’13th’

the13th_27x40_1sheetThe thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude – except as punishment for a crime. The stirring documentary 13th explores how, since the abolition, crime enforcement has perpetuated a link to modern day slavery and social inequity.

A hugely disproportionate number of black males are incarcerated in US prisons, many the result of the policies of US presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton along with sentences handed out to black offenders as opposed to white. Statistics show a white male has a 1 in 17 chance of being imprisoned sometime during his life: for a black male this statistic is 1:3.

Director Ava DuVernay (Selma, Middle of Nowhere) explores the results of these policies alongside historically restrictive laws and practices in an Oscar-nominated documentary that ought to be mandatory viewing (particularly in the US).

Rating: 79%

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Who’s going to win? Oscar thoughts.

academy_award_trophyWith the Oscars dished out this coming weekend, and, having seen all nine features up for best film, thought a little personal ruminating would not go amiss (there’s enough of others out there).

Naturally, it’s a personal take on those nine films. Some I do not think should even be on the list; others are noticeable by their absence (Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals in particular). But of those nine, my choice for best film falls unequivocally for Moonlight.

The Golden Globes got it right when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association voted it best film – drama. The two separate categories for best film – drama and comedy/musical – certainly helped the Barry Jenkins-helmed feature avoid competing against the critical behemoth that is La La Land. But it’s the better film (personally speaking). Resonant, poignant, performed by an ensemble cast with quiet dignity, it’s a quite extraordinary film.

La La Land, the odds-on favourite to win a swag of Oscars including best film, fell into that ‘it’s good but not that good’ category for me – and is only fifth of the nine on my list. But in its celebration of LA and Hollywoodland (and a quite haunting soundtrack), it will probably win the big one (at least).

Any other year, the indescribably sad Manchester by the Sea would have likely topped my favourite of the year. Like Moonlight, it’s another quiet drama with superb performances from all and sundry, although in her few scenes Michelle Williams is devastating (as is Casey Affleck).

It’s hardly original – and we’ve seen Jeff Bridges play laconic lawmen for what seem forever (partly because he’s so good at it!) – but Hell Or High Water is a particularly fine example of its genre but unlikely to cause any surprises (it’s a film that appears to be constantly finding itself second or third in all its categories).

Lion surprised me by the respect it gave to the early part of its narrative – almost half its running time is set in a subtitled India. It’s a true story very well told and it was good to see Dev Patel gain recognition at the BAFTAS for his performance (it would be a major surprise if he repeated the feat and picked up Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali in Moonlight).

The rest of the nine films are likely to be also rans, although Fences is a powerhouse in terms of acting. August Wilson’s film betrays too much of its theatrical roots to be truly convincing as a feature film. Arrival is an intelligent sci-fi but, like Hell or High Water, features high on lists of five or ten without topping any of them. Hackshaw Ridge surprised by finding itself in the running for best film. Highlight of Mel Gibson’ war film is the superb editing and cinematography (sadly no recognition for Simon Duggan in the latter category). And then there’s Hidden Figures which was a great true story disappointingly told.

So I’d love it if Moonlight took home the best film award but it’s hard to see it beating out La La Land.

Personal ratings of the films nominated for the best film Oscar

Moonlight (91%)
Manchester by the Sea (88%)
Hell or High Water (80%)
Lion (75%)
La La Land (73%)
Fences (69%)
Arrival (67%)
Hackshaw Ridge (63%)
Hidden Figures (57%)

‘Too Many Men’ by Lily Brett

41h8gacb38l-_sy346_Take every conceivable neurotic stereotype of a 40 year-old Jewish woman, multiply it by five and put it into one individual character. Meet Ruth Rothwax, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She is obsessed in visiting Poland with her 81 year-old father, Edek, to discover, through his eyes, the country of his (and her deceased mother’s) birth and to try and understand the devastating loss of family and position in the Holocaust.

Ruth is a relatively successful New York businesswoman three times divorced (but one, according to Ruth, does not officially count as the first was a business transaction to enable the Australian obtain a green card to live in the US). Edek lives in Melbourne, the city he and his wife, Rooshka, settled following World War II.

The two meet in Warsaw for a journey through Polish Jewish history – the Warsaw Ghetto, the city of Lodz (her parents’ home city) and Krakow (for the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau from which her parents miraculously survived). It is the first time Edek has been in Poland since the war.

Too Many Men is the fictional story of this journey, a confronting journey for both protagonists as they deal, in their own personal way, with the history of events in the context of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland today. Edek is the more sanguine of the two – he is a survivor who will never forget but who knows he cannot change anything that happened. Ruth as a second-generation survivor has not witnessed but learned everything second hand through silences, questions that could never be asked or screams deep in the darkness of night. By confronting her parents past, Ruth can confront her own future.

It’s a long journey. Lily Brett is not an author who uses one word when twenty seems better. It’s also a soapbox from which she can educate and then berate the world. Not only is Ruth a stereotype, but so is every Pole, guilty of anti-Semitism before they have even spoken a word.

Painfully and in detail, events in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow are spelled out. Contemporary Poland and its attitudes are equally presented – Auschwitz Museum rather than Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, the historic Kazimierz district of Krakow catering for Jewish cultural tourism yet devoid of Jews (even down to the ‘they look Ukrainian’ klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish cabaret). And the bizarre Holocaust denier in Krakow claiming the Jews had fled Poland with all their gold to Russia at the arrival of the Nazis.

Too Many Men is written as a stream of consciousness mixed with a political treatise. From the outset, Ruth is not a particularly likeable character who gets progressively more and more unpleasant. Even Edek challenges her rudeness and confrontational manner. That it is confronting for her, to experience this world so alien, to witness even today the level of anti-Semitism, is unquestionable. Her dealings with the grasping old couple that have lived for 60 years in a subdivided apartment of her grandparents old home, hoarding belongings of the dead Rothwaxes in the hope of a financial visit, is telling and devastating.

But Ruth ultimately becomes too much. Everyone is guilty (and in Too Many Men everyone is. There’s not one empathic Polish character – Ruth sees even Zofia as being on the make). Lily Brett’s novel becomes nothing more than an unpleasant, vitriolic attack on Poland and the Poles rather than a deeply personal, family-oriented perspective of the Holocaust. And the introduction of the spirit of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, in a post- execution limbo ultimately made little sense other than as another device to educate readers to the horrors of the Holocaust and the inhumane rationalisation of the Final Solution.

The author herself is a Jewish second-generation Holocaust survivor of Polish Jews from the city of Lodz. How much Too Many Men is autobiographical is unclear. Her interest in the legacy of the Holocaust, intergenerational trauma for survivors and the continuance of anti-Semitism is overt and prevalent. However, my personal preference is not to be educated by an overwrought Ruth Rothwax whose answer to emotional biliousness is copious amounts of Mylanta indigestion tablets and whose emotional stability can range from ups to ‘depression’ in minutes. Anger – yes. Disbelief – yes. But the constant use of ‘I was depressed’ is ultimately self-defeating.

Having undertaken a similar journey with a second generation Holocaust survivor (Krakow, Lublin for Majdanek death camp, Warsaw), I can certainly understand many of Lily Brett’s concerns and issues (and like her, welcomed the presence of groups of young Israelis at the camps). But agit-prop stereotypes is counterproductive.

Its premise is a good one (although interestingly, reading the précis on the back cover, it’s interesting that the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ does not appear. I’m sure Ruth Rothwax would have something to say about that) but the final delivery is overlong and disappointing.

Too Many Men was shortlisted for the 2000 Miles Franklin award but lost out to the joint winners of Thea Astley’s Drylands and Benang by Kim Scott.

‘Toni Erdmann’

toni-erdmann-posterOverlong and drawn out at nearly three hours, this one gag, so-called comedy left me totally cold (along with 70% of a sold-out auditorium). It is personally beyond me in understanding why this nonsensical whimsy has so many plaudits.

Ines (a sour-faced Sandra Hueller – Requiem, Uber uns das All) is a high-flying executive with no time for her estranged father (Peter Simonischek – Hierankl, Mozart in China). A disastrous impromptu trip to Bucharest to visit Ines results in the practical joker Winfried looking to introduce a little humour into his daughter’s life. A bewigged, gnarly-toothed Toni Erdmann is the result. Very occasionally funny, Erdmann inveigles his way into Ines’ personal and professional life.

Dire.

Rating: 30% 

‘Hidden Figures’

timthumb-phpAn extraordinary story of three highly-intelligent black women working at NASA at the same time in the early 1960s in segregated West Virginia. Sadly, the episodic Hidden Figures, directed by Theodore Melfi (Saint Vincent) is a PG-palatable telling of their story and the institutionalised racism and sexism they had to overcome.

Each of the women broke through the restrictions imposed upon them with Hidden Figures choosing to focus on mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Think Like a Man). But her close friends Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Fruitvale Station) and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae – Moonlight) could have easily been a similar focus.

Some have liked the quiet telling of the very human story of the three women. But the lack of passion and friction undermines their struggle.

Rating: 57%

‘Split’

split_ver2The multiple split personalities of a superb James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, X-Men) are the lynchpin of this enjoyable claustrophobic kidnap thriller.

Three teenage girls are kidnapped by a man with an inner struggle for personality dominance by 23 separate characters awaiting the unleashing of a 24th. It’s a typical M Night Shyamalan film (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) with its mix of dark humour, well-paced thrills and a few unexpected surprises. But, with McAvoy and a convincing Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan) as one of the teenage girls, it’s Shyamalan’s best in a while.

Rating: 64%

‘Fences’

fencesAlthough a powerful cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1950s set family drama, the Denzel Washington directed Fences cannot escape its stage origins.

Wilson’s film is centred around powerhouse performances by Denzel Washington (Training Day, American Gangster) as the troubled and tragic patriarch Troy Maxson and Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt) as his long-suffering wife, Rose.

As with the play, the action takes place in the confined, claustrophobic backyard of the Maxson Pittsburgh family home. As with the play, it’s about dialogue rather than ‘action’. As family members come and go, so marriage, love, poverty and Troy himself are all confronted.

It’s hard-hitting stuff – but at times also a little unwielding. Aggrandising on stage is very different to the less forgiving immediacy of screen.

Rating: 69%

 

‘Moonlight’

moonlight-poster-lgThree chapters in the life of a young black male coming to terms with his sexuality and the rough Miami environment he lives in with his addict mother (a deceptively low-key Naomie Harris –Skyfall, Mandela: Long Road to Freedom).

Small in scale, ambitious in scope, writer/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) has scored a minor ensemble masterpiece with this beautifully modulated, understated urban drama. Sitting as three short stories as 8 year-old Little grows into 16 year-old Chiron who becomes 20something Black, the deeply bullied sadness of adolescence turns into a poignant, palpable yearning.

Pure melancholic poetry.

Rating: 91%

‘Patriots Day’

patriots_day_onesheet_au_lrPatriots Day is a no-frills, to-the-point recounting of the bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, its aftermath and the city-wide hunt for the two men responsible.

It’s certainly harrowing viewing early on as director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) takes us into the midst of the confusion immediately after the bomb blasts. From there it evolves into something of a templated manhunt with Berg focussing on the with-attitude detective, Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg – Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor). It’s a solid enough performance but the result is an off-kilter one man manhunt rather than the coordinated teamwork across several agencies.

Rating: 54%

‘Manchester by the Sea’

ff75b81baaf98d36793dd79b5ecc98d9c3965def4b9e26bc0acaea6caa233f6d-1Grief and pain are persistent throughout this powerfully tender family drama, small in setting, broad in scope.

Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James, Interstellar) returns to Manchester, Massachussets on the death of his brother to a 16 year old nephew left alone and demons from the past. It’s an emotional powerhouse of a film (throw in an operatic soundtrack that adds rather than manipulates) as Affleck looks for some kind of redemption via emotional recovery.

An ensemble piece, Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain, Blue Valentine) are superb supports but a haunting Casey Affleck is truly authentic in this nuanced, understated performance.

Quietly devastating.

Rating: 88%