-on performances by George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella, Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels, each playing various members of the CBS staff connected to the broadcasts. 

            In a number of disturbing ways, these events provide even more direct, almost word-for-word comparisons to current events than Selma, not least because of how much McCarthy and Donald Trump mirror each other.  They both rely almost solely on incessant bullying for their power, as well as aggressive disregard for facts, due process, civil discourse and democratic norms, and a cult of personality that for McCarthy seemed, and for Trump currently seems, unstoppable. 

            But this also goes beyond mere comparisons of narcissistic demagogues.  Much as we are now forced to confront and adapt our societies to the possibilities and dangers of the internet and the communications revolution it has wrought, McCarthy and his feud with Murrow also took place amidst a similar cultural shift, when television was just beginning to replace radio and newspapers as a cultural force of its own and a potent source of news and worldview for a large number of people.  The scale of magnitude between then and today may be different, but the fundamental challenges of such a shift remain the same. 

            This is highlighted most effectively by a famous speech Murrow gave several years after McCarthy faded, known as the “Wires and Lights in a Box” speech.  The beginning and end of this speech bookends the film, and contains the core of Murrow’s philosophy about the importance of us utilizing new media technologies for good, and actively fighting against the instinct to use them for either malevolence, or laziness.  Really, simply substitute the word “television” for “internet,” and someone could make the exact same speech almost word-for-word today.   

            This touches on something that is crucial to giving this film its power; both the speech at beginning/end and the broadcasts regarding McCarthy are no poetic licenses taken by the screenwriters- they are word-for-word recreations of Murrow’s actual speeches and broadcasts.  Strathairn nails every one of Murrow’s mannerisms (seriously, just watch these clips back-to-back and try to spot the differences).  Clooney also made the brilliant decision of not having anyone act as McCarthy- whenever he pops up, that’s actual footage of THE McCarthy, not an actor.  This subtle detail was reportedly lost on some of the test audiences, who criticized the person playing McCarthy for being too over the top. 

            I will close this post with a recommendation to not just see the movie, but to also read Roger Ebert’s original review of the film.  At the risk of being unoriginal, I feel compelled to end with a direct quote from his review, because it is such a powerfully concise summary of both the movie and the lessons (and glimmers of hope) it offers us today:  

            "McCarthy is a liar and a bully, surrounded by yes-men, recklessly calling his opponents traitors, (and) he commands great power for a time. He destroys others with lies, and then is himself destroyed by the truth.

            “Character assassination is wrong…and we must be vigilant when the emperor has no clothes and wraps himself in the flag.

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: Paradise

Paradise (2016): Written by Elena Kiseleva and Andrei Konchalovsky, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.  Starring: Yuliya Vysotskaya, Christian Clauss, Philippe Duquesne, Peter Kurth, Jakob Diehl, and Vera Voronkova.  Running Time: 130 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Paradise is almost confessional in its style; 3 characters, a French prosecutor working for the Vichy regime in France, a Russian aristocrat condemned to a concentration camp for trying to save Jewish kids, and an SS officer moving quickly up the chain of command, all comment on various parts of the movie’s story while sitting at a table, facing the camera.  Are they being interrogated?  Are these video testimonies taken after the war?  We don’t know at first, and I won’t spoil the answer, because this set-up is part of what makes Paradise a uniquely moving piece of filmwork, easily one of the best movies I’ve yet seen in 2017. 

            The Frenchman, Jules, appears mostly in the first part of the film, as he is the one who receives the case of the Russian aristocrat, Olga, (the arrestingly lovely Yuliya Vysotskaya) arrested for hiding away Jews.  At first, she tries her hardest to put on a tough, you-won’t-get-nothing-out-of-me act, but she quickly admits in her cutaways that she abhors all pain, and if anyone had so much as raised a hand to her she’d have spilled the beans in an instant.  Through a bit of luck, though, she never faces that choice, but still ends up stuck in a concentration camp, where she happens to learn (to her dismay) that some of the people she’d hidden earlier did not manage to escape capture after all. 

            Her fortunes soon turn again though; as part of an anti-corruption campaign to weed out those using the concentration camps to enrich themselves at the expense of the state, Heinrich Himmler sends Helmut, an up-and-coming officer from a well-to-do family, to investigate the head commander of the camp Olga is at.  As it turns out, they actually know each other from before the war; they’d met as part of a group traveling in Italy, and had had a briefly flirtatious affair, even though she was engaged at the time. 

            Helmut soon pulls her out of the daily toil of the camp by insisting that she work for him as a housemaid.  This allows her all sorts of privileges and luxuries she otherwise wouldn’t have access to, but also condemns her in the eyes of the other women in her bunk as a Nazi whore and a traitor.  This perhaps one of the most thought-provoking parts of the movie, examining how quickly we can lose our humanity when we are pushed to do so (in one scene we see her taking the shoes of a dying woman for herself), but also how quickly we can regain it again when things get just a bit easier.  Olga reminds us in her testimony that it’s remarkable how much the endless need for food can dominate the heart and mind when scarce, and how much easier everything else in life becomes should that burning worry suddenly fall away.    

            Part of the film’s enduring strength is how none of its characters are thoroughly demonized or idealized.  Olga is, in most respects, the protagonist, but her efforts to save Jews aside, she’s far from an angel.  She has her weaknesses, her own demons, and in most (but, crucially, not all) cases she is quick to put her own welfare above that of others.  The same goes for the Nazi officer.  He gets more than a little screen time devoted to expounding (with sickening self-assurance) on how marvelous a boon National Socialism is for the human race, but there are enough moments between him and Olga (as well as some excellent scenes with a disillusioned old friend of his returning from the front) to suggest his devotion to it might not be so wholesale as he might want us to think. 

            In addition to its black-and-white aesthetic, which I am increasingly convinced is one of the best ways to visually depict the Holocaust, the script of this movie deserves particular note.  There is no all-encompassing mother tongue throughout the film; Russian characters speak mostly Russian, the Germans German, and the French French, but unlike in many such films, it’s clear they took great care to make sure the dialogue and language used by each person is common, native, and local.  It might seem insignificant, but attention to such fine touches is often the fine deciding line between a pretty good movie and a truly great one. 

            There are a number of ways the film’s resolution can be interpreted, and some will surely think the movie overplays its hand just a bit when we finally find out why the characters are addressing the camera directly.  But it is only the best art that can inspire such debate in us to begin with, and for that alone Paradise is easily one of the most unique, best-made, and most intriguing movies to come out in 2017 so far.  It provides us with a worthy reminder than, far more often than not, the deciding moments of our lives are the ones we don’t expect to ever come. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2 (2017): Written and directed by James Gunn.  Starring: Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone.  Running Time: 136 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            It’s May, which means another gravy train has pulled in to Marvel Station.  Out of all the active franchises currently running within the now sprawling Marvel CU, Guardians has consistently billed itself as being the strangest and most eclectic of them all, the wacky adventures of an ensemble cast of previously-unknown Marvel properties.  The first film was a box office and critical hit, setting itself apart as easily the funniest, most colorful, and most joyful comic book film out of….well, pretty much all of them, so far.  With that sort of surprise-hit magic behind it, it would be all too easy to imagine the sequel getting too big for its britches and being unable to match expectations. 

            Thankfully, James Gunn knows what he’s doing; Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is not only every bit as great as the first one, it might even be better.   It’s funny, it’s joyful, it’s over-the-top in every way I wanted it to be, and it’s so, so colorful.  Let the Wild Summer Blockbuster Rumpus begin!   

            After saving the galaxy from the boringness of Ronan the Accuser, the Guardians have taken to hiring themselves out to paying clients for various odd jobs.  When we find them, they are in the midst of protecting crucial energy plants belonging to a snobby, genetically-controlled race called the Sovereign.  This opening sets the whole tone for the entire movie- although everyone else is in the midst of a desperate battle against huge octopus-like behemoths, we don’t see much of it.  For most of it, the camera is focused squarely on Baby Groot (later proclaimed by one character to be “too cute to smash”), dancing joyously to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” around the edges of the fighting.  The message is clear; yeah, this is a tentpole studio action movie, but we’re here to laugh and feel good first and foremost, and if the expensive CGI laser shows have to take a back stage to that, so be it.   
            Said Sovereign soon being pursuing the Guardians with intent to destroy after learning that Rocket pocketed pieces of their machines on the way out.  This opens one of a few rifts between the characters that define the story.  Like with the main Avengers films, these are movies about the Importance of Family and Friendship, no matter how oddball your family may be.  Rocket has a habit of deliberately stealing from/offending everyone he meets and driving them away, Gamora has unresolved business with her foster sister Nebula over their mutual, tortured childhood under Thanos, and Drax (still my favorite character) continues to find ways to make already bizarre situations even more awkward for all involved. 

            To top all this off, Quill is thrown for a huge emotional loop when his absentee father appears, a seemingly supernatural being named Ego (played by a fantastic Kurt Russell), offering him the chance of a normal family relationship he never had.  Yondu and that wonderful arrow of his, head of a scrappy Ravagers crew, returns as well, and through his appearance in the plot we learn a lot more about the seemingly very intricate rules that govern Ravenger life.  The interactions between him and the other Ravager captains (including a surprise cameo by Sylvester Stallone) reminded me of the more interesting bits of world-building in the Pirates franchise. 

            All these different side stories, variations on themes of strained family dynamics, eventually combine in the grand finale on Ego’s home planet, an affair that, although once again featuring a threat to all existence, still finds ways to be far more interesting, unique, and funny than that of most other comic book fair.  This more than anything helps the movie rise above its competition, because repetitive sameness in most exploding climaxes has been one of the consistent bugbears of the superhero/comicbook franchise, with only a few really managing to stick out.  In this regard, both Guardians movies have been pleasingly successful. 

            The key here is that Guardians never loses its sense of fun, which, crucially, makes the few genuinely tragic or serious or hard scenes feel more unique and earned.  This is an ensemble show about characters broken in very real and relatable ways, but it’s raised to greatness by the perfection of its casting and the tightness of its writing.  I’m being deliberately vague about the major thrusts of the plot, because it has a lot of various “twists” that, while not unpredictable, are better appreciated in the moment.  For all the fun the movie has with itself, there are plenty of thought-provoking avenues it opens up for discussion afterwards, and I recommend seeing it cold. 

            Anyone who is tired of screens overflowing with CGI creations will not be converted by this one- so many scenes are bursting with special effects that this might be one of the biggest bendings of the line between live-action and animation since Avatar.  But I never minded, because all the outlandish visuals and garish colors felt of a piece.  This is a movie that yearns for exuberant excess in all forms.  Because this is exactly what I wanted, I was well-pleased, but anyone who doesn’t will likely not have as much fun as I did. 

            For my money, this and the Captain America franchises represent, for now, the best of this current wave of superhero films, and I am glad another entry is here.  Rock on Baby/Teenage Groot.  ‘Til next time. 

-Noah Franc