Breaking the Chain of Racism
Jackie Robinson is Still in Play
Writer-director Brian Helgeland’s methodically balanced biopic about revered baseball legend Jackie Robinson manages the near-impossible feat of offering all things to all people. Baseball fans, those interested the civil rights struggle, and casual filmgoers will be rewarded with a tale that is equal parts history lesson and pure entertainment. Helgeland (screenwriter on “L.A. Confidential”) gets substantial support from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role as the first African American to be admitted into Major League Baseball in the modern era. Not only do Boseman’s chiseled facial features resemble those of Robinson circa 1947, but also the actor’s expressive athletic comportment on the field evinces the intensity of Jackie Robinson’s nimbleness of mind and body. For his part as the Brooklyn Dodger’s visionary general manager Branch Rickey — who broke an unwritten rule of baseball to sign Robinson in the first place — Harrison Ford delivers a consummate performance of rich character study. It’s the best work of his career.
Although Jackie Robinson’s story has been told many times on film, “42” revitalizes its clearly defined dramatic goals. The thematic message is outlined in Branch Rickey’s principal demand of his new player that Robinson function as an ambassador against racism. Rickey demands that Robinson exhibit “the guts not to fight back” against the constant barrage of threats and catcalls he endures as a black player in an all-white game. It’s a towering demand that few men could imagine living up to if put in a similar predicament.
Episodes of outrageous bigotry follow one after another. Robinson’s own teammates conspire against him during a training period in Havana, Cuba with the Montreal Royals. The filmmakers do a good job of condensing the potentially audience-alienating racist vitriol that Jackie Robinson was subjected to while still making their point. The Phillies’ bigoted loudmouth manager Ben Chapman (well played in a thankless role by Alan Tudyk) hurls every ugly racist epithet he can think of at Robinson during a series of games. The scenes are appropriately unnerving. Jackie Robinson calmly stands ground in the batter’s box — trying to get a hit for his team — while the largely white crowd contributes to an atmosphere of seething hatred.
The film’s replication of a historic publicity photo of Jackie Robinson and Ben Chapman standing side-by-side speaks volumes about the men’s mutual animosity, and Major League Baseball’s estimable effort to move the conversation forward. Robinson conveys passive resistance by picking up a bat for the men to hold so they won’t have to “touch skin.”
By telling a knotty personal story of far reaching public implications in such a straightforward fashion, the filmmakers allow the lore of Jackie Robinson’s wellspring of humanity to resonate against America’s ongoing disease of racism, which relentlessly permeates our daily lives. “42” isn’t about ignoring the condition; it’s about addressing it in a way that models appropriate behavior. Jackie Robinson imparted authority while wearing the number 42. This worthy film explains both how and why.
Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Iron Lady
Phyllida Lloyd Plays it Safe
By Cole Smithey
Between Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover biopic and director Phyllida Lloyd's ill-told life story of Margaret Thatcher, it might seem on the surface there's a concerted effort to lionize two of the Right's most reprehensible examples of absolute power corrupting absolutely. On closer inspection however, each of the films reveal latent hypocrisies in their political subjects. Both movies feature iconic performances from enormously talented actors giving their all to embody tragically flawed political figures. Meryl Streep makes somewhat more of a big-screen splash than Leonardo DiCaprio given that Margaret Thatcher was a higher profile public figure. Her every gesture and facial expression comes across with an astounding degree of authenticity, thanks in part to some terrific prosthetic assistance by the film’s highly skilled make-up department.
Phyllida Lloyd last directed Streep in the 2008 musical “Mamma Mia.” Here, she depends on a less than solid script by British playwright Abi Morgan, the same woman screenwriter responsible for 2011’s most overrated film “Shame.” Morgan shapes the backward gazing biopic from the perspective of a decrepit Thatcher suffering from severe bouts of dementia that allow for flashback reveries that frequently slip into a realm of the absurd.
Suspended within its retired subject's senile vantage point, that constantly converses with hallucinations of her deceased husband (played by Jim Broadbent in full tweet-tweet-arf-arf mode), "The Iron Lady" quietly equates Margaret Thatcher's distorted mental state with that of Ronald Reagan's Alzheimer's disease. The obvious deduction is that she wasn’t entirely in charge of her mental faculties when she served as Prime Minister--aka “Britain’s Fighting Lady.” The film inadvertently gives a persuasive sense of how hated Margaret Thatcher was by British citizens, and by the IRA who repeatedly attempted to assassinate her. Protesters assail her in public, and bomb blasts follow her. Unfortunately, for fear of dipping its toe into politics, the filmmakers dodge Thatcher’s public policies. Still, an emphasis on Thatcher's heavy-handed military response in the Falklands rightly paints her as a warmonger. The film goes to great lengths to present Margaret Thatcher as a hardened woman battling for her place in a man’s world with the closet weapon at hand—stubbornness. It doesn’t however make mention of crucial aspects of her formative experiences as a research chemist or as a barrister.
It's easy to come away from the movie with an idea that Margaret Thatcher was at best a penny-wise-and-pound foolish woman guilty of turning on her own kind; she was the daughter to a family of grocers. At worst, Margaret Thatcher contributed to the world's current economic collapse with a cunning brand of daring cruelty that defies logic and reason. Not even Meryl Streep is capable of making Margaret Thatcher a likeable human being in spite of the film’s doting attention to the character’s frail human dilemma. While "The Iron Lady" doesn't give Britain’s former Prime Minister anywhere near the historical justice of Elvis Costello's contemptuous ode to the Iron Lady, "Tramp the Dirt Down," it does remind us of one of the primary contributors to the world's economic crisis. History will not be kind to Margaret Thatcher.
Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Dangerous Method
Freud, Jung, and Spielrein
Cronenberg Explores Madness Behind the Method of Modern Psychotherapy
By Cole Smithey
Christopher Hampton's stage play "The Talking Cure" provides the cerebral basis for David Cronenberg to dive into the largely overlooked story of Sabina Spielrein and her influence on the fathers of modern psychoanalysis--Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
Sabina (played with astonishing authority by Keira Knightley) is a Russian Jewish mental patient brought to Jung's Burgholzli Clinic in Zurich in 1904. Sabina’s "hysteria" impedes her speech as she contorts her face, neck, and head in violent spasms. Outwardly, she seems obviously quite insane. Michael Fassbender's Jung is able to calmly look beyond Sabina's off-putting physical demeanor in the interest of curing her. Jung is determined to use Sabina as a premier test patient for Freud's revolutionary conversational therapy which he mistakenly calls "psychanalysis."
Cronenberg’s film glides effortlessly across years as Jung meets Freud (Viggo Mortensen) to discuss psychoanalysis and enjoin in a friendship fraught with lurking tension. The filmmaker masterfully controls the soundscape to underpin shifts of physical, emotional, and intellectual import. Howard Shore's delicate music is never allowed to intrude on a scene. Ugliness becomes beautiful; beauty becomes divine.
Jung and Freud share a special bond of academic endeavor exposed by their candid conversations about dreams. Jung shares his nighttime reveries for Freud to openly dissect. Freud knowingly holds the upper hand over his interpretive apprentice. Jung privately questions Freud’s insistence that sex is the crucial element to all mental dysfunction, even though his own experience with rehabilitating Sabina points to just such a conclusion. His refusal to fall in line with Freud’s strident approach puts a wedge in their relationship enabled by the patient they are fated to share.
Jung assists the perceptive and unguarded Sabina in her pursuit to become a psychoanalyst in spite of her debilitating behaviors that include an obsession with masturbation. Through Freud’s cat’s-paw influence Jung enters into an adulterous BDSM affair with Sabina after visiting one of Freud’s patients, a fellow psychiatrist named Otto Gross (exuberantly played by Vincent Cassel). Gross dismisses all social limitations in favor of a purely hedonistic lifestyle that includes a steady diet of sexual activity with staff and patients at the lush Vienna psychiatric facility whose walls only temporally contain him. The nihilistic Gross supplies Jung with all the selfish rationalization he requires to ignore his wife Emma (Sarah Gordon) and children in favor of the heretofore virginal Sabina.
“A Dangerous Method” is a fertile character study and history lesson that tenaciously explores the personal conflicts of ego and id between Jung and Freud. The film also pays generous homage to the woman whose outré sexual desires enabled her to turn Freud’s theories around. Freud went so far as to entrust Sabina with several of his patients for her to treat. As an actors’ showcase, the film is stunning. David Cronenberg has matured into a director of immeasurable confidence and gracefulness. He maintains his trademark fearlessness toward sexual obsessions and their potentially cataclysmic effects. Like Otto Gross he is incapable of “passing by an oasis without stopping to drink.”
Rated R. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Social Network
Fincher's Tech-Wave Feast:
A Movie More Entertaining Than Facebook
By Cole Smithey
Boy tech geeks won't be able to prevent themselves from outbursts of clapping, laughter, and bladder leaks while watching David Fincher's fast-paced drama about the meteoric rise of Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook. Zuckerberg has, of course, famously derided this quasi-biopic as a piece of fiction. Perhaps he needn't worry. Napster co-founder Sean Parker (played dynamically by Justin Timberlake) comes across as a much bigger genius-idiot-douchebag than Zuckerberg does in the film. Jesse Eisenberg does a better job than expected as Zuckerberg, portraying him as an acid-tongued, fast-twitch cyberpunk who wilts every lesser intellect around him. The movie kicks off with Zuckerberg on a stormy date with girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara). The future mogul confronts, condescends, accuses, and changes subjects like an ADD/OCD speed junkie on a tear.
After Erica hands him his walking papers Zuckerberg rushes back to his Harvard dorm room to get drunk and blog about Erica's intimate failings. Then he cobbles together a which-girl-is-hotter comparison website called "Facemash" that invites every frathouse tool to humiliate their female classmates by rating their attractiveness (or lack thereof). One hour and 20,000 viewers later, the site crashes Harvard's mainframe—and turns Zuckerberg into a big man on campus. Soon rowing crew twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss approach the genius coder to build them a Harvard social network site. Zuckerberg agrees, only to blow them off for the next six –weeks. Instead he cooks up his own soon-to-be-spectacularly-popular networking site with the help of best friend and newly appointed CFO Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
Aaron Sorkin's dazzling script toggles between knee-slapping law office depositions of Zuckerberg and the litigious Winklevoss twins (who are out to sue him), and flashback sequences that tell the back story. Eduardo Saverin is also there, demanding 600 million dollars in punitive damages. Context and tone are everything in this pitch-perfect drama, anchored in the mishandled friendship between the cold-blooded Zuckerberg and his disrespected business partner Eduardo.
"The Social Network" arrives at an unprecedented time in modern history when the inertia of the internet zeitgeist can be encapsulated in one word; Facebook.
The filmmakers wisely stay away from explicating how people use Facebook or in any nitty-gritty details about the application itself. Fincher and Sorkin utilize a compressed communicative shorthand to tap into a coded tempo of frenzied energy that people use when engaging on Facebook. These are characters that think and talk fast. Very fast. The way the filmmakers and actors grab the audience by the lapels and pull you up to speed with them, is more than a little arresting.
It's telling that we're introduced to Sean Parker in the bed of an impossibly nubile Stanford college student in the morning after a night of sex. She is as shocked to discover his affluent identity as he is to be introduced to Facebook for the first time. He immediately recognizes the "coolness" element that makes Facebook a much sexier medium than something like Craigslist. Zuckerberg's execution of "taking the entire social experience of college and putting it all online" is an iceberg tip that the narcissistic and "paranoid" Parker appreciates as just the thing to turbo charge the economically flagging silicon valley region of Palo Alto.
Some critics have fallen all over themselves comparing "The Social Network" to "Citizen Kane" for their thematic similarities of emotionally slighted young media mavericks who took advantage of the people closest to them to accomplish their macro-macro goals. But it's a quicksand trap to make such a comparison. Critics panned "Citizen Kane" when it came out as a "labyrinth without a center." But it's clear that the economic center that has made Zuckerberg the youngest billionaire in history is a young-minded public of internet users hungry for attention and safe interaction. There's an undercurrent of sadness to the film's scale and techo-laced musical score that recognizes its subject's frat boy logic and sorority girl gamesmanship. The tragedy here isn't personal; it's public.
Rated R. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)