Saturday, 21 December 2013

The East

This is the latest offering from Brit Marling (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) - someone whose talents I admire. This time she co-writes and stars in an intelligent eco-thriller which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Festival with backing from Ridley Scott as Producer. As the screenplay was being written, the 'Occupy Wall Street' social action was taking place which must have added a sense of realism and impetus to the task. Marling and co-writer Zal Batmanglij spent two months engaging in Freeganism by way of research to inspire their writing. The film has an authenticity about it and whilst it feels a little more mainstream than Marling's previous two offerings it still has an indie edginess to it.

Marling plays the resourceful and quick thinking Sarah - a former FBI Agent (she seems very young to be so accomplished and a 'former' FBI Agent). She works for a private intelligence company who seem to operate like the CIA. Sarah is sent under deep cover to infiltrate an eco-anarchist group called 'The East' and to discover what targets they are aiming at. The small tight-knit group are sceptical about Sarah to begin with but she earns their trust and participates in two "jams" when they target a pharmaceutical company and then a chemical company.

As Sarah spends more time with the group and learns more about the pollution and malpractice big corporations are able to get away with and as she considers the dubious activities of her employer, so her sympathies begin to turn to the eco-anarchists and the internal battle that ensues sees Sarah questioning her loyalties. The film is nearly two hours long and maintains the tension well throughout. It holds its own as an espionage/spy film and it gives some interesting character developments.

It is good that we have an intelligent film with good acting that explores an area that is becoming increasingly recognised as an important field in need of transformation through social action. Building on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, 'Stop The Debt', 'Occupy' and other initiatives and films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, perhaps we are seeing a gradual awakening in our understanding of our collective need for responsible stewardship of what we have been given. I wonder how history will record these decades? Perhaps we are beginning to see the first-fruits of a social transformation that will result in a fairer distribution of wealth and a reduction in the driving power of greed that has characterised Western Society over he last 400 years. No doubt the emergence of new economic powers (BRICS and others) will also play their part.

This is a good film with a story worth engaging with and with a strong cast. The East are presented as being sufficiently alternative to make an impact without being so looney as to undermine their credibility. The message of this film admirably catches the zeitgeist and offers an encouragement for us all to challenge the status quo with which we collude through inaction. Do get the disc and watch it. I'll give it 8/10.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Butler

It is said that history is always written by the victors. Does partial victory count or does it lead to a partial rendering of history? Don't get me wrong. I am in no way trying to minimise the pain inflicted on black-Americans (or the enslaved anywhere in the world), but for me there was something about this film that wasn't quite right. It is a film about the struggle of black-Americans to gain equality in the 'Land of the Free". As the voice over towards the end tells us, we can all react to the horror of concentration camps in Germany - it's just that no-one calls them that in the south of the USA, but they've been there for more than 200 years and the effects of their presence continue to reverberate today. This is not simply an historical film, but a current one and this is a review of a movie and not a critique of the Civil Rights Movement.

There is great acting (and casting) in this film. It's scope is immense as it charts the American civil rights movement through the eyes of a unique witness - a black Butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves successive Presidents in the White House. From Eisenhower to Reagan, The Butler was privy to the machinations and most intimate conversations at the heart of government. The film goes out of its way to depict Kennedy's young liberal idealism and hints at what might have been. It clearly has little affection for Johnson who is shown to be two-faced or Nixon whom it depicts as lacking moral scruples. (I wonder if this is reading things back into history after the fact?) The film almost completely skates over the Ford and Carter years and re-engages with Reagan whom it depicts, along with his wife, as genuine, benevolent and open people.

From the outset of the film you know where the narrative arc is going. It starts in the 1920's with share-croppers in a cotton field in Georgia where the young Butler's mother is raped and father shot by their white 'owners' right through to the impossible, the election of Barak Obama to the White House. On the way the story charts the most significant events of the Civil Rights Movement including Malcolm X's Black Panthers and MLK. The sojourn through these contrasting styles of civil engagement is enacted through The Butler's eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) as he determines direct action is the preferred route rather than the wait-and-see approach advocated by father. This sets up inevitable tensions leading to estrangement and reconciliation whilst the youngest son is sacrificed to the ideals of the Vietnam War.

What starts out as an historical bio-pic turns into more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary as The Butler observes, but never intervenes, as successive Presidents wrestle with the Civil Rights problem in a way that tries not to alienate a fickle electorate. The generous use of original TV footage adds to the documentary feel rather than bringing the story the alive.

If the story-telling might not be this film's strong suit, where this film does win is in the all-star cast that assemble to deliver many strong performances and cameos. Among them feature, Robin Williams, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Terrence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr, Liev Schreiber, Jane Fonda and of course Oprah Winfrey as Gloria, The Butler's wife who delivers a very strong performance. I wouldn't be surprised to see the two leads Oscar nominated.

For all it's short-comings, this is an important film as no other has sought to chart the Civil rights Movement in quite the same way. A Thief in the Night is cited in the film, but there are few other cultural reference points. IMDb has a list of films with a Civil Rights motif here. At 132 minutes it is half an hour too long. However, it is worth a watch. I'll give it 7.5/10.