Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Selma: The March for Voter Rights

In light of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day yesterday, it seems appropriate to write about a movie that I saw on Saturday: Selma. Much in the way as watching movies like 12 Years a Slave feels necessary, Selma brings to life the events that happened at that time and place during the Civil Rights Movement with shocking visuals and a moral outrage that (thank God) pays off at its conclusion.

Selma follows the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers after four black little girls are killed in a church bombing in Selma, Alabama. In the time that follows, Martin Luther King, Jr. appeals with President Johnson to push through a federal voter rights bill that will secure the vote for African Americans and cancel out Jim Crow laws like poll taxes and other restrictions that hold them back. When Johnson refuses, deciding to focus instead on the war on poverty, King heads down to Alabama to organize peaceful protests. Despite the efforts of the black people in the area to remain peaceful, the local government continually and brutally obstructs their efforts, beating people in the streets, and killing more than a few in their frenzy to remain segregated. The struggle of these people to defend what rights they technically already have, but are being barred from, is nothing short of awe-inspiring bravery.

The first advice I have for anyone going to see this is: bring tissues. While these are things that you hear about and can see reruns of on the news, the disturbingly cavalier way in which these white officers beat down the elderly, attack the peaceful, and kill the innocent made my blood boil. Not to sell short the recent events in Ferguson, or discount racism that still exists today, but it's horrifying to see blatant beatings carried out by not just police officers, but endorsed by state elected officials as they seek to preserve a way of life as outdated as picking cotton.

While the film brings MLK to life, and it's nice to see the largely solemn leader on screen joking around with friends, what it portrays best is the reality of the danger at that time.  While it's never been a secret that these were dangerous times for Civil Rights fighters, it's incredibly inspiring to see those that were moved to this cause despite the insane violence that met them at every turn.

In an incredible stroke of luck, I was asked to this screening by a family friend and invited to a talk after the film given by a man who actually marched during the infamous March to Montgomery that the film portrays. While he mentioned that the march provided safety in numbers, he rode back to the airport in a car with another white man, and two African-American preachers. While riding he was enlightened by their sharp eyes for what was and wasn't an acceptable filling station for black people, and stated that he never before had been so aware of traffic laws and the importance of following them.

While Selma is admittedly a dramatization of the events that happened in the town of the same name, there's something to be said for the explanations it makes along the way. For example, you learn in school that they wanted voter rights, but never really why. In one scene, King explains the gravity of things being allowed to perpetuate in the South (and elsewhere) because when black people aren't allowed to vote, they are almost constantly outnumbered by white juries who then can vote against convicting whites accused of violence.

The only things that bothered me were the fact that King's speeches in the film were not taken verbatim (due to some copywriting issues with the King legacy) and also the portrayal of Lindon B. Johnson. It's historical inaccuracies like these that usually make me steer clear of biopics, but by and large, this movie is worth the watch.

7.5 outa 10.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Babadook: Nightmare Fuel.

As most horror movie fans would probably agree, finding a well-made scary movie can be a little harder than you might think. Churning out blood and guts (sometimes quite literally) can be done by any idiot with a camera and some corn syrup. But instilling actual fear? That's something that requires a bit of finesse.

The Babadook, an Australian film garnering more and more attention, is one of these films.

Full disclosure: I don't think he's funny.

The plot follows a mother, Amelia, and her son, Samuel. Samuel is having some behavioral problems that are interfering with his classmates, his cousin, and (most markedly) his mom. He has a pathological fear of monsters, which prompts him to make numerous homemade weapons, frighten those around him, and makes it nearly impossible for him to sleep. Despite Amelia's attempted patience, there's a tangible exhaustion that totally envelopes her character. She's dealing with the grief of having lost her husband in a car accident seven years before (incidentally, on their way to the hospital to have Samuel) and her son's antics are driving her up the wall.

It only gets worse with the arrival of a mysterious pop-up book in her son's book case. A book that tells of a man called Mr. Babadook, and shows images of him watching you, waiting to be let inside, and finally, forebodingly, ends that once you've seen him you'll "wish you were dead." At first denying the existence of this creature, the mother begins to hear and see strange things at night. As things gets more eery, the Babadook starts to affect their lives and their relationship. But is the Babadook real? Or is it a manifestation of the mother slowly losing her sanity?

Is he in that closet tho..?

The Babadook is really interesting in that it blends psychological and supernatural horror in a way that hasn't been done this gracefully, to my memory, since The Shining. While you want to believe that there are supernatural powers at work, there is also a tangible slip in Amelia's psyche as she becomes more and more blunt and antisocial. Honestly, for the first half of this movie, all I could think was "This poor woman." Her son's unacceptance of the idea that there is no monster almost makes you feel hopeless. But then when he ends up being right (or does he?) you're immediately conflicted with whose side to root for. Is Amelia just at her breaking point? Is the Babadook a supernatural manifestation of her emotions? Or is he simply a monster like the child's been saying all along?

In terms of technical specs, the cinematography is on point. This is where, I might add, a lot of B-horror movies screw things up. Too many long shots, bad dialogue, sloppy editing, and dozens of other things can turn a horror movie into a nightmare (heh, see what I did there?). Director Jennifer Kent goes out of her way to give you some great jumps and fantastic creeps without sacrificing artistry. And, like all worthwhile scary movies, it has a way of manipulating sound that totally will creep you out. In their too-quiet house, Sam's outbursts are more irritating, his mother's silence more resounding, and the sounds of their intruder incredibly scary.

In a lot of ways, The Babadook reminds me of a few Asian horror movies that I've seen. A lot is left unexplained, and a lot relies on mystical realism, but that is part of what makes it so good. It's not an episode of Scooby-Doo, where the monster is revealed and you can go home with a sense of closure. It ends leaving you on your toes. After all, you can't get rid of the Babadook.

Great, great, great. 8 outa 10.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Arranged: Finding Common Ground

Following the recent devastating events in Paris, it seemed fitting to watch a movie about religious differences and how they affect (and don't affect) us in our day-to-day. The movie Arranged had been on my Netflix queue for a while, but (in pure Annie form) I was like "Ehhh...I'll get to that one later." Yesterday seemed the perfect time to check it out.

Nasira and Rochel (the "ch" pronounced with that back-of-the-throat sound so common in Hebrew and French languages) are both teachers at a Brooklyn school. Though they start off as quiet strangers, they are quickly thrown into an unlikely friendship. Despite the fact that Rochel is an Orthodox Jew and Nasira is a Muslim, they bond over their shared fates being in an arranged marriage.

What's great about this film is that it celebrates diversity without being blatantly secular. Instead of saying "oh religion is stupid!" each main character comes to the conclusion that they love their traditions and religions, despite being shoved into secular attitudes by their (somewhat overbearing) principal. And they give a nod to the secular experience as well. Rochel, after having a particularly hard time going on dates with weirdos, takes a minute to visit a cousin who isn't Orthodox Jewish anymore. And, without being hard on people that choose this kind of a lifestyle, decides that it isn't for her.

But honestly, the nicest thing about this movie is that is shows that interfaith friendships aren't impossible. Despite their parents' blatant disapproval, Rochel and Nasira end up being extremely close, to the point where Nasira goes out of her way to help Rochel find a proper suitor! There are shots, also, of each of them striving to understand each other's religion. From Rochel letting Nazira henna her hand to Nazira going with Rochel to pray at her grandmother's grave, there are small moments where they learn to accept each other. And, especially in the spirit of this week, that kind of tolerance between two very strict religions is invaluable.

A lovely movie. Believable yet powerful. 8.5 outa 10.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Whiplash: You'll Never Think of Jazz the Same Way Again

I remember when I was in high school, there was a teacher that made everyone incredibly nervous. The kind of teacher that would tell you to read the footnotes on the pages of the text book and then quiz you on them the next day. The kind of teacher that would stop and stare at you if you didn't have the right answer, and tell you to look it up on the spot, instead of moving on to another person that had their hand raised. He scared the absolute crap out of me.

Fletcher, of Whiplash, makes my high school teacher look like Santa Claus.

The film starts off with a young drummer named Andrew. A shy 19-year-old, Andrew is a student at Shaffer University (a fake school made to mirror the likes of top arts universities like Juliard). Second chair drummer in a class band, he catches the eye of Fletcher, the razor-sharp conductor of the school's studio band. Testing his strengths and weaknesses, Andrew endures psychological and physical abuse at the hands of his teacher to remain in his position as the drummer of the band. The film begs the questions: What is the true way to realize an person's talent? What is the cost of success? And how far are you willing to go to get it?

Could you handle this every day? 'Cause I could not.

I had heard that this movie was impeccable, and I really have to agree. I can't remember being as tense watching a movie since Gravity, and the fact that the film largely relies on psychological games to achieve this effect is nothing short of impressive.

Teller is absolutely brilliant as the understated Andrew. Having loved him in The Spectacular Now, he really gets to show his acting chops playing a more dynamic character. His transformation into the cocky, outspoken musician (that quite creepily ends up mirroring that of J.K. Simmons's character Fletcher) is totally believeable. What keeps the movie so captivating is Andrew's self-discipline, and his sheer will power at being able to bend and not break. And you expect him to break. Things come to a head several times within the story, and just when you think he'll up and quit -- he just keeps practicing harder.


That being said, and on the flipped side of things, the acting done by J. K. Simmons is nothing short of masterful. His most memorable role in my mind before stepping into the theater is when he played the father of a pregnant teenager in Juno. (And of course his role as the spokesperson for Farmers Insurance.) But honestly, the reign of terror that he unleashes on his entire band, and on Andrew specifically, has wiped the image of those good-natured characters from my mind. He is mind-bogglingly ruthless. Putting both the bands he conducts as a whole and the students within them on the line -- just to make a point -- you've got no choice but to believe the worst of this man.

And yet, one thing that the movie also does incredibly well is whisper the question: "...Is it worth it?"

Fletcher reflects at one point that there are no two words more damaging than "Good job." Students that get mollified are only then encouraged to accomplish the status quo. Students that are challenged by looking stupid react instinctively by practicing harder so that it never happens again. Andrew, instead of breaking under the massive weight of all of the psychological torment, only bounces back by practicing harder and getting better. So, the question remains...is it worth it?

Absolutely mesmerizing. I can only imagine the physical toll that this took on Teller, as he looks about ready to pass out or break something a few times. And wonderful score. Hope this ups everyone's jazz intake.

9.5 outa 10. Honestly. Very good.