Birthright: A War Story


In justice.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Michele Goodwin, Lynn Paltrow, Carole Joffe, David A. Grimes, Danielle Deaver, Rob Deaver, Monica Simpson, Casey Shehi, Katie Darovitz, Tarah Demant, Carol Tobias, G. William Orr, Loretta Ross, Faith Groesbeck, Rinar Dray, Jennie Lynn McCormick, Lori Friedman, Gabrielle Goodrick, Joan McGregor, Sister Carol Keehan, Ann Sharpe. Directed by Civia Tamarkin

 

It is sometimes difficult as a film reviewer to rise above the temptation of reviewing the subject of a documentary rather than the documentary itself. Some subjects are important and urgent and may dovetail with the political leanings of the reviewer. I’m a progressive liberal, like many film reviewers, and the subject of this film – the assault on reproductive rights by the pro-life movement – you would think would be something that is near and dear to my heart, and it is.

Tamarkin does a masterful job of explaining the genesis of the pro-choice movement and how we got into the situation we’re in now, going back to the works of Margaret Sanger all the way up through Roe v. Wade at which time the pro-choice movement essentially rested on their laurels which some activists interviewed here freely admit.

But to their credit, those on the other side never gave up. They rolled up their sleeves, took a critical look at why they lost their fight and changed their strategy. Even if one is a hardcore leftie like I am one must admire how the right has organized and strategized themselves into the position of power they now occupy. We watch as the Right to Life organization and Personhood movement – high level members of both are interviewed at length for the film to Tamarkin’s credit – shift the focus from the unborn to the health of the mother, changing the public’s perception of the entire movement. It’s truly a brilliant strategy. They then target state lawmakers on the right, getting laws enacted that chip away at the ability for lower income women to access safe and legal abortion, but also give the state chilling control over the entire reproductive process from the moment a woman becomes pregnant. One conservative lawyer expresses how this is completely at odds with the small government-individual rights conservatism he grew up with.

Tamarkin gives us most of the salient facts, including some anecdotal interviews showing that many young women today don’t even know what Roe v. Wade is. That should chill a lot of pro-choice advocates to the very bone. There are also tales of women caught in the crossfire of these draconian new laws, women who weren’t interested in an abortion. These heartbreaking tales are at the center of the movie like the woman whose placenta was punctured after 22 weeks; because her state had a law that a fetus could not be aborted after 20 weeks, she was made to carry the baby even though it was going to be without fully developed lungs or heart. She wasn’t even allowed to have labor induced because the baby wouldn’t have been viable. Talk about a catch-22 weeks. The baby only lived a few minutes after she gave birth to it.

There were other women who were forced to undergo C-sections against their will and without their permission, as well as women who were arrested and sent to jail because they had what was deemed a “suspicious” miscarriage. It’s hard not to get angry about these blatant intrusions into what should be a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. Although they make no comment on it, the spokespeople with the opposing viewpoint seemed to be okay with this aptly termed “collateral damage.”

While Tamarkin ably ratchets up the outrage for the left side of the aisle, she makes some filmmaking missteps. The jazz-inflected score was too loud in the soundtrack and seemed at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It almost felt at times like the score was meant for a Discovery Channel documentary rather than a feature film – not knocking Discovery Channel programs but it’s a different kind of animal here.

I am not certain that this is going to win hearts and minds. It seems to me that in our echo chamber society that most people are not going to pay much attention to anyone or anything that sits outside their narrow field of view. Tamarkin doesn’t help matters by giving us an endless parade of talking heads all of whom are saying very much the same sorts of things. Still, those on the pro-choice side are going to find this useful and educational – while those on the pro-life side will likely call it propaganda. While it’s clear what side of the line Tamarkin falls on, I do give her props for at least trying to tell the complete story of a very complicated and polarizing issue that continues to be an important and explosive topic even now decades after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision.

REASONS TO GO: Guaranteed to make you angry if you are pro-choice. Effective time is given to pro-life viewpoints. The history of the reproductive rights fight is covered pretty thoroughly.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is a little annoying. There is a surfeit of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains adult themes, disturbing images and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tamarkin was at one time an executive at CNN.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Tiller
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Circle

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Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice


The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Brandon Spink, Lauren Cohan, Mark Edward Taylor, Michael Shannon, Ripley Sobo, Sammi Rotibi, Michael Cassidy, Harry Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Kevin Costner, Soledad O’Brien. Directed by Zack Snyder

I really wanted to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really, really did. I was hoping that this would set up the DC cinematic universe in the same way Iron Man set up Marvel’s. I was hopeful that there is room in the multiplex for competing comic book universes, just as there are on the newsstands. I was hoping for something that would make me eager to see more. Instead, I got this.

In the aftermath of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has gotten a mad on about Superman (Cavill). His Metropolis headquarters of Wayne Enterprises was destroyed during the battle with General Zod, although at the time he has no idea what’s going on and who is good and who is not. Friends of his die literally before his very eyes in a kind of 9-11 redux.

18 months later, the U.S. government isn’t quite sure how to handle Supes. Sure he comes in to save the day but often people die and buildings crumble as a result. After he rescues Lois Lane (Adams) from a terrorist cell which ends up with U.S. soldiers dead, Kentucky Senator Finch (Hunter) is calling for Superman to have some sort of oversight.

In the meantime, plots are afoot; Batman/Bruce Wayne is out to take our Superman once and for all; he’s too big a threat to be allowed to run free. However, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) has some plans of his own – and they involve the corpse of General Zod (Shannon) and keeping the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight at each other’s throats.

This is a very bare-bones explanation of the plot and doesn’t take into account all the little subplots that go on, some of which have to do with setting up the DC universe – and we get brief cameos of superheroes who have movies come out in the near future – although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) has a more extensive presence in the film.

The premise is a fascinating one – what responsibility do superheroes have to the general public that they’re trying to protect, and should there be oversight to their actions. It’s a theme that we’re going to see once again this summer in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which will divide the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I suspect we’ll get a thumping good storyline from the Russo Brothers who did so marvelously with their own superhero films, Snyder displays his Michael Bay tendencies and turns this into a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to go see this, mind you. Affleck, the subject of much Internet fanboy venom, actually turns in an outstanding performance as Batman – maybe the best ever. Christian Bale always made, in my opinion, a better Batman than Bruce Wayne; Affleck carries both aspects of the character nicely.

I do appreciate that there is a larger-than-life quality to the film. While it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, it does give us an idea that the events we’re witnessing are changing the world that the movie exists in. There are some definitely epic battle scenes between Batman, Supes and a to-be-named supervillain who shows up in the third act as a kind of special surprise guest.

But the movie is sooooo dark, both literally and figuratively. Nearly all of the movie takes place at night, particularly when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and Bruce Wayne dons his cowl which I don’t necessarily mind; it’s the tone which gets to be more of a problem for me. Snyder did a magnificent job with Watchmen which needed this kind of darkness but here it becomes almost burdensome. Both Batman and Superman are supposed to stand for something good, but they are almost as bad as the villains, often caring little for lives of people who aren’t necessarily close to them. Batman aims to kill Superman which doesn’t seem to be in character with someone who had forsworn lethal force; Superman also shows little compunction in sending non-combatants to their early graves.

Another misstep was casting Eisenberg as Luthor. One of the hallmarks of Lex Luthor in the comic books is that he’s completely ruthless, but clearly brilliant. He often has plans within plans, schemes that aren’t so easily discernible. He is nothing like the tic-heavy loon that Eisenberg plays, unable to complete a single thought when giving a speech at a charity ball. If Luthor is completely insane, he should at least be lucid and Eisenberg plays him as the unholy offspring of Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Palin.

The pace is ponderous and at two and a half hours long, the movie gets a little bit monotonous. How many times can you see a building reduced to rubble before you start yawning? Maybe I’m a little jaded here, but shouldn’t superhero battles be more than just throwing people into masonry and punching their way through walls?

There are enough positive elements here to recommend the film somewhat, although I have to say that I was disappointed with it overall. I was hoping for something that would inspire me to submerge myself in a new cinematic universe but now I have almost no desire to see any of the ten or so films that are scheduled to follow this one, particularly if they are directed by Snyder who showed an absolute leaden touch here. I hope Suicide Squad can redeem the series and bring back some anticipation for the following movies, although at the moment I wonder if DC can bounce back from a debacle which may fill their coffers for the moment but long-term will render it much more difficult to get the attention of fans the same way Marvel has been able to.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is a terrific Batman. Some spectacular battle sequences. A definite epic quality to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and often hard to follow. Too bloodthirsty. Eisenberg as Luthor was a colossal mistake.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of superhero violence, and some suggestive scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gal Gadot is the first non-American actress to appear as Wonder Woman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern