By Daniel Garrett
In Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, the families Montague and Capulet have cultivated such a feud that those associated with each feel compelled to take part in the war. The spirit of the leaders of each family have shaped their communities in their own image. When Benvolio tries to stop fighting in the street, Tybalt gestures to Benvolio’s own drawn sword and says, “What, drawn, and talk of peace! I / hate the word, / As I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee: Have at thee, coward!” That, beyond its recognition of the difference between gesture and word, is a response full of fury. The prince of Verona forbids further fighting, threatening death to those who disobey: “If ever you disturb our streets again, / Your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” (both quotes are from The Tragedies by William Shakespeare, published by Smithmark Publishers of New York in 2000; page 90). There is a brief calm in Verona, but when Romeo, a Montague, meets and charms Juliet, a Capulet, at a masked ball, Tybalt is insulted by Romeo’s presence and interest in his cousin Juliet. Yet Romeo & Juliet is a play not only of rage and the fatality of grief, but of flirtation, innuendo, mockery, marriage contracts, and reveries. Romeo finds it difficult to leave Juliet, and strays into the Capulet garden. Romeo murmurs, “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, / Who is already sick and pale with grief, / That thou her maid art far more fair than she: / Be not her maid, since she is envious: / Her vestal livery is but sick and green / And none but fools do wear it: cast it off” (page 96). Romeo observes Juliet, who is out on her balcony, thinking of him as he is thinking of her—she wants him to deny his name and family; and soon they begin to speak—and he is willing to let go of all but her. “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet” Juliet says (96). It is easier for the two young people to consider letting go of their names, of the identities by which the world knows them, than it is for those surrounding them. Each vows love.
The great writer William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, the son of merchant John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, a daughter of the gentry; and William married Anne Hathaway, a farmer’s daughter, who would become the mother of William’s children Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith. William Shakespeare arrived in London in 1588, and became an actor of success, and a published poet; a poet of lyrical, passionate sonnets; and he wrote provocative, philosophical plays, plays of pleasure and profundity, creating a standard so singular he has no master and possibly no peer. Shakespeare’s plays were inspired by history and by fiction; and he has long inspired others with As You Like It, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo & Juliet, The Tempest, Titus Andronicus, and Twelfth Night, giving the world some of its essential insights, lines, and images. In Romeo & Juliet, the warring families—the Montagues and Capulets—bring about the death of their own children. The love between two people of different, even conflicting groups, can be the thing that drives the two groups closer together or farther apart: it is an opportunity for the revelation of character, belief, thought. The tragedy in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is in how hatred and confusion lead to the betrayal of love and life. In Romeo & Juliet, there is conflict, desperation, missed messages, and grief. It is Shakespeare’s story and it is ours.
Shakespeare writes about human emotion and impulse in a heightened realm, a realm of people with liberty and power, people of mind and passionate expression. Shakespeare gives us a language that is complex, eloquent, and true, a language to savor. I can recall a Louisiana high school teacher guiding us, her students, through an interpretation of Macbeth; and my auditioning for a part in a college production of Shakespeare in New York (the director already had his eyes on another young man); and the enthusiastic discussion with a woman friend of Mel Gibson’s performance in a film of Hamlet; and seeing the likable but sometimes suitably tense Denzel Washington in Central Park as the deformed royal villain in Richard III, and admiring Laurence Fishburne as Othello, and being shaken and thrilled by the rude violence and humor of Titus Andronicus, as presented by Julie Taymor. Shakespeare shares a great imagination. Shakespeare’s language raises us to a level that is higher, wider, and deeper. I have grown fond of the new cinema version of Romeo & Juliet directed by Carlo Carlei and that is partly due to being impressed by the sumptuous production, with its monumental architecture—and by the fact that I have not seen any version of it for some time. Franco Zefferilli’s Romeo & Juliet (1968) starred Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet; and Bah Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet (1996) starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as Romeo and Juliet.
Carlo Carlei’s direction of a new interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy of young romance, Romeo & Juliet, an adaptation by the sometimes admirable, sometimes pompous writer Julian Fellowes, features the 19 years-old Douglas Booth as Romeo, of the Montague family, and 15 years-old Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet, of the Capulet family, with Christian Cooke as an attractive but impulsive Mercutio, Ed Westwick as the enraged Tybalt, Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young and loyal Benvolio, and with Stellan Skarsgard as the Prince of Verona, and an authoritative, moving Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, Lesley Manville as the loving Nurse, and Damian Lewis as Lord Capulet, Natascha McElhone as Lady Capulet, Tomas Arana as Lord Montague, Laura Morante as Lady Montague, and Tom Wisdom as Paris. Douglas Booth is handsome and sensuous, and Hailee Steinfeld seems sensitive and warm; and the characters they play belong to the warring wealthy families, the Montagues and Capulets—who require for peace the greatest of sacrifices. The friar and the nurse are well-intentioned people who help to facilitate the tragedy that befall Romeo and Juliet: the friar and nurse do not know enough about the ways of the world, or of the requirements of a girl whose family position includes decorum and diplomacy, property and politics. It is easy to believe, as well, in the friendship of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio, but see that both Mercutio, in his eagerness to fight, and Benvolio, by bringing discouraging news about Juliet, contribute to Romeo’s troubled fate.
Romeo and Juliet enter a secret marriage, a bond that could bridge the two families; and when Romeo sees the angry Tybalt, Romeo refuses to fight, a refusal rooted in a connection not yet disclosed, but which Tybalt thinks is cowardice. Mercutio takes up Tybalt’s challenge, and Tybalt kills Mercutio—leading to Romeo’s killing Tybalt, a renewal of hatred. Romeo is exiled to Mantua, where, in Carlo Carlei’s film, Romeo, though missing Juliet, is creating art. This Carlo Carlei film of Romeo & Juliet features the work of production designer Tonino Zera, and costumer Carlo Poggioli; and the cinematographer is David Tatersall, editor Peter Honess, and music composer Abel Korzeniowski. “The settings and costumes are handsome, filmed on location, as it were, in Verona and Genoa, and everything seems pretty right,” wrote David Noh of the fast-paced film in Film Journal International (October 10, 2013), though Noh found the film’s language less than Shakespeare, “devoid of lustrous lyricism.” The Telegraph’s Tim Robey criticized the dialogue by Julian Fellowes and the look of some of the actors but not that of its leading man: “Douglas Booth’s Romeo is such an impossibly good-looking, ultra-competent dreamboat, he unbalances the film—next to him, Steinfeld looks more like a needy little sister than a soulmate” (October 10, 2013). On this side of the pond, Manohla Dargis found the film “a sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation” (The New York Times, October 10, 2013). Dargis had her reservations too: “Ms. Steinfeld and Mr. Booth are nice to look at but are an awkward fit, no matter how attractively they go through the chaste motions. They look uneasy together (the difference in their age may be a reason), whether reciting Mr. Fellowes’s ornamented lines, hurtling into each other’s arms or locking lips.” One imagines that there will be other interpretations of the doomed young lovers in years to come—as the feelings of love and rage and despair at the center of the play remain with us.
William Shakespeare learned his craft experimenting with form, while exploring national themes (leadership, loyalty), influenced by Seneca and Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare’s early work includes Henry VI and The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare had a strong sense of form and content, and he presented characters who embodied ideas and ways of being, with plots that blended joy and pain, exemplified by plays—Parts 1 and 2—devoted to another Henry, Henry IV, featuring an usurper king, his wayward son, Prince Hal, and Hal’s fat, indulgent, vain friend Falstaff. A recent production of Henry IV (The Hollow Crown, 2012) with Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston, directed by Richard Eyre, was very strong: Irons was authoritative and thoughtful, an aging, worried lion, and Hiddleston was radiant and intelligent, playful in his slumming and circumspect in his reformation. (Simon Russell Beale is a great Falstaff.) Another play of this period of Shakespeare’s career was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work given to love and fantasy. Yet, Shakespeare’s comedies would darken and tragedies deepen, giving more attention to the turnings of the human mind. Hamlet is a portrait of conscience and choice; and Othello, too, is about how the mind is disordered by intense feeling. Shakespeare’s late work would seem to be more philosophical, his ideas expressed in symbols—in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Shakespeare was concerned, finally, with reconciliation more than the struggle of opposites. However, in The Tempest it is magic that supplants the limits of human will, a summoning of supernatural force—which might indicate the impossibility of reconciliation in ordinary human terms.
Some of the most remarkable films of Shakespeare’s plays are: Henry V directed by Laurence Olivier (1944); and Thrones of Blood, an interpretation of Macbeth by Akira Kurosawa (1957); Chimes at Midnight, encompassing Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and the Merry Wives of Windsor by Orson Welles (1966); Macbeth by Roman Polanski (1971); King Lear by Jean-Luc Godard (1987); Prospero’s Books, an interpretation of The Tempest by Peter Greenaway (1991); Much Ado About Nothing by Kenneth Branagh (1993); Othello by Oliver Parker (1995); Richard III by Richard Loncraine (1995); Hamlet by Kenneth Branagh (1996); and Coriolanus by Ralph Fiennes (2012). There are a lot of good and even great playwrights: Euripides, Christopher Marlowe, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Luigi Pirandello, Thornton Wilder, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Albert Camus, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Edward Albee, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Tom Stoppard, Ntozake Shange, Richard Foreman, August Wilson, Wallace Shawn, Tony Kushner, and Kia Corthron. Yet, Shakespeare remains the favorite of actors, directors, producers, and audiences. One can expect pleasure or wisdom, usually both.
Shakespeare’s life and accomplishments remain the subject of inquiry, research, speculation, and celebration. There are many books on Shakespeare, such as G. L. Brook’s The Language of Shakespeare (1976), John Gillies’ Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (1994); Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare (1997); Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from his Life (2001); Ania Loomba’s Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism (2002); and Philip Davis’s Shakespeare Thinking (2007). Harold Bloom wrote a book in which he argued that Shakespeare created our concept of human nature, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). James Baldwin, the creator of the plays The Amen Corner and Blues for Mr. Charlie, and Susan Sontag, the creator of the play Alice in Bed, are among the many writers of drama, poetry, fiction, and essays who have claimed Shakespeare as a progenitor.
Testimony to Shakespeare’s value is ubiquitous. Scott Mansfield directed an audio-visual anthology of recitations from Shakespeare’s work: Shakespeare’s Soliloquies (2002), a motion picture production with speeches from As You Like It, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, and other plays. The National Endowment for the Arts presented a 2004 documentary on Shakespeare’s lasting appeal and influence, directed by Lawrence Bridges, and featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dana Gioa, Tom Hanks, Bill Pullman, Julie Taymor, and Michael York: Why Shakespeare? The commitment of one teacher, Rafe Esquith, to bring and keep appreciation of Shakespeare in his school is the focus of The Hobart Shakespeareans (2005), directed by Mel Stuart. Hank Rogerson’s Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005), showing how prisoners find meaning and transformation in the bard’s work, may be a classic of its kind: in it art and life interrogate and illuminate each other.
Kenneth Branagh’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It (2006; released in the U.S. in 2009) is light and pretty, and set in Japan, and more likable than moving: about infatuation, love, and sex, it contains two stories about the lack of brotherly love and the theft of familial property, and has Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind. She is appealing, most appealing, when passing herself off as a boy in the forests of Arden (she is intellectually and spiritually liberated by the disguise). It was good to see Adrian Lester and David Oyelowo here as battling brothers—good to see their expressive talents, as they embodied a tense relationship between brothers: one is elegant and proud, the other has been made a peasant but maintains natural charm and dignity. In As You Like It, Kevin Kline is the most pleasant melancholic person ever (there seems to be always one person who understands Shakespeare’s language and spirit more than others, and here that seems to be Kline); and Alfred Molina is an effective fool—clownish and genuinely eccentric. True love survives and false claims are defeated in As You Like It, a lovely film about love and competition, though the film does not cut deeply enough regarding its more serious aspects. In Joss Whedon’s modern, black-and-white interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (2013), a comedy of male/female conflict, sibling rivalry, and bad motives and good intentions, the characters seem to share our air. In it the actor Reed Diamond is intelligent, light, and comfortable as the noble prince, Don Pedro, the language easy on his tongue. Amy Acker is Beatrice and Alexis Denisof is Benedick, the battling couple. Fran Kranz is Claudio and Jillian Morgese is Hero. The film is both sharp and funny.
Shakespeare embodies a sensibility earthy and elegant, compassionate and critical, sensible and surreal, historical and humorous, intellectual and instinctive, masculine and melancholy, poetic and prophetic, sensual and serene, tender and tough, traditional and transgressive. Shakespeare remains one with us, even as we are surrounded by other forms of culture: by music and sports and television and literature. One considers Shakespeare within our own perspective of contemporary culture—of the complementary and competing literature, music, and film. The sounds that fill the air—from many sources—include BluesAmericana by Keb Mo; Comet, Come to Me by Meshellege sounds that fill the air—from many sources—include BluesAmericana by Keb Mo; Comet, Come to Me by Meshell Ndegeocello; East End Sojourn by the Verve Jazz Ensemble; Floating by the Fred Hersch Trio; Heroes & Misfits by Kris Bowers; I Will Not Be Afraid by Caroline Rose; In the Shadows oeocello; East End Sojourn by the Verve Jazz Ensemble; Floating by the Fred Hersch Trio; Heroes & Misfits by Kris Bowers; I Will Not Be Afraid by Caroline Rose; In the Shadows of No Towers by Mohammed Fairouz; Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by Audra MacDonald; A Life Worth Living by Marc Broussard; Mutations by Vijay Iyer; Nostalgia by Annie Lennox; Prospect Hill by Dom Flemons; Quiet Pride by Rufus Reid; Refuse to Lose by Jarekus Singleton; Return to Zooathalon by Sananda Maitreya; Traces of You by Anoushka Shankar; Turn Blue by the Black Keys; Upside Down Mountain by Conor Oberst; and What I Heard by Oliver Lake. Some of the recent and remarkable—smart, significant—books include: James Baldwin, Challenging Authors (A. Scott Henderson and P.L. Thomas), Contemporary African American Literature (Lovalerie King, Shirley Moody-Turner), Fire Shut Up In My Bones (Charles M. Blow), Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America (Doran Larson), Green Documentary (Helen Hughes), Home (Toni Morrison), Morality for Humans (Mark Johnson), Lifting My Voice (Barbara Hendricks), Montaro Caine (Sidney Poitier), Obama Power (Jeffrey Alexander and Bernadette Jaworsky), The Price of Progress: The Costs of Inequality (David Dante Troutt), Reading Obama (James Kloppenberg), The Red Atlantic (Jace Weaver); The Routledge Dictionary of Turkish Cinema (Gonul Donmez-Colin); Stand Up Straight and Sing! (Jessye Norman), and Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling (Michel Foucault). Shakespeare holds his own with every form of culture and thought.
It may be a bit extravagant and wishful to describe Shakespeare, a transcendent writer of constancy and change, as the father of us all, but we could do a lot worse. Turgenev’s fiction Fathers and Sons suggests the chasm that can exist between fathers and sons, despite the love and respect they may feel for each other: Arkady and his friend Bazarov have accepted a philosophy of great skepticism—nihilism—that alienates one generation from the other. Modernism often rejects meaning: the faults are not always in the fathers—they are sometimes found in the sons. One remembers, too, that it was Nietzsche who wrote that when one has not had a good father, one must find or create one. Many are not born to the fathers and mothers they need. Phillipe Aries wrote Centuries of Childhood (Vintage, 1965), a history of childhood that documents the difficulties of youth and the uses to which children have been put: many children were made to work, and suffered homelessness and starvation or sexual exploitation. Alice Miller wrote in Thou Shalt Not Be Aware about the abuse of children, and how it has been disguised by official interpretations, a work published in Germany in 1981, and in the United States in 1984 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. There are useful—and sometimes ideal—fathers to be found in literature and film and the other arts, as well as in philosophy and political activism, a variety of fathers, with Shakespeare among the most eminent. Of course, there are distinctions to be made: inspiration and influence and imitation are not all the same.
Shakespeare, with his multiple signs and symbols, with his incarnation of disparate spirits and speeches, with the sound of his language, gives us more than most. If we do not find that he names all the specifics of our experiences and situations, when we encounter new forms and statements, we may find traces of him yet. Here, below, is commentary about some memorable films: About Last Night, After Earth, All That Jazz, At Any Price, Bamako, Broken, The Butler, Captain Phillips, Cesar Chavez, Closed Circuit, The Counselor, The Darjeeling Limited, Elysium, Enemy, Freedom Summer, The Great Gatsby, Happy Together, Her, Hours, The Lone Ranger, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Moonrise Kingdom, Mr. Nobody, Mud, My Beautiful Laundrette, My Own Private Idaho, On My Way, On the Road, Prisoners, The Railway Man, Repentance, Thurgood, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, The Trip to Bountiful, War and Peace, The Wolf of Wall Street, World War Z, and You Will Be My Son. Some of the films concern fathers and sons, an important subject for Shakespeare, as with At Any Price and You Will Be My Son. Some concern the workings of social power, as with The Butler and The Great Gatsby and War and Peace. Some offer many laughs—Moonrise Kingdom and The Wolf of Wall Street.
About Last Night – There are no wise elders in About Last Night. Steve Pink’s 2014 film interpretation of David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago is funny, scathing, smart, and vulgar, focusing on two couples—one perverse, one sweet—in Los Angeles; a refreshingly bold take on the intricacies of love and sex; and it looks good too. (It was written by Leslye Headland, based on the screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for the 1986 movie About Last Night.) Steve Pink’s film features an attractive cast, with Michael Ealy as the handsome, intelligent, but wary Danny and Joy Bryant as the accomplished, pretty, but sometimes controlling Debbie, and, as their wilder friends, Kevin Hart as Bernie and Regina Hall as Joan, a couple driven by foolishness and sexuality. The real demands of a relationship—how does one actually get on with another person, accepting the daily differences, and the increasing familiarity, while maintaining a sense of romance and passion?—are what make the sweet couple’s dilemma more interesting than the acrobatics of the wild couple. Normality is challenge enough.
After Earth – “Danger is very real. But fear is a choice,” says the father, Cypher Raige, to his son Kitai Raige, in the almost oddly elemental science-fiction film After Earth (2013), based on a story by actor-producer Will Smith, a film written by Gary Whitta and the film’s director M. Night Shyamalan, the director of The Sixth Sense and The Village. The motion picture’s story follows a great man taking his alienated son on a trip, with disaster following, one in which survival is not assured: their spaceship lands on an abandoned Earth that looks like a paradise but is full of dangers—quickly shifting temperatures and carnivorous animals and poisonous insects. The dangers must be understood and outwitted. Featuring Will Smith and his son Jaden, this is a unique opportunity for a real life father and son to share a story of family, budgeted at millions of dollars (it’s been reported that the film cost $135 million to make and almost as much to market). The father in the film is a legendary military leader, and his son is an adventurous but sensitive boy, haunted by the death of an older sister who tried to protect him from a rampaging creature. Will as Cypher is judgmental, tough, and Jaden as Kitai is agile, quick, and a little weepy. After Earth, a futuristic tale: a father and son story with space travel, in which a boy must face his fear and master it, has simple quality—like a fable, but it is not bad. The wisdom of the tale: the priorities of awareness and courage and survival require the acceptance of the current moment, of one’s actual experience.
All That Jazz – Looking at the paintings of dancers by Edgar Degas—pretty girls in blue, green, and pink; girls pensive and waiting, or confident and exuberant, or watching and critical—one does not quite see the fundamental drive it takes to be a good dancer. Where can one find that force of body, mind, and spirit? An honest look at the life of a choreographer—at the discipline and indulgences, vision and love affairs, alcohol and drugs, All That Jazz (1979) is a remarkable film, a musical whose beauty and joy is in the agility and perfection achieved with hard work and sacrifice. Roy Scheider is a ferocious and haunted man, demanding and needy, choreographer Joe Gideon, the center of work, ambition, and attention, for himself and others. The film’s opening audition is perfect in its capture of atmosphere and emotion. The creation of dance and what it draws from life—how it drains life—and the beauty that results is the core of the film, a biographical work given the courtesy of fictional names and an imaginative presentation, directed by the choreographer Bob Fosse, who directed as well the films Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Lenny and Star 80. Written by Fosse with Robert Alan Aurthur, the film has the energy and propulsion of New York, of the theater world, and of one tormented artist. One of the most inspired dances in the film is one that choreographs an orgiastic sexual encounter—liberty become libertine; a form of courage and freedom that is a wound for a woman who has loved the choreographer. Despite the beauty of women and their love, it is hard not to think that the truest beauty, and the most lasting connection, is that of art.
At Any Price – Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price (made in 2012; released in 2013) is a sun-drenched American tragedy of masculinity and family, ambition and property: people act, moved by their own furies and purposes, not taking enough of the world into account. The film was written by Hallie Elizabeth Newton with Bahrani; and its production designer was Chad Keith and cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and it was edited by Affonso Gonçalves. The story is about a farmer-salesman father and his race driver son, and it is set in Iowa, but was filmed mostly in Illinois, in DeKalb County (its images are not quite as abstract and smooth, as strangely ideal, as in a Grant Wood painting of a corn field). In At Any Price, an alienated father and son clash, and the father comes to consciousness—recognizing other virtues and the true nature of his son—at a great cost. At Any Price is a beautiful, interesting, disturbing film. Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid, and Kim Dickens are especially good as son Dean Whipple, father Henry Whipple, and mother Irene Whipple. The young man, Dean (Efron), steals from a store, has sex with someone other than his girlfriend, and attacks the car of farm inspectors, disrespecting others. Dean may have inherited some of his father’s selfishness (his father Henry is having an affair). Zac Efron is establishing a significant career for himself, making films of intelligence, imagination, and reality. In Parkland, Zac Efron is a doctor attending to a fatally wounded John F. Kennedy. That small film, also featuring Billy Bob Thornton as a federal agent and Paul Giamatti as the photographer who captured the attack, is hard to watch, interesting of course, but painful and not exactly necessary—as the history is mostly known. One of its most haunting image is of the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy (Kat Steffens) in her pink suit, one inspired by Coco Chanel, splattered with blood, holding her hand out to a hospital attendant: in her hand is part of the president’s skull. In a very different film, the engaging, fun, mostly honest That Awkward Moment, Efron costars with Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan for a story about twenty-something young men trying to hold to a code of lust regarding women, but who find male friendship tested, and heart break, and understanding expanded, as they discover the bounds of genuine love. Maturity slowly comes; and there are some moments of charm, honesty, intelligence, and awkwardness.
Bamako – Africa is a land of histories, cultures, and art, a land of abstraction, color, complication, fable, form, invention, ritual, sound, and thought, as well as of error, illness, and tragedy; and yet because of the narrow considerations of western attention, it is hard to remember that Africa is a continent rather than a country, and more than a bleeding, whining, gaping wound, an injury of colonialism made worse by tribal warfare and the egocentric madness of greedy modern leaders with feudal impulses. The work of Africa’s artists and intellectuals is more valuable for those difficult facts. Abderrahamane Sissako’s Bamako (2006) is a dramatization of Europe’s baleful influence, but the subject is presented less as a lament than as a trial of international financial policy—loans made with the proviso that their repayment is put before the requirements of social services for citizens puts the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on trial, with terms and consequences specified. Waiting for Happiness (2002) is a more intimate portrait by the same director, presenting an educated boy who returns to his village, alienated by language, dress, and custom. Yeelen (Brightness, 1987) ignores modern dilemmas to return us to a story of magical power and primal conflict: a gifted father, selfish and drunk with power, wants to destroy his son, who prefers to share knowledge and power with others. It is an elemental, strange, beautiful film. Films such Bamako, Waiting for Happiness, and Yeelen help to salve the bruises of ignorance and misunderstanding; offering unique visions, serious thought, and entertainment of the deepest spirit. Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), one of the films that inaugurated modern African cinema, is about an African village girl who is offered the opportunity to go to France to work. She changes traditional garb for cosmopolitan dress, and works hard, but finds disrespect and marginality—she cannot live in France and she cannot return home.
Broken – the film Broken (2012), directed by Rufus Norris and featuring Eloise Laurence as Skunk, at first seems like a small drama but it has elements of experiment and absurdist comedy, as it focuses on a young girl and her family, friends, and neighbors. (The story comes from a book by Daniel Clay, and the screenplay was written by Mark O’Rowe.) Eloise Laurence’s Skunk is diabetic, requiring monitoring and periodic insulin shots; a condition that means that her adventures—some ordinary, some extraordinary—can put her life in danger. Other characters include a decent, loving lawyer father, Archie (Tim Roth), and an attractive female, live-in child care provider, Kasia (Zana Marjanovic), a brother, Jed (Bill Milner), and the child attendant’s boyfriend, Mike (Cillian Murphy), an appealing group. The other neighborhood families—one with a mentally impaired son, another with a gaggle of rude, trampy daughters and a volatile father—are important to the story too. Events: false accusations of rape; psychiatric incarceration; breakup of the nanny’s relationship; bullying of a young girl by an older one. The experience of a childhood crush and the perception of the injustice of life are lessons.
The Butler – Lee Daniels is an interesting director: he has passion and purpose, but he could use a bit more intelligence and taste. Lee Daniels seems to be swinging for the bleachers even when he is inside the house in a well-decorated room with closed windows. Daniels may be African-American cinema’s wild man. It is difficult to complain too much about that as an original, transfiguring passion is not that common in black film. Yet, Daniels may have taken on a story that is a little too linear, too ordered, for his sensibility in The Butler (2013), written by Danny Strong, inspired by Wil Haygood’s actual report on a longtime White House butler. Starring Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, with David Oyelowo as Cecil’s activist son Louis, and telling the story of the butler’s long life, which has seen slow social change with different American presidents, the film is too much of a historical travelogue, though its subject—the struggle for respect and civil rights—is important. The Butler does not have much of a thesis, other than that times change and children are different from their parents. I did not like Lee Daniels’s Precious, but I did like his film The Paperboy. I am not sure whether Daniels has yet made a film generous and intelligent enough to equal Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, or Sidewalk Stories. One hopes that Lee Daniels will continue to develop. Possibly he will draw on the work of some of the men who came before him for ideas and inspiration: Alain Locke, Richmond Barthe, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Bayard Rustin, Billy Strayhorn, James Baldwin, Alvin Ailey, Julius Eastman, Glenn Ligon, and Randall Kenan. One hopes that Lee Daniels will consider fundamental questions: Which skills and practices bring personal and public rewards? What are the requirements of civilization? Which institutions support a fair and just society? Who are the figures of personal evolution, cultural sophistication, and political progress? Which experiences offer freedom, joy, and knowledge? Yet, one hopes that no one—and not Lee Daniels himself—will limit his imagination, his intellect, or his range of influences.
Captain Phillips – Paul Greengrass’s story of modern day pirates, Captain Phillips (2013), featuring Tom Hanks as a decent, efficient and wise ship’s captain facing desperate Somali men, is very good, from beginning to end; a contemporary pirate story in which worlds collide, American wealth and power with African need, featuring differences in sensibility and status and sorrow. The film, photographed by Barry Ackroyd and edited by Christopher Rouse, was wwritten by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. As the captain, Tom Hanks projects confidence, generosity, maturity, and practicality. The Somali pirates have guns and determination but are out of their depth—with him, and with American military force.
Cesar Chavez – The heat and dust, sweat and aches, and the hope and disrespect with which some workers toil are captured in Diego Luna’s film about one of the founders of United Farm Workers. The labor leader Cesar Chavez is the subject of Diego Luna’s earthy, intelligent, and necessary film Cesar Chavez (2014). Cesar Chavez was one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century, an organizer of farm workers in California, many of them Mexican; and this film—confident and honest—is an important one. Michael Pena incarnates Cesar Chavez here: Michael Pena, who has appeared in Star Maps (1997), and Buffalo Soldiers (2001), The United States of Leland (2003), Lions for Lambs (2007), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), and End of Watch (2012), among other film and television production, has found a role of lasting significance. Chavez has a soft surface with a harder core; and is able to become a leader of courage, dissidence, and insight. The film is about a movement for social change among people who were used and taken for granted (one wealthy landowner in the film calls his workers children). The film depicts the sacrifice and danger involved in saying No to the way things are—workers are threatened with incarceration and violence when they protest conditions of labor. Time spent in politics is time spent away from home—and children remember absence and are changed by it (Cesar Chavez’s son Fernando feels neglected). Yet a transcendent purpose redeems much. The performances by America Ferrera as Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, and by Rosario Dawson as activist Dolores Huerta are also strong. The film is full of long scenes set in compelling locations, and it has the naked power of truth, and its technique is mostly good—though filming of Cesar as he fasted and sat in bed was a little shaky (was the cameraman in bed with Michael Pena?).
Closed Circuit – Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall are two very attractive people, and two very good actors: they embody character and intelligence and are easily believable. Here, in John Crowley’s Closed Circuit (2013), they play lawyers who were once and recently lovers—and it is wonderful to get a good look at both of them. Written by Steve Knight and inspired by the paranoia of the time—terrorism and public and private surveillance—the film, in its depiction of the ethical and personal conflicts of two lawyers, a man and a woman, Martin Rose and Claudia Simmons-Howe, taking on the defense of a foreigner accused of a great bombing in Britain, is very, very watchable, quite entertaining. (It was filmed by Adriano Goldman and edited by Lucia Zucchetti.) The film has an old-fashioned scenario—and one suspects that the actors are happy to make the kind of story—with strong characters, conflict, romance, high purpose, and suspense—that they grew up liking, the kind of story that has been marginalized during an era of film fantasy, cartoon superheroes, and special effects. Rebecca Hall is in Transcendence (2014), with Johnny Depp and Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Kate Mara, directed by Wally Pfister, a science fiction film about the joining of human personality to artificial intelligence, in which the future becomes a nightmare of crossed purposes, of love and technology. It, like the Star Trek motion picture that featured Eric Bana, is a film full of gadgets.
The Counselor – It’s not hard to argue that The Counselor (2013) is about lust and greed leading to the destruction of beauty, and the pointlessness of grief, as well as the corrosive effect of desperation. The film, written by Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and photographed by Dariusz Wolski, is great to look at, intriguing, inspiring fascination and dread—and Rupert Blades’ speech on choice and the acceptance of reality is enough wisdom to justify the whole film, which has an impressive cast, most of whose characters come to a noir end. Cameron Diaz, to borrow a Pauline Kael phrase, plays kinky Death herself. Cameron Diaz plays a lethal woman, Malkina, an attractive but relentless figure who is thrilled by danger: she is the companion of a less gifted hustler, Reiner, played by Javier Bardem, an associate of a lawyer (Michael Fassbender), who is warned against risky endeavors but persists anyway, endangering himself and his lover, Laura, played by Penelope Cruz. Michael Fassbender’s counselor is a man trying to find balance and greater financial reward, an attempt that makes him tense, vulnerable. Most of the people around the counselor are more relaxed, dangerously relaxed—used to bad behavior as they are. There are a couple of good conversations—featuring Fassbender and Brad Pitt (as Westray, an honest crook with a fatal weakness for beautiful woman), as well as between Fassbender and Blades, in which the awareness, choices, and the consequences of individual acts are laid bare. This is an intelligent but violent film, both sunny and dark, about risk, desperation, greed, lust, money, and amoral (and immoral) choices. Written by Cormac McCarthy, and directed by Ridley Scott, two masters, this is an unexpected, disturbing and rewarding film.
The Darjeeling Limited – The film The Darjeeling Limited (2007) is about the limits of materialism, as well as death, family conflicts, addictions, romance, and journeys—spiritual and geographic journeys. One is compelled to think about the limits of materialism not only in terms of arguments over the property a deceased father has left behind for his sons, but also in how the filmmaker has decorated locations—establishments in India that might have seemed eternal in their plain usefulness become more decorative, obviously attractive, but maybe also more shallow. (Director Wes Anderson tells critic Matt Zoller Seitz that Anderson asked locals to build a hut and they built one then painted it colorfully, in the book The Wes Anderson Collection, published by Abrams in 2013.) Yet, this is a lovely, thoughtful film, truly remarkable, with admirable performances by the leads, Adrian Brody (as Peter Whitman), Owen Wilson (Francis Whitman), and Jason Schwartzman (Jack Whitman). The film, written by Wes Anderson with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman, and photographed by Robert Yeoman, has been criticized by some for indulging in the white western male gaze upon the Orient, the exotic; and while considering that, one commentator, Swati Pandey, declared, “For each long gaze the camera casts on bright, sari-clad Indian women, it offers a similarly loving glimpse of the well-tailored brothers, with their designer luggage and expensive shoes. The somewhat stereotypical Indian beauty (wide-eyed, waiting to be wooed by the white man) is countered by the uptight, officious Brit (the wife of one of the brothers, who scolds them en route to their father’s funeral). The equality of gaze is captured early on, when Jack Whitman (Schwartzman) pokes his head out a train window for a smoke and spots said Indian beauty (Amara Karan), also smoking. A proper Indian girl would look away, but she meets his eye (and encounters the rest of him later, in a train bathroom)” (The Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2007).
Elysium – The rich versus the poor: the rich have plenty—and health care, with nearly miraculous scientific cures, while the poor suffer in Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013), set in year 2154 and starring Matt Damon. The poor remain on a polluted Earth, while the rich are on a clean, safe colony in space, where life is a banquet and technology cures disease. It is not surprising to be forced to consider that the rich and the poor would live very different lives in the future, as they have in the past and do now, but it is chastening to imagine that health care would represent still that difference. Matt Damon’s tough guy, after an industrial accident, is thrown on the scrap heap by his boss, but given cyborg abilities by an ambitious gang who want some of the luxurious technology for the downtrodden people. The motives of Damon’s character are mixed, of course, and the obstacles in his path brutal: the man gains useful information—desired by different social groups—and makes his way to the colony with a friend and her ill child. Struggle ensues. The film has great production design—and its dramatized extremes are easily believable.
Enemy – A man who has a double? Or a divided life (with two professions, and two women); or merely a divided mind? Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (a 2013 Canadian film; released in the United States in 2014), based on a story by Jose Saramago (The Double), is a moody, dynamic, odd work, with good performances and an ending that has no realistic resolution, though a giant threat looms. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the man in question, and Isabella Rossellini his mother. It is interesting to wonder if the drama in this film—what is happening and why?—is being generated by one man’s character or psyche? Is he a man who wants it all, a career of thought and security, and a career of glamour and risk; a marriage of responsibility and an affair of passion? Is he haunted by a genuine double, maybe an occurrence in a world increasingly shaped by scientific experiment and a multitude of possibilities and perversities; or is he merely losing control of a bifurcated life?
42: The Jackie Robinson Story – One of the better biographies of an African-American popular figure: intelligent, factual, glamorous, dignified, but 42 does not reveal enough of the complexities of life that do not involve baseball or racial politics. Chadwick Boseman and the other performers are attractive in the 2013 Brian Helgeland film, reportedly a two-year project for the director; and Boseman is a very good actor. The sports scenes capture the improvisational quality and intelligence of Jackie Robinson (Boseman), and are fun to watch. Some sports commentators have taken issue with some of the film’s details: Howard Bryant, writing for the online ESPN, clarified the historical record, declaring, “Branch Rickey was given credit for integration of the game as his idea solely, when as early as 1943, the integration forces in government and the press (notably Lester Rodney of the Communist Party newspaper Daily Worker, Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy) had pressured baseball and other industries, such as the military, to integrate” (April 14, 2013; accessed October 2014). Howard Bryant notes the film’s occlusion of other black ballplayers; and the welcome Robinson received in Canada; the significance of several black newspapers, which reported on and helped to sustain African-American life; and the failure of the business of baseball to offer Robinson a role after he ceased being a player. Others have noted discrepancies: Jackie Robinson did not become visibly disturbed—breaking a bat—after being baited by the racist Ben Chapman; and the Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller did not hit Jackie in the head, as the movie shows, but in the elbow during a 1947 game. Dave Zirin in The Nation stated, “Robinson’s experience was shaped by the Dixiecrats who ruled his Georgia birthplace, the mass struggles of the 1930s, World War II, the anti-communist witch-hunts and later the Civil Rights and Black Freedom struggles. To tell his tale as one of individual triumph through his singular greatness is to not tell the story at all” (April 17, 2013). However, the film received many approving reviews from ordinary filmgoers and cinema critics and fans of baseball.
Freedom Summer – The Stanley Nelson documentary Freedom Summer recounts the organization for civil rights in Mississippi—the frustration of black activists and their decision to enlist northern mostly white college students in their political struggle in 1964. (This was why Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were in the area, and why they were killed.) The college students would move into black homes as part of their voter registration work—and suffer the same harassment as local blacks. The related creation of the Freedom Democratic Party and its national Democratic Party convention participation remain fascinating for the insight in how power works—resists change—behind the scenes. Individuals taking moral and political responsibility for the conditions of the country are what produces social change, as this documentary of the civil rights movement attests. The story may be familiar to those long devoted to the subject, but there are still startling details regarding the pervasive atmosphere of cruelty that blacks faced and the low-minded concerns of whites preoccupied with black sexuality, projections of their own desires and fantasies. “American patriotism is tied so firmly to the notion of democracy and exceptionalism that we often find it difficult to face those moments when some of our laws, customs and population are revealed to be monstrous. The clips of Southern politicians and everyday Mississippians celebrating their racism and the descriptions of how far into evil that racism took them are chilling to watch,” wrote Mary McNamara in the Los Angeles Times (June 24, 2014).
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Ralph Fiennes is Gustave, a concierge and friend to the rich, a man who has been tutored by older ladies and indulged them in bad—a man of idiosyncratic existence, in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), a film both whimsical and serious, a contemplation of history and eccentric civilization. Gustave’s opponent is Dmitri, the son of one of his patrons, a dark-suited man with black hair and a black moustache—in stillness or motion, in silence or speech, Dmitri has the classic motive and presence of a self-centered, greedy villain; and here he is an avatar for Adolph, the great negative icon of the 20th century. Civilization versus power: a world of well-dressed swells, possibly not thinking enough about the workings of the world, would be blown up by technology used with the thrust of barbarism. Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum) tries to stand up for private wishes and law—and would himself be dispatched in one of the palaces of civilization, an art museum.
The Great Gatsby – When one looks at the photographs taken of the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, one is left with a striking fact: he hardly ever looks happy, or even cheery. One suspects that he had an ideal of pleasure, of the good life, that he celebrated in his work but did not find in life. Did he know how rare happiness is; or was he like his character Gatsby forever searching for it? F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 book has so much charm that people ignore its ideas: it is more about class, education, and maturity than love, with references to the colored barbarian hordes, Oxford, and accepting change. Its significant themes are given less attention than the indulgent parties, hot/cool music, and pink suit that are examples of superficiality rather than fun. Gatsby is a man whose adolescent fantasy of love and money is the same as that of many Americans—thus he is embraced, though he is a fool, a hopeful fool. The tone of Fitzgerald may be more intoxicated than Henry James or Edith Wharton but the moral is quite similar—the allure of the rich, their deception, their power, and their lack of mercy are dangerous to others. Gatsby is actually all the things that Tom Buchanan says he is—and Gatsby’s rise is a sign of the greater cultural vulgarity to come. Film director Baz Luhrmann’s style is a corroboration of that vulgarity. (I must admit that I liked the illustrations that accompanied writer Nick Carraway’s ruminations.) So much depends on casting and tone—and both the 1974 and 2013 versions have questionable castings (the lead actors, Redford in 1974 and DiCaprio in 2013 may present too perfect a surface, too smooth a manner). When reviewing the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby directed by Jack Clayton, a film that did not match the drive the self-created man James Gatz/Jay Gatsby must have had, the film critic Ebert thoughtfully declared, “The movie is ‘faithful’ to the novel with a vengeance—to what happens in the novel, that is, and not to the feel, mood, and spirit of it. Yet I’ve never thought the events in The Great Gatsby were that important to the novel’s success; Fitzgerald, who came out of St. Paul to personify the romance of an age, was writing in a way about himself when he created Gatsby. The mundane Midwestern origins had been replaced by a new persona, by a flash and charisma that sometimes only concealed the despair underneath” (Chicago Sun-Times, January 1, 1974; accessed online October 2014). It is fascinating to think that Fitzgerald created a memorable work with characters one questions; and one sees their limits in the films the book inspired. The wife Daisy (Mia Farrow with Redford; and Carey Mulligan with DiCaprio in Luhrmann’s interpretation) should be both light and sensitive as well as frivolous regarding others; and the working class mistress Myrtle (first Karen Black, now Isla Fisher) should be direct and sensual rather than gross. Nick, who seems seduced by both Gatsby and a woman golfer, may be too passive (actor Sam Waterston in 1974, and Tobey Maguire in 2013): in life, the observing writer usually does more than see and describe—he wants. Nick’s conclusion that Gatsby is better than the moneyed set he wants to be a part of is a form of sentimentality, an affirmation of a standard of value—of integrity—that all the characters have betrayed.
Happy Together – Happy Together (1997), written, directed, and produced by Wong Kar Wai, is a mostly black-and-white film, a melancholy film, focusing on the troubled love affair between two young men, Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Po-wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). They differ in commitment and generosity—one, Tony Leung’s character, is more inclined to generosity than the other—Leslie Cheung’s character is charming, reckless, and selfish. They travel together, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires—on their journey, they separate, come back together, and separate again, leaving one in grief, but also open to the world. It’s a beautiful, unique film, genuinely haunting, with production design by William Chang, and its cinematographer is Christopher Doyle. There have been various films featuring men as lovers as well as comrades or combatants, friends or enemies: Another Country, Before Night Falls, Confusion of Genders, The Crying Game, Ernesto, Far From Heaven, Farewell My Concubine, Hamam, The History Boys, Kinsey, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Law of Desire, Longtime Companion, Looking for Langston, Love is the Devil, Maurice, Nijinsky, The Pillow Book, Philadelphia, Prick Up Your Ears, Rope, Six Degrees of Separation, Taboo (Gohatto), Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, Time Regained, Total Eclipse, The Wedding Banquet, Wild Reeds, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Yossi and Jagger. Happy Together is one of the best films, one of the most honest, most moving, that takes as its subject love and sex between men. Tony Leung, the film’s star, and an actor of charm and conviction, has appeared in several films by Wong Kar Wei: Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and, most recently in year 2013, The Grandmaster, a dark, elegant film about tradition, respect, love and war, and quite likely the most elegant film ever made about martial arts.
Her – The logical extension of current possibilities regarding the centrality of computer technology in people’s lives: an isolated, talented writer falls in love with his computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s film Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix as the writer, and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the affectionate, speculative, and finally free operating system. The film is smart, somber, and strange. It conveys something true about how the isolation of certain people can make them feel as if the world has a lot fewer people than it does, and few opportunities. When they—we—do glimpse the vast population of the world, it is discomforting. Possibilities rise and fall, with little response to our wishes.
Hours – There is a painting by El Franco Lee of a group of black people, up to their thighs in water, with one person reaching a baby over a fence to another. It is one remembrance of the difficulty of Hurricane Katrina—though few of us can forget the television footage of people, many of them African-Americans, on rooftops calling and waving for rescue. The Home Box Office program Treme has told some of the stories—beautifully, intelligently—of New Orleans citizens and how they were overwhelmed or survived. Here is another: Eric Heisserer directed this small, expert portrait of a life crisis and a natural disaster, Hours: the problematic delivery and care of a baby during Hurricane Katrina, featuring as husband and father Nolan Hayes one of the last performances by the handsome, generous actor Paul Walker (1973-2013), who had starred in the film franchise devoted to race cars, Fast & Furious, and ran the disaster relief foundation Reach Out Worldwide. “Every once in a while, you get a hold of something and it just makes your heart beat,” Walker said of the Hours script, to Mike Scott of The Times-Picayune (recounted December 2, 2013). The married father and mother in the film had met by accident, and fallen in love. The mother’s life is fatally threatened by the trauma of childbirth, and the father must develop very quickly a nurturing, protective dedication to his own child during the emergency. The hurricane threatens the hospital’s power and forces staff to leave; and criminals enter, taking advantage of the city’s chaos. The father speaks to his daughter about her mother and other aspects of his life and he monitors the breathing machine and feeding tube her life now depends on. The performances, especially those of Paul Walker as the father and Genesis Rodriguez as the mother, are persuasive.
The Lone Ranger – Armie Hammer gets a chance to express his charm and humor as an educated, liberal man devoted to law and family, John Reid, who becomes a masked heroic figure in Gore Verbinski’s 2013 reinvention of a popular story, The Lone Ranger: The Lone Ranger had been an American western television series in the 1950s, featuring Clayton Moore as the title character (and sometimes John Hart), a Texas ranger who survives a massacre and wears a mask as disguise, and travels with the native man Tonto (Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk), the two of them challenging lawbreakers and righting wrongs. “This is a story about national myths: why they’re perpetuated, who benefits,” wrote Matt Zoller Seitz, on Roger Ebert’s web site July 3, 2013 (Seitz described Hammer as having an earnest, bumbling beauty). John Reid (Armie Hammer) gets entangled with an eccentric Native American, Tonto, played by Johnny Depp, and a vicious groups of outlaws, one of whom seems demonic. (There are surprising echoes of the film Dead Man.) The Lone Ranger is appealing without being particularly satisfying. Yet Armie Hammer’s lanky handsome presence and sweetness has an old-fashioned appeal that justifies one’s interest—after The Social Network and J. Edgar—and one’s curiosity about what Hammer would do in the future.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – Idris Elba is respectable as the pragmatic and philosophical Nelson Mandela, a man whose sacrifices produced wisdom rather than bitterness, in Justin Chadwick’s film direction of a script by William Nicholson, based on Nelson Mandela’s biography. (Where would cinema be without sources beyond its own realm?) However, the true fire in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) is Naomi Harris as Winnie Mandela: from the sweetly intelligent social worker to a worried but resolute wife and mother to a tormented prisoner whose experience is radicalizing, making her more dangerously militant than her husband, a charismatic revolutionary. Harris’s work is most impressive. There is a scene when Winnie watches Nelson with the most scathing disapproval—the chasm between them as personalities and political figures is insurmountable: a marriage and an alliance has ended.
Moonrise Kingdom – Moonrise Kingdom gives us a story of adventure, family, childhood ostracism, first love, danger, rescue, bureaucratic disapproval, and idiosyncratic heroism. Two troubled children, a boy and a girl, take an adventure together—he is a boy scout and she the daughter of a couple of married lawyers, in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom, a beautiful, rich, funny film. Written by Anderson with Roman Coppola, and narrated by Bob Balaban in a style both sincere and satirical, the film has both artifice and honesty. As with most of Wes Anderson’s work, a lot of care and imagination and thought have gone into the film—creating a gorgeous look for troubling content. Admirable, valuable.
Mr. Nobody – Choice is paramount, an exercise of freedom, and not making a choice can leave options open—or prevent one form having a true character or a real life. That is the thesis, it seems, of this complicated film, Mr. Nobody, written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael; and the film, in its explorations, crosses time periods and genres, including family drama, love story, and science fiction. “What is the nature of time? Not the best subject for a popular feature film, one might think, until Mr. Nobody came along to prove the contrary. Like a thinking man’s Benjamin Button, it addresses very complex concepts, like the infinite number of possibilities that human life presents, in an entertaining way, following the hero Nemo Nobody, age 0 to 118, through the different lives he would have led had he made different choices,” began writer Deborah Young in her Associated Press report from Venice on September 25, 2009, published in The Hollywood Reporter. Mr. Nobody was shown in the Venice film festival in 2009, and in Belgium, France, Germany, and Canada in the following year, 2010, but it did not receive screenings in the United States until 2013 (and appeared in DVD form in 2014). The film uses various aspects of Jared Leto’s personality—charm, empathy, imagination, intelligence. Jared Leto plays a young man living very different lives—a manifestation of possibilities, of choices sustained in the mind. It is a film of speculation in which fear and love play a significant part, a futurist vision that has not lost its most human roots. It is fascinating how many genuine ideas and difficult emotions are presented in the film, given vivid life by production designer Sylvie Olive and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne.
Mud – The loss of innocence. A boy, Ellis (acted by Tye Sheridan), learns about the limits of family, faith, and love in this story of a mother’s dissatisfaction leading to a marriage separation, simultaneous with the boy’s infatuation with an older girl whom he impresses by standing up to a bully. In Mud, Matthew McConaughey plays a bereft man whom the boy Ellis befriends: a man who comes to the defense of a broken woman, and then is himself on the run, sought by a wealthy, grieving and angry father. The young boy learns not to believe the stories—the myths—of others, and to be wary about creating his own: truth is more complicated, hurting, but better. Pictures of the contemporary American south are presented in Mud and Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective, three of McConaughey’s recent projects: the loss of innocence in Mud (2012), directed by Jeff Nichols; the sudden occurrence of disease in a wild life, and unexpected heroism, in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), directed by Jean-Marc Vallee; and the philosophical contemplation of self, friendship, love, and sexual transgression and violence in the exploration of a series of crimes against women and children in the Home Box Office production True Detective (2014), written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. True Detective adds something new to our consideration of southern culture. McConaughey is a superb actor in all three productions, two made for the theater and one for home viewing on television.
My Beautiful Laundrette – The 1985 film written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, and released in 1986 in the United States, works because it offers various areas of interest—characters, situations, themes, with an honest and humorous attitude, a tone of intelligence and generosity. The center of the film are two friends, one Pakistani, one white, who go into business together. The Pakistani young man, Omar, has a large, extended family. Omar (Gordon Warnecke) has a father who was a radical journalist and has taken to strong drink—but Papa (Roshan Seth) wants his son to do well, and the father’s successful businessman brother, Nasser (Saeed Jaffrey) can help. The uncle is practical but something of a hedonist—he is married to a traditional Pakistani woman but has a white mistress (his wife is involved in some kind of witchcraft to harm the mistress, to scare her, and it works). The uncle’s intervention leads to Omar’s starting a business, a launderette, with a school acquaintance, Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). The film acknowledges the class, gender, and ethnic differences and tensions in London. There is a homoerotic dimension to the relation between the two young men, Omar and Johnny, a dimension that is attractive and satisfying as it comes with no rhetoric or pathos—it just is: their attraction, affection, and pleasure are what we see.
My Own Private Idaho – The friendship between the two young men, Mike and Scott, affects us—they are together just because they are part of the same milieu and like each other, despite differing backgrounds, personalities, and expectations in writer-director Gus Van Sant’s imaginative, even radical story, My Own Private Idaho (1991). River Phoenix is Mike Waters, and Keanu Reeves is Scott Favor. It is impossible to forget the scene in which the two men sit near a fire and Mike confesses how much he cares about Scott. River Phoenix was a brave and sensitive actor. There is an aspect of the Shakespearean Prince Hal/Falstaff story as well. The intelligence and humor of the scenes, both arty and natural, and the intimacy of the friendship maintain strong interest.
On My Way – Catherine Deneuve is a beautiful woman and a good actress, intelligent, natural, suggestive—and she looks attractive still in Emmanuelle Bercot’s film On My Way (2013), well-preserved, but it is impossible to think that she has not had a little help with that, and it is a bit irritating to see that this woman, born in the 1940s, has two sex scenes with two different men in this film, men who are little more than strangers to her (one of whom is about half her age). Catherine Deneuve has more to give than sexual allure. However the film, about late life trouble in love and work and family, and the reconciliation achieved through a grandson, is an entertaining one. One might excuse its excesses by remembering this is a French film—but I expect a bit more logic and taste in French films.
On the Road – The desire is for sex and liquor and drugs and travel, the desire for forms of liberty and excitement and knowledge, in the lives of a couple of writers and their friends during the 1940s, based on the 1957 Jack Kerouac novel On the Road, in a film made in 2012 by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries). The women pay for the men’s freedom—and the men are as infatuated with each other as they are with the women. There is not enough about literature, the actual creative passion of the men, but the film—while not wholly satisfying—is worth thinking about. Garrett Hedlund is a convincing Dean Moriarty, a free-spirited man who can be brutally selfish. Sam Riley is his friend Sal, Tom Sturridge is Carlo, and Viggo Mortensen is Old Bull Lee. Kristen Stewart as Marylou and Kirsten Dunst as Camille, two of Dean’s loves, each have their moments; but it is a man’s world. It is strange to realize that despite the modernism of the writers’ work—the characters Sal, Carlo, and Lee were inspired by Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs—the writers’ own lives, as seen here, seem very much constrained by their times.
Prisoners – Surprisingly compelling story of the abduction of two girls of neighborhood families, something that tests faith in self, law, and divinity. The performances in Prisoners (2013) are good, as is the film’s look and pacing, but in it there is not enough of an argument made for law or ethics or spiritual resources. Anger, pain, and vigilante impulses are more pressing than anything else: making this one of the films in which torture of a man is a central element (possibly a result of the influence of real world reports of government torture of political prisoners). Prisoners features Hugh Jackman as the volatile Keller, Maria Bello as his despairing wife Grace, and, as their neighbors Franklin and Nancy, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, with Davis as a worried mother more willing than her sensitive husband to allow risky methods to get her child back. Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki. The actors raise the scenario to a height of feeling and resonance it would not reach without them. The torture of a suspect at the center of the story remains perplexing, amoral, believable, disturbing, and regrettable. The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve, who directed Gyllenhaal in Enemy as well.
The Railway Man – The disrespect of the British army shown by the Japanese army during wartime allowed for brutality and degradation. The Railway Man is another telling of the building of the bridge over the Kwai river (David Lean told the same story in an acclaimed film). The Railway Man is an interesting film for its balanced view of different realities, European and Asian, past and present, male and female: how they differ and mix—in war and peace, youth and age, love and cruelty, speech and silence, city and country. It is a 2013 English-Australian production with range of vision and tone; and it was directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, and stars Colin Firth as Eric and Nicole Kidman as Patricia. The Railway Man is impressive and likable, even moving—and its focus on midlife romance between a scarred soldier and the nurse who wants to help him heal. (Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman would play very different characters in Rowan Joffe’s 2014 film Before I Go to Sleep, about a suffering woman and her questionable mate.)
Repentance – Repentance is a horror film about death, memory, and moral irresponsibility, featuring three gifted black actors—Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, and Mike Epps—as men who are far from admirable. The director is Philippe Caland (sometimes his last name has been represented as Calano—which is as it looks to me in the credit roll). The film Repentance was shown at Sundance in 2013, according to the black film site Shadow and Act (February 28, 2014), before being distributed in 2014 by CodeBlack Films. The script for the film is by Shintaro Shimosawa, based on the director Caland’s own story, The Guru and the Gypsy. Two drunken brothers cause a woman’s injury and death, a death that haunts and disturbs her son—who will meet one of the men, who seems to have become a good man (a loving husband, thoughtful writer, and supportive life coach). Forest Whitaker is Angel Sanchez, the grieving son; and Anthony Mackie is writer Thomas Carter, and Mike Epps is Thomas’s brother Ben, the two men who were drunk and laughing when the car they were in hit Angel’s mother. Ben is a particularly nasty piece of work: aggressive, criminal, inconsiderate, spiteful. The bitterness and pain and hypocrisy of these men’s lives are disturbing, with resonances beyond the narrative. Why were these men not able to act intelligently or responsibly in ways that matter most? There is, of course, accounting to be done; and in the film Angel detains Thomas. “The way Angel flips the script on Tommy, confronting the hog-tied therapist with his own glib banalities, might be funny—if only the sessions didn’t also involve physical torture. Tommy is cut, pierced and beaten, and the punishment seems designed mostly to keep the attention of jaded moviegoers, not to elicit the confession Angel so desperately wants to hear,” writes Mark Jenkins in the February 28, 2014 Washington Post (Jenkins found the film’s script weak and the acting performances strong). In the Los Angeles Times (February 28, 2014), Robert Abele described the film as ludicrous. Yet something in the film got to me—I could not shake off some of its emotion: its irresponsibility and malice struck me as familiar. We have seen these men before. There could be true things—rage and resentment, some of which may have cultural as well as personal roots—that are going on under the cover of horrific melodrama in the film.
Thurgood – Thurgood Marshall is revealed with a sense of wholeness—his family and education and ambition and wit and appreciation of women and liquor, his mastery of the law and civil rights’ accomplishments and appointment to the Supreme Court—in the stage play Thurgood written by George Stevens Jr., directed by Michael Stevens for Home Box Office, and broadcast in 2011. Seeing this one-person performance featuring Laurence Fishburne, supported by projected photographs, personal and professional and public, is a rebuke to the generations of mediocrity that have followed in the wake of a great, dedicated, and inspired civil rights lawyer and Supreme Court judge. It is sometimes forgotten that established professions—farmers, teachers, doctors, and lawyers—had a great deal to do with the survival and progress of African-Americans. Not all social change began in the street with political demonstrations. How did Marshall find his mission? Thurgood Marshall was the son of a teacher and also himself a prospective law student, and Marshall was inspired to seek legal redress for the discrimination his mother and he suffered as they pursued their professions, and in recognition of the pervasive racism around him. Marshall was a lively, smart, and humorous man who won important civil rights cases before the Supreme Court and later served on that illustrious bench. Thurgood Marshall is that genuine, rare being—a hero.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali – Muhammad Ali was portrayed in the way Saint Sebastian is usually painted: almost naked, with arrows protruding out of his chest, on the cover of the magazine Esquire (April 1968), marking his refusal to enlist in the United States army on moral grounds. Saint Sebastian had been a third-century martyr for the Christian religion: born in Gaul, Sebastian became a member of the Roman army (later a Praetorian guard captain), and as a Christian he made converts of some distinguished people, but when authorities learned that Sebastian was a Christian, he was shot with arrows—but did not die; and after Sebastian denounced the emperor for his persecution, Sebastian was beaten to death. Sebastian is the patron saint of athletes; and the great boxer Muhammad Ali sacrificed and suffered for his own religious faith, Islam, a story told in The Trials of Muhammad Ali. Surprisingly fresh treatment of Ali is given in the honest and intelligent 2013 film directed by Bill Siegel, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, but I was surprised that I was less impressed by Ali than I expected to be. He was named Cassius Clay at birth. Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, was beautiful and gifted and talkative, an entertaining confidence man—until controversy (war, religion) slowed him down. His mother’s dignity, warmth, and love, his brother’s fellowship, the support of local business leaders, and his own confidence, skill, and looks were significant factors in his success. The hands-on, smart-mouth boxer brought a dancer’s agility and a marketer’s genius to the ring, but he also stood for independent black manhood and spiritual conscience—and became a revered figure around the world. His early support by local white businessmen, his training, and his commitment to the Nation of Islam, his protest, and the career interruption he suffered are presented and discussed. Ali refused to fight in Vietnam on behalf of the U.S., a stance criticized by boxer Joe Louis and baseball player Jackie Robinson as well as public media. Ali is an example of someone whose celebrity was as significant as his accomplishment. He was admired by many (the film shows Coretta Scott King and Diana Ross attending one of his fights). Ali became legendary but something was lost (youth? absolute mastery?). It would be harder for him to defeat the challenges of time and the deep abuse of his work.
The Trip to Bountiful – Cicely Tyson has had a long career: she appeared in The Blacks in 1961 at the St. Mark’s Playhouse, in To Be Young, Gifted and Black in 1969 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and in The Corn is Green in 1983 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, but she is best known for her work on television and in film. On television, she starred in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), A Woman Called Moses (1979), and The Marva Collins Story (1982), and in film she appeared in Sounder (1972), The River Niger (1976), A Hero Ain’t Nothing But A Sandwich (1977), Hoodlum (1997) and Idlewild (2006)—and more. In The Trip to Bountiful, on stage and film, Cicely Tyson is Carrie Watts, an elderly woman who has been away from her beloved small town for twenty years and takes a bus trip to see it, despite the disapproval of her son and his wife—on film actors Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams play her son and daughter-in-law, with Keke Palmer as a fellow traveler, directed by Michael Wilson. Tyson’s Carrie has her moments and memories, her reasons and resentments, pains and pleasures; and she wants her life to come full circle—to end where she began. The film has its sad and sweet qualities. (The production was filmed in 2013, and shown on Lifetime television in February 2014, and released on DVD in autumn 2014.) This is an appealing interpretation of a stage play that won Tyson acclaim, and with which she has traveled across the country. It is a simple but effective play about an old woman who wants to return to her childhood home for a last visit; and it is well-photographed work, featuring several generations of African-American actors interpreting a work not originally conceived for African-Americans, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, a story about different values, the tensions of family life, modernity, age and death, and reconciliation.
War and Peace –Napoleon was painted by Ingres with a gold wreath around his head, in a lavish costume of red and white, scepters at hand—it is an image of both the acquisition of power and, possibly, of profound insecurity. Napoleon Bonaparte is a figure in Leo Tolstoy’s great work of literature War and Peace—Napoleon admired and feared; distant, impressive, threatening, and coming nearer—until Napoleon enters Moscow. Napoleon is one of many people who wanted to conquer Russia, but did not understand its treacherous complexity, its history or its spirit; and Napoleon entered Russia, thinking he would be welcomed and would bring civilization to a place haunted by its own barbarous past; but, instead, the nature of the place and the cunning of its military defeated Napoleon. Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace contains stories of family, love, and battle. There are stories that retain their force and truth whether presented as novels or films, plays, poems, or even anecdotes: and one such tale is in War and Peace, a long fiction of friendship, love, ambition, greed, wealth, war and how they complement and compete with each other; a fiction translated into gratifying film—focused on a free-spirited girl Natasha (Clemence Poesy), bookish and idealistic Pierre (Alexander Beyer), proud Andrei (Alessio Boni), selfish Helene (Violante Placido), wanton Anatole (Ken Duken), heroic but impulsive Nikolai (Dimitri Isayev), and their friends and families. The vast canvas of the multifaceted society and narrative, and the changes of emotion and understanding that the characters go through keep this a fascinating tale, with its themes of romance and deception and forgiveness. The 2007 European production was directed by Robert Dornhelm. Works such as this both mirror and make civilization—an elevated way of life.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese’s 2013 profane comedy—broad, funny, gestural, topical—is as much a celebration of bad behavior as it is an expose of the lack of morality and social purpose on Wall Street. The Wolf of Wall Street features a party of dangerously childish, powerful monsters. There are alcohol and drugs and orgies and whores, as well as deception on the largest scale. The lust, greed, and lies do not have the sting they should, as none of the characters have a developed moral sense. The film is not really a satire: satire offers, at least implicitly, alternative perspective and values. The salacious and selfish consciousness of the lead characters is dominant—their pleasure is great and we are made to enjoy it too. It is a film of indulgences, despite the slight reversal of fortune that occurs. Leonardo DiCaprio is the master of wicked ceremonies, stock broker and business owner Jordan Belfort; and it is Leonardo DiCaprio’s most free, passionate, and convincing performance in years.
World War Z – A medical disaster film, a science fiction movie, and a family drama, Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013) is a glossy, intelligent and engaging zombie movie, focusing on a UN expert involved in fighting the international contamination to save his family and the world. One man’s desire to get back to his family, and to see them safe, gives fuel to his quest to help the world find a solution to the marauding plague. The ruthless focus of bureaucracy, the fragility of intellectuals who are better with contemplating ideas than walking in the world, and the self-deceiving assurances of ordinary people are factors the hero must contend with. World War Z is a vastly entertaining film about a virus that causes a zombie state, leading the central character to search for a cure traveling through different countries. Brad Pitt as the hero is agile and wary, a determined warrior. The film is dynamic, and moves quickly.
You Will Be My Son – Gilles Legrand’s impressive 2011 film You Will Be My Son, screened in America in 2013, is a very engaging film about the spiky relationship between an ambitious father and his educated but mediocre son set in the wine country of France. Trouble and tension increase when a gifted friend returns to attend the sick estate manager, his own father. This film is a thrilling drama of family and business, of ego and pain and rage—a father’s testy, even brutal, relationship with his educated and well-intentioned but mediocre son and preference for the more gifted son of his real estate manager strikes something deep. The film stars Niels Arestrup as Paul, the wealthy estate owner, Nicolas Bridet as the favored Philippe, the adopted son. The strong story and good acting increase the viewer’s pleasure. The setting alone is compelling. The film is an illustrative tragedy.
Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth