Hunger


Hunger

Bobby Sands seeks counsel from a priest in the most compelling scene from Hunger.

(IFC) Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Liam Cunningham, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahan, Laine Megaw. Directed by Steve McQueen

Change doesn’t always come through discussion and negotiation. Sometimes, when all else fails, one must risk everything to effect meaningful change.

Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is a member of the Irish Republican Army who was imprisoned in Long Kesh, the prison the British used primarily to house members of the IRA. He and his fellow Irishmen in the prison are protesting prison conditions by refusing to shave or bathe. They yearn to be recognized as political prisoners, which they consider themselves to be, by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, who considers them nothing more than common criminals.

The prisoners are brutally beaten and forced to shave, particularly by Lohan, a guard (Graham) who seems conflicted by his duties. It is clear their tactics aren’t working. Sands decides to go on a hunger strike, a massive one involving all the prisoners until their cause is recognized. There had been a previous hunger strike that had been unsuccessful but Sands felt it was because the strikers had never been prepared to actually take that strike to its logical conclusion; it was more of a protest than a negotiation tactic.

He argues the point with a particularly level-headed Catholic Priest (Cunningham), a realist with a world view that is remarkably logical. The priest argues the ineffectiveness of the tactic as opposed to its morality; never once does he mention the word “sin.” It’s a compelling scene, shot in one, continuous take, 17 minutes worth. It is one of the longest continuous shots in the history of film and is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Sands would refuse food for 66 days and suffered horrifying physical debilitation; kidney failure, ulcerating sores, weakness. He eventually died and became a martyr to the Irish Republican cause, a position he continues to occupy 28 years after the events of the strike.

McQueen is careful not to over-politicize the movie but it is clear his sympathies lie more with the prisoners than the Thatcher government. McQueen concentrates on prison conditions rather than on the actions that got the prisoners there in the first place which tends to make the men more sympathetic than they might have been. Nonetheless it is a compelling story, a story of will and absolute belief in a cause.

McQueen doesn’t tell this story in a conventional manner. Sands hardly appears at all until nearly halfway through the film when he decides to initiate the strike. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this – it’s clear McQueen is a gifted filmmaker. My only issue is that he has a tendency to use imagery as an end rather than a means; flocks of birds which quite obviously symbolize freedom appear often. I don’t mind a symbol; I just object to being hit in the face with it as if I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

The acting is very solid, but Fassbender and Cunningham elevate. Their scene together may be one of the best I’ve seen this year. Most of the cast aren’t well-known here in the States, but they do some very credible work in difficult circumstances.

Sands is implacable in his dedication to his cause, as fanatics are. He is willing to lead his fellow prisoners to death in order to get his point across, as indeed he did. Did he get the concessions he wanted? History tells us for the most part he did. Although the prisoners of Long Kesh were never formally recognized by the Thatcher government as political prisoners, they were in fact treated that way. In the end, the Sinn Fein would be recognized as a legitimate political entity and Ireland would eventually see peace.

The figure of Bobby Sands still looms large in the Irish psyche and to a certain extent, as a polarizing force. Some see him as a hero and a martyr while others see him as a criminal and a coward. McQueen clearly sees him as the former. For my part, I admire his dedication to the cause. However, that is tempered by my discomfort with the tactics of the IRA, who used bombs and guns to get their point across, often on innocent people. I simply can’t condone it, although there are many who feel that they were fully justified in what they did. I don’t know how I would have felt living a Catholic in Belfast in that time; perhaps I would have seen things differently. Still, this is a story that should be told and here, it is told tolerably well. While I don’t ever get the impression that I knew who the man Bobby Sands was from watching this film, I at least get a sense of what he went through at the end of his life.

WHY RENT THIS: A no punches pulled, no holds barred look at the final six weeks of IRA hunger strike organizer Bobby Sands’ life. The scene between Fassbender and Cunningham is the highlight of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: McQueen’s gratuitous use of flocking birds got to be annoying and unnecessary. “Look Ma, I’m directing.” McQueen’s sympathies clearly lie with the IRA, which may be difficult for some to accept.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of male frontal nudity, depictions of graphic prison brutality as well as the effects of starvation. Not for the squeamish in any way, shape or form.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Liam Cunningham roomed with Michael Fassbender prior to filming in order to practice their 17 minute scene together, knowing it would be filmed in one continuous shot. Even though they often practiced the scene five to ten times a day for weeks, it still took four takes to get the scene right.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Prestige

CSA: The Confederate States of America


CSA: The Confederate States of America

Heroic soldiers of the Confederate Army raise the Stars & Bars over Mt. Suribachi.

(IFC) Charles Frank, Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson, Harvey A. Williams, Arlo Kasper, Robert Sokol. Directed by Kevin Willmott

There are watershed moments in history that are so significant, we are often prompted to ask “what if” those moments didn’t go the way they actually did.

The fall of the Confederacy is one such moment. Writers like Harry Turtledove have speculated on what the world would look like if the South had won the Civil War. Here, director Willmott gives us a look in a highly original method. Inspired by Ken Burns’ influential PBS documentary “The Civil War,” he posits a British documentary on the history of America that goes counter to what the Confederate government has taught its people and asks questions that the government doesn’t want the American people to consider.

In this version of history, Judah Benjamin (an actual historical figure) convinces England and France to come to the aid of the South, supplying troops to help Robert E. Lee overwhelm the Union army at Gettysburg. As a result, the Confederacy wins the war and conquers Washington DC. Abraham Lincoln (Kasper) attempts to flee north to Canada, aided by Harriet Tubman. They are caught, Tubman summarily executed and Lincoln sent to a military prison where he languishes for two years before being pardoned and exiled to Canada, where he lives in bitterness until his death in 1905.

The film is narrated by Frank in a dry manner that nails what you would hear in actual British documentaries. Much of the information is communicated by a pair of historians from opposite sides of the coin; Confederate historian and apologist Sherman Hoyle (Pate) and Patricia Johnson (Johnson), a Canadian historian descended from American slaves who fled to the Great White North. There is also John Fauntroy V (Peterson), a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party descended from one of the founders of the Confederacy and whose family has achieved Kennedy-like status in this alternate universe.

A further conceit is that the documentary is being transmitted on broadcast television for the first time, and there are commercials interspersed for products, many of which I won’t repeat here because they are so offensive. However, many of them are actual products from American history and those that aren’t, like a website for online slave auctions, might well have been.

Director Willmott is an academic, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and displays an academic’s perspective, which leads to an overly dry sensibility at times. Still, he also has a deft hand at satire and when the movie is at its best, it is genuinely funny and thought-provoking. However, the movie can be scattershot; when the movie isn’t working, it can be awfully uncomfortable. This may well be on purpose or to help us examine our own attitudes towards racism. In any case, no less a personage than Spike Lee has put his stamp on the film, whose name is attached to the film as a “Spike Lee presents” type of thing.

This isn’t for everyone; the production values here aren’t exceptional and the acting can be a mixed bag. Still if you look at the big picture, the movie has plenty to offer and there’s nothing wrong with checking out a movie that makes you consider your own values somewhat.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some genuinely cutting satire here and when the movie works, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: When the movie isn’t working well, the viewer feels more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Younger sorts may not understand that this is a satire and not an actual documentary. There is a good deal of racist invective (necessarily, given the subject matter) that may be disturbing to some.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The faux D.W. Griffith movie The Capture of Dishonest Abe includes footage from actual D.W. Griffith movies.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Flags of Our Fathers

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days


Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu undergo a grueling night.

Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu undergo a grueling night.

(IFC First Take) Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean, Ion Sapdaru, Teodor Corban, Tania Popa. Directed by Cristian Mungiu.

The communist regime in Romania was a particularly repressive one. There were strict laws governing the lives and morality of the people of Romania lived in constant terror of breaking those laws, which sometimes became necessary as in the case of a young unmarried woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion, you see, was illegal.

College roommates Otilia (Marinca) and Gabita (Vasiliu) are preparing for a night away from their noisy dormitory. This is no mere vacation, however. Gabita is pregnant and desperate and has turned to her roommate to help her obtain an illegal abortion.

Gabita is a mess. Unable to follow even the simplest instruction, she has no inertia, no drive. She more or less relies on everyone around her (i.e. Otilia) to take care of her. Otilia raises the money (much of it from her boyfriend Adi (Potocean) who comes from a professional family of doctors) and checks them into their hotel. Gabita even sends Otilia to meet the abortionist (Ivanov), a violation of the rules that the abortionist, Mr. Bebe, set in advance. In fact, Gabita had even been unable to make the reservations at the hotel Mr. Bebe had specified, leaving Otilia to scramble to find any kind of hotel that had rooms available.

Because of Gabita’s gaffe, Otilia is forced to find a more expensive hotel, leaving them short in the agreed-upon amount for the abortionist. He forces them to make up the amount in trade – a very explicit trade. Not just with Gabita, but also with Otilia. At first she balks, but eventually gives in. She even goes first.

As it turns out, Gabita has even lied about how far along she is in her pregnancy, adding more risk to the abortion. After Bebe does what he has to do, he informs Gabita that she must lie still while the drugs do their work. Afterwards, the aborted fetus must be disposed of – preferably, down the garbage chute. However, Otilia has made previous arrangements to attend a birthday party for her boyfriend’s mother and must leave Gabita alone for a short while.

This is a brutally stark movie that levels an unblinking eye on a time and place in history. The participants are flawed, frightened and all-too-human. Director Mungiu chooses a simplistic approach. There are no jump cuts, no montages, none of the things associated with modern short attention span cinematography. Instead we get simple one scene, one shot set-ups with close attention paid to camera angles. In fact, there is not any incidental music in the entire film.

This is a wise move in that it forces the viewer to focus on the performances and the story. The two leads do a remarkable job. Marinca in particular, is noteworthy. Despite the storyline, this is more her film than Vasiliu’s as her character is the one that really carries the action. Even so, Marinca’s Otilia gives in to pressure, attending the birthday party even though she knows her friend needs her; sleeps with the abortionist so that her friend can have the abortion. She’s a fascinating contrast of strength and weakness.

Vasiliu has more of a thankless job, playing a character that is passive and self-centered. Her final scene with Marinca has been decried as anti-climactic, but it is one of her finest on-screen moments in my opinion. We see a bit more of the girl’s personality, making it obvious that she has learned nothing from the experience. It’s just an unpleasantness to be put behind her as quickly as possible.

There are those who will be uncomfortable with the abortion scenes, which are fairly clinical and graphic. While those who are pro-life might object about a movie that is about seeking out an abortion, these scenes will sell the anti-abortion point of view far more effectively. It is hard to tell if the filmmakers have a point of view about the morality of abortion; I suspect they may be anti-abortion if anything. Nothing good seems to come of the procedure here.

In many ways, however, this isn’t a movie about the pros and cons of abortion. It’s about the characters and how they are changed by what they do. The depiction of Romanian society is chilling; the paranoia is dealt with in an almost matter-of-fact style, which can be a bit jarring for western audiences used to freedom.

The starkness of the film may be off-putting to some, but it is one of the things I liked most about it. This is an honest, unflinching look at a place and time, and how that place and time affected the people who lived in it. We in the west are very unfamiliar with that place and time, and it is worth the perspective of seeing a glimpse of it to make us appreciate what we do have all the more.

WHY RENT THIS: A stark, unflinching look at a repressive society that we in the States have little knowledge of. Remarkable performances by Marinca and Vasiliu are worth checking out.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too graphic and honest for some. Subject matter may also be off-putting to those who find even the subject of abortion intolerable.

FAMILY VALUES: The is a graphic depiction of an abortion, as well as some nudity, and implied forced sex.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An extraordinary documentary about attempts to show the film in Romania. There is also a very interesting interview with director Cristian Mungiu.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Right at Your Door