REVIEW: CMENAS Film Screening: “Rachel”

“Rachel” is a documentary piecing together the nuances and injustices of the death of an American activist in Palestine named Rachel Corrie. Twenty-four year-old Rachel was on a trip to Palestine as a trained activist with a group of other activists in their twenties. At this time in the early two-thousands, the tension in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was gaining a new wave of intensity with the beginning of the Second Intifada. Rachel and her team were helping Palestinian civilians whose homes were most in danger of being destroyed by Israeli occupation. In an attempt to prevent the destruction of one such house, Rachel stood in front of a bulldozer to obstruct their moving forward; however, the driver of the bulldozer claimed to not see her– though the eye-witnesses to the case speculate otherwise– and ran her over; in a matter of seconds, her body was mangled beneath a mound of dirt and crushed by the metal. Rachel died. Though there seems to be evidence that there was criminal intent by the driver of the bulldozer, the case gained a momentary spark of media attention, only to die down with the injustice of Rachel’s death never to receive due legal attention. This documentary is an exploration of the testimonies of the activists who she travelled with, Israeli soldiers, and many others who were knew her or were related to her death.

The simple, straightforward style of the documentary makes it easy to follow all the intricacies of the evidence presented: testimonies of colleagues and family members, on-site videos and photographs, Rachel’s diary entries. By the end of the film, I felt fully educated about the facts of Rachel’s death– and the thing about the documentary is that it doesn’t ever once say outright that what happened to Rachel unfair or unjust. It just keeps building evidence, slowly but surely, until you’re painfully aware of all the wrong that was done to her. The driver of the bulldozer claimed that he couldn’t see her over the mound of dirt while her team says the mound was hardly a few feet tall; the US embassy failed to send an American to oversee her autopsy even though her parents requested it, probably because the US didn’t want to entangle itself politically; the general of the Israeli forces claimed that there was not enough eyewitness testimony or video evidence, only two opposing viewpoints, which seemed essentially inconclusive. No real legal action could be taken to prove that the driver of the bulldozer had criminal intent.

The documentary works to show that there was a system of injustice present that lead to Rachel’s death. The documentary illuminates the cracks of legality and excuses that Rachel slipped between. The documentary itself works as a bulwark against injustice. The film is modest in its cinematography and aesthetics, but it is large in its meaning and purpose. Rachel was one American activist whose life and injustice has been filmed and commemorated, but it’s a powerful reminder that there are people suffering from crises around the world who won’t get any attention. But there is a small line of hope, perhaps– as we keep talking about these injustices, as long as we make art and conversation about it– we can create a bulwark against it.

I’ll end this post with a beautiful letter that Rachel wrote during her time in Palestine: “You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resistor. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them (and may ultimately get them) on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity – laughter, generosity, family time – against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death. I felt much better after this morning. I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first-hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable. I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and the basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances – which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity. I wish you could meet these people. Maybe, hopefully, someday you will.”

(You can find more of her letters and diary entries here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/mar/02/shopping.extract. I would seriously recommend checking them out– they’re gorgeously written and she’s so wise.)

REVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

The Oscar nominations came out today, and as always, such an occurrence is bound to spark a fire of controversy about such-and-such films being snubbed while other films enjoyed perhaps more than their due of appreciation. Yet it does not feel like a reaching statement to say that If Beale Street Could Talk was indeed snubbed. The romantic drama, directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and based on the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, received only three nominations: Best Supporting Actress (for Regina King), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Three is a startling dearth of recognition for a film that succeeds in terms of acting, visual efficacy, and overall emotional impact.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the love story of Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne, Chicago Med) and Fonny Hunt (Stephan James, Race), a young couple in New York City who are falling in love while also dealing with racism and racial tension. This culminates in Fonny’s wrongful arrest for rape, which coincides with Tish’s learning that she is pregnant. Much of the movie is concerned with the ripple effect that Fonny’s arrest produces throughout both their lives, as individuals and as a couple, and the lives of their families and friends. Tish and her mother, Sharon (King, Seven Seconds), fight for Fonny’s freedom, while Fonny struggles through the experience of incarceration and tries to retain both his sense of self and his relationship with Tish. The storytelling is accomplished in part through alternating timelines, which switch between the development of Tish and Fonny’s relationship prior to Fonny’s arrest and the fallout that occurs afterward.

One of the film’s most masterful accomplishments lies in its very careful attention to each character as an individual. A particularly telling scene occurs when Tish first visits Fonny in jail and they get into an argument; it is clear that the argument is borne not from anything lacking in their relationship itself, but from their own individual frustrations and respective inabilities to completely understand the other’s situation. Tish feels helpless and scared because she cannot help Fonny and is facing the prospect of pregnancy while he is in jail; Fonny is frustrated because he has been wrongfully imprisoned and is unable to be there for Tish. The fact that even in this scene, they come around from their respective frustrations and reaffirm their love and support for each other, only strengthens the sense of the gravity and wholeness of their love. Another standout is of course Regina King’s performance as Sharon, whose visit to Puerto Rico in order to plead with the rape survivor Victoria (Emily Rios, Breaking Bad) to admit Fonny’s innocence is perhaps the most finely crafted and emotionally resonant scene of the entire film.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a masterpiece on a visual and tonal level, echoing much of the slow-burn pacing and colorful cohesion that Jenkins trademarked two years ago with Moonlight. From the brief and bemusing appearance of Dave Franco as a Jewish realtor to the haunting, wholly incredible monologue of Fonny’s friend Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, Widows), it is a film packed with rich feeling and timeliness. It speaks to the careful attentiveness and thought of everyone involved in creating it, and one can only hope that audiences respond to it with similar attention.

PREVIEW: The Favourite

The Favourite has become one of the most talked-about films of late 2018 and early 2019, receiving no less than five nominations at the Golden Globes (including a win for Olivia Colman as Best Actress — Motion Picture Comedy or Musical). Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the film stars Emma Stone (Maniac) and Rachel Weisz (My Cousin Rachel) as two cousins competing to be the “favourite” of Queen Anne (Colman) in 18th century Britain. The Favourite is showing this week at the State Theatre as well as at Ann Arbor’s Quality 16.

PREVIEW: If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk only hit local theaters recently, but it is already garnering an impressive reputation. An adaptation of the 1974 novel of the same name by James Baldwin, the film has accrued several award nominations, including three at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay. Directed by Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame, the film stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James as Tish and Fonny, a young couple whose romance is derailed and tested when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and Tish discovers that she is pregnant. If Beale Street Could Talk is currently playing at the State Theatre, as well as other local Ann Arbor theaters such as the Ann Arbor 20 IMAX and the Quality 16.

REVIEW: Green Book

“Traveling while black,” a guide that outlined restaurants, motels, and other establishments that were accepting of black people traveling in the south during the 1960s. In a time of legal discrimination, “Green Book” was a handbook that blacks used for their mere protection and safety due to the color of their skin. Based on a true story, Green Book is a film that takes the audience on a journey as an Italian-American male and African-American male spend two months time together on the road to the deep south and back. Directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book embarks the true story of a world-class pianist and his personal identity crisis while co-existing in America during an extremely isolating time.

 

Dr. Don Shirley, played by Moonlight star Mahershala Ali, has set out to go on a two-month tour, performing world-class compositions for wealthy, white Americans. To aid in this tour, Dr. Shirley hires a chauffeur, but more so a personal bodyguard. Word around town is that Tony Vallelonga (played by Viggo Mortensen) is the best man for this job. Currently a laid-off bouncer at The Copacabana Nightclub, Tony is well-known in his hometown in the Bronx as “Tony Lip.” This reputation is something he is proud of — for he is acknowledged for his cunning way of finessing people with his swift words and persuasion. Tony’s character is highly unadmirable and Farrelly makes us aware of this. It’s clear that Tony is racist, a thief, a liar, he’s violent, and ultimately is an ill-mannered mess (countless scenes of him sloppily eating, smoking, or both simultaneously). Despite these characteristics, the film spins these into the attributes of someone who is laid-back, carefree, obedient by any means necessary, and a humorous family man. Because of this angle, the audience is forced to want to support Tony throughout his adventure with Dr. Shirley. Contrastingly enough, Dr. Shirley is presented as the complete opposite in every way imaginable. He has no family, he’s extremely uptight, and lives in a bougie apartment above Carnegie Hall full of authentic and eclectic design. His vernacular is top-notch, his intellect is unmatched, his poise and mannerisms are highly distinguished, and his patience is extremely thin for someone like Tony.

 

Considering these dynamics, it’s rather easy to predict the elements of the film. Interestingly enough, the majority of conflicts and emotions came from the interactions between these two characters, rather than the political/racial climate while they were traveling. This makes it difficult to fully identify what one may actually be satisfied with after watching the film. In some ways, there could have been much more emphasis on the actual happenings of discrimination. Furthermore, this inevitably presents a huge obstacle from steering away from the typical white savior perspective. In this regard, it’s hard to ignore Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. In many ways, Green Book relates to this film with its Italian-American vs African American conflicts. There is a strong tension led by stereotypes and grossly identified misunderstandings. Another theme that revealed from both of these films was the hierarchy of oppression — both of these races countering each other with respective struggles and biases that they face. However, Green Book introduces the topic of hierarchical class structure. Tony demands that he’s more black than Dr. Shirley because of his lifetime upbringing in the Bronx, where he is a working-class man for his family and enjoys the typical “black foods,” while frowning upon the luxuries that Dr. Shirley has earned.

 

Green Book is an emotional journey more than anything. Throughout its bursts of anger, it’s complemented with spouts of joy. Where it may be full of tears, it’s backed by minutes spent laughing hysterically. This film attempts to tackle a challenging topic, so much so that it could have been more aggressive in recognizing that many of these problems still exist as we near the year 2019. There were scenes of white saviourship orchestrated by Tony as his personal bodyguard but it’s almost unreasonable to have expected anything less. One may leave this film feeling slightly incomplete with the unravelings of Dr. Shirley’s personality and identity crises. Overall, Green Book is a compelling story about friendship and the tenacious mindset that “Genius cannot change people. It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

 

REVIEW: Wildlife

From my initial viewing of the Wildlife trailer, I knew there were some major pieces being left out. I felt deprived of having any real sense of what the movie would entail, let alone carry an impression of what to expect. The trailer was rather reserved and too undeserving of what I knew this movie was capable of. I decided to see this film to test my intuition. To my surprise, this film was what I would call “messy.” Messy as in, countless rounds of drama and unexpected events. This film undoubtedly had a punch to it, something that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

 

Wildlife is adapted from a novel by Richard Ford and takes place in 1960 in a small, lonely town in Montana. From the beginning, we’re made to believe that they are living in a typical, happy life that is contained within a small town. It seems to be a cheesy story revolving a father who is a pro golfer, a submissive housewife, and a young teenage boy who appears to be naive to family happiness. Though, it did not take Dano (Director) long to submerge this fake sense of family solidarity. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job, from what he believes is due to him being “too well-liked” and “too personable”. This immediately gives an insight of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Joe’s (Ed Oxenbould) passive reservations toward their father’s job insecurity leading to multiple reallocations. To make matters worse, Jerry is offered his job back, but he declines, for he “will not work for people like that.” To step up, Jeanette suggests that she go back to work to support the family, but without throwing it in Jerry’s face in such a way that would threaten his manhood. Even little Joe chimed in to suggest picking up a part-time job after school. Despite Jerry’s negativity toward receiving extra help, he decides to take a job for $1.00/hour fighting forest fires up north. Not only is this life-threatening and under-compensating for such, but he would be leaving Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves back at home.

 

This news was the snapping point of Jeanette. Throughout her anger and frustration, it seemed like she was being portrayed as an unstable woman unsure of her wants. To emphasize this perspective, the film is actually told by Joe’s point-of-view. This leads to even more confusion of feelings that are expressed by the adults in question. Jeanette puts Joe in countless uncomfortable situations. He’s immediately told that his father must be cheating on his mother. Jeanette’s explanation to Joe is: “Why do you think men do things? They’re either crazy or it’s a woman. Or both.” From Joe’s point-of-view, the audience is indulged into this divided realm between the parents, and where that leaves Joe to figure things out on his own. Out of spite (and for financial security), Jeanette turns to one of her swimming students, Warren Miller, for more reasons that she is able to articulate. To make everything even more complex and uneasy for Joe, Jeanette becomes nothing more than a drunk, submissive woman during dinner at Mr. Miller’s house. All of which was witnessed by Joe, followed by another sensual evening spent in their own home.

 

For this story to have taken place in 1960, it’s extremely important to note the film’s stance on feminism and coming-of-age. The underlying of this film is simply put: a damaged family falling victim to the failures of the provider, a young teen who is forced to step up and see the undesirable truth, and an (arguably) uncertain woman who doesn’t need a man to complete her. Interestingly enough, in 1963, The Feminine Mystique was published by Betty Friedan. This book is highly credited for its contributions to sparking the second wave of feminism in the United States. Friedan focuses on explaining the way women behave in the US society. She argued that the preconceptions of domestic womanhood consequently led to identity crises for American women, much of what was seen from Jeanette in Wildlife.