SELMA (2014)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Common, Tim Roth
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 99% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A chronicle of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

In one of the special features on the Selma Blu-ray, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers and co-stars, says that Selma is the first feature film with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the central figure.  (She is presumably not counting TV movies or miniseries.)  There have been one or two other films where King appears as a “side” character, but never as the star of the film.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I found that tidbit of information fascinating, especially after watching Selma, which carries all the cinematic heft of any Oliver Stone biopic.  For example, I never knew there were two previous attempts to make the iconic march from Selma to Birmingham, some fifty miles away.  The first attempt, at which King wasn’t present, was violently turned away by local police with batons, tear gas, and honest-to-God bullwhips.  The second attempt, this time with many white participants, mostly clergy, was aborted by King himself after he had second thoughts about asking people to potentially lay down their lives for the cause.

That right there is indicative of far more conflict than I ever thought existed in the mind of Dr. King, played with poise and pent-up energy by David Oyelowo.  In my mind’s eye, King never wavered.  He was always 100% sure of his actions because his cause was just.  But, surprise, he was also a human being who was clearly affected by the injuries – and fatalities – sustained by the folks who were marching for that cause.  Selma brought that dimension home to me in a potent, well-made film.

The beginning of the movie sets the tone poetically and tragically.  After a scene with Dr. King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his civil rights activism, we are shown the truth of the situation in the American South in the mid-60s.  A black woman tries to register to vote in Selma and is turned away by a racist registrar.  In Birmingham, a bomb goes off at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young girls.  When King arrives in Selma to organize a protest, he is greeted in a hotel lobby by a friendly-sounding white man who proceeds to punch him in the face.  King even meets opposition from a separate civil-rights group in Selma who are uncomfortable with how most out-of-state protesters march for King, not necessarily for the issues.

Nor is King portrayed as the perfect husband to his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo, who incidentally also played Coretta Scott King in a 2001 HBO movie, Boycott).  Their home life is troubled right from the get-go.  That’s a factor that I learned about years and years ago, but it’s still something that takes a little getting used to.

No one likes to hear that great men were human, too.  We want our heroes, whomever they might be, to be spotless.  Selma doesn’t shy away from the less flattering, more human side of Dr. King.  After the FBI taps his phones, they send an audio recording to Coretta with the sounds of two people having sex.  Martin listens in dismay but insists to Coretta that’s not him on the tape.  She agrees with him (“I know what you sound like, Martin.”), but you get the idea that she’s still upset that this kind of thing would be an issue.

I loved the scenes where King is invited to the Oval Office to speak directly to then-president Lyndon B. Johnson, who desperately tries to get King to back off Selma.  Johnson wants what every President in history has always wanted: a second term.  King reminds him that, if he would simply pass a law removing any and all voting restrictions, he would win a second term in a landslide…thanks to the black vote.  Johnson urges King to wait, King urges Johnson to act, and they make little progress for most of the film.

I am no historian, but I have no doubt that Selma is at least as accurate as Nixon or JFK or any other big-budget historical film.  That is, mostly true.  When it comes to film, I’m a big believer in the credo: “Don’t let facts get in the way of the truth.”  If Selma were to show each and every incident that led to that march, I’d still be watching the movie because it would be 10 hours long.  I feel that the movie captures exactly what needed to be captured and did it in such a way that not only was I entertained, but I also learned some things I didn’t know.  (I never knew about the death of a white protester, for example.  Or about the “night march” that occurred somewhere between the first two attempts, and which also resulted in someone’s death.)

After having just watched movies like Whiplash or The Prince of Egypt that got me genuinely emotionally invested, so that their finales had me floating a few inches above my sofa, I must be honest and say that the finale of Selma did not quite inspire that same reaction in me.  It was compelling to see the march finally taking place, especially when intercut with shots of the actual marchers making their way to Birmingham.  I enjoyed King’s speech on the steps of the capital building (although I learn from IMDb trivia that director DuVernay allegedly reworked some of the speeches to make them more cinematic).  I thought it worked well as a climax to the film.  But honestly, I wanted to see a little more of the march itself.

I suppose it could be argued that the march was not quite the point of the film.  Selma highlights the struggle more than the victory.  It demonstrates the terrible hurdles and living conditions faced by black Americans during those dark days.  Have things improved since then?  Well, I’d say things have evolved into something different.  Some things change more easily than others.

The struggle continues.


By Marc S. Sanders

The boogeyman is dressed as a police officer!

In 1992’s Unlawful Entry, Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused) directs a well-played Ray Liotta as a psychotic cop named Pete Davis who is terrorizing a yuppie couple named Michael & Karen Carr (Kurt Russell, Madeleine Stowe). The Carrs experience a home intruder who puts a knife to Karen’s throat. Officer Davis offers comfort to the pair and happily volunteers the arrangements for a high-tech alarm system. The first mistake that Michael makes is sharing the password with trusty Pete. You’ll expect that to come into play later on. Maybe what inspired the password will work itself into the film as well. Hmmmmmm?????

It’s difficult for Pete to resist the obsession he has for Karen and so he begins a campaign to get Michael out of the way. First, he demonstrates his brutality by offering Michael the opportunity to senselessly beat up the home intruder for no other purpose than personal satisfaction. When Mike refuses, Pete finishes the job. Later, Mike makes efforts to keep Pete out of their lives. It’s hard to do that when a highly decorated cop is involved. Karen, his own loving spouse, won’t even truly believe Mike; neither will the police chief.

As Pete continues with his intentions, Mike’s credit cards are maxed out, he loses a high priced client that Pete has been talking to, parking tickets add up, and so on. Pete also appears at the house at inopportune times like when Karen is taking in a swim or creepily stepping into their bedroom while the married couple is having sex. Eventually, Mike is put out of the way when he’s imprisoned after being framed as a drug dealer. Now Karen is all alone for a terrifying third act that you’ve likely seen hundreds of times before.

Unlawful Entry is engaging while you’re watching, but it does not convey much. The happenings all appear probable if a deranged cop wanted to go through all this trouble. Therefore, Ray Liotta owns the picture. Yet, what did I learn here? Don’t call the police?

For Kurt Russell, this is the first of two “husband is being terrorized” roles for him. Later, Russell would headline the cast of a better film to fall in this genre called Breakdown. Still, I like Russell here. He starts out as a guy who is not capable of fighting for the sake of his wife. He regrettably admits that shame to Pete early on. Pete pounces on that advantage to win Karen. Later, the strength of Mike’s short temper followed by his fear push him to do what he must to protect himself and his wife.

Madeleine Stowe is a good actress. There’s just not much for her to do with this part. She’s the spouse who opts not to believe her husband’s concerns. If she did, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. The third act is all action and blood and falling down the stairs and running back up the stairs. It’s no surprise really. Though it is convenient that Michael is finally able to post bail and get home in time for a final confrontation with Pete.

One thing that kept echoing in my head though was that as good as Ray Liotta is (he’s very, very good actually; very primal and deceiving), he is terrorizing a woman named “Karen.” Every time he says the name Karen, all that comes back to me is the film Goodfellas where he more or less tormented and disrespected Lorraine Bracco known as, you guessed it, Karen. A rule should be put in place, Liotta can no longer be cast with other characters named Karen. His Karen quota is maxed out.


By Marc S. Sanders

Brian DePalma directed the first installment of Tom Cruise’s film adaptation of the Mission: Impossible series. It’s good, but not necessarily the best of the bunch.

DePalma’s approach with a script by screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) & David Koepp opens with last ditch effort at a Cold War setting. (By 1996, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond had already abandoned that point in history.)

Cobblestone streets in Prague glisten under wet street lamps as a team of spies, led by Jim Phelps (the “Captain Kirk” of the original series) with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt as point man. They are attempting to prevent a buy/sell exchange of a disc containing identities of undercover agents spread across the globe. There are shadows. People walking covertly and other people watching people through cameras on eyeglasses and computer monitors. Everything is going according to plan, until as we expect, nothing goes according to plan, and Tom Cruise seems to be the only one surprised by it all. Now he’s accused of being a traitor having gotten his whole team murdered and he must go rogue (he does this a few times in the M:I films). DePalma’s opening is straight out of a John LeCarre novel. All good stuff.

More good stuff appears in act 2 when Ethan Hunt has to infiltrate CIA headquarters to retrieve another disc and allow himself to cable down into the most high tech secure room in the…well lets just say the world, that is conveniently run by the most incompetent dweeb in the…well let’s just say the world…again. The primarily silent sneak is as beautifully choreographed as a Russian ballet. It’s spectacular.

Even more good stuff occurs in act 3 in a high speed super train crossing through the Chunnel in Europe. There’s a helicopter and Tom Cruise on the roof of the train and even some exploding chewing gum. Act 3 is where DePalma, Towne & Koepp opt to leave the Cold War behind because let’s face it, no spy can remain covert when a helicopter gets tethered to a high speed train in a tunnel.

So yeah, there’s lots of goodies in Mission: Impossible, but it falls terribly short because Tom Cruise produced the film with his ego in the way. For example, he sets up a team of four, all with different specialties. They get properly introduced and then they are given not much to do except watch Tom Cruise “Ethan Hunt” his way out of one dangerous situation after another. Ving Rhames seems like an especially interesting character but all he’s reserved to is typing on a keyboard. Vanessa Redgrave puts on a charming mystery about herself for one short scene as an arms dealer only to do nothing else but sit on the train later on.

Lots of talent was assembled for this film including Jon Voight, Emilio Estevez, Jean Reno and Kristen Scott Thomas but they’re only here to be a live studio audience for Cruise’s heroics.

Compare this film to Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. Murphy is no doubt the centerpiece, but he does not own every scene. Big moments come from the supporting cast as well. There’s more variety to that picture, which Murphy produced, than Cruise’s production.

A well utilized cast can be the difference between a good picture and a great picture.


By Marc S. Sanders

John Frankenheimer directed the exceptional thriller Ronin, featuring Robert DeNiro and a band of baddies all hired to intercept a mysterious suitcase. The contents are never revealed, and it really doesn’t matter. It’s the pursuit that’s important. Consider this a glossier version of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Not big on exceptional dialogue but huge on top notch car chase action.

Frankenheimer works with a script co-written by J.D. Zeik and David Mamet (using a pseudonym), and all that’s necessary to assemble a gripping two hour story is to have the characters team up, then abandon each other and then double cross each other. How do you identify professionals like these? Well, recruit Michael Lonsdale (former Bond villain from Moonraker) to explain the meaning of the samurai known as Ronin who have become masterless; skilled swordsman with loyalty to no one any longer.

DeNiro plays “Sam” who may be former CIA. He’s one of five men hired by an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natasha McElhone) to retrieve the well-guarded package. This entails intercepting a convoy of cars riding along the French countryside. The fun in the car chase action of all this is that the characters are implied to be at least as ruthless as the subjects they’re stealing from. Therefore, Frankenheimer and his team of 300 (yes, that number is accurate) stunt drivers can offer up reckless collateral damage; cafes are crashed into, buses flip over, and motorcycles skid out of control. It’s Vice City before there was ever a Vice City video game. These guys are not stopping for little old ladies crossing the street.

Jean Reno partners up with DeNiro for a time as a Frenchman and Stellan Skaarsgard plays a German ex-KGB agent. Eventually, Jonathan Pryce comes in to play as well, representing more Irish influence. Sean Bean is here too. (Have you been paying attention? That’s three Bond villains in one movie!!!!) All good casting.

That’s about all there is to say. The plot is deliberately thin with a slight, mediocre twist, and a romance that’s nothing truly interesting.

Still, Ronin is watchable. Frankenheimer and his cinematographer, Robert Fraisse, present awesome locales of a thriving Europe from 1998. Editing is quick and sharp too. Consider Ronin a precursor to Paul Greengass’ Jason Bourne films.

If nothing else, beyond the various car chases and high stakes shootouts, DeNiro had me convinced he was clearly instructing his colleagues on how to remove a bullet from his gut.

Yes. You pretty much see everything.


By Marc S. Sanders

Charlize Theron is always an actress who impresses me. Ever since I saw her in The Devil’s Advocate, I’ve been taken with her on screen presence. She simply has a natural way of bringing a character to life, and usually it is with unhinged and complicated women who never escape and overthrow what’s tormenting them. Her Academy Award winning turn in Monster as serial killer Aileen Wuornos is a perfect example, and her role in Jason Reitman’s film Young Adult is a close second best.

Young Adult was written by Diablo Cody (Juno, also directed by Reitman) and depicts Theron as Mavis Gary, a once successful author of a series of novels aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls. When she receives an email baby announcement from her former high school boyfriend Buddy Slade, Mavis wearing her sweatpants and worn-out t shirt packs up her puppy dog and leaves her one-night stand in her Minneapolis apartment and heads back to her small Minnesota town. She’s not there to see the newborn bundle, however. Mavis is under the delusion that she can win back Buddy who is now happily married.

This isn’t going to go well for Mavis, especially while she’s drowning in one bottle after another.

Patton Oswalt plays Matt, a former classmate, who comes upon Mavis’ arrival. Matt knows immediately that Mavis doesn’t have it altogether. She has not endured as well as he has following a terribly violent hate crime experience in high school when he was mistakenly taken for being gay. Mavis recalls this moment but with great insensitivity. She laughs as she reflects on the incident. Her take equates to maybe Matt being victim to a wedgie or being trapped in a locker. It was much worse than that. Matt’s legs and genitals were smashed in the beating.

Oswalt is very good in his role. Matt doesn’t need to have any regard for Mavis, the once popular prom princess. However, he can’t help but see her pitifully make a fool of herself as she attempts to intrude upon Buddy’s life.

Buddy appears naive to Mavis’ sloppy advances. Buddy sees the image of a successful author prim and proper. Matt sees the ugliness of Mavis beneath her makeup and dress clothes that never hang well on her intoxicated stature.

Cody’s screenplay takes place over three days. In that time, she allows her main character to come to the realization that she’s not a happy person and most certainly is alcohol dependent. A baby welcoming party makes evident of this conclusion. It is an event that will be remembered but for all the wrong reasons. Theron is astonishing in this scene. Not a likable character and yet so well performed.

Reitman is a good director with simplicity. He is simple at showing what likely eats at the good, published writer Mavis used to be. When Mavis drives back into town, Reitman shows her car pass by franchise businesses like Chili’s or Staples. There’s no imagination in these locales. No history or depth. There’s no stimulation. It’s all corporate. Just my theory, but I’d say that could drive a successfully imaginative writer into a depression. No wonder Mavis left town. Problem is she moved on with no constants in her life. Consider the fact that Mavis doesn’t even share with her parents that she’s come back into town.

Juno is the better film from Reitman and Cody. There was a broader scope of the characters at play, beyond just Juno herself. Theron and Oswalt are the only ones with multi dimensions in Young Adult. It’s a benefit that the film clocks in at only just over 90 minutes. Any longer and I’d have grown tired of this film. I can’t expect Mavis to overcome her demons in this short period of time. So, we are reserved to seeing how she further undoes herself and nearly destroys the family and people (not friends) she once knew. Basically, Young Adult shows a woman arrive at rock bottom. Therefore, I applaud Reitman and Cody for keeping this film condensed. The high school popularity is but a memory. Success is gradually moving away from her. Despair and depression and the illness of addiction is all that is left for her.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A promising young drummer at a prestigious music conservatory is mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.

That’s right, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and watched Whiplash after no fewer than eight years of prodding by my fellow cinephiles.  Not only can they finally get off my back about it, but they all now owe me one.  Hope you all enjoy Wild Tales when next we meet.

I was hesitant to watch Whiplash because it was released and gained notoriety at a time in my life when I was yearning for some positivity after getting psychically beaten down by some really depressing foreign films.  Why, I asked myself, would I want to subject myself to ninety minutes of watching J.K. Simmons verbally abuse some poor kid just so he could play the drums a little better?  I’ve seen this movie before.  The abusive mentor sees the light, the victimized student either turns his back or excels like never before, etcetera, etcetera, blah blah blah.  I had the whole plot written out in my head from start to finish.  (I used to do that a lot, I’m realizing…kinda stupid, in most cases.)

Having just finished watching it, I can say, without reservation, that Whiplash belongs on the short list of the best films ever made about the drive for artistic perfection along with The Red Shoes, Black Swan, and Amadeus.  And it manages to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the ending.  Tragedy and triumph walk hand in hand, though not necessarily in the way I would have ever imagined it.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a talented young jazz drummer who has just started his first year at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music.  He is anxious to gain the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the school’s prestigious jazz ensemble, The Studio Band.  Fletcher is a piece of work.  To say he engages in mind games is like saying Bill Gates dabbles in computers.  He recruits Andrew for his own band in the middle of someone else’s music class.  On his first day with the Studio Band, Fletcher berates another musician for playing off key.

Did I say “berates?”  Fletcher belittles, humiliates, and degrades the poor guy with a stream of profanity that would have made the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket envious.  He fires the guy on the spot.  When the guy leaves, Fletcher looks around and confesses that he wasn’t really out of tune, but he didn’t know he wasn’t, which is just as bad.  Accurate?  Technically yes.  Does that kind of teaching method belong anywhere outside of a military unit?  I’m going with “no.”

Andrew is willing to go along with this because he doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be GREAT.  He wants to be remembered in the same breath with Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, and he believes, like Fletcher, that greatness is not achieved without struggle and sacrifice.  Again, technically true.  Would Rembrandt have painted half as well with both ears?  Would Beethoven’s Ninth be remembered today if Beethoven hadn’t been totally deaf by the time it was finished?  The rolls of the Screen Actors Guild are littered with actors from broken or abusive homes.

There’s a revealing scene when Andrew eats a meal at home with his father and uncle and his two cousins.  The table conversation rings with praise for the two cousins who play football at their school and scored a long touchdown, etcetera.  When Andrew talks about being a “core” member of the best conservatory jazz ensemble in the country, he’s met with polite congratulations and that’s about it.  No one seems to think he’s going to make it as a musician, not even his own father.  “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”  Like Charlie Parker.  Like Amadeus.  Andrew’s only goal is to be great.  If he has to give up friends, romance, even family to achieve it, so be it.

But at what cost?  Fletcher pushes Andrew so hard that his hands bleed during rehearsals.  He demotes Andrew, then puts him back in the core, demotes him again, then basically makes him re-audition for the core spot against two other alternates until 2 am.  In one excruciating scene, Andrew actually tries to play in a competition after being in a freaking car accident.  It’s a truly desperate act from someone who is so afraid of being anonymous that only a body cast will stop him from taking his shot.

Make no mistake, the rehearsal scenes and the verbal and mental abuse from Fletcher are not pleasant.  They’re emotionally engaging, but they were also off-putting.  In a strange way, I was reminded of Requiem for a Dream and its disturbing subject matter that was nevertheless compelling to watch.  When we get to what happens to Andrew after the car accident, I was getting thoroughly depressed, despite the powerful emotional beats of what came before.

But then the movie enters its final act, and that’s where Whiplash finds another gear story-wise.  Andrew and Fletcher meet in an out-of-school setting, and Fletcher has an interesting speech where he says, among other things, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”  He admits his tactics were brutal, but he devoutly believes in the necessity of pushing people beyond what is expected of them.  “Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”

Fletcher convinces Andrew to play for a new jazz ensemble one last time.  What happens at that concert is so horrifying that I watched most of it through my fingers.  I kid you not.  But then the screenplay transforms that situation into something magical, almost religious.  You get the sense that all of the horrible and despicable things Fletcher did and said during the whole film, all misery we had to endure with Andrew, during which time I wondered, “Why am I watching this??” – all of that unpleasantness was just the setup for the finale.  And that finale only means something because of everything that came before it.

In other words, just like Andrew, I was only able to experience that tremendous cathartic moment at the end because of the suffering I had experienced in the movie’s first 90 minutes.

…which leaves me feeling torn because that’s exactly the kind of thing that Fletcher believes in, but which I feel is unnecessary outside of a boot camp.  Ideally, yeah, I think that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  I’ve directed my fair share of community theatre productions, and I’ve never had to resort to yelling or humiliation as a method to get what I’m looking for.  But then, I’m directing community theatre, not a multi-million-dollar film that may live or die on the performances I’m getting or not getting from my star.  Nor am I a drill sergeant training men to become soldiers.  It seems there is a line, but apparently to get certain kinds of results, it must be crossed.

It’s this dichotomy that will likely keep me awake the next couple of notes.  That and the senses-shattering finale.  I mean…I did not see that coming.  (And man, I am a jazz fan, so to me it was like eating a perfectly-cooked steak.)  It was not a pleasant road to get there, but it had to be unpleasant.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been great.

LEVIATHAN (2014, Russia)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 97% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In a rugged coastal town in northern Russia, Kolya fights against a corrupt mayor to keep his house from being demolished.

The coastal town in Leviathan might be considered beautiful in some other film.  The crashing waves on its rocky shores are reminiscent of Norway or Iceland.  But in this movie, behind every exterior shot of a stupendous mountainside is a sense of dread or gloom.  No doubt there are people in this town who celebrate things like birthdays or holidays or weddings.  Not in this movie.  In Leviathan, the atmosphere seems to prohibit any kind of celebration that isn’t preceded by consuming large quantities of vodka.

Kolya is a husband and father who lives in a house he built (he says) with his own two hands, along with his wife, Lilya, and son, Romka.  He’s currently locked in a legal battle with the corrupt mayor, Vadim, who wants to bulldoze Kolya’s house to make way for what Kolya assumes will be yet another mayoral mansion.  Like all the men in his circle, Kolya drinks a little too much vodka at times and is a bit of a hothead, which is a strike against him whenever he tries to reason with the authorities about his problems.

Kolya calls an old lawyer friend, Dmitriy, in Moscow for help.  Dmitriy does some digging and shows up at Kolya’s house with a folder full of damaging information against the mayor.  We get a good sense of how the mayor operates in a scene where he shows up drunk at Kolya’s house and demands that Kolya learn his place in the grand scheme of things.  He has power and he knows it, but in this scene, and in others where he flexes his power, he’s never far away from a bodyguard or a henchman or three.  He’s a mean little man.

Not that Kolya is a saint himself, either.  He doesn’t shy away from giving his son a sharp smack on the back of the head for sassing Lilya.  When he drinks, he’s more given to insults than jovialness.  But he really does seem to love his wife, and we feel for him when we see his efforts to get the mayor off his back through legal means, when what he’d REALLY like to do is just shoot him and be done with it.

The movie establishes this basic plot relatively slowly.  It’s a great example of a slow burn.  The first few scenes seem unconnected as we see Kolya and Lilya interact with Romka, and Kolya picks up Dmitriy from the train station, and they have a meal, and so on.  It isn’t until we reach a scene in a courtroom where the whole plot is spelled out for us in an astonishing rapid-fire speech from a judge who reads out what sounds like twenty pages of legal findings in about three minutes.  It was almost like listening to a Russian version of a Micro-Machines commercial.

As the story moves on, that sense of dread escalates.  It’s that kind of feeling you read about in books where a storm is approaching.  There’s no rain, but the air is a little sharper, the wind just a tad heavier.  The whole first half of the movie is like that.  Small things happen here and there that point subtly towards impending disaster.  In one shot, Kolya cradles a shotgun in his lap.  In another, we discover that Dmitriy and Kolya’s wife are a little more than just friends.  Kolya is detained by the police for making a scene in a police station.  We see his capability for violence even though it is never truly demonstrated.  That simmering anger underneath everything he says makes any conversation with Kolya a little edgy.

At one point, the corrupt mayor comes down on his cronies, telling them to do their jobs and get Kolya and his lawyer friend off his back.  After that, in a remarkably tense scene, Kolya, Lilya, Dmitriy, and some other friends go out shooting by a small lake and waterfall.  It’s all friendly enough, with a little portable grill and the wives making kebabs and the vodka flowing freely.  But as they set up the targets (empty bottles on a log), and each of the men take their turns with their rifles, I was inexplicably on edge.  I felt, I knew that something was going to happen, I just didn’t know what.  Their children run off to play by the water…is one of them going to drown?  One of the shooters has brought, not a rifle or a shotgun, but a freaking AK-47.  (He makes short work of the target bottles.)  Was this guy going to turn the gun on Kolya?  It’s a masterful bit of suspense that culminates in a completely unexpected direction.

There are other twists and turns in the story that I won’t reveal here, but what is this movie really about?  It’s about nothing more or less than how some men seem to be born to suffer.  Kolya is one of these men.  He has a teenage son who tolerates him, but can’t stand his wife, who is actually the boy’s stepmother.  A powerful man will stop at nothing to seize his house and land, and there doesn’t seem to be anything he can do about it.  The circumstances of how and when he discovers Lilya’s infidelity are traumatic, to say the least.  And for almost two-and-a-half hours, Kolya suffers the trials of Job.  Lilya gets her fair share of grief, too.

And yet, somehow, it was still an entertaining watch.  What separates this film from another movie about human suffering (say, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) is HOW this movie was made.  Rather than presenting the story in a documentary fashion, Leviathan looks and feels like it was shot 100% by a Hollywood crew with Hollywood production values.  It rather looks and feels like a high-end Coen brothers movie.  The story is about suffering, true, but the movie itself is slick and well-constructed.

I liked how the corrupt mayor, Vadim, visits his local Orthodox priest with his woes, and the priest, who seems to be more than a little involved in Vadim’s business dealings, advises him, “All power is from God.  As long as it suits Him, fear not.”  Basically, he’s telling Vadim to use his power to do what’s necessary, and because God is also powerful, He will be on Vadim’s side.  A rather self-serving interpretation of the power of God, but there you have it.  And then, later in the film during a sermon to his congregation, he does a complete about-face, talking about how God sees everything, but he is not honored by a show of force.  Here’s a man who tailors God’s will as it suits him.  If the mayor is a mean little man, this priest is an enabler.  I’m not sure who I disliked more.

(For the record, Leviathan has one of the most interesting and surprising “payoff” scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.  When I saw it, my jaw dropped a little…it almost redefines the movie like a Shyamalan-esque twist.  Almost.  Not quite.  But it’s interesting in that kind of way.)

Earlier, I Googled “famous Russian movie comedies” and found a page that listed ten “essential” Soviet comedies.  None were made before 1984.  I tried again and found a list of fifteen great modern Russian comedies stretching from 1995 to 2018.  I have never heard of a single one of these movies and have no idea how I would go about finding a copy were I so inclined to actually watch one of them.

I mention this because, after watching Leviathan, I needed convincing that Russian directors could direct anything other than deep dramas about the human experience in one way or the other.  Of the six Russian films I’ve seen, three are Soviet era (Come and See [1985], Mirror [1975], Stalker [1979]), and two of those are by the same director, Andrei Tarkovsky.  The others are this film and two silent classics, Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera, which doesn’t qualify as a deep drama, I guess, but I include it for the sake of thoroughness.  The best Russian films are well made, to be sure, but light-hearted they are not.  I’m not a film scholar, but I would guess it has to do with the inherent toughness that comes with growing up Russian.  Those crazy winters, the bloody history of the place, the financial hardships, etc.  It would be interesting to see a Russian comedy, if for nothing else just to see what might make a Russian laugh.

(P.S. The IMDb trivia page reveals that, for many of the drinking scenes, the actors chose to drink real vodka. As a result, many of the takes of those scenes in the film are the 8th or 9th take, where the actors are genuinely drunk. Maybe THAT’S what makes a Russian laugh…?)

IDA (2013, Poland)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Agata Kulesza, Agata Trzebuchowska, Dawid Ogrodnik
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: In 1962, Anna is about to take vows as a nun when she learns a family secret from her only living relative. Both women embark on a journey to discover their family story and where they belong.

There are countless movies I’ve seen that remind me why I love the movies.  Ida is the first one I’ve seen in a very long time that reminds me why I love Ansel Adams.  Shot in stunning black-and-white and in the old “Academy” format with black bars on both sides – basically a square screen space instead of a rectangle – Ida is composed almost completely of static shots that have been framed in such a way that you could select almost any shot from any scene, frame it, and hang it in a museum.  Frankly, the beauty of the film is breathtaking.  If the story is a tad shallow or cryptic, I can live with it because it was such a pleasure just to drink in the visuals.

Anna is an orphaned novice nun in a convent in Poland in 1962.  She is on the verge of taking her vows when she gets a letter from an aunt she never met or knew existed, but who suddenly wants to meet her.  Anna travels to the city to meet the aunt, Wanda, who rather coldly informs Anna that the parents she never met were Jews who were killed during the war.  Anna is not Anna, but Ida.  Wanda confirms this by noticing Anna/Ida’s red hair and commenting that her parents had red hair.  Ida wants to find her parents’ bodies, so she and Wanda begin a search that will reveal a lot more than just final resting places and familial closure.

At one point, Wanda and Ida have a conversation about the vows Ida is about to take.  Prior to this conversation, Ida has observed that Wanda drinks, smokes, and appears to bring various men home to bed with her on a somewhat regular basis.  Wanda simmers under Ida’s blank but judgmental stare.

Wanda asks her, “Do you have sinful thoughts sometimes?”

“About carnal love?”
“That’s a shame.  You should try.  Otherwise, what sort of sacrifice are these vows of yours?”

My knee-jerk reaction was that Wanda is clearly trying to get a rise out of Ida, but I admire the sentiment and the logic behind that statement.  How does one know what they’re giving up if they’ve never experienced it to begin with?  It’s like a truism: how can you appreciate light if you’ve never been in the dark?  But it’s not that simple.  I do not smoke because I want to be healthy, or at least a little healthier.  You could say that I’ve “given up” smoking, but I’ve never experienced it.  Does it count as giving something up if you never took it up in the first place?  It’s an interesting conundrum, one that Ida has no real response to.

But I want to get back to the imagery.  That is the real draw of this film for me.  The only other film I’ve seen that really captures this same vibe is Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.  There is one shot that captures Ida and a young musician she and Wanda meet during their journey.  Ida and the young man are having a conversation outside of a small ballroom, sitting in front of doors and windows with some ironwork.  The two of them are framed so they are very small at the bottom center, while the rest of the frame is filled with these black silhouettes, backlit by the ballroom fluorescents.  When they speak, the English subtitles are displayed, not at the bottom of the screen, but near the top across a black bar formed by the dividing line between the window and the transom window above it:

The unexpected placement of the subtitle took me out of the movie, but only momentarily because, again, what a shot.  They are so small in the frame, especially Ida, and the world around her is so huge.  This visual theme is repeated over and over again, and not just with Ida.  When they are driving down a country road, the static shot is not just of the road, but of the trees towering on either side, and the road itself receding into the distance towards the bottom right corner of the screen.  It’s magnificent, and my words are not doing it justice.  You’ll have to see for yourself.

When it comes to the story…to say the dialogue is minimal is, appropriately, an understatement.  The viewer is asked to do some heavy lifting because Ida says very little.  I guess it’s a bit like a Rorschach test.  We observe Ida in a situation, something happens, she says nothing, but proceeds to do something, and we are left to wonder why she does it.

Take that scene with the musician.  Earlier, Ida had been in an argument with Wanda about Wanda’s loose morals.  Wanda asserts that even Jesus loved Mary Magdalene and tries to look up the story in Ida’s Bible, but Ida grabs it from her and storms out of the room.  Later we see she has gone downstairs to the club to meet with the musician in front of those windows.  Why?  It’s up to us to answer the question.  Maybe she’s lived her life believing one thing, and now suddenly her entire belief system is being shaken up, and perhaps this is the only way she can be a rebel before taking her vows.  And she’s just talking to the guy.

The movie is full of moments like that.  An unexpected death occurs.  Ida’s response is to get dressed up and go dancing.  Say what?  When you watch the movie, we’ll discuss what was going in Ida’s head during those moments.  I’m not a hundred percent sure.

By the time the movie’s over, we’ve seen two graves, a suicide, a nun bathing herself, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen outside of a Kubrick film.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski is virtually unknown to me, although he was up for Best Director in 2019 (losing to, how about that, Alfonso Cuarón for Roma).  His narrative method is a little oblique for my tastes, but his visual style is superb in every way.  I’m glad it’s in my collection.  Whenever I’m in the mood for a visual feast, Ida will do the trick.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Laura Poitras
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Documentarian Laura Poitras captures the first week or so of Edward Snowden’s leaks to the press and the ensuing aftermath.

Over the last month or two, I have watched two stirring documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Nostalgia for the Light) that redefined my idea of what a “good” documentary should be.  Instead of being passive observers, those filmmakers documented what they saw and then commented on it with definite viewpoints and biases.  Narration was used heavily.  That’s not normally my favorite kind of documentary, but they were clear exceptions to my rule.

Tonight, I finished watching Citizenfour, a documentary about the first week or so of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing controversy.  In direct opposition to the other documentaries I’ve seen recently, this film steadfastly avoids narration and simply presents the facts as they happen.  As I was watching, I was simply absorbed in the storytelling, and after it was over, it occurred to me that this documentary captured something incredibly rare: the first few days of a national scandal, behind the scenes with the actual person blowing the whistle, BEFORE the story breaks.  It was captivating.

But that sense of being a fly on the wall is nothing compared to the revelations Snowden made.  If you’re politically-minded, Citizenfour is not just revelatory; it’s chilling.  If one-tenth of what he discusses just in this film is true, the ramifications are vast.  I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but the secret surveillance programs Snowden describes are exactly the kind of tools needed to create a dictatorship.  When a government is using a program/algorithm/whatever that can follow your movements via phone calls, emails, e-payments, cell phones, laptops, etcetera…that’s a police state, empirically.

Snowden’s revelations are so mindblowing and voluminous that paranoia is the rule of the day.  He contacted Poitras and a reporter from The Guardian, Glenn Greenwald, via encrypted emails and air-gapped laptops and arranges to meet them in a Hong Kong hotel.  He makes a quick call to room service, then disconnects the phone.  Why?  Because, according to Snowden, the NSA has technology to listen in on conversations via a telephone handset, even when it’s hung up.  Later, the hotel’s fire alarm starts going off sporadically.  Snowden reconnects the phone and asks the front desk what’s going on, and he’s told it’s a scheduled test.  “Nice of them to let us know,” Snowden says.  Random event?  Who knows?  It’s a mark of how well the movie is constructed that seemingly innocuous events are transformed into, “They’re listening…”

The film follows the story, including the publication of the reports that eventually resulted in Snowden being forced to live in Russia for the better part of a year after his passport was revoked.  We meet Julian Assange as he organizes Snowden’s legal strategy along with a squad of ACLU attorneys, all working pro bono.

The genius of the film is how it simply presents the facts and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions.  Is Snowden an attention-seeking charlatan?  Or was the US government actively spying – spying – on American citizens without their knowledge?  After a while, without really trying to, the movie takes on the air of one of those classic paranoid thrillers from the 1970s like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.  At one point, Snowden logs into a laptop while covering his upper body with a blanket like a tent, presumably to make sure no one would be able to tell where he was by using the camera on his laptop.  Or something.

(Admittedly, we only hear snippets of opposing viewpoints, one from then-President Obama where he agrees that Snowden created a much-needed discussion but declines to call him a patriot because of his methods.)

But surely some of this stuff is a little too sensational, right?  The cynic in me wants to believe that’s the case.  But consider: The material in Citizenfour was so sensitive at the time that the director, Laura Poitras, had to move to Berlin because she kept getting detained by border authorities when trying to re-enter the US.  All the film footage was kept on encrypted drives to prevent access from…whomever.  In fact, she edited the movie completely in Berlin so the FBI couldn’t serve a search warrant for the drives.  Just in case.

At one point, Snowden and reporter Greenbaum carry on a conversation about another whistleblower, apparently inspired by Snowden, who seems about to release information about drone strikes and watch lists under Obama.  They are careful to censor themselves by not saying certain words and phrases out loud.  Instead, they write key phrases on pieces of paper and hand them back and forth.  And then the paper is torn to pieces.  Normally, this kind of thing would reek of paranoia, but considering what has come before, it seems perfectly reasonable, in light of what they’re discussing.

I gotta say…in all honesty, I may not be the best person to review this movie.  I think it’s well-made and eye-opening and informative, but is it going to make me change my online or cell phone habits?  Probably not.  I’m in my 50s, and I enjoy the convenience of Amazon Prime and paying my bills online and using my phone to pay for things when shopping.  Am I worried I’m being spied upon?  I suppose I should be.  But I’m not.  I guess I’m willfully ignoring facts, at least the ones based on this documentary.  I’m not saying I like it.  I’m definitely against it.  But is it enough to make me change my behavior?  If I’m being honest, no.  (And if I can’t be honest in an online review, where CAN I be honest?)  But, bottom line, Citizenfour is one of the finest documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. If you’re running short of things to be outraged about, look no further.

BLANCANIEVES (2012, Spain)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pablo Berger
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Maribel Verdú, Macarena García
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A re-telling of the classic Snow White, Blancanieves is a beautiful homage to the black-and-white Golden Age of European silent cinema, set in a romanticized 1920s Seville.

If you are one of the 3 or 4 people in the world who have ever wondered what would happen if Terry Gilliam and Guillermo del Toro collaborated on a black-and-white silent film, your prayers have been answered.  Blancanieves is a beautiful anachronism, a black-and-white silent film created as a tribute to the silent films of nearly 100 years ago that gave birth to the motion picture industry as we know it.  The filmmakers have remixed the classic Snow White fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm into a movie that puts all the recent Disney remakes to shame.  THIS is how you pay tribute to your predecessors.

The updated story takes place in Seville during the 1910s through the 1920s.  Antonio, a famous bullfighter, is gored in the ring and paralyzed.  Traumatized by her husband’s injuries, his pregnant wife goes into premature labor and dies after giving birth to a daughter, Carmencita.  Antonio remarries to a scheming nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdú, whom you may recognize from Y tu mama tambien or Pan’s Labyrinth).  Encarna, who gives gold diggers a bad name, manages to keep Antonio from ever seeing his daughter, who is raised by her grandmother.  But true to Brothers Grimm fashion, Carmencita (and her pet rooster, Pepe) eventually must come to live with her father and her evil stepmother, whose idea of caring for her paralyzed husband is to leave his chair in a sunny spot of the house while she indulges in a little S&M with the chauffeur.  Why didn’t we see THAT in the Disney version?!

If you know the story of Snow White, you know what happens next.  The insane jealousy, the trip into the forest, the attempted murder, her discovery by a group of little men (only six this time, and they’re bullfighter/clowns).  But everything is turned on its head slightly.  For example, she loses her memory, even forgetting her own name.  She remembers the steps to bullfighting, but she doesn’t know why.

We even get a scene with the infamous apple and the “Sleeping Death,” although the resolution to Blancanieves’s predicament is not quite what I was expecting.  It will take you by surprise, too.  I guarantee it.

This was such a charming movie to watch.  It was full of the kind of shots and edits that are typical of silent films of the ‘20s.  I won’t catalog them all here, but their usage really put me into the “vibe” of that bygone era.  I especially liked the liberal use of double-exposure shots to reinforce a state of mind, or to remind the audience of a piece of “dialogue.”  Or, most effectively, when Antonio reminisces about his dead wife.

And the actress who plays the adult Carmencita, aka Blancanieves, is one of the most beautiful actresses I’ve seen in a while.  For the record.  Films are heavily reliant on faces, silent films even more so.  They found the perfect face for this character.  A true beauty.

There were some nice quirks, too, that reminded me of Terry Gilliam more than anything or anyone else.  Among the six dwarves is one named Josefa.  Josefa is either a really ugly woman or a really bad drag queen.  In miniature.  Her name is mentioned, and that’s it.  No explanation given for her appearance.  We move on.

A word of warning: you know those stories you hear about how the Grimm fairy tales have been “cleaned up” or edited over the years either to remove the more gruesome elements or to tack on happy endings for kids?  Yeah.  Keep that in mind.  That’s all I’ll say.

I used to tell people that, if they’ve never seen a silent film before, The Artist (2011) is the place to start.  Having seen Blancanieves, I think I have to update my statement.  The Artist is a great deconstruction of the art of silent films, but it would be even better to start with a great example of the medium itself.  Sure, there’s always Chaplin and Lloyd and Keaton, but for someone who has historically shunned silent films, Blancanieves is an even better entry point.  It’s a little harder to find, but it’s worth the effort.