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.

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.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on March 25, 2016

BatmanScore: 2.5/5

In history, defining moments can sometimes be summed up by a great match between great opposites: Persia vs. Sparta, direct current vs. alternating current and Coke vs. Pepsi.

Yet there has never been a match up so anticipated as the one between Batman and Superman. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is Zack Snyder’s take on the DC titans’ duel.

The film takes place sometime after the events in “Man of Steel,” which seems to become more and more like a prologue as the blistering hurricanes of time erode. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) sees Superman as a thorn in the side of his business empire after the Metropolis branch of Wayne Enterprises is destroyed in the battle between General Zod and Superman.

Meanwhile Superman (Henry Cavill) finds it difficult to continue has duties as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet as a result of fighting Wayne’s war against him (proving my opinion that Clark Kent is a terrible reporter).

Like J.J. Abrams and “The Force Awakens,” “Batman v Superman” has been breaking the Internet since its announcement in 2013. The parallels between the two films are undeniable: built-in name recognition, a large fan base, media anticipation, action-packed blockbuster chops. In theory, everything should have been right.

But that’s if the following elements from “Batman v Superman” are omitted from the equation: While Batman had a groundbreaking stand-alone trilogy, Superman had a reboot with mixed reviews. The same director from said reboot returns with greed and intentions to introduce the entire DC universe.

Add to the equation, and it becomes understandable why “Dawn of Justice” would create both an artificial high for die-hard DC fans and a disappointing pit for the casual movie-goer.

The performances, including Affleck and Cavill,  are not at all bad. What makes them falter is that the characters are given odd motivations.

Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is portrayed as a spastic Silicon Valley billionaire with diabolical tendencies. This doesn’t seem right. Wouldn’t it make more sense if Luthor was an old money fat cat, not unlike the Koch brothers or (dare I say) Donald Trump? Wasn’t his unwillingness to embrace change the driving power of his villainy?

Eisenberg isn’t a bad actor, he is just bad for this part. Sure, the filmmakers were just trying to be different by creating a grittier universe. But where is it written that 21st-century comic films have to be gritty and realistic – an oxymoron considering most cityscapes are green screen. Since Christopher Nolan opened Pandora’s box with his “Dark Knight” trilogy, the hero part of “superhero” has become unimportant, while the undesirable brooding and the need to seem relevant have taken over.

In addition to the epic battle between the DC demigods, there are also Senate hearings, a giant blob monster and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) which just goes to show that “Dawn of Justice” came into fruition only because somebody was blinded by giant dollar signs.

The worse part of it all is that movie-goers will buy tickets to this gloomy fruit salad of depression and disappointment. To put it lightly, “Dawn of Justice” has no intentions to be a fun piece of entertainment. It was meant to be a cash cow that will give birth to more cash cows.

The unnecessary introduction of Wonder Woman will surely become a film about her, as well as one for Aquaman (who will be portrayed by Jason Momoa) until it all reaches a dark franchise cake-topper known as “Justice League.”

With that in mind, perhaps the film should re-titled “Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Money Bovines.”

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is currently screening in theaters nationwide.