Te Ata


The nobility and majesty of the Chickasaw culture personified.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Paladin) Q’orianka Kilcher, Gil  Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh, Cindy Pickett, Jenni Mabrey, Marissa Skell, Boriana Williams, Don Taylor, Robert Ousley, Gordon Fox, Tom Nowicki, Zac Abbott, Gail Cronauer, Bill Anoatubby, Jeannie Barbour, Lona Barrick, Robert Cheadle, Chandler Schultz, Stacy Cunningham. Directed by Nathan Frankowski

 

The treatment of the native culture by the American government is not one of our finest and proudest achievements. We have put them in ghettos, marginalized them as a people, infected them with disease and alcoholism and relegated their culture to near-extinction. Some extraordinary Native Americans however have helped preserve that culture for all of us to marvel at and learn from today.

In Oklahoma, the Chickasaw nation has produced a film about one of their favorite daughters. Mary Frances Thompson (Williams) was born on their reservation, the daughter of Chickasaw shopkeeper (and tribal treasurer) T.B. Thompson (Birmingham) and his Caucasian wife Bertie (Brannagh). She was a precocious child who was in love with the natural world and with the stories of her people told to her by her father and grandparents. As she grew older, she developed a wanderlust and her natural intelligence compelled her to attend the Oklahoma College for Women (today known as the University for Science and Arts in Oklahoma) and be the first Native American to graduate from there.

Under the tutelage of Miss Davis (Pickett), a drama teacher who recognizes the light in the young Native, she develops “the bug” for the stage and emigrates to New York over the strong objections of her father (who knowing the racism of whites wants to keep his daughter close to home where he feels he can protect her better) to try to get a part on Broadway. However, although she shows some talent, it is when reciting the stories of her culture to adoring crowds (as she did during a school recital) when the girl most shines. Taking the stage name of Te Ata Thompson (Kilcher), based on a nickname given to her as a child from a Maori phrase meaning “bearer of the morning,” she begins to tour around the country and indeed the globe. One of her performances attracts the notice of Eleanor Roosevelt (Cronauer) who would become a lifelong friend and supporter. However, even more importantly, it would attract the attention of academic Clyde Fisher (Astin) who would at first be enchanted by the stories but quickly by the storyteller. The two would fall in love but in order to get married they would have to get the blessing of a man who would be a most difficult man to sell on the idea – Te Ata’s father.

The movie has a feel like a Disney movie to a certain extent and not necessarily in a good way. The home life feels a bit like Main Street, USA – all theme park-idealized and perhaps not very real. Te Ata early on witnesses an act of racially-motivated violence which was probably quite common and later in the film is upset by the racist depiction of Native Americans in a cartoon, something sadly common at the time. However, the treatment of the Natives is mostly observed through a law forbidding the practice of native customs and dances during a time when the American government felt these practices were heathen and anti-Christian. While it’s true that this symbolizes the prevailing official attitude of the government, we don’t get a sense of the petty indignities suffered by Natives at the time other than through the cartoon.

We do get a sense of the rich cultural heritage of the Chickasaw through the stories, taken from the actual stories the real Te Ata performed in her lifetime. The stories are marvelous and are at the heart of the movie. However, I must caution that when Kilcher (who is also a talented singer and musician) performs the songs of the Chickasaw people, they sound almost like pop songs right out of American Idol and I had to wonder if the real Te Ata would have approved of these interpretations.

Kilcher, who wowed audiences with her portrayal of Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World (which made her the youngest person ever to be nominated for an acting Oscar, a record that stood until broken by Quvenzhané Wallis in 2012) reminds us that she is an accomplished actress with her performance here. There was some criticism that the storytelling performances depicted were over-the-top and highly mannered, but that was the acting style of the era. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find any footage (or even audio) of her actual performances but maybe with a diligent search you might be able to see them firsthand.

The cinematography is pretty nifty with some beautiful images of the Oklahoma outdoors as well as the small town early 20th century life near Emet, Oklahoma where the real Te Ata grew up (and later near Tishomingo where her family moved to when she was a young girl). The movie is perhaps the most respectful of native American culture since Dances with Wolves but hopefully will inspire more films about the culture and lore of Native Americans which has been sadly underrepresented on the screen. However, my big objection to the movie is that it feels sanitized, like a Native American gift shop of trinkets that capture the elements of the culture that maybe the non-native population wants to see without capturing the real essence of it. Only when Kilcher is reciting her stories do we really feel that culture as a living, breathing entity and in those moments Te Ata really soars. I just wish there were more of them.

REASONS TO GO: The stories Te Ata tells are mesmerizing and touching. Kilcher delivers a fine performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Everything feels a little Disney-fied, the songs too poppy and the atmosphere a little too Main Street USA. The film could have used a little more kick.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and depictions of racism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 1939 (after the period depicted in the film), Te Ata performed for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England at Hyde Park in New York at the behest of President Roosevelt, an event that was depicted in Hyde Park on Hudson in which Te Ata was portrayed by Kumiko Konishi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dances with Wolves
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mummy (2017)

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Amelia


Amelia

Richard Swank and Hilary Swank hope they've found the route to success.

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, Cherry Jones, Joe Anderson, Aaron Abrams, William Cuddy, Dylan Roberts, Scott Yaphe, Tom Fairfoot, Ryann Shane. Directed by Mira Nair

One of the more fascinating figures of the 20th century was Amelia Earhart. An aviatrix in a time where the skies were dominated by men, she was unafraid to take bold chances in pursuing her dream. In the process, she empowered women to follow their dreams and became one of the most popular celebrities of her time, yet today she is perhaps more generally remembered for her mysterious disappearance on her final flight.

Young Amelia Earhart (Shane) grew up in Atchison, Kansas on the wide-open plains but even these endless horizons were not endless enough for her. She sees an airplane flying overhead and dreams of chasing the clouds in the sky.

Grown-up Amelia (Swank) is summoned to an interview with publisher and latter-day P.T. Barnum George Putnam (Gere), who is looking for someone to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. Several women had made the attempt but none had as yet succeeded. Amelia is eager to fly but Putnam frankly doesn’t think she has the skill. She will be little more than an ornament on the flight, ostensibly given the command of a pilot (Anderson) – who is oddly named Bill in the movie, but whose name was Wilmer Stultz in reality – and navigator Louis “Slim” Gordon (Abrams). They arrive in Scotland in 1928 and Earhart is catapulted into fame and fortune.

She goes out on the lecture circuit, co-authors a book about her experiences and endorses a variety of products from luggage to clothes to cigarettes (which she only reluctantly does as a non-smoker in order to make sure that her fellow aviators from the Trans-Atlantic flight were paid). She is clearly uncomfortable with the circus but realizes that it is necessary for her to jump through these hoops in order to finance the flights she wants to make.

In addition, she and Putnam become romantically involved and although he wants to marry her, she resists. She doesn’t want her freedom to be impinged on, or have her dreams crushed by the weight of being a wife and mother. Eventually, after Putnam promises that they will be “at the dual controls” of their relationship, she relents.

At a high society party, she meets Gene Vidal (McGregor), former Olympic athlete, suave high society member and aeronautics instructor at West Point. The attraction between the two is immediate and palpable. Even Putnam notices it but chooses to ignore it. Amelia recommends to Eleanor Roosevelt (Jones) that Vidal be named the first Director of the Bureau of Air Commerce (the forerunner to the F.A.A.) which surprises the First Lady since she thought Earhart would be more enthusiastic about a woman in the role.

In 1932, she launches her most ambitious flight yet – a solo Trans-Atlantic flight. She would be the first person since Lindbergh to accomplish it (and of course the first woman). Although Putnam has misgivings, he bids her farewell witha “See you.” Amelia, who was supposed to land in Paris, instead touches down in an Irish meadow, greeting an astonished shepherd and his flock with an enthusiastic “Hello, sheep!!!”

Once home the adulation increases and she finds herself even more constrained and feeling trapped. She begins an affair with Vidal whose son Gore (Cuddy) would eventually grow up to become a famous author and essayist. When Putnam finds a love letter she’d written to Vidal and she realizes how much she’s hurt him, she ends her affair with Vidal.

However, now her sights are set on a feat that nobody had been able to accomplish – an around the world flight. Using a bit of chicanery, Putnam arranges for Purdue University to establish a department of aeronautics with Amelia as chair and has them buy her a Lockheed Elektra as a “flying laboratory.”

But a flight around the world isn’t as easy as it sounds. There is one gap in the Pacific where the expanse of ocean is so broad that refueling is nearly impossible. Amelia doesn’t have the skill needed for air refueling so it is decided a refueling stop would be made on Howland Island, a tiny little low-lying spit of sand in the vast blue of the Pacific. A navigator with experience in celestial navigation is needed and Fred Noonan (Eccleston) is hired, although he has a history of drinking.

Their first try ends in disaster. A mechanical failure causes the Elektra to crash on take-off from Honolulu. They repair the plane but the route must be changed; instead of flying east to west, they must now fly west to east in order to avoid inclement weather. That would put the most dangerous leg, from New Guinea to Howland, near the end of the flight, a flight that would end in tragedy but would elevate Earhart into legend.

Director Mira Nair has made movies with a feminist bent in her career, so this would seem to be a good fit. Swank also physically resembles Earhart pretty closely both in body type and face. She has also picked up the cadences of Earhart’s speech which is a bit of distraction at times – it sounds like Swank is in a screwball comedy – but is authentic at least.

Nair has recreated the roaring ‘20s and the Depression-era ‘30s very nicely, from the costuming and set design to the cadences of speech. She also incorporates newsreel footage of the actual Earhart as well as newspaper headlines to further give perspective to Earhart’s fame and accomplishments.

One of the things that I have to remark upon is the aerial photography. Nair delivers some breathtaking imagery of what Earhart must have seen from her vantage point in the sky. You can see the appeal it must have had to aviators to witness the wonders of our world from a height where you can actually make them out.

The last scenes are harrowing, as Eccleston and Swank deliver painful performances displaying the anguish, fear, frustration and despair the two must have felt as their fuel dwindled and Earhart was unable to communicate with the U.S.S. Itasca, a Coast Guard cutter dispatched to assist her in reaching Howland. Even though we know how the story ends, the tension level is very high, rendering these scenes some of the most effective in the film.

The issue I have with the movie is that it doesn’t really give you any more of a sense of who Amelia Earhart was. She loved to fly, check. She took some risks, check. Advocated civil aviation and encouraged women to fly, check and double check. There are some moments where we get a glimpse of who Amelia might have been but the writers don’t really delve deeply into it. What we get is a bit too much reverence and not enough intuition. The movie is like an issue of Vogue – very glossy but ultimately of little substance. However, the subject matter and the photography are enough to make you want to read the magazine anyway.

REASONS TO GO: The movie captures the period very effectively. The aerial shots are not to be missed. Swank gives an energetic performance that is charming in places. The final scenes of Amelia’s last flight are very well handled, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seats even though they know how the story ends.

REASONS TO STAY: I never got a sense that I had gotten to know Earhart any better than I had before I saw the movie. While the story of Amelia Earhart is fascinating, the movie seemed to capture only her essence rather than fleshing her out. I left feeling there was a better film to be made on the subject, never a good thing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality, and plenty of drinking and smoking but otherwise suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mia Wasikowska, who played Elinor Smith here, will next be seen in the title role in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

HOME OR THEATER: The sweeping aerial shots make seeing this in a theater a worthwhile endeavor.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)