13th (2016) Review

13th_filmScore: 5/5

“We may have lost the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, but cleary when you see black kids being shot down… we didn’t clear this cancer.” – Charles Rangel

Slavery was abolished when the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The 2012 film “Lincoln” focused on how Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts got the amendment passed by Congress in 1864. Director Steven Spielberg portrayed it as a major step towards full equality for all Americans, and there is no doubt it was.

But Constitutional amendments have consequences. The First protects all forms of speech including hate speech while the Second could not keep up with the rapid evolution of firearms. In Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment are explored.

The first section of the amendment reads (emphasis the film’s):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Today, one out every four Americans – a statistic from the film – is incarcerated; roughly 2.3 million people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of those 2.3 million are African American even though they only make up 16 percent of the population. DuVernay uses “13th” to argue that because of 14 words, the United States became prison happy.

DuVernay demonstrated her filmmaking mastery in “Selma” but this documentary proves that she is one of the most articulate and informed filmmakers working today. Any filmmaker would have focused on the broader theme of mass incarceration without exploring the elements that contribute. DuVernay not only explores these elements, but she lingers on them just long enough for the rage to boil over.

With the slaves free there was a lack of available labor to rebuild the economy of the south. In addition to share cropping, white southerners also began arresting blacks for minor crimes so that they could be used as free labor. These arrests of black men created the myth that they were uncontrollable criminals, barely human.

But the fear doesn’t stop at that stereotype. “13th” contributes the massive prison population to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign which planted the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. These are not new facts. Students of politics and history as well as the average stoner know that the war on drugs targets people of color more than whites.

But the film brings a larger context to this. The masterminds behind these campaigns knew exactly what they were doing – I will not specify because the anger needs to be experienced. These were not crusades for security and morality, they were diabolical strategies to consolidate the white vote for the Republican Party.

But politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have to be tough on crime. Democrats like Charles Rangel and the Clintons supported harsh crime legislation because it became the new norm. Some even went as far as coining the term “super predators” – people who were beyond rehabilitation.

With an issue as heavy as mass incarceration it’s easy to end with resolution or at least hope. In “The Hunting Grounds” which tackles campus sexual assault, it ends with the growing support that victims have. There’s already outrage over the justice system and how it treats people of color. Institutions that were staunch opponents of these reforms are now becoming more flexible as the mood changes.

But DuVernay is too smart to let them slide. A professor from UC Santa Cruz makes it clear that history shows that when the establishment takes the lead in reforms, it usually leads to more repression. It leads me to think of Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to passing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson also initiated a war on poverty. He crafted his strategy with the help of both experts and the poor. This plan and the legislation that came from it came to be fittingly known as “The Great Society.”

“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 21, 2016

Everybody_Wants_Some_posterScore: 5/5

There are directors like Quentin Tarantino and Francois Truffaut who make good movies,  and once in a lifetime will make a film that stands the tests of time. Then there are Directors – with a capital “D”– like Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog who have consistently created great films, with minor works still being good.

Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has proved to be a Director with a capital “D.” Beginning with his first feature-length film “Slacker,” the Austin native has created a style of filmmaking that is equal parts autobiography, slice-of-life, philosophical rambling and stoner thoughts that is quintessentially Linklater.

The most recent addition to the auteur’s portfolio is “Everybody Wants Some!!” and though it is a minor work that will be lost in the shadow of “Boyhood,” it still stands as an example of how Linklater continues to produce quality content.

A typical Linklater film is set in the near past in a short time frame. In the case of “Everybody Wants Some!!” the year is 1980, and the time frame is three days before classes start at a small college in Central Texas.

The focus is on a group of college baseball players that live in two houses on the outskirts of campus. Not exactly a fraternity, but the ambiance is the same, minus the stereotypes. Their coach tells the players that he doesn’t care what goes on inside the houses as long as they follow two simple rules: no alcohol allowed inside, no girls allowed upstairs in the bedrooms. In short, no partying.

But here’s the thing: They’re young athletes. Of course there’s partying; they’re young athletes–jocks, bros. Shenanigans are bound to ensue. It is the animal part of “Animal House.” But I digress.

Many of Linklater’s films do not have a concrete plot or story, and “Everybody Wants Some!!” is no exception. It is a collection of relatable characters that are observed from the point of view of an active “straight man.” The straight man in this film is Jake (Blake Jenner). With this formula, the possibilities are endless.

From Jake’s point of view we meet characters like Plummer (Temple Baker), who I will spend quite some time on. I know guys like Plummer and I assume we have all known guys like him. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t know that he’s a douchebag and can’t help it, yet he has a heart of gold. For that we can’t help but like him. Baker, who according to IMDB has no prior acting experience, plays Plummer well and it is hysterical.

Linklater says that the film is a “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused,” but I suppose that is just what his agent told him to say for the film to sell tickets. Though the two films have similarities, they stand apart.

Though the film is set in the 1980s, Linklater was careful to differentiate between the 1980s of MTV, John Hughes and Reagan. To most of the country, 1980 was still the end of the ‘70s. Jimmy Carter was still president and muscle cars reigned supreme. The scars of Vietnam and Watergate still hadn’t healed. In a way, America in 1980 was still clenching onto a wild kind of innocence.

Linklater knew this and with that insight in mind, he used “Everybody Wants Some!!” to remind people what it truly meant to be young, wild, free and full of beer.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” is currently playing at the Tower Theater on Broadway in Sacramento.

Everything is Copy (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 2, 2016

everything_is_copyScore: 5/5

If writer Nora Ephron could be described with only three words, they would be “everything is copy.” Writers most likely know what this means, but for those outside of the bubble, Ephron explains the phrase perfectly:

“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh. So you become the hero, rather than the victim, of the joke.”

“Everything Is Copy” is a documentary paying homage to the late Nora Ephron–the writer, filmmaker and journalist who brought freshness and charm to romantic comedies that hasn’t been seen since her passing in 2012. If you don’t believe me, watch “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Ephron’s body of work went beyond her films. In the early ’70s, she was a reporter for the New York Post and a columnist for Esquire. In her life she wrote eight books, most of them collections of essays.

For most writers, their work persona is the version the world knows. Ernest Hemingway was not the macho man of his books, but a man who yearned to be like his characters.

However, to Ephron, everything was copy. Her life experiences are what fueled her writing, her sense of self, and her perspective on love and relationships.

“Everything is Copy” is directed by Ephron’s son Jacob Bernstein (Carl Bernstein, who broke the Watergate story along with Bob Woodward, is Jacob’s father). He breaks with the objectivity of journalism to discover that his mother actually believed the mantra that she stole from her own mother.

As the documentary progresses, he discovers that the phrase “everything is copy” is not just witty advice from one writer to another. It was the key to her success.

In the documentary, former Sony Studios executive Amy Pascal described Ephron as being smart, insightful, witty, sexy and ambitious. The same can be said about Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally” or Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in “Julie and Julia.”

Yet when Ephron said everything is copy, she also meant the bad things that happen in life. Her novel “Heartburn” was based on her marriage and eventual divorce with Carl Bernstein after his affair with a mutual friend. The documentary describes the process of the divorce and the emotional effect it had on Ephron as Bernstein continued to threaten suing her for the book. But what it proved was that even during a time of emotional strain, Ephron put the experience into her work.

Terrible days are part of the human experience. Everyone has them, some more often than others, and they make it feel for a moment like the world is crumbling into the bottom of the space-time continuum.

If you’re a human being, bad things will happen. You’ll be late for trains, you won’t get into your dream school, somebody will say no.

Now for a personal reflection: Recently I was informed that I was not accepted into the school I wanted to attend since I was 13–my dream school. For three days straight, I moped, cried, yelled at the dog and ate Oreos. After three days, however, I watched this documentary and it reminded me that “everything is copy.”

Now I eat Oreos for fun instead.

“Everything is Copy” is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.

Cooked (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Feb. 25, 2016

CookedScore: 5/5

The argument made by “Cooked” is that the act of cooking is a part of the foundational fibers of ecosystems and civilizations.

This documentary is based on the book by legendary food writer Michael Pollan, and like the book, it ventures through styles of cooking across the globe. It also focuses on Pollan’s own experience to learn how to cook different foods.

The book’s four parts are divided according to the classical elements of fire, water, air and earth. Pollan’s learning coincides with these elements. Barbecued pig connects with fire, pot roast with water, bread with air, and beer with earth.

The focus is still on a global scale. The opening shot is of a patch of the Australian outback being burned by a couple of indigenous Murri women. After the fire burns out, they find burrowing lizards that have left their homes. It is revealed later that their hunting style is not destructive, but crucial to the survival of the ecosystem. Without the Murri’s hunting, newer plants would be unable to flourish.

In the air segment, the age-old trope of bread being equal to life is used. In Morocco, a woman kneads flour and water together to form a crude loaf. It is a metaphor for how life and work coexist with each other. The woman’s younger son looks at her with confusion. She answers the unasked question: Why? And answers it’s impossible to live without bread. Replace “bread” with “work” and the answer is the same.

The artistry in filmmaking hits similar notes in  the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” in which  the process is portrayed as the creation of a landscape painting by a master. In the water segment, onions and parsnips are dropped into boiling water, where they dance in harmony before being interrupted by the beef. Soon the pot has turned into an orgy of flavors and nutrients until it becomes a stew.

In both the book and documentary, cooking is intertwined with humanities, biology, anthropology, geography and other disciplines. The broad art of cooking is condensed as being a ritual of religious importance.

It also stands as a warning to younger generations who treat cooking with the dangerous attitude that intervention in food production is unnecessary. As processing grows to an industrial scale, health is put into jeopardy. In India, a family orders takeout food four times a week, causing a fractured family unit.

Yet home cooking is viewed by others in India as a duty to preserve culture. The film shows how workers in India are brought home-cooked lunches every day by bike-riding delivery boys. The work is hard, but the people cooking see it as a necessity.

In “Cooked,” a home-cooked meal is never just the result of vegetables and meat coming in contact with heat. The personhood of the cook is ingrained into the fibers of the culture. Not just the cook’s emotion, but also his or her ethnic background, pains and pleasures, and history.

The film’s key argument is this: To not cook is to destroy a person.

“Cooked” is currently streaming on Netflix.


Anomalisa (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Jan. 30, 2016

Score: 5/5

Anomalisa“Little boxes on the hillside,

Little boxes all the same.”

Perhaps screenwriter Charlie Kaufman took influence from this repetition in the Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes” when creating his main character’s world in “Anomalisa.” Aside from the main characters, the world is populated by copies of the same face and voice.

“Anomalisa” is a stop-motion film not unlike “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or “Team America.” But the latter two films use the medium to emphasize the outrageous comedic style of their creators while “Anomalisa” uses it to enhance the subtlety of Kaufman’s world view. It’s filled with shallow people who all blend together into a gulf of nothing.

Observing the gulf from deep within is Michael Stone  (voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker who has made it his life’s mission to push people toward happiness, which he views as only a mirage.

But Michael himself is chasing a mirage that he believes is relief from his own sexual frustration. He calls an ex-girlfriend named Bella and asks to see her at a bar, but the spark is still absent and the encounter goes exactly how it would go. This isn’t a fling, it’s just another blip in his world.

Then comes a true anomaly in the form of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the only other character in the film with a unique voice. She shines when with her friend, but when alone with Michael, she goes back into her shell. Throughout the film, Michael tries to open this shell.

Like most other Kaufman films, such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Synecdoche, New York”, the main character is frustrated with the world and even more frustrated with himself for being a part of it. Also like other Kaufman films, the comedy is dry and awkward. But such charm emphasizes the profoundness of “Anomalisa.”

The puppets are more realistic than human actors without seeming uncanny. it’s not clear if the characters know that they’re puppets, but there is a scene where Michael almost removes his face plate. Perhaps it is a near surrender into normality.

Witty and intelligent without being pretentious, “Anomalisa” is the perfect film for both Kaufman enthusiasts and movie lovers.

“Anomalisa” is currently playing at the Tower Theater in Sacramento.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Dec. 19, 2015

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterScore: 5/5

Wherever a dragon, Grendel or tank stands, a St. George, Beowulf or man stands up to it. During a time when people are killing other people for one reason or another and when hatred is being sputtered out by the mouths of villains who masquerade as saviors, humanity continues to seek light in darkness.

Like the Force, the immortal power and magic of “Star Wars” is forever present. “Star Wars,” at its most primitive, is a battle between good and evil. Armies of thousands brawling across the universe as warriors partake in a duel of fates is what has captivated audiences since 1977.

Warning: If you haven’t seen the movie yet, stop reading, for spoilers abound.

The Sith has reincarnated as the First Order who are more ruthless and fascist than ever. But instead of the cunning elders from the last six episodes, its leaders are young and foolish which, when combined with darkness, is a poisonous cocktail.

Luke has vanished after his only student, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), turns to the dark side. To put it lightly, Ren is a Darth Vader fanboy not unlike Syndrome in “The Incredibles.” The mask he wears over his pasty white face and his curly black hair makes him seem like even more of a wannabe. As a result, his fits of rage when things do not go according to his way come off more like temper tantrums when a child is scolded for having to share his toy.

But the darkness is still present. Ren’s facial expressions are strikingly similar to those of a mass shooter, which creates a deeper evil within the character. Yet the resentment that he will never be as feared as Darth Vader will always loom over him like the ghost of Banquo from “Macbeth.” He’ll make up for it with ruthlessness.

The images and locations of “The Force Awakens” are near copies of the original trilogy, even going as far as appearing in the same order as in the films. The first is a desert planet called Jakku and it has more similarities with Tatooine than differences. Then there’s a lush jungle planet like where the first rebel base is located. The planet where the First Order has built its superweapon is like Hoth with its freezing landscapes.

Of course, “Force Awakens” adapts the Star Wars universe for a new generation of fans which is present in the droid BB-8. He’s smaller and more mobile than R2-D2 who in this film has been sleeping since Luke’s disappearance.

The politics in the galaxy mirror those of reality. The Resistance is funded by the Republic to fight against the First Order like how world governments have funded rebel groups to do the same, with an example being the Soviet Union funding and training the Vietcong.

Director and fan J.J. Abrams understands the universal love for the saga in its seventh episode along with every cast and crew member from the insignificant extra all the way to composer John Williams.

Speaking of Williams, the legendary musician revives old themes from the past trilogies that would be nothing without them. Yet he has crafted a score with an intensity and passion that only an artist near the end of his run can create.

Now for some reflection: Sitting in a crowded theater with my 10-year-old sister on one side and my 40-year-old parents on the other, when the iconic blue text reading, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.…” appeared, I heard all three of them gasp.

It was this moment that I understood what mythologist Joseph Campbell meant when he said, “Myths are public dreams.” And in the case of “Star Wars,” the dream belongs to all of us.

The Force is with all of us.

Spotlight (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Dec. 6, 2015

Note: This review  won 3rd place for a Critical Review at the Journalism Association of Community Colleges (JACC) 2016 State Convention with the title “‘Spotlight’ reveals the truth of child abuse in the church.”

Spotlight_(film)_posterScore: 5/5

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them. These words refer to Boston, a city where, according the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of the population considers themselves Catholic.

“Spotlight” follows The Boston Globe’s investigative unit and its efforts to expose multiple cases of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.

When the movie begins, allegations of child abuse have been buried by top church and city officials. For decades. It isn’t until Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), an outsider and non-Catholic, takes over as editor for The Globe that the paper decides to dedicate its investigative team, named Spotlight, to the story.

Leading the Spotlight team is Robby Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, a good ol’ boy who was born and raised among Boston’s Catholic elite. His reporters include Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a lapsed Catholic who still holds on to the prospect that he will one day go back to church. These two are the workhorses of the Spotlight team. Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy) team as reporters in the field.

Director Thomas McCarthy truly captures the spirit of Boston, as well as the powerful Catholic church. In scenes when major plot points and information are revealed, McCarthy uses iconography to convey the message. Even in the office of Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), a photo of St. Peter’s Basilica is visible when the team learns that 6 percent of priests will most likely act out sexually. The numbers prove to be much higher.

“Spotlight” also shows how little is needed to cover up the abuse. All it takes is a simple call from the cardinal to the D.A. for cases to be buried deeply enough to never be seen again. Survivors are discouraged from suing by church lawyers, claiming their settlements will not cover legal fees. Most members of the community can’t overcome the disgrace they feel in going against the church. As said before, it takes a village to abuse a child.

In the film as in real-life journalism, there are long stretches of time in the newsroom when the reporters wait quietly for returned phone calls and emails. These periods create a strong camaraderie among the reporters and editors. The pace in “Spotlight” is incredibly accurate about day-to-day journalism, as well as the mannerisms of reporters.

The victims of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy call themselves survivors because other abuse victims like them have committed suicide. “Spotlight” does not make heroes of the reporters at The Globe, yet it does show how they opened the door for survivors to come out of the dark and tell their stories.