Into “the Wilderness”: “King” Goes North—An HBO Documentary Film Review

The Southern from the Name

There’s a reason the Southern Christian Leadership Conference begins with the word “Southern,” and not “Northern,” or any other such directional designation. The reason appears obvious, but becomes further elucidated in the HBO documentary King in the Wilderness. Not only is perhaps the principal civil-rights organization of its time headquartered there, directing street actions throughout racially besieged Southern cities like Albany, St. Augustine, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Grenada, and its own graveyard, Memphis, but most all of its principle members were from there as well, well-versed in its particular rhythms and virulent strains of racial prejudice. Several—Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, as well as the likes of advisor and attorney Clarence Jones and celebrity activists Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez—appear here being interviewed. One can say, however ironically, that in the South the SCLC enjoyed home-field vantage, although like so many others of similar persuasion risked life, limb, and consciousness on a daily basis facing off among taunts, threats, beatings, lynchings, and other forms of verbal and physical abuse from police, sheriffs’ deputies, ordinary citizens, and armed and sometimes hooded vigilantes. Home-field vantage—while being the object of bullhorns, attack dogs, and water cannons? When the SCLC hit the road toward the industrial north, reluctantly following in the footsteps of its leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in those of so many essentially expatriated, self-exiled African Americans before them searching for opportunities denied them, as you will see here, if you haven’t already, it was an entirely different story. It was a harrowing journey that sent its members deep into the eye of a menacing storm amid spectral visitations of their own mortality. For King, it was as if he were on 40-day, 40-night sojourn in the wilderness. If the ghastly street theatres in Alabama and Mississippi weren’t enough, one still wasn’t entirely prepared to set foot in Illinois.

Chicago—A Dream Become Nightmare

The stage was set by the terrifying street uprisings of Watts in the summer of 1965. While the impetus for the uncorked outrage was police brutality and oppression, the city of Los Angeles’s stunning and sanctioned discriminatory housing practices were not far behind. Those cloistered in the Deep South suddenly became exposed to the new urban realities of what was essentially racial apartheid: the Dream become nightmare amid a hornet’s nest of urban social ills. Where had he gone wrong? King pondered. The SCLC unfurled a new phase of its struggle by addressing three primary American maladies: racism, poverty, and militarism. If the first phase of the struggle was decency, the second would be equality. The SCLC secured an unheated flat without electricity in a Chicago West Side tenement amid a January winter of extreme cold. Images show King and company successfully hooking up a generator to the complex to the delight of residents; it reminds that some of the best inventors this nation has seen were African-American. The scene also illustrates the dual perception of the group’s, and its leader’s, actions: locals’ gleeful eruption at having the gang and the man in the hat in town and those detractors who saw them as showboats and outsiders. Huddled up in their new accommodations in blankets by flashlight, their residence was a microcosm of both. If the tenant occupation had theatrics written all over it, it also introduced the organization firsthand to the daily realities—and miseries—of the new urban American Negro: There’s not much more miserable than sitting in your dark flat without heat when outside it’s minus-16 degrees. If it wasn’t quite The Trail of Tears, the Great Migration appeared as a beeline from slavery to slum; I don’t think Grant would’ve been too proud, and Lincoln’s overcoat and top hat were smoldering in his grave.

The Chicago model itself plainly demonstrated, without any need for theory, that segregation led directly to poor housing which led to poor education which led to poor opportunity. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the pivotal third episode of his excellent 2016 PBS series, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, identified housing segregation as the principal cause of past and contemporary African-American poverty and disenfranchisement, setting the episode there. That would, naturally, put racism and prejudice before it, as King, and any other logical thinker, would naturally have spelled it out. Segregation in housing opened a host of issues the SCLC wanted to concurrently address: community development, tenant rights, crime, systemic bias, quality of life. It wasn‘t going to be as clear-cut as facing down a Bull Connor or a George Wallace, as if in a showdown in the Wild West; in the North, things were more complicated.

The organization, of course, hit the streets, outside the storefronts of real-estate racketeers who were the field agents of prejudicial practices and in the neighborhoods of people who just couldn’t come to terms with the idea of living adjacent to an African-American family and whose racial and cultural intolerance directed citywide social policy. In the film, throngs of White citizens exhort protestors to go home in the most abusive and shameful language thought possible. King himself is struck in the head by a rock and sent down on a knee during a march out of Marquette Park. Without context, you’d think you were seeing classic B&W footage from the South, the only difference being the crowds were larger, and more ominous. For the SCLC and King, the strange fruit of the Great Migration would become a great awakening: by taking it right to them, it would wring out the worst from them. Just as with the demonstrative counterdemonstrations in the South that awoke a sleeping nation, the clamorous cabal of the city’s finest citizens displays no outward shyness toward news crews shooting audio/video, never mind their own children, who are more than happy to chime in with glee; just like that, the organization and its leader would provide the teaming situation a national platform. Mayor Daly is seen here having no fun, no fun at all, calling on the White House to have the head of the Negro excised and removed from the city’s limits. The Negro, meanwhile, in a scene sure to alight conspirators, is seen ducking into a telephone booth to report back to President Johnson on the city’s mood. As the year wears on, and sun and shadow lengthen, even African-American clergymen call on King to leave for fomenting trouble, an especially sharp dagger into the heart of the minister, and for a civil-rights group that was first and foremost an organizer of Christian religious affiliations and their adherents. The organization’s demands on city hall, precinct boards, real-estate boards, banks and savings and loans, and other businesses conclude in an agreement that satisfies King’s insistence on incremental solutions, but left he and his organization open again to criticism of leaving the door ajar. Nonetheless, the 1966–67 Chicago campaign would pave the way for major federal legislation in the form of the Fair Housing Act.

The Reverend and the Youth

In June 1966, King had retreated to the South upon hearing the grave news that James Meredith had been shot. Four years earlier, the native son had pushed for what would become the violent and difficult integration of the University if Mississippi via an assist from Medgar Evers’ state chapter of the NAACP and the tacit manipulation of the Kennedy White House toward enforcing the laws of the land, in this case Brown v Board of Education, decided a decade earlier. Meredith was on a one-man crusade for Black voting rights and against fear, which often went hand in hand, by marching the 220 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi; he didn’t make it far, being nearly fatally targeted by a White citizen on just the second day of his journey. The image here of the native Mississippian down on the ground is another shocking, sad, and pathetic testimony to White attitudes toward Black Americans a century after slavery. Some of the film’s most startling and satisfying footage arrives in a march in support of Meredith as King and dynamic Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Chairman Stokely Carmichael are interviewed simultaneously by a journalist. It’s positively stunning to see the pair marching stride by stride beside one another espousing drastically diverging philosophies on the nature of civil disobedience in the most civil of all manners ever conceived, as the reporter, who walks between them, alternates questions, thrusting a microphone toward one, then the other. The scene is a testament to the reverence young Black leaders still held for King even as they publically and privately disparaged him and the decency and respect with which King held them and their views, in turn, even as he himself disagreed with their doctrines and creeds. One thing any viewer would have to take from this film is that the reverend is depicted here as an exceedingly courteous individual whose treatment of others—SCLC peers and staff, other civil-rights leaders, the media, seemingly everyone—is as much a trait to emulate as anything else he may’ve said or done, especially nowadays.

Carmichael gets a good deal of film time. The Trinidadian native’s emerging disillusionment with King’s nonviolent methods and his own embrace of more strident stances, including the removal of all non–Black Americans from the ranks of the SNCC, even though others arrived, and died, for its cause, is portrayed here as the focus of the larger fissure over the SCLC’s nonviolent tactics from other young activists. At this point, the future Kwame Ture stood for, and at the same time, in opposition to, everything King and the SCLC did. He was a Black man who, like King, dedicated his life to the decency, rights, and improvement of his peoples, but one who, at the same time, was shooting an arrow right through the heart of King’s Dream. Fellow Freedom Rider Lewis, who was supplanted by Carmichael as the SNCC’s chairman that very year, here attributes the leader’s shifting beliefs—he did, after all, strive to take the “Nonviolent” out of the SNCC—to youthful immaturity and outrage, something I would agree with, and yet for the young man who was verbally and physically denigrated, discredited, jailed, and incarcerated, who witnessed his peers being severely beaten right in front of him by police on multiple occasions, and who was even doused in a chemical gas attack by the Maryland National Guard in which he feared for his life and spent the night in a hospital unconscious, all for simply advocating for his own decency and those of his people, Carmichael could pretty much say or do anything he wanted.

This is the End/Our Other Brothers

If the brash young civil-rights leader could not move King, the admiral, from his seat atop the moving street flotillas Nonviolence and Colorblindness, he proved instrumental to the reverend finally coming out in public against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The SCLC had expressed its reserve that putting its leader’s powerful oratorical skills to the cause of the antiwar effort would not necessarily be so beneficial: Not only could it undermine the group’s focus and commitment on domestic issues afflicting Black Americans, it could also alienate its core supporters among the clergy and impact its ability to raise funds for its ambitious causes. The film itself is something of counterpoint to the depiction of King as a cautious force who held the movement back, not only in this instance, but also in relation to Chicago and Memphis, and in his engagement with young civil-rights leaders who were more jarring, if not necessarily more militant, as public perception goes. Following in the footsteps of his wife. Coretta, who spoke at crucial antiwar rallies in New York and Washington, D.C., as early as 1965—and is seen in footage here—once King arrived, it was with the force of a gavel, and it was as if he were never away. On April 15, 1967, he spoke along with Carmichael at the culmination of a mobilization march from Central Park to the United Nations in New York; he also spoke at a rally at the University of Minnesota-Saint Paul on the 27th. But it is King’s address at New York City’s Riverside Baptist Church earlier on the 4th that draws the film’s—and history’s—attention: an incendiary public reckoning that must stand as one of the most critical public addresses in the nation’s history. It is without much doubt, really, the one that got him murdered, that, and the imposing direction it propelled him toward, with a March on Washington he would go on to announce three months before he perished in the sun on the one-year anniversary of the disquisition. Militancy? The formidable orator went far beyond calling Americans home from the maddening campaign taking place in a dense jungle across the world. He directly challenged his nation’s moral character and democratic fiber, equated the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese people with American servicemen coming home in military issue body bags in droves, called for the self-determination of the Southeast Asian peninsula, and blasted the United States for neglecting the plight of Black Americans to fuel an engine of ravenous global conflict, chaos, and misery. It was a barely concealed critique of a merciless international capitalism that necessitates global militarism and an embrace of socialist ideals more attuned to a panArab or panAfrican nationalist anti-imperialist worldview, and it would be unheard of in today’s timid protest language even as conflict scours the globe. King’s views, alas, we’re hardly on the soft side. No matter, the SCLC was mostly correct in its assessment of the consequences of its leader’s new direction, and King would again be floored as the leaders of other assemblies turned away from him and the organization in outrage. It would be this very same Morningside Heights congregation from whose pulpit he invoked that “these too, are our brothers,” as if a disembodied voice anticipating its host’s own execution, that would offer the fiery minister a permanent home. King, who’d shared the reigns of Ebenezer Baptist Church in his hometown of Atlanta with the towering figure of his father—who makes his own presence felt here—is tempted, but the man had another calling that others of a more coarser spiritual outlook may have likened to a death wish.

A Dream in Flames/Resurrection City

That summer, as if on cue, major cities throughout the nation burned. In Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Newark, Tampa, and elsewhere, Black Americans took to the streets, protesting, rioting, and engaging in pitched battles with fully equipped uniformed police officers, in addition to poor, substandard housing, the principal instigators of their misery. As curfews dawned, and National Guard troops mobilized, King watched it all on television just like everyone else, an urban nightmare, for all to witness. Equal rights and nonviolence were in flames. King would later visit Milwaukee, where attempts to establish a fair housing ordinance were rejected by the powers that be, and vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed NAACP protesters were met by virulent abuse similar to that in Chicago, sniper fire, and the burning of the chapter’s headquarters. Buoyed by their courage and determination, for the SCLC, “Burn, baby, burn!” became “Build, baby, build!” and “Organize, baby, organize!”

King and the SCLC wanted to take the street-level outpouring of rage and despair to the steps of the nation’s capital in an enhanced mobilization that would further expand the struggle from civil rights to human, which were plainly hanging in shreds from the poplar trees. The multiracial movement, dubbed the Poor People’s Campaign, would wring from the explosion of urban violence a nonviolent disobedience campaign of primary, in your face “disruption” and “militancy,” in the words of the group’s leader. In the film, King and co. are seen visiting schools and such in small towns like Marks, Mississippi where poverty and hunger were seemingly pandemic. The reverend insisted intervention was required in the form of a government program because capitalism itself, he recognized, was an insufficient means to address the economic necessities of Black Americans and others left behind. That truth was a given, and King was unafraid to enunciate it, just as he and the SCLC were more than willing to spell out the conditions such a program should take, even as criticism against the ambitious agenda mounted from those all around them. It was another example of the SCLC adopting a program originated by others and assuming its reigns with its distinctive tactics, organizational abilities, ample resources, and all-star players. The mobilization was sought for maximum visibility; if antiwar protests had assumed the nation’s attention, the riots of ’67 reminded everyone what had become unrealized, and King was determined to carry that momentum into a dignified drive all the way to the nation’s capital, where conditions could be ignored no longer. He would not live to see its culmination; with a women’s march led by Coretta and a more focused Occupy-like tent encampment dubbed Resurrection City in May-June 1968, nor would the promised land yet arrive in its execution; there was yet another distraction to his conscience and compassion, and a packed suitcase and plane fare were again in order.

Memphis—From Garbage to Decency to Destiny

It was no wonder. In Memphis, recently unionized African-American sanitation workers employed by the city’s Public Works Department were engaged in a strident strike over miserable and unequal wages, treatment, and conditions, precipitated by the sudden departures of two workers who were crushed to death in dilapidated garbage trucks in a repeat of an equally fatal incident that had transpired four years previous. The SCLC was again against the departure of its leader amid another potential distraction, but the sustained street-level action by a determined set of spirited men with nothing to lose met the crucial criteria that a man of conscience could not disregard. Images here of striking workers holding protest signs reading “I Am A Man” are stunning, and go right to the bone and marrow of the struggle for African-American emancipation from urban plague. If an American city could not even treat its garbagemen with any amount of decency or respect whatsoever, what was the point in trying to achieve anything else? Insult upon injury, the 1,300 striking sanitation workers were routinely maltreated by the city’s police force upon their daily march through the heart of Memphis, as if having to apply for welfare and food stamps even while working a full workweek was not insult and injury enough. It defied the basis of human decency, never mind the rational for the creation of capitalism in the first place. The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was a precursor to the struggle for housing, education, and freedom from police mistreatment and violence, another essential individual right high in the minds of the nation’s Founders, who were so sickened by the presence of the Redcoats patrolling the streets their protestations permeate throughout the Constitution. It was ground zero; King was there, largely against the wishes of his peers. The direct strike evolved into a larger effort by local African-American leaders under the Community on the Move for Equality banner, and King was on the front lines, speaking to a packed house of ministers, activists, and congregants at Mason Temple Church on March 18 and leading demonstrations, including a particularly damaging action gone awry seven days later that resulted in a 16-year-old boy being shot to death by police amid teargas and chaos that culminated in the beatings of demonstrators by members of the Tennessee Army National Guard as they lay upon the floor amid acrid smoke at Clayborn Temple. The youth’s open-casket funeral is also included here, as well as efforts of a local Black-owned and college newspaper to counterbalance the negative portrayals of the striking workers in the larger media by simply telling it like it was. King was determined to right the ship Nonviolence after the March 25 melee and returned to the city. Four days after his earthly demise, Coretta and the SCLC were part of a large, more peaceable demonstration, and a settlement finally arrived from sick, stubborn civic leaders 12 days later. Whether the city would stick to its terms was another question entirely, and history was not necessarily on the side of the garbagemen. That’s just the way it was, and always seemed to be.

Black Angel’s Wings/The Mask

In the early evening of April 4, when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. strolled out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel outside the King-Abernathy Suite, he might as well have been walking toward the sharp blade of the guillotine, or the tight coils of the hangman’s noose; it was as if he just had to put his head right in. Buoyed by a rousing oration the night before that he was not even supposed to deliver, the minister with the calling of the spirit seemed poised to spread his angel’s wings to their full maturity. He was prepared, and committed, to carry the organization he led, the SCLC, and the entire nation along with them, to new heights. From civil rights to human, from dignity to global peace, and back again, from the Quakers to Mahatma Gandhi to Henry David Thoreau, to the theologically inspired social justice that was his calling, he was present and accounted for. To say that his oration at Mason Temple Church that eve was prophetic is to say the sun will rise and set tomorrow in Atlanta. Death Wish? He exorcised those ghosts, even engaging in an extended, ebullient pillow fight with some of his SCLC peers in their room just hours earlier, but the highs and lows are never far away, are they? The storm that had driven down a hard rain upon Mason Temple’s brick exterior could not completely be swept away. An angel of death remained perched on the cross above the structure’s facade, waiting patiently as the preacher had prophesized, the storm clouds had departed, and a new day had dawned, then swept in for the kill. A single cartridge from a Remington thirty aught six had absolutely nothing to do with it; the bomb threat that had delayed his flight in from Atlanta was a ruse.

King had been imbued by death—not to mention life—for some time. Following in the footsteps of an overwhelming African-American preacher, he’d been born into it. What’s particularly striking about this film is the haunted look on King’s face in the footage. In seemingly every frame, except for a discomfiting interlude with his children over breakfast that seems to reinforce his reputation as a man who’d been steppin’ out on his own family in more ways than one, King both exudes the profound solemnity of what he’s trying to accomplish while at the same appearing to be engulfed by the experience. Approaching every lectern, and every pulpit, before every crowd, and every congregation, he’s a man who looks like a racecar driver who can’t escape the feeling he’s about to embark on his final ride as he prepares to descend into the cockpit; straightforward, he appears as a deer in the headlights. This is so ever present, it’s captured almost incidentally, in the look of his face, the presence of his body, and the sound of the voice, in the physiological toll the public and private life the idolized and most despised pastor had chosen for himself. An exception would be his pensive and relaxed approach to media interviews, in which he can be seen rallying his thoughts and delivering them with such composed command that to say his communication skills were off the charts would be to say Billie Holiday could deliver on a jazz standard. He enjoyed the media, he enjoyed the banter, and the back and forth, and he enjoyed debating with those who disagreed. But when the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, it remained coiled within his weighty frame, drenched his dignified, chiseled face, and pervaded the dramatic arch of his brow. The images are persistently repeated in a handful of vintage stills of him at a photography exhibit featuring himself and Robert Kennedy at the San Francisco Art Exchange entitled MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans: a serene, vaguely haunted gaze, infused with an awareness of death and his own part to play in it, thrown back upon the world as if as a death mask, his eyes black and glistening as of the sheen of a raven’s, exalted, divine mystery reflected back into the cold, stark reality of his surroundings in defiance.

Meet John Lewis/A Dream Deferred

Directed by executive producer Peter Kunhardt and written by Chris Chuang, who also collaborated for HBO Documentary Films on Becoming Warren Buffet and Jim: The James Foley Story, about the freelance American conflict journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, King In the Wilderness, is a good film, but not a great one, and that’s disappointing, especially coming on the heels of Raoul Peck’s mesmerizing, must-see cinematic tribute to James Baldwin with the sanitized name, I Am Not Your Negro. After all, anything about the man should reach to that level. It’s what he demanded, even if it wasn’t always possible to achieve. Critics have been more impressed by the film—which I witnessed theatrically in very limited release at the Laemmle Pasadena just before its April 2 HBO premiere in time for a half-century national death vigil two days later—than myself, especially given the gravitas of its subject. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote the film conveys a “powerful emotional charge”; Owen Gleiberman of Variety called it “searing”; Andreas Hale of The Root described …Wilderness as “an eloquent and eye-opening portrayal [that] feels more timely than ever.” Part of the problem may be that much of the footage has previously been seen, and realized more powerfully, though I’ve noted exceptions above. The film’s most rewarding gift are the contemporary interviews that provide insight into King by those closest to him, and the subjects’ colorful reminisces and opinions about their former colleague who they held in such high regard; Belafonte in particular is always a delight.

The presence of Lewis, the subject of a 30-minute 2017 PBS documentary entitled John Lewis—Get in the Way that was rebroadcast in February, who was summoned by the sound of that voice on the radio amid the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 at the age of 15 as if from a muse, creates additional gravity. The SNCC and SCLC alum who was at the forefront of the student sit-in and Freedom Ride campaigns, who had been arrested 24 times by the time he was 23 years old, mistreated and beaten on numerous occasions, received a fractured skull during the Blood Sunday Selma to Montgomery march from an Alabama State Trooper, was rendered unconscious in a Montgomery Greyhound station after being besieged by civilians during a Freedom Ride, all for having the audacity to declare his life was worth just as much as a White man’s by being a participant in the nonviolent struggle for equal rights and desegregation, was also called a N— along with other Black Congressional Caucus colleagues—one of whom was spat upon—by unhinged Tea Party enthusiasts angrily protesting the Affordable Care Act more than a half-century later in March 2010. From Albany to St. Augustine to Birmingham to Selma to Montgomery to Grenada to Chicago to Memphis, from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Baltimore to Boston to Buffalo to Cincinnati to Detroit to Milwaukee to Minneapolis to New York City to Newark to Tampa to Washington D.C., when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. looked across the plain from that exalted plateau, it strains belief that what he was envisioning were these United States. From the en masse purging of African–American citizens from eligible voting rolls, as if they were convicts or dead, to color-shaded redistricting, to those African–American men and women being shot unprovoked by police and sheriff’s officers and left for dead, it certainly gives one pause to doubt. But that too is a sickness, isn’t it? I have no doubt that, whether presiding or patiently listening amid a civil-rights meeting, a church recruitment drive, a tête-à-tête in the White House, or negotiating terms in a plain anterior chamber with no air conditioning with those sick White brothers who’d left their threatening Halloween costumes in their closets at home and were running cities and towns, the man who was always the smartest man in the room, on that, would most certainly submit.

(King in the Wilderness is available on HBO GO and HBO Now.)

(MLK & RFK: Two Great Americans continues at the San Francisco Art Exchange through June 30 and can be viewed at sfae.com.)

(Special thanks to The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University—kinginstitute@stanford.edu.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

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Deep Down Murky Depths: “Chappaquiddick”—A Feature Film Review

The nation’s obsession with the Kennedys continues and continues to be amplified in the mirrored funhouse of films and television: feature films, television movies, miniseries, news programs, documentaries. I thought we’d finally hit a wall with Reelz’s 2011 airing of the The Kennedys miniseries that featured a star-turn by Katie Holmes as Jacqueline among its many delights. No. There was outsider Pablo Larraín’s horrific, avante-garde 2016 take on Jackie starring Natalie Portman from a brilliant, gruesome script by Noah Oppenheim that tore apart the heart and soul of America. Then Saffron Burrows appeared as Jackie Unveiled in a one-woman show earlier this year at the Wallis Annenberg Center of the Performing Arts. Rob Lowe even showed up as John in a 2013 National Geographic television movie, Killing Kennedy, based on the book of celebrity academia. The compulsion is twofold, of course, at least: several of its principals died prematurely, and in intolerable ways, cutting short the natural order of fame, which grows tiresome, until it rises to infamy; and, two, the association of royalty surrounding the reign of John and Jacqueline. Yet, another name comes to mind: Princess Diana, of Wales. We’ve been hit by nothing but a run of virtual royalty since Ronald and Nancy came to town, with one propping up the other as if he were going mad with syphilis. Who are these Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas, but our own royal families? Look at the attention thrown to the kids. Look at the address they preside at: our own Buckingham Palace, not 10 Downing Street. Even many of our Founding Fathers, who swore off monarchy for the freewheeling principles of the Enlightenment, were landholders presiding over vast estates and slaves. Perhaps President Obama’s most newsworthy event since his exile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even as its current tenant tears down much of what he tried to build, as if a spoiled child running amok with an axe chopping down trees in the forest outside his father’s estate, was an unveiling of his official portrait, along with the former First Lady’s. It’s as if we were in Florence at the turn of the 16th century. The current resident, who looks and behaves something like Henry VIII if he’d shaved every morning and lived another 15 years, brought his entire family with him; it’s as if the royal family has its own political reality show. Queen Mum just perished.

Where does that leave the little prince, Edward, who never made it to the throne like his second eldest brother, or wasn’t destined to, like his next? The “fat one,” as his character throws in the face of his father’s in Chappaquiddick. If so much of the lustre centered around them, this here is his moment to shine, isn’t it? In fact, Jack and Bobby aren’t even around; it’s the summer of 1969; everything is about to come to an end, if it hasn’t already. Edward (Jason Clarke, Winchester, Mudbound) is hosting a casual annual soirée off Martha’s Vineyard, and he strolls over to the beach to confirm the attendance of Boiler Room Girls Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara, My Days of Mercy, Meagan Leavey) and her companion, Rachel (Olivia Thirlby, Between Us, the upcoming Damascus Cover). The 28-year-old Kopechne, a former key Bobby Kennedy campaign strategist, is damaged from her former boss’s assassination, which to her seems to have occurred just yesterday and maybe a lifetime ago at the same time, and doesn’t think she’ll be able to muster a return to D.C. for Ted from her exile in locales like Denver and Jersey City. She will attend the party, however. Too bad for her.

After botching the turn with a lead in the regatta that day, which seems to foreshadow a glitch in his instincts, the host greets those assembled at the Chappaquiddick beach house with a welcoming assurance as to their inclusion in the Kennedy clan, most especially those lovely young Boiler Room Girls. The Kennedys are, after all, the only show in town, even if ticket sales are down, and while attendance is sparse, everyone seems to be there but Annette Funicello. The scene plays as if Ted were a British viceroy expressing similar sentiment to the Indian royal court and support staff. Later in the evening, a taciturn Edward retreats to a couch in a living room, pondering some deeply vexing puzzle, as if he were Usher thinking upon the ghastly, mortifying reappearance of his sister. He’s rescued by the modest Mary Jo, who appears ready to let go her wings, and the two go for a nighttime drive in Ted’s Oldsmobile, with the senator offering to drive. Intoxicated and with a rush of speed, like a frat boy trying to show off to a first college date, or a sailor on leave, Kennedy sends the Olds full bore on an unpaved back road, making a dashing beeline toward a rickety bridge crossing a placid waterway. The angle of the entry isn’t close, Mary Jo protests to no avail, as if Janet Leigh in a Hitchcock film, and the rest, as they say, is water under the… uh… history.

From there, the film goes into coverup mode. Kennedy enlists the help of slighted cousin and family lawyer Joseph Gargan (comedic actor Ed Helms, Father Figures, I Do…Until I Don’t), whom he calls “Joey,” and casual, informal Massachesetts AG Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan, Chuck, Staten Island Summer). The duo rush over to the bridge, disrobe, and dive in, to no avail; vehicles tend not to react to exit nor entry when submerged in a body of water. They implore Ted to report the accident—I’m not sure why they didn’t just do it themselves as Kennedy was vaguely not himself and anyway couldn’t be trusted to do so—but the senator instead retires to a bath of his own, apparently unaware of the cruel irony. The next morning, he takes over the office of Edgartown Police Chief Dominick Arena (John Flore, Patriot’s Day, Bleed for This), shuttering the blinds. It is here where Kennedy will, lo, shield himself from the preening eyes of the law, not to mention local townsfolk and news media. Chief Arena appears not too happily handcuffed, but delivers on a laughably negotiated plea agreement whose terms were initiated by Gargan that is extremely disrespectful toward the term “slap on the wrist”—it’s more like a kneel and a kiss, subsequent to a blessing.

Speaking of blessings, Edward assures his damaged but still demanding father, Joseph Sr. (who else but Bruce Dern), that he has the situation under control, though the presidency may, alas, be out of reach. A clearly dissatisfied Joe Sr., who receives his son like a deranged Pope a disappointing sinner, wheelchair bound and seemingly catatonic, snarls. Ted alights the following day to a pack of handlers assembled nonchalantly around the living room, led by loud and decisive Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown, Supercon, Thor: Ragnorak), fresh off his devastating and disingenuous handling of the Vietnam imbroglio. Nonetheless, the assertive World Bank president who occupies the room like a redwood can be trusted to pilot this Titanic as well, though he’s open to the ideas of others, just not the younger Kennedy’s. “We start with the truth, at least our version of it,” the senator declares to the cabal, whatever that means. He turns on my pal Joey after sleeping on Gargan’s impassioned insistence that “it is not about opportunity, but integrity.” Instead, the negligent senator puts his own reckoning in the hands of dependable personal speechwriter Ted Sorenson (Taylor Nichols, 40 Nights, Bestseller) before a prime-time address to the nation that’s more about him than the nation, though with the Kennedys, the two were often intertwined.

The outrage from afar is muted; this is, after all, a pretty muted film. Perhaps it’s intentional that we don’t see much of the nation, but the nation as it’s refracted through Martha’s Vineyard, a graveyard of U.S. democracy. It’s a slow, downcast film, with tense atmospherics and a good dose of haunting music from Garth Stevenson (10,000 Saints, Tracks); it’s probably not for everyone. If the film is Edward’s, in large part, it’s Clarke’s. Beginning with a terrific provincial New England accent, the Australian, who’s used to playing big, really tones it down; it’s as if he’s performing underwater, something that can be said about the entire film, as presented by director John Curran (Tracks, Stone, The Painted Veil). Clarke—who I first noticed as the boisterous detective opposite Jennifer Beals on the nice, short-lived FOX drama The Chicago Code before Dick Wolf took hold of the city for his personal use—is particularly effective portraying his character’s perceived inert, emotional distance and isolation. The film suggests a romantic interest between Kennedy and Mary Jo, but Clarke plays it so close to the vest you barely notice, but for when he gets his hands on the wheel of the Oldsmobile. Here, Clarke’s Kennedy is not just the baby brother, a kid behind an adult façade, but there’s something unnatural in his restrained social interaction, something that might be traced to being born into privilege. Even when exhorting the goons in the personal crisis campaign, it’s as if he’s behind a sheet of translucent plastic. The film, written by first-team screenwriting duo Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan based on the Massachusetts inquest, implies Kennedy had Kopechne’s memory with him ceaselessly. One imagines her haunting him over many a late night in his empty, half-dark senate office over a drink or two; Poe wrote stories about less. If she did, we have no way of knowing. The senator kept it too close to the breast; the film’s psychological take on the man’s reserved exterior implies why.

In one pivotal scene, a room full of Kennedys joins the rest of the nation in gathering around a television set to cheer on Apollo 11’s steps on the moon just six days after Chappaquiddick and Kopechne’s earthly demise; Ted looks on at that moment with a glazed, glassy look, as if the nation’s glory is reflected in the eyes of his own downfall. It’s as if, for him, the American dream died right then and there. Once Richard Nixon swept by Hubert Humphrey six months after Bobby was shot to death and seven after Martin Luther King, Jr. into the White House and then by George McGovern four years later, it was as if the dream died for all of us, driven off a broken-down bridge into the deep down murky depths below. Only the monarch, and his ghastly chauffeur behind the wheel, and the monarchy, survived.

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(Caution: Bridge approaching! Chappaquiddick continues in general theatrical release.)

UPDATE: The Kennedy chronicles continue: Bobby Kennedy for President, Netflix’s four-episode documentary series, premieres this Friday.

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Our Man In “Beirut”—A Feature Film Review

Beyond the Marvel Studios and DC Films superhero and raunchy animation and comedic franchise film universe that appears to be more constructed and comforting to adults than children, liberal Hollywood still finds time to slot in genre dramatic films that seem more inspired by conscience and adventure than financial gain. Thank goodness. Certainly, box-office ambition didn’t inspire independent production house Radar Pictures to deliver Beirut to multiplexes where audiences are too distracted or honed in on seeing the latest and the greatest; I’m sure as well popular former TV mad man Jon Hamm was cast to star for his dramatic abilities, not so much for his box–office mojo, and that would go for costar Rosamund Pike, who’s established herself as one of the premier actresses currently working, as well. But here we have it, another in a fairly long line of genre films featuring independent, no-nonsense agents and adventurous journalists mixing it up in foreign lands often uprooted by civil strife settling scores when their bosses and/or representative bureaucracies are too corrupt, self-interested, incompetent, or all three, to do it themselves. Hamm steps in for the likes of Audie Murphy, Alec Guinness, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Jack Lemmon, Mel Gibson, Sam Waterston, Richard Woods, and Pierce Brosnan; Beirut for Saigon, Havana, Athens, Santiago, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, San Salvador, and Panama City. Things are going to hell, everywhere, and all the time, and somebody’s go to do it.

The engaging, well-cast Hamm proves himself to be well up to the task, as do Academy Award–nominated screenwriter Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and director Brad Anderson (Transsiberian). Anderson is more attuned to the horror genre (Stonehearst Asylum; Vanishing on 7th Street; the gritty, memorable Session 9) as well as the excellent industrial nightmare The Machinist. He went rather mainstream with the Halle Berry starring The Call, but nothing could anticipate his utter mastery of the political thriller genre here; for sure, you wouldn’t be surprised if you were told this had been made by a younger Ridley Scott. This is, however, not Gilroy’s first rodeo in the genre, and that could’ve helped guide the director’s unseen hand. In addition to …Clayton, Gilroy’s penned State of Play, Proof of Life, and the Bourne franchise. Beirut could be a text in a genre seminar: it’s fluid with tough-talking genre dialogue and matter-of-fact metaphoric language; romantic allusion; determined, shifty characters with intense countenances; reckless action and merciless explosions; and destabilizing plot twists. There is an absolutely terrific cryptic interrogation scene involving Hamm’s character and a former colleague. The film offers nothing new, nothing new at all; nor does it seek to.

That does not mean the genre doesn’t have any pitfalls; most do. There may be a tendency in these films, however well-intentioned, to exploit the foreign locales in which the action is occurring, places and peoples that have likely already seen a fair degree of exploitation. Beirut is not an exception; in fact, it tips its hand early on, in the prologue, in compromised U.S. diplomat Mason Skiles (Hamm) welcoming narration. The capital city is, of course, a mess, with entrenched, centuries-old rivalries contributing to age-old anxieties and dangerous uncertainties that are intensified with the entry and emergence of the PLO and the landless Palestinians. It’s the early 1970s, and it’s not a place the sitting American president would want people streaming over the border from. While there is the typical depiction of local flavor, it’s not always of the best the city has to offer, and there is little mention of the city’s prolific artistic and cultural contributions either in front of or right along with the conditions that afflict most all urban centers, war-torn or not. Indeed, by the time our man returns a decade later to give a lecture on mediation at the American University, hmm-hmm, after a hasty retreat subsequent to personal tragedy, the place has succumbed to full-blown civil war.

The visiting lecturer doesn’t have to look to far witness the descent of a cradle of civilization at the hand of its agents from Israel, whom the film authoritatively asserts wears the pants not only in the region, but vis-à-vis the United States and its liaisons as well; Syria; and parties within. The city lies in ruins, rubble and detritus lie where buildings once stood, people are tense and on edge, and a Green Line separates Muslims and Christians. At one point, Mason takes Embassy attaché Ms. Crowder (Pike) on a diverting tour of the opulent former residence he shared with his Lebanese wife, Nadia (radiant French actress Leïla Bekhti, Leila, A Prophet), and their adopted son, Karim (French actor Idir Chender, Carbone), only to see it in complete ruin. It’s a metaphor for his own life, of course. The former Embassy point man turned labor negotiator turned downwardly mobile self-employed alcoholic has a reckoning; seems he’s also in town to conduct a crucial mediation of his own. Soon, personal danger mixes with personal trepidation; it’s fight or flight, and we’ll come to see just how good a man our man really is. Hamm and Pike are surrounded by a seasoned ensemble cabal that seems particularly suited to this kind of heart-pounding, gut-wrenching cinematic endeavor: Mark Pelligrino (The Trials of Cate McCall) as Mason’s longtime coconspirator and best friend, Cal; a toupeed Dean Norris (Death Wish, The Book of Henry) and an excellent Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island, Term Life) as untrustworthy field agents Gaines and Ruzak; Larry Pine (Freak Show, Buried Child) as the all-knowing U.S. ambassador; brilliant Londoner Jonny Coyne (Monster, Nightcrawler) as Mason’s personal handler; and prolific Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul (Harmonia, London Has Fallen) as a critical Mossad station chief.

The film’s final image is of an American flag flying against a setting sun shot from the roof of the U.S. embassy. At first, I was stunned, taking it for a closing propaganda device, believing an executive producer or someone must’ve been on a two-way radio with the White House. Soon enough, it dawned on me that was not the case at all—the filmmakers’ intent—not necessarily the two-way communications. The events that inspired this film, and like films before it, are still being visited upon us. Despite a heavy U.S. executive and military communications and logistics blackout that substitutes terse statements, deception, and daily disinformation, these events are still being reported by adventurous journalists and published in media all around us, all the time. They become stories to be told, winding up in books, in films, and ever more frequently, on television. If they weren’t, people wouldn’t need to write, create, or produce them, and we wouldn’t need to read nor see them. If there is a direct correlation between the setting sun of U.S. foreign intervention—especially in this besieged region—and the rise of the comic-book superhero and raunchy cartoon and comedic franchises that citizens are eager or drawn to engage in, whether they’re aware of it or not, films like Beirut are striving to achieve some sort of balance. There will always be an individual, with or without a sidekick and a love interest, compelled to make a difference, and, most likely, filmmakers like Tony Gilroy and Radar Pictures to interpret their story. They’ll just be thankful Chinua Achebe isn’t around to deconstruct it.

(The sun is setting, somewhere. Beirut continues in general theatrical release.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

“Acrimony”: Thy Name Is Tears—A Feature Film Review

While it’s Taraji Henson’s scorned face staring back at you, Medusa-like, in the poster for the latest all-American, melodramatic thriller in which she stars, make no mistake about it, it’s the writer-director-producer’s unseen hand that’s all over it, and the film, Acrimony, is his, and his alone. That doesn’t mean the engaged, dynamic Henson, who’s already distinguished herself this year as Proud Mary, doesn’t make her presence known, but from the filmmaker’s responsive screenplay, to his fluid, assured direction, to his astute handling of another nice, primarily African-American cast, it’s a master class, and despite it’s rotten score by the arbitrators at the popular cinema site, it’s genre filmmaking that rises to the level of, uh-hum, greatness, dare I say.

For sure, Acrimony bears all the trademarks of Tyler Perry’s dramatic kit—flashy production values; beautiful people with their beautiful faces and beautiful bodies; overdramatized hijinks; romantic liaisons and disgraceful betrayals; playful dialogue and social innuendo—but the more outrageous and exaggerated effects he is known to employ are, uh-hum, toned down, or so well-established and stylishly conveyed they resemble Polanski and Hitchcock, I dare say. Indeed, if another filmmaker had made this film 60 years ago with, say, Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, critics and audiences might’ve been enthralled. Frank Capra could’ve appreciated its tables-turning plot subversion; John Huston its beautiful, startling, red-tinged climax; Hitch himself its tense, stylish obsession. For better or worse, I imagine, this could be the filmmaker’s Vertigo. It’s essentially the consummate work in the Tyler Perry dramatic canon, a consummation of his career so far, sans Madea.

It could also be a submission in his own Dekalog. Like Kieslowski’s take on classical moral and ethical dilemmas played out in modern Eastern-European scenes of conflict and drenching turmoil, Perry’s romantic dramas have always seemed biblical in inspiration and nature; in fact, they wear scripture on their sleeves, and the former church-going youth’s latest is no different. The film is divided into chapters, I suppose, introduced by garish words like “Acrimony” and “Torment” with their definitions and synonyms that flash across the screen like signposts signaling the psychological progression of the affected protagonist. Indeed, the story is framed by Henson’s Melinda’s initial court-ordered therapy visit in which she appears in such flagrant and bellicose self-delusion she comes across like an alternately lucid and deranged character straight out of Poe; it only becomes more tragic from there. The framing device too casually takes us to Melinda’s formative years, and what ensues is so nicely portrayed we can forgive Perry a casual moment or two.

Stubborn, struggling college student Melinda (Ajiona Alexus, 13 Reasons Why, Bad Girl) rather abruptly meets gifted fellow student and Nina Simone–aficionado Robert (Antonio Madison, The Tailor’s Apprentice), who offers to help her with, what else, a paper. Their portentous meeting is one for the stars; Melinda soon realizes the engaging young man with the dark skin she’s been resisting is the love of her life, much to the dismay of her bossy sister, Brenda (Bresha Webb, Meet the Blacks, Ride Along 2). Here, Perry delivers some of the film’s most thoughtful moments in scenes of the young couple’s romantic tenderness. The screenwriter displays a nuance for the language and conventions of young people, pointing to what could be a most satisfying film that strays from his typical preoccupation with thirty and fortysomethings. The radiant Alexus, in particular, proves so serenely engaging that it is disappointing to leave this place; she certainly seems to have a promising career ahead of her, including playing Gabrielle Union’s daughter in the upcoming Breaking In. Perry does a nice job interweaving Henson’s biting narration with the flashback scenes, which are often in tonal contrast. The young lovers with the star-crossed dreams soon embrace calamity; the narrator’s lamentations become more acidic, and what ensues is flat-out Greek tragedy. The framework of the in-your-throat plot—three young sisters lose the matriarch of a matriarchy then watch as their inheritance and family home progressively dissolve on a pipe dream—which the director reckons with onscreen textural elements—could’ve been written by Lorraine Hansbury. The setting is Pittsburgh; one wonders how much August Wilson was on the filmmaker’s mind as well.

Perry has assembled quite a sterling production team at his vast Atlanta studio complex. There are too many names to mention for this one, but Paul Wonsek’s sleek production design, Richard Vialet’s fluid cinematography, and Kim Coleman (Almost Christmas, Chi-Raq) and Rhayvinn Drummer’s (The Single Moms Club) casting certainly stand out. Among their finds were prolific television acting costar Lyriq Bent (Love Jacked, Pay the Ghost) as the adult Robert, the nice Chrystle Stewart as Robert’s pivotal former college flame Diana, and Ptosha Storey as the adult Brenda. The soundtrack from Christopher Lennertz is a tour de force of the genre, and features a number of original songs, including several by Simone as well as a new interpretation performed by Grammy-nominated R&B singer-songwriter Andra Day. If you’re not generally a fan of the much-admired, and much-maligned, filmmaker’s canon, this one is not likely to change your mind, but who knows? If you do happen to see it, don’t let the confused, embarrassed audience hysterics affect you, just let yourself go. Acrimony is a beautifully done work by a primary American filmmaker who’s struck silver just by doing what he loves to do best.

(Polanski, Hitchcock, Capra, Huston, Kieslowski, Poe, Aristotle, Lorraine Hansbury, August Wilson, Tyler Perry… hmm. Call me crazy, or you be the judge, if you haven’t already… Acrimony continues in general theatrical release.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Is It Me? 2017 Film Award Favorites—International/Foreign Language—Prologue

The year got off to a slow start even in the international scene, though things erupted with a bang! so to speak, with the release of Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper in early March. I’m speaking of the blackout ending, of course, perhaps the most satisfying moment of the year. The film is a reunion of the stylish French filmmaker—who tied for Best Director at Cannes in 2016 for it—and Kristen Stewart, following Clouds of Sils Maria, and, as such, marks the difficulties in delineating what precisely is a foreign-international or English-language production. I put Assayas’ film in the former category because, although just one of several international filmmakers who’s reached out to American and English-speaking stars, he’s so indelibly linked to the French film industry and …Shopper was, typically for him, internationally financed. Though marred somewhat by a lurid melodramatic murder subplot that reminds one of his international intrigue thrillers from the previous decade, Demonlover and Boarding Gate, who can resist a good ghost story, especially one involving twin siblings? Bang!

Speaking of …Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche arrived the following month alongside personal fave Fabrice Luchini in the deliberately outrageous Ma Loute—drably renamed Slack Bay here—from another film stylist, Bruno Dumont. The colorful, absurdist hijinks along the scenic seashore barely mask an unsavory undercurrent to the disgusting, dissolute display by the one percent, and sure enough, the stark subversion of class distinction and privilege breaks through but never totally obscures the fun, which includes satiric scenes of classic cinematic eroticism involving the young lower-class lovers (Brandon Lavieville, Raph). Dumont does a nice job mixing and juxtaposing the all-star and totally unproven cast to great effect, also getting great mileage with the always popular satire of the French police throughout. Cahiers du cinéma named the film the fifth best of the year, which, lo, is right where I have it.

In addition to The Zookeeper’s Wife, the Holocaust remains the cinematic gift that keeps on giving. Celebrated Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher brought together two excellent young actresses, Joy Rieger and Nelly Tagar, to play modern sisters literally slapped from complacency into looking into their father’s (Doran Tavory, the steely invasive Israel defense minister in Lemon Tree) murky past in Past Life. This is a genre favorite, and you just know what they’ll find—or do you? Arriving in November and blowing most all of the competition away, Hungarian filmmaker Ferenc Török’s beautifully done 1945 summons an astonishing, in-your-face act of redemption as if from a predawn séance through the solemn and dignified arrival of two Jewish outsiders (Iván Angelusz, Marcell Nagy) into a small, postwar, Russian-occupied Hungarian village of self-interested, eccentric conspirators. Shot in B&W with slow tracking shots and odd angles and like a 1940s Henri-Georges Clouzot French noir or a midcentury western, every gesture and movement in this expertly crafted piece of expressionism counts. Drenched in irony and symbolism, the film comes full circle with the strangers exit with billowing smoke from the locomotive evoking scenes of the final journey from a nation that under Germany in years just previous took the lead in outsourcing its peoples to Auschwitz.

More a post–WWI romance than an examination of the origins of the next European conflagration, another intruder’s (an excellent Pierre Niney, A Perfect Man, Yves Saint Laurent) murky identity nonetheless plays a large part in his acceptance or no at the hands of a German couple and their daughter (Paula Beer) grieving their lost son and brother and more amid rising nationalist tension in François Ozon’s period mood piece Frantz. German director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall, Das Experiment) has dedicated much of his feature film professional career wrestling with his country’s notorious past and arrived with another such depiction, 13 Minutes, involving the compelling reenactment of a nearly successful assassination on the Fürher early on by an inspired musician-turned resistance fighter (Christian Friedell, Amour FouThe White Ribbon) unnerved by his country’s takeover by a wave of Nazism, intolerance, and industrial militarism. Hirschbiegel takes a typically direct and professional approach to the daring November 1939 event, which, after all, if successful, could’ve prevented the deaths of some 55 million people, including some 6 million European Jews, reminding one that if all is fatalism, there is still much left to chaos and chance. Still, there are moments of idyll in the plot’s progression, and in Georg Elser’s sometimes unhinged derangement one is reminded of Sean Penn’s Samuel Bicke in the underappreciated 2004 film The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Nixon may not have been quite as prolific as Adolf Hitler, but he and war-crimes cohort Heinz Alfred Kissinger did pave the way for the torture and disappearance of more than 40,000 Chileans under Augusto Pinochet and in what the Vietnamese call the American War, estimates of 1965-74 deaths—Nixon assumed the presidency in ‘68—range from University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Guenter Lewy’s prescaled 1.35 million to The BMJ’s 1.7 million—with The BMJ’s 3.1 million to 3.4 to more than 4 million from the Socialist Republic itself for the entire affair. Too bad, really, but, as you know, heroism is not always defined by success. Just look at the movies.

One would like to think such holocausts—hydrogen cyanide–saturated labor camp showers and the suffusive aerial strafing of an entire nation with napalm—were over, or that these people didn’t die all in vain. Besides Past Life, another Israeli film, Foxtrot, arrived here late that I was fortunate to see presented by its director, Samuel Maoz (Lebanon), at AFI Fest in Hollywood in November. Sweeping several Awards of the Israeli Film Academy—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—winner of the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize at Venice, and the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Language Film, the avant-garde, often absurdist, Kubrickesque antiwar film contains perhaps the most indelible image of the year: that of an occupied car being completely buried under, and bulldozed over, the land adjacent to an Israeli checkpoint. A war veteran—who isn’t in Israel?—Moaz presents a repressed architect, husband, and father (Lior Ashkenazi, Norman, Yitzhak Rabin in 7 Days in Entebbe) crumbling under the weight of his responsibilities amid the aftereffects of a tragedy involving his son (Yonaton Shiray, A Tale of Love and Darkness), whose checkpoint posting with his peers accounts for the Kubrickesque. American armchair conservatives, none of whom appeared to be in attendance amid the modest faithful at the afternoon screening, may be surprised—or maybe they just don’t care—at the toll the Palestinian occupation is taking on the psyches of those wearing, and who have worn, the boots on the ground. All this, and the film didn’t even make my top ten.

Neither did Loveless, another celebrated film from Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev (Leviathan), a solid, creative effort artistically shot by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and well-acted by principals Aleksey Rozin, Maryana Spivak, and Matvey Novikov, who’s gone early but gets in a few appropriately surly and sullen scenes. The film shines a light on the frightful circumstances of Russian runaways and deliciously skewers the aspiring bourgeoisie, who appear to have lost themselves in their smartphones—who hasn’t?—with Spivak’s Zhenya’s shockingly brusque attitude toward her on-the-outs husband and neglected son tempered by self-centered selfies and such, as if when she looks upon the glass of her phone it is as if she were Narcissus looking into a gleaming pool. Karl Marx would certainly be spinning in his grave upon a viewing—who knew an opiate of the masses would be so cool and sensational?—but then again, they’ve been used by the voiceless from Iran to Egypt to recent protests by American schoolchildren to light the fires of revolution.

Standout actress Bérénice Bejo is equally severe—how could she be otherwise?—in After Love, a French-Belgian production you probably didn’t see but perhaps may’ve liked to. I saw the film at AFI Fest the previous November. It was in Santa Monica for a week in August, a cruel inequity for a more vibrant depiction of a deeply estranged couple with children present that recalls the power of Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s certainly one of the best of its kind in the subgenre since, and one I think Americans would appreciate. After Love flows with the rhythms of life so typical of French films; it becomes a study in domestic repair when the estranged couple must endure the finality of their uncomfortable relations together due to the husband’s (terrific French triple-threat Cédric Khan) ill fortune. Bejo’s luminous forbidding gaze softens a bit—the witch of all domestic witches, and yet who wouldn’t want to be under her spell?—and as if the drama wasn’t enough, the couple’s warmer moments with their children deliver a reward that the lost Russians of Loveless just can’t.

Speaking of Russia, and its former occupation of Hungary, two films arrived that took place in adjacent former satellite states Czechoslovakia and Poland; one was, IMO, the international film of the year. In Jan Hrebejk’s (Divided We Fall) The Teacher, which takes place in Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s pre–Velvet Revolution, the petty favoritism and manipulative, unscrupulous self-interest of “Comrade Teacher” Mária Drazdechová (a nice Zuzana Mauréry) serve as a glass reflection of the punitive, corrupt socialist state at large. The story is framed by an administrative meeting called to give semideluded, played-upon parents a voice in the teacher’s potential transfer, as if she were an abusive priest, once the jig is up: the return of favors for the children of parents who reward her and scoldings and downwardly adjusted grades for those whose don’t. The meeting plays out like a heated episode of season one of HBO’s Big Little Lies; though the emergence of an abusive father (sleeping giant Martin Havelka, who needs to be discovered by Aki Kaurismäki) of a delinquent son (Oliver Oswald) into her romantic sphere is surprising. The film, despite its sometimes intense exchanges, plays in a light, ironic sheen overall, and while mediocrity is indeed rewarded in such totalitarian societies—nevermind the organized bullying of noncompliant actors—it’s been known to in democracies as well.

The film is a jewel to Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, and it’s one Polish avant-garde constructivist artist Wladystaw Stremiński might’ve appreciated as well. Stremiński is the subject of the iconic Andrej Wajda’s (Walesa, Tatarak, Katyn) stirring, invigorating swan song, Afterimage, which depicts a similar society post–­WWII in more drastic and desperate tones. The film begins with a pastoral scene of Stremiński (the drastically underappreciated Boguslaw Linda—his only recognition outside Poland for the film was a fifth-place Best Actor finish at the Seattle International Film Festival—in a performance for a lifetime) and his loyal, dedicated art students that might not have been out of place in The Sound of Music and ends in utter horror. Stremiński’s penetrating and popular lectures on vision theory at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Lodz are just beginning to stir the free-thinking youth when Minister of Culture and Art Wlodzimierz Sokorski (Szymon Bobrowski) stomps in to put a damper on them. Stremiński’s objections to demands that the visual arts school service communist ideology eventually cost him his teaching position; his party papers soon follow, exiling him from virtually everything, to the point where he cant even purchase paints at the party-owned co-op. The proud artist, whose own works are purged from the modern and contemporary Museum of Art in Lodz and his person erased from history, advises his concerned, outraged students that the “wind of history” will soon pass, but he miscalculates the storm that’s enveloping him. His plight is in part self-inflicted, and not just because he dared take a stand, which can mean personal ruin in just about any society at any time. A multiple amputee who lives on a steady diet of work, cigarettes, and the absence of sunlight, he rejects his estranged daughter’s (Bronislawa Zamachowska) entreaties to assist, and otherwise treats the runaway a little shabbily. For the consumed painter, it’s indeed pride before the fall; after fighting for food stamps, he soon rejects those as well. Wajda lets the audience decide for themselves about the man, whose quiet, dignified reserve and relaxed, assured cadence and demeanor can’t bear the weight of history. Whatever you decide, his devastating descent seems tailor-made for anti-communist Americans, though it, and the film itself, a gripping tearjerker, is one for the ages. The Academy missed a final chance to honor Wajda, who won an Honorary Oscar for five decades of extraordinary film direction in 2000—his first film, A Generation, about Polish youth coming of age during the German socialist occupation, came out in 1955. He perished at 90 just a month prior to Afterimage’s premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. You couldn’t write a more perfect script, but I understand A Fantastic Woman was all the rage, and old white European men are passé.

Speaking of Russia and film, it’s hard not to get around Andrei Tarkovsky these days. Criterion is in the midst of remastering his work for both theatrical and home-video release, and the May limited release—I saw it the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles—of Stalker, his absolutely mesmerizing 1979 dystopian sci-fi masterwork, was, IMO, the film event of the year. The new 2K digital restoration further crystallizes its entrancing aural and visual delights: an industrial symphony of dripping water on pans, creaking wood floors, broken glass, positively transfixing extended slow-pan close-ups of cast-aside religious relics and iconography submerged under shimmering water. Masterful scene setup and shots, sound design, atmospherics—it’s arthouse cinema to the nth degree. The terra firma sci-fi—ruined cars, strewn streets, poisoned water, industrial decay, a woman’s (Alisa Freyndlikh) breakdown, its hopeless, radioactive apocalypse a premonition of Chernobyl—evoke Lars von Trier’s early The Element of Crime, which would come five years later. The Stalker (Alexsandr Kaydanovskiy) at the center lives life on the edge, toiling for himself and his family, a distressed common soul with a wolf-like connection to a stray dog he’ll adopt, a proletarian model to the loquacious idleness of Pisatel, the writer (Anatolly Solonitsyn), and the Professor (Nikolay Grinko) waist-deep in the mud of their own absurdity. The film is quite dialogue-drenched in the metaphysical and existential, with its hopeless search for meaning amid ruin, and Pisatel can be a real turnoff, but its rewards are too stunning to ignore. If the climax collapses into utter uselessness, as if into a black hole, the finale is riveting, its final image a searing indictment not only of the bourgeoise intelligentsia, but of the military and bureaucracy of a government of a stifling society devoid of spirituality and mysticism that thoughtlessly leaves its children and next generations to suffer the oppressive consequences. It dawned on me what a loss it is to lose Tarkovsky at such a relatively young age—he was 54 when he perished in exile from lung cancer, likely attributable to damage he sustained filming Stalkerin a poisoned industrial setting on a drawn-out shoot. If critics fawned over Loveless, it just can’t touch a film like Stalker, and this is the legacy we miss.

I typically don’t fret with animated films when doing a top ten—I don’t see many anyway and they’re not truly feature films, but two absolutely phenomenal such films arrived from foreign shores that just could not be ignored. Loving Vincent, from writer-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, who should receive free lifetime memberships to the Louvre, is an innovative creative gift to fans of Vincent van Gogh—who are basically all of us. Animation is achieved, appropriately enough, through painterly effect—painted frame after painted frame after painted frame in the artist’s swirling, effusive, color-burst late-period style suffused over the actors’ scenes and into the backgrounds. If that’s not enough, the well-researched screenplay is a much-appreciated examination of the artist’s final days in Auvers, dramatically depicting one of the most unbearably wretched sagas in the annals of art history, which has seen many. If it isn’t bad enough we lost Tarkovsky too early, losing van Gogh in his prime, especially in this sordid fashion, is deeply depressing. Of course. back then, the Impressionism star whose more renowned paintings fetch nine figures was a nobody, really, an outcast of not only the Parisian art scene but of humanity itself, and this film is an ode to a sympathetic man who deserved better. The pathetically ordinary, but still extra…, plot commences when a postmaster’s (Chris O’Dowd, The Cloverfield Paradox, Molly’s Game) son, Armand Roulin (a nice Douglas Booth, The Dirt, Mary Shelley) reluctantly agrees to deliver a dead letter from Vincent to brother Theo, only to find himself sucked into the artist’s confounding demise himself to the point of attachment. The animation features an excellent supportive cast of English actors, including Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette, Poldark) as hotel proprietress Adeline Ravoux, personal fave Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones, Ripper Street) as Dr. Gachet, and Helen McCrory (Their FinestPenny Dreadful) as Gachet’s bitter housekeeper Louise Chevalier; it-girl Saoirse Ronan also appears as Gachet’s unsympathetic daughter, Marguerite. It’s a colorful case Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot would’ve enjoyed, and you should too. The Breadwinner, meanwhile, from Irish animation filmmaker Nora Twomey (Song of the Sea, The Secret of Kells) is a true animation, and one of the most artistically aspirational films you’ll see. Written by writer-director Anita Doran (The End of Silence) from the children’s book by Canadian author/activist Deborah Ellis, the screenplay is a paean to the Afghan storytelling tradition, with 11-year-old heroine Parvana (Saraa Chaudry) not only rising up to rescue her Taliban-abducted father (Ali Badshah) from under the cloak of oppression, but also undergoing a mythical journey of her own. The film itself is a dynamic expression of Afghan culture, and the film’s audio-visual artistry a nice recompense for a people who have endured and experienced too much. It too has an excellent cast, from veteran television guest-star Laara Sadiq as Parvana’s mother, Fatana; Shaista Latif as her sister, Soraya; Kawa Ada as market benefactor/protector Razaq; Soma Chhaya as co-conspirator Shauzia; and Noorin Gulamgaus as Taliban bad-boy Idrees. Considering this country and culture has inextricably been linked to our own for the past three decades or so, with our military presence there going well into its second, this is a film every American should see, and take their children to see; the least we can do for this besieged nation is to see a 95-minute cartoon celebrating its culture and people. I unfortunately missed an afternoon family outing to see Coco, but it must have been something else to beat these two films to an Animated Feature Film Academy Award. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

(This post continues below with my 2017 international/foreign language film award favorites.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Is It Me? 2017 Film Award Favorites—International/Foreign Language—Awards

International/Foreign Language Film Awards

(Winners in bold.)

 Film of the Year

 Personal Shopper

Slack Bay

Afterimage

1945

In the Fade

Filmmaker of the Year (Writer-Director)

Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper)

Bruno Dumont (Slack Bay)

Avi Nesher (Past Life)

Ferenc Török (1945)

Fatih Akin (In the Fade)

Stand-Alone Director of the Year

Andrej Wajda (Afterimage)

Best Screenplay

Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper)

Bruno Dumont (Slack Bay)

Andrzej Mularczyk (Afterimage)

Fanny Burdino, Mazarine Pingeot, Joachim Lafosse (After Love)

Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman (Loving Vincent)

Best Adapted Screenplay

François Ozon, Phillippe Piazzo (Frantz)

Avi Nesher (Past Life)

Ferenc Török, Gábor T. Szántó (1945)

Anita Doran (The Breadwinner)

Fatih Akin (In the Fade)

 

Male Performance of the Year 

Pierre Niney (Frantz)

Fabrice Luchini (Slack Bay)

Boguslaw Linda (Afterimage)

Cédric Khan (After Love)

Lior Ashkenazi (Foxtrot) 

Female Performance of the Year

Kristen Stewart (Personal Shopper)

Juliette Binoche (Slack Bay)

Joy Rieger (Past Life)

Bérénice Bejo (After Love)

Diane Kruger (In the Fade)

The Two Catherines Onscreen Chemistry Award

Catherine Frot, Catherine Deneuve (The Midwife) 

Male Supporting Performance

Thierry Lavieville (Slack Bay)

Martin Havelka (The Teacher)

Iván Angelusz (1945)

Norman Acar (In the Fade)

Johannes Krisch (In the Fade) 

Female Supporting Performance

Zofia Wichlacz (Afterimage)

Evgenia Dodina (Past Life)

Nelly Tagar (Past Life)

Sarah Adler (Foxtrot)

Dóra Sztarenki (1945)

 

Best Cinematography

Guillaume Deffontaines (Slack Bay)

Jean-Francois Hensgens (After Love)

Elemér Ragályl (1945)

Mikhail Krichman (Loveless)

Rainer Klausmann (In the Fade)

Production Design

Michel Barthélémy (Frantz)

Riton Dupire-Clément (Slack Bay)

Benedikt Herforth, Thomas Stammer (13 Minutes)

Juraj Fabry (The Teacher)

László Rajk (1945)

Costume Design

Pascaline Chavanne (Frantz)

Alexandra Charles (Slack Bay)

Katarzyna Lewinska (Afterimage)

Dorota Roqueplo (Loving Vincent)

Sosa Juristovszky (1945)

Best Music

Uncredited (Personal Shopper)

Philippe Rombi (Frantz)

Andrzej Panufnik (Afterimage)

Tibor Szemzö (1945)

Jeff and Mychael Dana (The Breadwinner) 

Best Original Song

The Crown Sleeps—Music by Qais Essar, lyrics by Joshua Hill; performed by Qais Essar featuring Elaha Soroor and Felicity Williams (The Breadwinner)

Runner-up: I Know Places—Composed by Rick Nowels & Björn Yttling, performed by Lykke Li (In the Fade)

Breakthrough Actor

Brandon Lavieville (Slack Bay) 

Breakthrough Actress

Raph (Slack Bay)

Best Ensemble

Frantz

Slack Bay

Loving Vincent

1945

The Breadwinner

 

Special Citations for Creative Filmmaking

Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman (Loving Vincent)

Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner)

Special Citation for Filmmaking Merit

Oliver Hirschbiegel (Director, 13 Minutes)

Repertory Screening of the Year

Stalker (1979)—New 2K Digital Restoration, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, May 19-June 1

Top Ten International/Foreign Language Films of the Year (in order)

Afterimage; 1945; In the Fade; Personal Shopper; Slack Bay;

The Breadwinner; Loving Vincent; After Love; Past Life; Frantz

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours

Me Too: 2017 Film Award Favorites—Domestic/English Language—Prologue

Just when you were totally burnt on 2017 end-of-year film awards, here comes another. I typically time this annual rite to coincide with the Oscars—while also allowing myself time to catch up on all the late-season releases—of which I drastically diverge. This year, instead of being a preview, then, it’s more a post-view, or postmortem; no 11th hour here, we are beyond midnight, sweeping up the dark, deserted celluloid streets as if broken glass by a lone, resolute janitor. The year began slowly, with even foreign fare being atypically underwhelming, but the second half was strong, and I ended with solid top ten lists for both domestic (this time) and foreign (next time) releases.

In terms of the Oscars, this year was no different. Besides the typical snubs—no Will Smith #oscarssowhite uproar this time—the biggest shock IMO was Daniel Kaluuya’s ascension to the summit of acting accomplishment. The young man was, indeed, solid in Get Out and certainly has a promising career—he’s already distinguished himself this year in The Black Panther, a showcase of Black acting talent—but his presence among the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis—an actor in his own category—and Gary Oldman—was a blow to the senses. Not only did it come at the expense of a career-defining, precision performance by Liam Neeson in Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, but the young Brit had to run through a gauntlet of individual accomplishment by many of the best actors we have today who were also in contention: Charlie Zunnan (The Lost City of Z), Brad Pitt (War Machine), Colin Farrell (The Beguiled), Jeremy Renner (Wind River), Hugh Bonneville (Viceroy’s House), Javier Bardem (mother!), Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049), Kenneth Branagh (Murder On the Orient Express), Christian Bale (The Promise, Hostiles), and Tom Hanks (The Post), as well as fellow 28-year-old compatriot Nicholas Hoult (Rebel In the Rye). Now, what unites these fine actors besides prodigious talent is that, with the possible exception of Spaniard Bardem, they are all porcelain Eurocentric, in other words, passé. No, in a year in which Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit was a disappointment and The Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman appeared as a young Thurgood Marshall, it was the throwback satiric horror-thriller Get Out, in which writer-director-producer Jordan Peele largely updated Blaxploitation archetypes for a post-Obama nation awash in extrajudicial killings, the mass incarceration of Black peoples, Black voter suppression, and backlash against silent and dignified anthem protests, that captured audiences. Problem is, while the film was undeniably entertaining, well-acted, and wryly subversive, IMO it was not even the most rewarding among its genre, which I believe belonged to M. Night Shyamalan’s even more transformative Split that featured the flat-out most brilliant acting performance of the year by James McAvoy, who was nowhere to be seen come nomination time.

With Kaluyaa’s pick, the Academy achieved a 20% diversity rate among its nominations in the four acting categories in a year in which the profession become more alighted to issues of gender exploitation. That bested my paltry 15%, which was nonetheless better than our sitting president’s 6% in appointing federal judges, though that number is skewed by ideology—it’s difficult to find judges who will suppress people of color who are also persons of color, after all, though not impossible. But before you believe me forcibly retired like those old caucasian former Academy guys, my percentage could’ve improved had I not missed Denzel Washington as Roman J. Israel, Esq.; Crown Heights, which was in theatres for maybe a week or two; or not put off Mudbound for so long that it remains unseen—yes, you may have me stoned or drawn and quartered for that, please do. I did get in scene-stealing supporting actor Idris Elba, again dissed by the Academy, who asserted some of the most stirring monologues on justice or lack thereof in Molly’s Game since Tom Wilkinson in The Conspirator. I also tried to attend an October Beverly Hills special screening of Tariq Nasheed’s (Hidden Colors) 1804: the Hidden History of Haiti, only to be rebuffed by a phalanx of predominately Black theatregoers who had beat me to the punch by buying tickets in advance and who eyed me warily as I espied gaining admittance to the sold-out event. Who knew there’d be an audience?

Speaking of diversity and Molly’s Game, and in a year in which Tom Hanks was not nominated for his solid impersonation of old-school Washington Post newsman Ben Bradlee, the Academy appeared to mail it in on a few. The popular Octavia Spencer, bless her heart, who had been nominated twice—winning once— in the supporting actress category, was nominated again for the excellent The Shape of Water. The Montgomery, Alabama, native could’ve performed blindfolded in the role—she was not challenged at all—and I fear she’s too often being cast as the supportive, inspiring best friend. Bless the next filmmaker who casts her in a role she can get into fourth or fifth gear with in order to show off her true dramatic skills—and receive a truly deserved nomination with. Meanwhile, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who puts the “A” into the A-list, assumed the director’s chair in the rather disappointing Molly’s Game because he couldn’t find a director he was satisfied with to visually translate his work. Turns out, the screenplay was the problem the whole time; he was nominated nonetheless. Sorkin’s teaming with Jessica Chastain was so inspired following their turns in, and on, Miss Sloane and Steve Jobs, respectively, I hadn’t been anticipating at all that I would be let down. I had penciled in Chastain for a Performance of the Year award before I’d even sat down to view it. Would I give it to her—for a third consecutive year—with a star turn in the early The Zookeeper’s Wife?

My own nominations in the category were perhaps skewed because I missed Kate Blanchett assuming a number of different disguises in the very limited release, Manifesto, and Kate Winslet in Wonder Wheel, the first Woody Allen film I’ve missed theatrically since Everyone Says I Love You two decades ago. The wonderful Gal Gadot was so acclaimed she did everything but receive a nomination for Wonder Woman, but I preferred the kickass Charlize Theron in the creative spy-thriller Atomic Blonde and reserved a spot for her. While Wonder Woman was bogged down by a neverending climactic digital duel between the heroine and nemesis Sir Patrick (David Thewlis), so dark and atrocious it seemed to nullify all the uplifting female empowerment that came before it, Atomic Blonde featured some of the most breathless real-time fight sequences ever filmed and in which Theron excelled. Both films subverted genres by portraying heroines, but let’s not forget, Wonder Woman may not have been even the most rewarding film about the liberated character herself. That would belong to, IMO, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, an interior drama portraying scandalous psychology professor William Marston’s (a solid Luke Evans) impassioned efforts to bypass censors to get a slyly subversive comic-book creature into the homes of proper postwar Americans. In a year celebrating women, their contributions, slights, and their miseries, then, it was a seminaked pseudodominatrix from the fantastical mind of a depraved male psychologist who alit the spirits of women throughout.

Fine actress Saoirse Ronan was nominated in the lead actress category for the everpresent Lady Bird, but that celebrated film may not have even been the most rewarding among coming-of-age sagas nor even establishing the best performance by a more mature young actress inhabiting the role of a teenager experiencing troubles with her mother. That would belong, IMO, to In Search of Fellini and diminutive 30-year-old Canadian actress Ksenia Solo, a near dead ringer for Ronan. Due to its title, which rings like a B&W documentary narrated by the late Marcello Mastroianni, American audiences may’ve thought the domestic production was a foreign one, or that, like the heroine’s mother (Maria Bello) and aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub), were turned off by the maestro’s music. This was not the case for Solo’s naïve Lucy, who rides Fellini’s muse through dirt and daydream all the way to Rome, where she discovers that the sweetest smile arrives only through darkness, disappointment, and despair. Her character’s magical journey in an equally magical film is seemingly a perfect metaphor for the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and all they encompass, not to give away any spoilers or anything.

In a year in which opportunities for female filmmakers were again bemoaned, Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig was anointed Queen of Hollywood, but what about British filmmaker Gurinder Chada, who turned her own grandmother’s stories of being present at the opulent official residence during the breakup of the Subcontinent into one of the year’s most underappreciated films, Viceroy’s House, and who has taken much vitriol for her interpretation? In a year in which former British PM Winston Churchill was central to at least three feature films, two of which received the Academy’s attention, either remotely or front and center—with Oldman winning an Oscar for portraying him front and center—IMO this was the one to see to get a more precise view of the fellow’s truer nature. Who do you think destroyed India, after all—Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims?

Allison Janney took home the best supporting actress Oscar for her screeching turn as an abusive sports mother in the fine I, Tonya. While she was impressive, matching wits with a very good Margot Robbie, whose figure-skating skills were nearly as impressive as Theron’s sustained martial-arts bravura, I gauged the performance as too one-noted and over-the-top and ultimately excised her from my own nominations list. Would Leslie Manville, who would’ve owned Phantom Thread if she were not opposite Day-Lewis, with a sharply stern and less expressive performance I judged to be superior?

Oscar-caliber films are often thought to penetrate the time in which they are made. Several Best Picture nominees looked to the past to accomplish that, including Academy nominee The Post. The Steven Spielberg–helmed, John Williams–scored Oscar aspirant hit its target directly, but in a more sentimental way than Mark Felt, which was scrappier, grittier, tenser—in part due to its pulsing neonoir Daniel Pemberton (All the Money in the World, Molly’s Game) score—and, IMO, superior. …Felt actually picks up where The Post leaves off, from the Iraq-like suppression of compromising Vietnam War documents to presidential-level hijinks at Democratic National Committee headquarters, an event The Post actually alludes to as if hinting at a sequel. Both, however, are, of course, not-so-subtle digs at the current White House, which recalls the Nixon occupation in so many ways.

Another film dissed by the Academy was Hostiles. EW’s Chris Nashawaty, who’s no slouch, called it, “the best western since Unforgiven,” a quote that easily comes into one’s own mind after viewing it, though I would say Dead Man instead of Unforgiven. Unforgiven earned nine Oscar nominations, taking home four statuettes, including one for Best Picture, so what gives? Hostiles, based on a manuscript by Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald Stewart (Missing), also looked to the past, namely the Indian Wars of the late 19th century, and by performing open surgery on the very heart and soul of those troubling times it not only punctuates the western, but transforms the genre entirely, arriving somehow as a metaphor for our own troubled, divisive times. From genocide to reconciliation, it’s no wonder Nashawaty also described it as “brutal and beautiful.”

Those words can also describe another film that flirts with Best Picture qualities: Blade Runner 2049. The much-anticipated film didn’t actually disappoint, not in terms of casting, dialog, performances, scenarios, production design, visual effects, etc., but it was weighted down by a way-too-sentimental take on the aged character of Decker (Harrison Ford) that created tonal imbalance at a crucial time, though the film recovered via a nice extended shoreline fight sequence and a stunning, devastating finale. The film surprised me by sweeping through my awards list, and rising up the ranks of the top ten. Would it reach the top? Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and this, in 2017, is what I beheld.

(This post continues below.)

© 2018 John Tyler/24 Hours