Sunday, July 30, 2017

FENCES (2016): Desperate Lives and Hopes

Probably most of us started off with great dreams only to see them dashed at some point or another.  Yet it’s difficult to imagine what a black man approaching the age of fifty must reflect when raising his family in a large metropolitan area back during the 1950s.  The plot of Fences centers upon such a character, and for the most part tells the story honestly.

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man during this period in Pittsburgh.  Troy grew up in the south and moved north to escape his abusive father.  At one time he was a promising baseball player, but his baseball days faced interruption due to a stint in prison.  And by the time he got out, he was too old to play in the big leagues which will only then beginning to recruit black talent.

Troy in some senses is like a Walter Mitty character.  He often makes up the stories he tells for the amusement of others, but there are instances when he seemingly believes what he is saying.  And because he believes his own lies, he can never truly apologize for his mistakes.  On the other hand, he is a realist understanding that he is going to pay a great price for the mistakes he does make.

Troy has a wife and two sons.  As the film begins, his wife Rose (Viola Davis) has been married to him for eighteen years.  Rose is used to Troy’s antics and loves him deeply.  Troy, in his own way, loves Rose in return, but that does not prevent him from having an affair with another woman resulting in this woman becoming pregnant.  The woman that Troy had the affair with dies in childbirth after delivering a healthy daughter named Raynell.  Troy convinces Rose to help him raise the young girl.

Troy also has a brother named Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), who Troy deeply cares for.  Gabe suffered head injuries during the war which leave him extremely simple in the mind.  Troy for the most part does what he can to help Gabe out.

The two sons, on the other hand, are ambivalent in their attitudes towards their father.  Both respect him greatly, but both also fear him because Troy can be a hard man.  Lyons (Russell Hornsby) was born to another woman Troy knew before he went to prison.  Whenever Lyons comes to visit the family, Troy rightly guesses that he is there only to borrow money. 

Troy’s relationship with his youngest son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), is much more complex.  Cory is in high school and shows promise as a football player.  Troy is not supportive of Cory playing football and instead insists that he find a job and work for his money.  Troy appears unable to show affection for his youngest son, despite the son doing very little wrong.  Yet Troy constantly demands that Cory show him the ultimate respect.  Troy challenges his youngest son, and sometimes the challenges border on bullying.

Troy dies of a heart attack while swinging at the baseball he attached to the end of a rope.  Throughout the movie, he swung at the baseball as if to take out his frustrations regarding his thwarted dreams.  Raynell by then is around five-years-old.  Rose lovingly looks after her.  Lyons is facing imprisonment for passing bad checks.  Cory is by then a member of the marines long after having a falling out with his father.

It is an intense film much like a prior film Washington starred in called A Soldier’s Story.  And while Fences consists almost exclusively of a black cast, it symbolizes the plight of almost every man frustrated by what life provides.  The confrontational scenes Troy has with his sons are particularly effective because the lessons he teaches are not always pleasant ones.

It’s obvious to anyone seeing the film that it was based on a play – a play by August Wilson.  Sometimes plays do not always translate well into film, and this occasionally occurs in Fences.  Troy’s occasional references about demons and death would probably come off better on the stage.  And the ending of this film with the remaining characters looking up at the sky while the sun peaks through the clouds is forced symbolism.

Like its chief character, the 138-minute film contains both greatness and significant flaws.  With the exception of the acting of Viola Davis, the film is for the most part a one-man show starring the film’s director, Denzel Washington.  Through the acting of its main star, there is seldom a single moment you do not see the character’s drive and spirit.  The personalities of the two sons are never fully developed and are mainly present to playoff of Washington’s role.  The character of Gabe provides some pathos as well as comic relief.  Rose is the only character in the film that truly has the gumption to oppose Troy in anything.

Yet as Rose mentions towards the film’s end, Troy is in so many respects a big man.  While he limits himself by his inability to always see the truth (thus the film name Fences), he also drives himself.  There are only a few instances where he feels sorry for himself, and this never lasts long.  He lives with the consequences of his actions, and he does his best to pay his own way.

July 30, 2017
© Robert S. Miller 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017

HACKSAW RIDGE (2016): Redemption

Hacksaw Ridge is the first film Mel Gibson has directed in ten years.   It also appears to be the first film acceptable to the movie establishment under his direction since Braveheart appeared in 1995.  That’s probably because if the film elite can get past Gibson’s religious peculiarities, they realize this is a fairly conventional war movie.  It’s surprisingly tame for a Mel Gibson film.  Gibson only takes on the director role in this instance – unlike The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, films Gibson directed and produced.  No current Hollywood producer wanted to handle those two other films.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the only conscientious objector in U.S. military history to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.  If we are to believe the film, he undoubtedly deserved the medal as Desmond rescued over 75 American soldiers on the island of Okinawa.  He did this in spite of the criticism he received, and in spite of the fact he faced a court-martial hearing.

Desmond came from a family of Seventh-Day Adventists.  Desmond’s own father (Hugo Weaving) served in World War I – such an experience possibly being the reason for why his father drank so heavily.  Yet despite his father’s opposition, Desmond makes the strange choice of enlisting during World War II as a medic.  Engaged to be married to Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), from any outsider’s perspective Desmond’s choice to join the military seems only like a throwing away of his life.

Desmond does not receive a warm welcome from either his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) or captain of the unit (Sam Worthington).  The other soldiers in his unit make life hell for him as well.  But Desmond does not break.  Even facing a court-martial hearing for refusing to pick up a gun during a drill does not prevent him from living by his principles.  Coincidentally, it is his father that saves Desmond from a court-martial by asking his old friend from World War I, now a general, to intervene on Desmond’s behalf.

It is at Okinawa where Desmond’s principles face their greatest test.  On Okinawa is a large cliff know as Hacksaw Ridge.  The Japanese control Hacksaw Ridge, having dug a series of tunnels beneath the summit to hide.  Yet the American soldiers are able to scale the wall and take the attack to the enemy.  However, the casualty rate in doing so appears high.  Mysteriously, however, many of the wounded soldiers are lowered down through the series of ropes for safety.  Only well into the battle is the mystery resolved.  It is Desmond who continues to rescue man after man.  Wounded himself, the other soldiers lower Desmond down in the same manner so he can receive medical treatment.

The casting for the supporting actors is effective.  Garfield as the lead plays his role well, but he doesn’t get much opportunity to demonstrate any great range regarding his acting ability.

Desmond is the Christ figure in the film – not so very different from other war films.  We see no flaws in his character.  And though this film is violent, this is certainly no more violent than other war films we have seen over the past thirty years.  The merits of this film come about due to such a remarkable story based upon real events.  And, unlike so many other war films trying to deliver a message, Gibson tells this story in a fairly straightforward (though not particularly controversial) manner.   Hacksaw Ridge is 139 minutes long – just about the right amount of time to cover the subject.

April 30, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

LION (2016): The Return Home to India

Lion is one of those movies that begins strong, slows down significantly around halfway through, and picks up somewhat towards the end.  Yet that first half of the film is magnificent.

In 1986, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his family live in a small village in India and struggle daily to put food on the table.  His brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) often steals coal from trains and engages in other schemes to raise money.  Their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), makes a living through collecting rocks.  When adding on the time spent raising her three children, such grueling labor appears almost to be too much for her.

One evening Saroo convinces Guddu to let him go along with his brother on one of his sojourns towards the local train station.  Saroo too tired to continue following his brother lays down on the bench for a nap.  When Saroo wakes up later, he enters a train in the station to see what is inside.   Saroo ends up locked inside the train and unable to get off.  The train then leaves the station heading east, and Saroo is unable to escape the train until its arrival in Calcutta – approximately1500 kilometers away.

Raised in the heart of India, Saroo is unable to speak the Bengal dialect.  Nor is he able to accurately tell anyone exactly where he came from.   After some misadventures, he ends up in an orphanage where conditions are brutal.  However, a young Australian couple eventually adopts him.  His new parents include Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham).  Later, the couple also adopts another Indian boy named Mantosh.  Unlike Saroo who seems to adopt easily to his new home, Mantosh is emotionally troubled.

This ends the first half of the film.  The second half involved a grownup Saroo (Dev Patel), who seemingly does well in life but who is haunted by the family that he left behind in India.  Sue and John are loving parents to Saroo.  Saroo also has a beautiful girlfriend named Lucy (Rooney Mara).  Yet he is unhappy.  He obsesses over where he came from and eventually, through studying Google maps, discovers the location of his India home – a village by the name of Ganesh Talai.  Saroo in 2012 then journeys to India and finds his biological mother and sister still alive.  Tragically, Guddu had died back in 1986 when struck by a train.

Ironically, the child actors Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate provide more emotional punch to Lion than any of the adult (and professional) actors save Nicole Kidman.  Kidman’s acting, as well as a strong storyline, is what keep the two halves of the film together.  The two child actors play their roles perfectly.  Sunny Pawar brings warmth to his role, and Abhishek Bharate is entirely believable as a street-smart kid who cares deeply for his younger brother.  Dev Patel his role as the adult Saroo conventionally well.  Rooney Mara as the girlfriend adds practically nothing to the film.

There had to be a second half to complete this film.  And at 118 minutes, the film moves along at a good pace.  Sadly, we lose the magic during this second half that the child actors bring to the beginnings of the film.  Inevitably, there was a letdown.   

Still, the first half of the film shows remarkably well what is both fascinating and sad about a great country like India. India consists of beautiful people who in large part live in poverty.  The photography of Lion portrays this well.  We see the beauty in the faces of Saroo’s family and fellow villagers.  We see the poverty during the train trip to Calcutta.  This footage allows us to understand why Saroo so long wants to return to his India family.

March 24, 2017

 © Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016): From the Other Side of the World

The subject matter of The Eagle Huntress is about as foreign and strange in 21st Century America as is possible.   In the western world, our concerns revolve around Russian hacking and virtual reality.  At least for one 13-year-old Mongolian girl, her interest is to become the first female to take part in a tradition that goes back many centuries.  Aisholpan Nurgaiv wishes to raise and train an eagle, with the help of her father, and take part in a foxhunt up until.  Until her arrival, this was an activity reserved for males who were mostly adults.

Aisholpan does not disappoint us.  First, in the provincial Mongolian capital of Olgii, Aisholpan wins a contest against seventy seasoned eagle hunters demonstrating both her skills and the skills of the eagle she trained.  She next accompanies her father alone into the Mongolian mountains where her and her eagle capture and kills a fox.  This adventure takes place over a number of weeks, and temperatures in the wilderness fall to some forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Though these are the highlights of this 87-minute film, there is so much more to recommend this movie.  Through the use of drones to film the training and hunting scenes we receive breathless footage of the Mongolian terrain.  The cameras film Aisholpan and her father riding horses across the country while training the eagle and while pursuing the fox.  We watch the eagle sore from perch to perch.  We see the strength and agility of Aisholpan herself as she perseveres in her quest.

We sense almost immediately in the documentary that neither Aisholpan nor her father, Rys Nurgaiv, are ordinary individuals.  Tradition does not hold them back.  Most of the eagle hunters throughout the countryside do not feel that Aisholpan’s pursuits are the place for a girl – especially a girl as young as she is.

Aisholpan  does not come from a wealthy family.  They live in a small home a long ways away from the closest city.  Aisholpan and her brothers and sisters have to attend school many miles away from home.  This means they are usually only at home on weekends. 

Aisholpan, we learn, is so physically strong that she can beat all the boys in her class at wrestling.   Yet she has many of the same interests as other adolescent girls.  Aisholpan paints her nails like that of the other girls and struggles with her math lessons.  She does her best to help with household chores and she appears to be very close to her brothers and sisters.  We never sense arrogance in Aisholpan regarding her accomplishments.  At all times throughout the film, Aisholpan remains charming and likeable.

This was director Otto Bell’s first movie.   In some ways, The Eagle Huntress comes together a bit too easily.  We’re never quite sure how a film crew could have known that Aisholpan would persevere in her quest.  It would have been helpful to learn how Bell stumbled upon this subject matter.

Yet Aisholpan still seems to me to be a special girl.  Obviously, without modern technology her story would remain untold.  Still, here is a girl who does not rely upon this technology when traveling out into an extremely unforgiving terrain and accomplishing what she has to accomplish.  In this respect, her relationship with nature and the world make this movie almost timeless.  The Eagle Huntress is certainly a great deal more refreshing than endless sequels or films held together only by special effects.

January 16, 2017 

©  Robert S. Miller 2017