To Keep the Light


The loneliness of the lighthouse.

The loneliness of the lighthouse.

(2016) Drama (Quiet Rebellion) Erica Fae, Antti Reini, David Patrick Kelly, Jarlath Conroy, Gabe Fazio, Meagen Fay, Wass Stevens. Directed by Erica Fae

Florida Film Festival 2016

The lighthouse exists to warn sailors away from rocky shores. These days, radar, GPS navigation and other aids have largely relegated lighthouses obsolete but back in the late 19th century, they were a necessity; at night, ships wouldn’t be able to see where the sea ended and the coastline began and without these beacons they would wreck.

Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious and honorable job, a task to be performed by a man. However, there were approximately 300 women known to have performed the duties of a lighthouse keeper, many known only through the logbook entries they made. Abbie Moore (Fae) is taking care of the lighthouse that was entrusted to her husband who has been confined to his bed by some unnamed malady. One day a sailor washes ashore, a Swede named Johan (Reini).

At first he is more of a nuisance than anything else. There are no reports of any wrecks, although he claims that his ship went down. Brackett (Kelly), a local official, asks if ne’er do well named Eaton (Fazio) can help out around the lighthouse but Abbie is adamant that she needs no help. Her husband will recover shortly and she is handling the duties capably on her own. It doesn’t take long however for secrets to unravel not only Abbie’s tenuous hold on her position, but also Johan’s story as well. With a pair of inspectors (Conroy, Stevens) soon to come out to make sure that the lighthouse is in tip top condition and that the logs have been adequately kept, Abbie must find the strength to not only keep the house, the light and her husband’s health but to head off challenges from the drunken Eaton.

Fae puts on a clinic of camera composition. Every shot here is literally a work of art; this movie is like strolling through a museum where one great painting after another hangs on the wall. The lighting is also amazing; Fae utilized the light of the lighthouse itself in brilliant fashion, making a changing palate of light and shadows during one sensual scene in the film. While this is her first feature film (she’s also done short films) she is primarily known for her stage plays. With work like this, I sincerely hope Ms. Fae continues her work in the cinematic arts.

Fae has tended to write about women who, as the press notes put it, have been written out of the pages of history. While Abbie is not based on a specific lighthouse keeper, she is a composite character whose personality was created from the diaries, journals and letters of actual women lighthouse keepers of the period. Abbie’s strength and work ethic are admirable but Fae gives the character an inner core that is stronger than steel and grabs the viewer’s attention and admiration. She may be one of the most memorable female characters you’ll see in any movie this year and you certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon after the credits roll.

The movie does amble along at a fairly deliberate pace which might not be suitable for a 21st century ADHD audience but the pacing serves the atmosphere nicely. The time and place – 1876 Maine – is nicely recreated here, although I can’t really testify to its authenticity much, taking place more than 80 years before I was born. The ending isn’t clever or cute, but its sensible and welcome, putting a grace note on a movie that has plenty of them. If there is one movie you see at the 2016 Florida Film Festival, this one is the one I’d recommend in a year that the offerings are particularly strong. It also has a feminist tone which seems to be a theme at the FFF this year, which I also find pleasing. For those who think women aren’t suited temperamentally for the director’s chair (and hopefully none of those read this blog) I would point them in the direction in this film, which is an early candidate for my top films of 2016.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and composition. Strong character performance by Fae. Wonderful use of color and light.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sensuality and a gruesome image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Erica Fae’s birth name is Erica Stuart.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score found. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Piano
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Other Kids

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Chi-Raq


Lysistrata gets real.

Lysistrata gets real.

(2015) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack, Jennifer Hudson, David Patrick Kelly, D.B. Sweeney, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harris, Harry Lennix, Anthony Fitzpatrick, Anya Engel-Adams, Ebony Joy, Erin Allen Kane, Michelle Mitchenor, Felicia Pearson, La La Anthony. Directed by Spike Lee

Violence in the streets has reached epidemic proportions, with homicides in the city of Chicago, one of America’s great cities, now higher than the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of American soldiers. There is a war in the streets of Chicago, mainly being waged by street gangs, and the innocent are being caught in the crossfire as they often are in war. It’s so bad that the residents of the embattled South Side where much of the violence is centered have taken to calling their home town Chi-Raq, a merging of Chicago and Iraq which in their eyes the Windy City has become. They’re not wrong.

Director Spike Lee has turned his gaze towards the problem and has come up with a unique viewpoint. Adapting the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes and setting it in modern-day Chicago, Lee makes the bold move of putting the dialogue into rhyming couplets – just as Aristophanes did. Utilizing a narrator named Dolmedes (Jackson) who acts as kind of a, if you’ll excuse the expression, Greek chorus, he tells the tale of two warring gangs; the Spartans, who wear purple and who are led by the passionate Chi-Raq (Cannon), a rapper with a rap sheet, and the Trojans, who wear orange and are led by the humorless one-eyed Cyclops (Snipes).

After an attempt on Chi-Raq’s life misfires, leaving a member from each gang badly injured, Chi-Raq and Lysistrata go back to her crib and do what comes naturally. The fire they are making suddenly becomes a bit too hot; Cyclops has set fire to the apartment building in an attempt to flush out Chi-Raq but that, too, fails.

Lysistrata moves in with Miss Helen (Bassett) across the street, a woman who preaches non-violence and doesn’t approve of Lysistrata’s lifestyle or choice in men. Lysistrata at first is not real happy about Miss Helen’s criticism, but all that changes when a young girl, the daughter of Irene (Hudson), is caught in the crossfire during a gang shootout and is killed. Local preacher-activist Fr. Mike Corridan (Cusack) thunders from his pulpit and urges his flock to change their ways.

When Lysistrata hears of a Liberian activist named Leymah Gbowee who convinced the women of that war-torn country to withhold sex from their men until peace was declared – and it was – she realizes that something like that could work in Chicago too, but she’ll have to convince the ladies of the various gang members on both sides which is no easy task since there’s plenty of suspicion to go around on both sides. However, all the women are tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing their children murdered, tired of seeing their men murdered. It’s time to make a difference, and the women decide to do just that. Their sex strike spreads to the prostitutes and phone sex girls, then to other cities. Soon men around the world are suffering blue balls, and the women seem to have the upper hand. However, the men won’t take this lack of lying down…lying down.

This is Spike Lee returning to his roots as it were, creating a movie that’s both ambitious and ballsy. How many directors do you know would adapt an ancient Greek play, set the dialogue in rhyme and infuse it with a rap soundtrack? Not damn many. Okay, just one.

Lee can sometimes have the touch of an elephant when making a point, but few excel at satire better than he. This is overtly a musical, but not in a West Side Story kind of fashion. This is at times a rap video but I do believe that’s part of the satire. He has gone into this territory before, with his casts breaking into song and dance numbers, but there is still a subversive flavor about the way he does it.

Likewise the humor can be big and brawny, but it tends to be more successful when it’s rapier-like or playful. Lee is not above poking fun at African-American icons or at himself for that matter, but occasionally he misfires when going after broader targets, like the National Guard general who comes off as a cornpone Confederate. That sequence doesn’t work and will probably hit Southerners the same way minstrel shows hit African-Americans. I suppose though that there is a bit of justice in those type of reverse stereotypes.

There are plenty of powerful performances here but none better than Parris as Lysistrata. Lee has a history of celebrating the strength and pride of African-American women throughout his films, and Parris may be the best he’s ever had. Not only is she a drop-dead, make a preacher kick a hole in a stained glass window gorgeous, she carries the movie’s sensibilities without being strident. She is super sexy when she needs to be (which is often) but also gentle and nurturing when she is called to be (which isn’t often). It’s a nuanced performance that just reeks of star potential.

Already stars, Jackson and Cusack have some great moments as well. Jackson is jaunty as the narrator, showing up in loud, colorful suits and outrageous hats, looking like a cross between a pimp in a 70s Blaxploitation movie and a tap dancer from a Busby Berkeley musical. Jackson keeps it light, which makes the movie work a lot better than if the tone was darker. Cusack has a powerful moment when he delivers a sermon at the little girl’s funeral, preaching until he goes hoarse, reiterating to me why he’s one of my very favorite actors. Bassett provides gravitas, and Hudson shows that she continues to be one of the best actresses in Hollywood with her brief but emotionally powerful role as the murdered girl’s mother.

Like most of Lee’s movies, the soundtrack is the real deal. But while the soundtrack here is rap, the movie is pure jazz and the same can be said about Lee. Love him or hate him, admire his politics or despise them, he takes chances and does things his own way. Not everything works here – at times I feel like he’s borrowing too much from other sources and the movie can have a “seen that before” quality that you sometimes get from a Tarantino film when that director falls too deeply in love with his references. However, this is clearly Lee’s best work in decades, although not up to his very best films. However, this is a welcome return to form by a director who is an American treasure that is rarely considered as such by the Hollywood establishment.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performance by Parris. Vintage Spike Lee. Nifty soundtrack. Subversive sense of humor.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly self-conscious. Not subtle at all. Occasionally bombastic. Sinks into cliche from time to time.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexual content and sexual references, some nudity, a little bit of violence, drug use and a whole lot of crude language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Wake up” is both the first and last line of dialogue in the film; it is also the first and last line of dialogue in Do the Right Thing which also featured Snipes and Jackson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Do the Right Thing
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II