The Hunting Party (2007)

If the passing of history can ravage great films, just think what it can do to average films. The Hunting Party, based on a true story of journalists who had covered the Balkan conflicts of the 90s decided to casually search out one of the most notorious, at-large Serbian war criminals, has ending intertitles that play up Western conspiracy to not capture war criminals like Radovan Karadžić, the one fictionalized by this film, and also mocks efforts to capture Osama bin Laden. Well, Karadžić would be captured a year later and bin Laden would be killed a few more after that. Maybe they were stirred to action by the release of this mostly obscure film (apparently the article it was based on, published in 2000, was not sufficient motivation). So yeah, history kind of takes the punch out of one of the film’s thematic points.

The more interesting aspect for me was what plays as quite a condemnation of journalism and the idea of impartiality. What we demand from journalism is an unemotional kind of tourism to atrocity. It is “if it bleeds it leads” without actually demanding that we see the horror in a way that actually outrages us, because the people it happens to are so remote to us. It actually had me thinking about a comment from the Culture Gabfest discussion of About Elly that was released today, about how watching this film about Iranian film, you don’t want to bomb them. This comment was pointing to how coverage of Iranian politics makes them this evil entity (part of an axis) to which bombing is just a strategy without actually having to consider the people who would pay a price. So the film was somewhat effective here but wasn’t really focused enough to take full advantage.

What was less effective was the film’s more stylish bits or efforts at broader comedy. There’s a weird thing with a UN guy using an intercom to speak to his secretary sitting about 10 feet away. Maybe it happened, but it is odd. There’s a whole thing with one of the guy’s girlfriends waiting for him for a vacation, which serves a purpose, but the minute or two they actually spend developing it undercuts it completely. Finally, Richard Gere’s out of control correspondent character strains belief too often. This being my second Richard Shepard film, following The Matador, which I adore, it feels like quite a disappointment, both in getting the best from the story and in failing to managing the odd tonal balance that he managed in the prior film.

C

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Generally, this film capably sells itself as a foreign film, the setting believable as Iran, and the dialogue entirely in Persian (as imdb credits it, though I would have said Farsi). Yet with the content of the film, I could never imagine this product actually being produced in Iran, so it made sense to discover that it is in fact an American film, directed and written by an Iranian-American, and starring one. Being able to be both an Iranian film and not gives it the best of both worlds.

A decidedly slow-burning film, it focuses on a fairly small community who are all a bit on the outskirts of society. A drug-dealing pimp, a prostitute, a drug addict and his son, all exist in a morally challenging place. Enter into the picture a mysterious girl (Sheila Vand), who early on we discover is a vampire. In this role it reminds me a lot of Let The Right One In, less in showing the burden/tragedy of the affliction than in showing the type of cyclical bonds a person of this sort can manage. On the other hand, the actual horror is used more in line with a film like Teeth. The violence has a feminist symbolism in retribution for sexual violation.

The real standout here is the cinematography, in brilliant black and white. In this respect it almost shades toward Sin City and that graphic novel aesthetic, though retaining a sense of photorealism. The visual tone of the film, combined with score/soundtrack, really set a somber but engaging mood, covering over what is in reality a pretty thin story. Not a complete stunner but certainly a work with a lot to offer and showing great promise for its director.

B

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Cinephiles use terms like blind spots or shames to discuss films they, as cinephiles feel they ought to have seen but haven’t. While I have seen most of the big, acclaimed films, there are still (always) plenty of highly acclaimed classics that I’ve so far missed. I’m not sure what recently got me thinking about Thelma and Louise, but given my interests in film, this iconic feminist story was one that I certainly felt a lot of shame in overlooking. Of course, by this point the opportunity to watch it without knowing where it would end had long vanished.

Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are sneaking away from their respective men for a weekend retreat. Thelma is meek/naive, so cowed by her overbearing husband she can’t even get up the courage to tell him she’s going. Louise seems stronger and world-wise. However, when Louise shoots a man who tried to rape Thelma, suddenly they become fugitives. It is a complex moment, from the man’s sense of entitlement because he got her drunk and danced, to Louise’s suspicion that a claim of self-defense wouldn’t be believed, since others who saw Thelma with the man would similarly imply consent. This seems relevant at a time when some suggest having women carry guns would solve the college sexual assault problem. But from certain instances under the “stand your ground” law, it seems Louise may be right and the law will find a way not to protect them.

While on the one hand the story plays out as desperation leading these two women further and further from the law, a kind of downward spiral common to stories about women turning to prostitution, in this case they are actually finding themselves increasingly free from patriarchy’s grasp. While hopefully not a call for women to disobey actual laws, it does act as an empowerment narrative about throwing off social restrictions and for not allowing themselves to be oppressed by men, whether it is sexual assault and harassment or being swindled by them. In this way the ending perfectly captures the spirit of living on their own terms. Weaving all of this into an engaging popcorn flick is a bonus. Though it has some heavy elements, it is a pretty lively movie, including probably my favorite exchange:

Darryl: Thelma, hello!
*Thelma hangs up phone*
Thelma: He knows.

It is a moment whose comedy arises out of the work the film has done building its characters and in the delivery by a mostly solid cast. The main exception to this is the trucker. I like the idea but that actor, and maybe the lines given to him, are just terrible. Basically the worst. But I guess by that point the film has descended into a bit more of a B-movie. It is a minor complaint in a strong film.

B+

Big Eyes (2014)

Real life has often been a source of riveting stories for cinema. While fictional stories are crafted with intention to convey certain themes and induce certain emotional responses, they still have to capture a certain realness to engage us. Even though non-fiction is bound by an absolute truth, in its conversion to art it too must be crafted, it must even make us believe. Truth may be a defense against libel or slander, but it isn’t enough to demand the audience believe it. The story of the Keane Big Eyes paintings is powerful as a metaphor, though on occasion Tim Burton does not keep it real.

The film opens on Margaret (Amy Adams) packing up and taking her daughter to move out from her husband and try to start new in San Francisco. Trained as a painter, she gets a thankless job painting kid’s furniture while letting her artistic ambitions come out trying to sell big-eyed portraits in the park. This is where she meets Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a smooth talking scenic painter of little success who manages to turn her art into a sensation…under his name. Margaret is uneasy with this, but she sees it as the best path to keep her daughter.

In examining the start to finish evolution of the Keanes’ relationship, the film provides a useful example of the complexity of abusive relationships. Of the economic and social forces that often hold things together well after they should rightfully break apart. It shows how women’s talent has so often been denied or co-opted. It shows how the coerced word of a woman is then used against her if she dares tell the truth, which had me thinking about the culture around rape, where women are often pressured to recant and then have that used as proof that women fabricate rape allegations. The film has a rich metaphorical fabric, but it doesn’t feel overly constructed to convey it due to being a real story.

As much as the broader strokes resonate, the character of Walter often strains belief. Even if this was a perfect replication of Walter’s nature, Waltz seems to be trying too hard. He is a character amongst people, and this never feels so out of place as in the climactic trial scene. For someone who fooled the world for so long, he too often came off as an obvious phony. My other complaint in the adaptation is in a few places where Burton plays his hand too forcefully, such as a series of reaction shots from various secondary characters to the truth coming out. It just feels too cinematically contrived amid a story that holds so much natural power in its truth, a power that Adams is able to wield, along with the two actresses that play her daughter throughout the film. This aspect of the true story survives the flaws in the film’s crafting.

B-

Roman Holiday (1953)

This makes an interesting pairing with My Fair Lady (which I hadn’t seen when I first watched Roman Holiday many years ago). One is the story of the making of a proper lady while the other is in essence the unmaking of one. Indeed, when Princess Ann (Hepburn) was greeting people at an early reception, I was just waiting for the pronunciation “How DO you do?” In that scene, the saga of the shoe is a great physical bit to quickly introduce and make you empathize with the plight of the princess, the rigid formality of her role that she has to be seen as carrying off to perfection. It is no leap of the imagination then when she sneaks out to experience a bit of real Roman tourist life.

She becomes an ethical conundrum for journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) when the sedative she was given by a doctor before leaving kicks in and he feels compelled to keep her safe. Once he realizes who he has, he has to choose between a great career opportunity and being a decent human being to this charming if slightly naive young woman (because her role has isolated her, not because she lacks intellect…the film displays this by having her recite poetry). In context of our modern tabloid culture, we could think of this ending with an exploitative story of drug use or the release of explicit pictures. While the end scene (sorry, but spoilers for a 60 year old film) embraces the nobility of the choice of Joe and his photographer to let it just be their memory, the story that might have come from this is a rather sweet one, one that would make the Princess very relatable. Thankfully as the viewer we don’t have to wonder what if, because the film itself is in essence that story. We get to see her get a radical hairstyle, to eat gelato, etc. It’s quite a ringer.

B+

A Most Violent Year (2014)

I am famously sympathetic to Godfather Part III. It may not be the best executed of the trilogy, but focusing on the struggle of someone trying to do good in a bad setting resonates more to me than the exploits of tough, bad men going after each other. A Most Violent Year focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an upstart presence in a New York gas/fuel industry that is filled with deep-rooted entities that are much more willing to engage with demons to find success. Abel on the other hand has always tried to do things the right way, but finds his success and livelihood threatened and has to face hard moral choices. This story is heightened by its setting in 1981 New York, amid the crest of that era’s spike in crime generally, and of oil crises that make that commodity a metaphor for power. With a cast rounded out by Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks, this quasi-gangster film succeeds by being more about vulnerability than about power.

B

Beyond The Lights (2014)

To some degree, we are all expected to play our parts in society, to abridge our natural behaviors or desires in pursuit of greater success, professionally and socially. To an extent, this is probably a healthy thing, though arguably “professionalism” and “politeness” push things a bit far at times. For those associated with a group outside of privilege, the burden can be even higher because any slips and all the prejudices about the group seem to be reinforced in the eye of the observer. For Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker), their aspirations as pop star and politician, respectively, add even more bounds to their behavior.

The film opens with Noni as a child, totted by her mother (Minnie Driver) to a hair salon. Hair for black women has a highly symbolic role. Not only does Driver’s character express a lack of understanding for her daughter’s hair, the DVD featured a trailer for Black or White in which Kevin Coster expresses the same frustration over his granddaughter’s hair. A black girl’s natural hair was the focus of multiple jokes in the trailers for Annie and Chris Rock’s Good Hair made a feature film out of exploring black women’s hair culture. Here we cut from Noni as a child in a modest, simple dress and her original hair placing second at a talent contest to sprawled out in kinky lingerie with very artificial hair in a music video, breaking out as a pop star in the mold of Rihanna. Her stage manager mother is seen strictly managing her diet while actively cheering on blatant sexualization. This is the mold they are forcing Noni to fit into for success and we quickly see the toll as she attempts to leap off her penthouse balcony, saved by Kaz, a police officer working as protection for the evening. This is all in the first 15 minutes of the film, showing how efficient the film is in establishment.

If Noni’s ambitions have her acting less wholesome, Kaz is bound by the need to be perfect. With an eye to politics, he very much seeks to be seen as the perfect, “safe” black man that a dominant white society demands. Never mind that Barack Obama was very much that “articulate…clean” type and is still treated as a devil by half the country, that’s the best case scenario. Anyway, Kaz certainly doesn’t want to be associated with the “thug” R&B world that Noni inhabits, but naturally this incident throws them together and the rest of the film is about searching for true identity and trying to reevaluate how to succeed without sacrificing too much of that identity. This actually operates on some of the same levels as Dear White People though with a very different genre focus.

Mbatha-Raw is the standout here, having to deliver a wide range of emotions. Parker is a bit flatter in delivery but it isn’t the showy role. I’m not entirely sure I see the character as a dynamic politician heading forward. The music in the film is quite strong, saving the best for a key moment at the end when it needed an original song to actually make you believe the talent. In bridging strong romantic drama notes with this thematic richness about identity, Prince-Blythewood has made something that exceeds what you might expect from genre.

B+

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