Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mr. Holmes Investigates the Truth

by guest reviewer Dan Stormont

Mr. Holmes” is a story about many things: redemption, regret, friendship, loss, and the search for the truth. The movie is a study in dichotomies. The most obvious one is the dichotomy between the “real” Sherlock Holmes and the “fictional” Sherlock Holmes created by Dr. Watson in this movie.

As his memory fails him, Mr. Holmes struggles to write a book correcting the misconceptions that Dr. Watson created in his popular novels. Then there is the dichotomy between the fictional Sherlock who solves every case and the real Mr. Holmes who goes into seclusion after failing to correctly analyze the clues in what would be his last case. The real reason he is writing the book is to find the truth in a case that still haunts him and come to grips with it.

Another key dichotomy is between the aging and increasingly senile Mr. Holmes (Ian McKellen) and Roger (played charmingly by Milo Parker), the young son of his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) who befriends the solitary Mr. Holmes. At first the boy is intrigued by the reputation of the famous Mr. Holmes, but over time he gets to know the real man. At the same time, Holmes, who has spent his life remaining detached from others, grows fond of Roger and becomes a role model for this boy who has no father in his life. In yet another dichotomy, Holmes’ seclusion in an isolated English country manor provides a contrast to his highly public former life on Baker Street in the heart of bustling London. Finally, there is a dichotomy when Mr. Holmes, who spent his whole life trying to ferret out the truth, lies to a friend in Japan to save him unnecessary heartbreak.

There is, of course, much more to this engaging and heart-warming movie than the many dichotomies. There is a real mystery to be solved; there are a number of humorous moments as Mr. Holmes tries to explain that he really is Sherlock Holmes, even though he doesn’t wear a deerstalker hat or smoke a pipe (he prefers a cigar); and it is painful to watch him struggle with the onset of Alzheimers. But, in thinking back on the movie, it was the striking contrasts that stayed with me. “Mr. Holmes” is about discovering truths through dichotomies.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mustang: Their Spirit Could Not Be Broken

The filming of "Mustang" was wrought with danger. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven rushed to finish shooting a scene where a teenage boy sneaks into the car to make out with a teenage girl. Like the characters in the scene, the cast and crew was in peril. The scene was shot in a remote Turkish town and the townspeople were milling around suspiciously.

Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven
The movie opens like a fairy tale on a Black Sea coastal village in northern Turkey. It is the last day of school, and the students celebrate their freedom with an afternoon frolicking at the beach. Watching the teens horsing around, just being kids, is such a joy but there is a dangerous undercurrent. While their education has been liberating, there is a threat that comes with that liberation. Women, hidden behind headscarves, watch them. 

The best way for me to express the spirit of “Mustang” is to invoke images of wild horses running free, untamed, manes flapping defiantly in the wind, taunting those who would try to break them. Wondrous creatures. A fitting metaphor for the herd of five inseparable, spirited Turkish sisters.

The girls' youthful exuberance is instantly crushed when they are greeted at home by their irate grandmother who has been informed by a conservative neighbor of their shameful antics at the beach. Fearing that their virtue and marriage prospects have been sullied, she drags the girls one by one behind closed doors to whip them. But the defiant sisters band together to challenge their unfair treatment. Her hysteria is trumped when their furious uncle arrives home. Despite the sisters' vehement denial of any wrongdoing, they are locked up in the house. All corrupting influences such as phones and computers are removed. They transcend their prison with imaginary play. Emboldened by their sisterly bond, the girls still find playful ways to exert their independence. While we cheer their expression of feminine freedom, there is an underlying feeling of dread.

Threatened by the herd’s strength and budding sexuality, their guardians corral then into a makeshift prison, welding steel gates closed. The guardians conduct a plan to break up the pack by enlisting the conservative neighborhood women to prepare the teens for arranged marriages. When the oldest sisters are married off, the remaining girls plan their escape from their matrimonial prisons, even as it becomes clear that their lives are in danger for defying the rules of a patriarchal society. My heart was in my throat as I rooted for those courageous girls.

Mustangs should not be broken! Break free of your harness. over fences, hair flapping wildly in the wind like Mustangs running free.

Movie blessings. 
Jana Segal

Mustang Filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven on Women in Film and Her Oscar-Nominated Feminist Escape Movie

OSCAR NEWS: "Mustang" is the only film by a women to be nominated for an Oscar this year. It is nominated for Best Foriegn Film. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Shout Out to Chi-raq

I’ve done a lot of soul searching about whether to write a review promoting “Chi-raq.” I had some initial misgivings, but honestly, I was shocked to find out how many black people were outraged after seeing the trailer. They thought the humor was in bad taste, disrespected Chicago, and that it made light of an important issue in the black community: gang violence. After some reflection (and reading Tasha Robinson’s “Review: Chi-Raq is SpikeLee's larger-than-life love letter to Chicago”), I feel that Spike Lee showed great courage in making a movie condemning gang violence in this time of mounting racial tension.

This isn’t the first time that Spike Lee has put himself in the line of fire for his controversial beliefs. “Do the Right Thing” (now heralded as a must-see classic) came out at a time when racial tension was at a boiling point in New York City. In the late eighties, when I lived in Brooklyn, race riots seemed to be the norm. The movie was inspired by a racial incident where a car broke down just outside of the Howard Beach area of Queens and three black boys walked into a pizzeria to use the phone. A group of white boys, incensed that these black boys were in their neighborhood, called out racial slurs and started a row. One of the black teens was killed trying to escape into traffic. New York was in an uproar. Over 1,200 marched in a highly charged protest.  In 1989, the year the film came out, another black teen was murdered in Bensonhurst.  Racial tension was at a boiling point.  I remember feeling nervous at the Brooklyn premiere of “Do the Right Thing.” Reviewers had predicted that the movie would incite race riots - that blacks would get so riled up by the brutal climax that they would run out of the theater and burn things.  Personally, I was shaken to the core by the heart-wrenching ending.

Some felt it was irresponsible to release a film that culminates in a black riot in such a racially charged time. But Spike Lee believed that it would incite conversation and hopefully inspire change by bringing the problem out in the open. And it did. People lined up in the streets to see the film. Entrances were blocked by people (black and white) ardently debating the racial issues in the movie they had just seen.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 26 years since “Do the Right Thing.”  Unfortunately, gang violence is on the rise - spurring Spike Lee to make another movie in the spirit of “Do the Right Thing.”  But, this time he’s gunning for gang bangers in “Chi-raq.” Even the name is inflammatory. Pronounced "shy-RACK", the title is a juxtaposition of "Iraq" and "Chicago", coined by South Side Chicago residents who compare the area to a war zone because of its high crime rates.

Mister Señor Love Daddy in “Do the Right Thing"
Let's examine the complaint that Spike Lee is making light of the problems in South Chicago. If you watch the movie, it is clear that it is a highly stylized satirical remake of a Greek play “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes, in which Lysistrata convinces the wives of the Athenian and Spartan soldiers to withhold sex until their husbands agree to stop the endless war. (Teyonah Parris plays the gang leader's girlfriend Lysistrata.) Spike Lee and playwright Kevin Willmott stay true to the tone of the source with its over the top bawdy humor. (In the play, the men go around with cloths draped over their huge cod pieces.) “Chi-raq” has that Spike Lee flare, with Samuel L. Jackson (who played the DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy in “Do the Right Thing”) acting as a one man Greek chorus. The dialogue is sheer poetic genius – a combination of Shakespearean couplets, slam poetry riffing, and freestyle rap.

Director Spike Lee
This movie isn’t for everyone. Sometimes the humor is just plain over the top. He treats both whites and blacks as horny buffoons. Two of the three white characters are depicted as racist stereotypes (especially in a scene where Lysistrata uses her feminine wiles to capture the Confederate-fetishist General King Kong). The movie would have been more accessible if he had cut that offensive scene. Apparently, Spike Lee will go to ridiculous lengths to get people talking. He pushes people's buttons with purposefully derogatory rap lyrics to incite conversation among blacks. Spike Lee's intention is to WAKE people up. In fact, the first line in both “Do the Right Thing” and “Chi-raq” is, “Wake up."

“Chi-raq” is no comic trifle. There are some very moving scenes - particularly those with Jennifer Hudson as the grieving mother of a little girl shot while playing. The movie deals with important themes. “Chi-raq” is society out of balance - where the maternal side is no longer protected, but disrespected, and the worst side of man is allowed free reign.  In a spirited rap number, women seem to worship the gang leader/rap singer Chiraq (Nick Cannon) who preaches violence. “Chi-raq” is a call for black women to wake up and use their strength to stand up against the senseless violence.

What does it take to wake people up who have gotten used to daily violence - where children dying in the streets is considered normal? Spike Lee’s answer is to be LOUD, bold, outrageous, disrespectful – to incite anger. He is shouting at the top of his lungs, “WAKE UP!”

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Shout out to Spike Lee! Spike won a long overdue honorary Oscar. Hear his impassioned speech

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Collaboration Brings "The Martian" Home

Presumed dead after a fierce storm leaves him stranded on Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney survives by sheer courage and wit. He deals with feelings of loneliness and hopelessness by being productive and recording a journal. It is inspiring to see his resourcefulness in using his scientific knowledge for practical needs (such as eating and breathing), the emergencies that arise, and to communicate to NASA that he is still alive. Screenwriter Drew Goddard worked with Author Andy Weir and the production team to stay as true as possible to the science in Weir's fascinating, engrossing book, THE MARTIAN.

Script Doctor Howard Allen shared some thoughts on collaboration with the Institute for Collaborative Storytelling:

While we are talking collaboration, look at what happened with THE MARTIAN, in which Neil Turitz at SSN says, "Drew Goddard took a dense, at times overly scientific, self-published book by first-time author Andy Weir and turned it into one of the most entertaining, dramatic, humorous, emotional and thrilling times at the movies this year." [Editorial note: The Martian was actually Weir's first novel, he previously attracted international attention for his short story, "The Egg."] And then quotes the screenwriter, “The book was challenging, because it’s mostly diary entries describing science experiments,” Goddard admitted (unwittingly further pushing his own cause for a large, gold trophy), “That’s not the first thing you think of when you think of what will work on the big screen. But, as I rocked through the book, what I kept coming back to was, How do I capture the soul of the book and get it into a form we can shoot? How do we step back and convey the science?” Goddard came up with the device of having Watney, (played winningly by Matt Damon) use video diaries to explain what he’s doing, how he’s doing it – all with a disarming and self-effacing sense of humor.

THE MARTIAN author Andy Weir with Mars Rock
Goddard also enlisted Weir throughout the process, talking to him almost every day to discuss what he was doing with the author’s book and how he was adapting it. “Look, I’m a writer, and I want to protect other writers, and I love to collaborate,” Goddard explained. “So I would call Andy and say, ‘Here’s where I am, here’s what I love about your book, here’s what I anticipate the challenges of the book to be, and I want you to be happy.’ Also, he’s so smart and such a great resource, I would be stupid not to use him.”

Of course, as any writer knows, part of the process involves killing your babies. Or, in this case, someone else’s. Goddard admitted that it broke his heart to lose an enormous chunk of the book’s second half: on screen Watney’s month-long, 3200 kilometer journey to the spot where he’ll finally be able to leave Mars takes just a few minutes and culminates in a fun montage scored to the sounds of Abba’s “Waterloo.” On the page, however, it’s close to 100 pages of one problem to be solved after another, and is riveting. These are the decisions to be made, however, and one has to be tough about them."

The world is changing for Story in films. Even before the script is completed, filmmakers are working with scientists and designers on a mash up of stories from fiction and non-fiction sources. Matt Damon, who stars as NASA Astronaut Mark Watney, was brought in before the script was finished to work with Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard on how best to tell a story that crosscut between Mars and Earth and the rescue ship and flashbacks.

NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel, left, Actor Matt Damon, and Mars Science Lab Project Manager Jim Erickson,
Damon met with NASA Astronaut Drew Feustel and Mars Science Lab Project Manager Jim Erickson at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Mars Yard, as well as the NASA scientists and engineers who served as technical consultants on the film. Although some rules of science are broken, the movie attempts to portray a realistic view of the climate and topography of Mars, based on NASA data, and some of the challenges NASA faces as we prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet in the 2030s. It is exciting to see the successful collaboration with scientists and every element of the production.

So Astronaut Mark Watney wasn’t exactly alone on the Red Planet. He had screenwriter Drew Goddard, author Andy Weir, the whole production team and NASA scientists to bring him home.

Oscar news:  THE MARTIAN, directed by Ridley Scott, is nominated for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects, and Adapted Screenplay.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Alan Rickman Shares a Bit of Heaven in "A Little Chaos."

“The colors of Versailles will be the heart of our kingdom with gardens exquisite and matchless in beauty. Heaven shall be here.” – Alan Rickman as Louis XIV.

When I saw the trailer for “A Little Chaos,” I longed to spend a sunny afternoon in this garden. It would be a celebration of a blog I had completed on heritage gardening.

I loved how the writer just let herself dream: What if a free-spirited woman was hired to design the fountains in the garden of Versailles? How would she fit in with courtiers at the Louvre? What if she met the king himself?

Perhaps that’s what intrigued director Alan Rickman. He shared how the script caught his attention, “If you know a lot about history, you know that a lot of it is true. If you know a lot you’ll also know a lot of it is nonsense. It couldn’t have happened. A lot of it did happen. I found that absolutely fascinating that someone could look at history that way… to tell a very human and modern story. They’re walking around in 17th century costumes. But I think they’re talking like normal people.”

Sometimes you just have to let go (of all reason and logic) and let a movie sweep over you. I got caught up in the passion and imagination of the writer and her character Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet). Impossibly set in 1682 – no matter - I loved being in that world. Watching her gain the respect of her handsome boss, her fellow landscapers, the court, and eventually Louis XIV played by, no other than Alan Rickman. A lovely, lovely fantasy.

On the second viewing, I was distracted from my bliss by what I felt was an unnecessary subplot about the death of her child. Later, I realized that it helped her relate to the other lady courtiers. They had all experienced loss. A beautiful symbol of the lost loved ones were the colored, shiny baubles and trinkets hanging from branches in the woods. This was, “A Little Chaos.”

There is a line in the movie when the King’s landscaper sees her garden and asks, “This abundance of chaos is your Eden?” She replies, “My search for it.” Perhaps, “A Little Chaos” is Alan Rickman’s search for Eden.

Rickman's love project is a fitting goodbye. I’m grateful to Alan Rickman for sharing a little heaven with me. A shiny bauble hangs from a branch for him.

Movie blessings. 
Jana Segal

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Down in the Dark with "The 33"

In 2010, people from around the world cheered the rescue of the 33 miners trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine for 69 days. The director of “The 33” had a whole lot to live up to.

The director’s goal was to show the human side of the story that we didn’t see in the news coverage. “I was sent the script. I thought it would be very challenging to tell a story about so many characters and such a long time. There are so many ways to tell this story, at least 33 because every one of these guys had a different version of what happened, and for me it was just a great challenge to piece it all together.”

Although the action sequences were thrilling, it was really the humanity that drew me into the story. It was the miners’ courage and loyalty in making sure that no one was left behind as the cave collapsed around them.

To enhance the realism, the film was shot in a Colombian mine. “Thirty-five days, 14 hours every day, six days a week we walked into a mine with hardhats and boots. No food allowed, no bathrooms.” Every minute the cast and crew were there, they were in danger. Sometimes the action was stopped while the head of the mine took precautions to have loose rocks removed. Imagine all those men confined to that cold, dark hole in the ground. Down there with them was – director Patricia Riggen.

Like the miners in the movie, the men struggled with the harsh conditions. But in the end, a comradery developed. The 33 miners had been left to their own devices in the dark mine. The group could have deteriorated into anarchy, with self-preservation the only rule. But instead of turning against each other, they developed a brotherhood. They chose democracy and watched out for each other. Otherwise, they wouldn't have survived.

Patricia Riggen
The director chose to show that the men were not alone. The miners got strength from their prayers - and the prayers of their families on the surface. The families never left their side. They camped outside the mine, picketing, demanding a rescue team. The female presence was definitely felt in the mine. The men found solace in the idea that their loved ones were counting on them. Perhaps Mexican director Patricia Riggen’s vision is most apparent in the moment of magical realism when the men share their “last dinner” (a can of tuna) and their wives and significant others join them. This scene was inspired by her research, in which the miners shared how they conjured up imaginary feasts together. 

One of the reasons that Patricia Riggen was hired was because of her vision for the project. She chose not to confine the movie to the claustrophobic, depressing mine. She expanded it to include the stories of the wives and families who demanded the rescue as well as the Chilean government's struggle with the politics and public relations of the rescue.

Having recently written, "Arizona's Real Mining Tradition," a blog about Arizona’s history of exploiting mine workers and the environment, I was keenly aware of the absence of a key player in the story: the head of the mining company. It was clear that the mining company had made a business decision - not to comply with costly safety measures. The foreman knew that the safety features weren’t in place. He pleaded with the mine manager to request the repairs, “It is my job to protect those miners.” But he is corrected. It is his job to keep the mine going to make a profit.  People dying are the cost of doing business. Finally the 100+ year old mine has had enough. A huge boulder twice the size of the Empire State Building becomes dislodged. Man’s reckless pursuit of profit finally broke the heart of the mountain.

But it wasn’t only the families that were there for the miners. The Chilean people, having just endured the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, had great empathy for the heartache of miners’ families. They were touched by their cries, “It’s not just miners down there, it is my brother, it is my husband.” The Chilean people pressured the government to take over the rescue efforts. Mining engineers from around the world and even NASA worked to rescue the miners. (Spoiler alert! lol) “The 33” miners were rescued. But the real miracle happened in the hearts of the people.

Movie Blessings!
Jana Segal

Check out my blog, "Arizona's Real Mining Tradition."