Thursday, November 28, 2013

THERE' S PLENTY TO BE THANKFUL FOR AT THE MOVIES THIS 2013 THANKSGIVING SEASON

The first half of 2013 was not a stellar year for movies. Aside from Woody Allen’s splendidly dark BLUE JASMINE, little was memorable. Even less, award worthy. But in the last few months, the films that have emerged are incredibly impressive and going to make for a compelling awards season.

The New York Film Critics chime in with their “Best of 2013” list already on December 2. I will have not seen all the films I need to see then to make such judgments myself. But I can tell you now that there is a lot to be thankful for at the movies. And what better time to laud them than Thanksgiving Day?
Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY
GRAVITY
For my money, it’s the film of the year. This simple story about an astronaut (Sandra Bullock) struggling to survive when she’s lost in space affected me like no other this year. Apparently, it’s done the same to others as it’s gotten a 97 out of 100 rating at Rotten Tomatoes (http://bit.ly/WV06), and has made almost 250 million at the box office so far. Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron’s dissertation on loneliness moved me to both tears and exhilaration. And his technical achievement is unmatched this year. Tell me you don’t believe you are in space the entire time, IMAX screen or not. And you know where else you are the whole time? On the edge of your seat.
Matthew McConaughey in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.
matthew mcconaughey
The actor who has impressed me the most this year is McConaughey. While he’s always been a likable romantic lead and a good actor, in the last few years he’s challenged himself with risky roles far outside the traditional comfort zone of his ‘good ol’ boy’ image. He gave a tough supporting performance in MUD this year, and in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, he gives one of the best performances of 2013. It is nothing less than amazing. He dropped some 40 pounds to play AIDS-inflicted Ron Woodruff, but more importantly, McConaughey digs deep into the psyche of the character he’s playing. He plays the man as frightened, furious, and reluctantly courageous as Woodruff fights to not only try to beat the deadly disease but also to curb his own worst macho and bigoted redneck impulses.
Vera Farmiga in THE CONJURING
THE CONJURING
Just when I feared the horror genre was being overrun with lame sequels, insipid remakes and scripts that favored gore over character, along comes James Wan’s complex and disturbing thriller THE CONJURING. The story, based on real-life 1970’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), was a crackling thriller that earned all of its scares honestly and earnestly. It’s not only the best horror movie of the year; it’s one of the best films of the year.
The various posters for Lars von Trier's film NYMPHOMANIAC
THE POSTERS FOR NYMPHOMANIAC
Lars von Trier always can be counted on to be provocative and controversial. Personally, I think he’s much more than that, one of our more distinctive and smart voices working in cinema today. His latest, about sex, promises more of all of that. And the posters are certainly this year’s most breakthrough expressions on the broadsheet canvas in some time.


ALL IS LOST
Can a movie with only one actor in it be an utterly compelling big screen experience? If it’s a film by J. C. Chandor and stars Robert Redford in a career-capping performance of unerring grace and skill, it sure can!
Adele Exarchopoulos in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR
ADELE EXARCHOPOULOS
I don’t know if this young French actress of only 20 will be the next Catherine Deneuve or Juliette Binoche, but right now, this year, she gave what I consider to be the performance of 2013. Her lead in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR wrung me out. She is laid bare on the screen in Abdellatif Kechiche’s brutally honest film about the course of a relationship. Not only was Exarchopoulos asked to do the most intimate sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture, but she bared her soul too. Every raw emotion was there throughout, from her ecstasy to her distress to her depression. Her nose ran, her cheeks burned, and she was often a hot mess, but it is an utterly moving portrayal of a young woman trying to find her place in the world and I’m still obsessing over Exarchopolous’ achievement a month after seeing it.


WOODY ALLEN
I’ve said it before, that he’s our nation’s best living filmmaker (http://bit.ly/10Hzz3i), and Woody continues to amaze with this year’s BLUE JASMINE. The story of a rich woman losing everything, including her own sense of worth, is a searing work from the 77-year-old, and it’s one of the year’s best films.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN STORIES
THE BUTLER and 12 YEARS A SLAVE have garnered great reviews and big audiences this year. White audiences too. So has FRUITVALE STATION.  That’s great, considering all are complex films that don’t blanch from showing white discrimination and their persecution of blacks. Perhaps America is recognizing such stories are compelling, need to be told, and shouldn’t be ignored. And even more wonderfully, diverse audiences are lining up for light fluff like BEST MAN HOLIDAY too. A good story is a good story. And no matter the race, creed or sex of the cast, more often than not, human experiences are relatable to all.

Bruce Dern in NEBRASKA
THE BEST ACTOR RACE THIS YEAR
Look at this list of possible nominees for male lead of 2013: Bruce Dern, Chiwetol Ejiofar, Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey, Robert Redford, Forest Whitaker, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar Isaac, Miles Teller, Hugh Jackman…My God, maybe Oscar's Best Actor category should be pushed to allow 10 instead of five...or even 20!

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron
ALFONSO CUARON
Speaking of Oscars, Mr. Cuaron, I believe the Best Director one will be yours come March 2, and very possibly the one for Best Picture too.


Well, those are just 10 things I’m thrilled with this year. How about you? Share your thoughts here and let’s keep this dialogue going, shall we?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

REVISITING THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION AND THE OLIVER STONE FILM ‘JFK’

Original caricature of the movie JFK by Jeff York. (copyright 1992)
On November 22nd, it will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Not surprising, the media is chock full of new books, specials, and a new Blu-Ray release of Oliver Stone’s film “JFK”. It’s an incredible ‘whodunnit’ and is shot like a thriller. I believe it is Stone’s finest film. And its failure to buy the story of what happened in Dallas on that fateful day seems even more appropriate for these untrustworthy times than it did when the film was released way back in 1991.

Why? Some say the public assassination of Kennedy brought destroyed the collective innocence of our nation. It certainly made the electorate uneasy about the answers we were told about the how and why of Kennedy's death. Almost immediately, the public rejected the Warren Report's take on Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole guilty party in the killing. Such was the furor over it, that before the Kennedy assassination, 3 out of 4 Americans believed their country would do right by them. Afterwards, the sentiment sank to only 1 in 4. And after Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran/Contra, Iraq, and an ACA website that can’t even launch properly, can the number of true believers even be that high? 
The cover of the Blu-ray of JFK to be released November 12th.
The Warren Commission's report on the assassination was a debacle, missing crucial information, ignoring various testimonies, and glossing over facts that needed further explanation. (Hello? The President’s brain was lost between Parkland Hospital and the trip back to DC!) As many pegged it, including the first major conspiracy theorist attorney Mark Lane, the report was a ‘rush to judgment’, one that left a majority of Americans suspicious of a government cover-up. The fact that the assassination files were sealed and ordered kept from the public for decades right after only furthered national disgust and ire.

Stone’s film continues the line of questioning that the American people had at the time, including New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner, in all-American mode). Garrison was so offended by the missed opportunity of the Warren Report that he started his own investigation into Kennedy's killing. And in 1969, he brought a New Orleans businessman named Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) to trial for what he believed was his part in a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. That is the central narrative of Stone’s film.
DA Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) presents his case for conspiracy in JFK.
Stone asks the same questions that still don't have very satisfactory answers, fifty years later. How could Lee Harvey Oswald act alone, as the Report contends, when there are so many inconsistencies, discrepancies and falsehoods in the 'official story'? How did a Soviet defector such as Oswald breeze back into the country at the height of the Cold War? Weren’t his connections to both far-left groups as well as far-right groups worth examining further? Were they a red flag? Or perhaps a red herring? Why was a man visiting the Cuban embassy in Mexico City identified as Oswald when the photograph showed him to be a completely different person? Why did a picture taken of the Dallas School Book Depository building at the exact moment of the shooting show Oswald standing in the doorway? Why wasn’t Oswald allowed legal council after his arrest? And wasn’t it all a bit too suspicious that Jack Ruby, the strip club owner with ties to the Mob, conveniently silenced Oswald before he could give any sworn statement or testimony? 

These are just a few of the hundreds of nagging questions that plague this case and Stone makes hay of most of them in his expansive, investigative ‘docudrama’. He also probes into the ideas of CIA involvement in the assassination, as well as the apparent implications of ties to the military industrial complex. And he dramatizes the coincidences and connections that point to a much bigger picture of evil than a mere lone nut. 
Filmmaker Oliver Stone today.
Of course, many parts of his movie are fictionalized, as all movies based on true stories must be for narrative coherence and time constraints, yet despite some of those narrative flourishes, Stone gets the big facts right and offers up amazing details in his telling. Garrison may have met with Mr. X (Donald Sutherland) years after the trial rather than during, but the theories that Mr. X lays out were indeed the ones presented by former CIA operative Fletcher Prouty, the man whom X is based on. And the compelling rationale comes off with great clarity in the film.

And even if you want to argue with Stone's take on things, you can’t really argue against the brilliance of his filmmaking. To tell such a vast story is daunting, and yet Stone makes his case crystal clear. The cinematography by Ron Richardson won him an Oscar and showcased  six different film stocks to illustrate all the various pieces of the intricate puzzle. The editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia was honored by the Academy  too. The film received eight Oscar nominations in all, including a Best Picture nod. Roger Ebert also happened to pick it as the year's best.

The film also contains one of John Williams’ most haunting and tense scores. And the acting by the all-star cast serves the narrative not the credit sequence. Lead Costner, despite employing a Southern accent that Garrison never had, works wonders with a difficult part, trolling through tons of exposition, and standing in for a nation's outrage. Jones was nominated for his supporting turn playing the effete and cagey Shaw. And Sutherland should've been nominated for his brief but stunning portrayal of Mr. X as he explains all that went down. His monologue telling how the government failed utterly to safeguard Dallas the morning of the assassination is positively chilling. Watch for yourself and tell me it doesn't give you goosebumps. 


The release of the Blu-ray will come with all sorts of bells and whistles, and I hope that the renewed attention to it will come of some historical good. Why? Because many conspiracy deniers are out in full force again, seeming to want to shut down any further investigation. Two new books, A Cruel and Shocking Act, and History Will Prove Us Right, argue the case for Oswald as lone gunman, and those books already have some naysayers. Two days ago Salon.com, for example, made its case against them both, noting how the press is still failing to cover the story thoroughly and allowing the investigation to continue http://bit.ly/1bY7I1C

Bill O’Reilly had another big bestseller earlier this year, Killing Kennedy, that  made the same case for Oswald acting alone. A new TV special based on his book premieres this week on the National Geographic channel, and it's getting a lot of hype, notably for featuring Rob Lowe in the role of the 35th President. If it is like the Killing Lincoln special, it will be exceedingly well done. But will it vet things as fully as it should? My guess is it won't. 

To most of the public, Oswald as the lone assassin simply doesn't pass muster. Vincent Bugliosi's 2007 book Reclaiming History tried to make the 'Oswald acted alone' argument too though it was debunked by many (http://www.reclaiminghistory.org). Yet, to this very day, a shocking number of the professional press are still blithely buying into the Oswald scenario too readily. Where are their questions about all the contradictory evidence? Ones similar to those that Stone's film raised and haven't been fully answered? Of course, the press gave a pass to the WMD justification as America marched into Iraq 10 years ago, so maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by their gullibility or reluctance to ask the tough questions. 
Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw in JFK.
For those in the press too easily willing to call Garrison and other conspiracy believers 'nut jobs’, they should realize that the DA wouldn’t have been able to get a Grand Jury to send Shaw to trial if there wasn't fire near that smoke. Stone’s movie lays out Garrison's case in court thoroughly, arguing that Shaw indeed did have connections to far right-wing groups that were targeting Kennedy and his peacenik policies. The film showcases Garrison asking Shaw about connections to the CIA and Shaw denying such things.  In the film's denouement, it's revealed that Shaw did have ties to the CIA as the organization confessed years later. So if Clay Shaw is lying there, can we believe anything he has to say? 

The irony is, of course, that Garrison lost the case. He was not able to make things stick to Shaw, but Garrison did convince his jury that there had been a conspiracy in the assassination of the President. And the public is still of that mind set, with almost 80% of those polled believing that there was much more to JFK's assassination than just Lee Harvey Oswald.

Still, many today will continue to paint Stone and his film as crazy. Garrison gets the same vilification as well. The press loves to paint them as whacko's, including any Americans asking for the whole truth as well. What a shame. The American people did the press's job for them, asking the questions that they should have been asking. The very questions that they should still be asking about JFK today. 
Jack Ruby silences Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Obviously, I believe that there was some kind of conspiracy. It's probably something similar to what Garrison and Stone had suspected. I believe Oswald was part of it, yes, but I think the CIA and the mob had something to do with it all too. If you don't believe that something was rotten in Denmark, let me end this piece by presenting this little tidbit that should give you great pause: 

In just three years after the assassinations of Kennedy and Oswald, 18 material witnesses died. Six of them by gunfire, three in motor accidents, two by suicide, one from a cut throat, one from a karate chop to the neck, three from heart attacks and two from natural causes. Statistically speaking, the odds against these witnesses being dead by February 1967 are one hundred thousand trillion to one.

One hundred thousand trillion to one.


In other words, that kind of shit just doesn’t happen. And if it can’t possibly happen in a logical, scientific world, then you have some deaths that are murder. And that makes the JKF assassination a conspiracy, no? Thus, isn't it a good time to take another look at Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK”, as well as keep asking for more evidence? Not all of the case files have been released. I think the solving of this most famous of murders depends upon doing so. God knows our nation's morality does.