Tribes and Tribulation: Colonization of South America in THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017) and THE MISSION (1986)

 

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The Lost City of Z (James Grey, 2017)

 

Indigenous communities in Hollywood films have always had marginalized roles and appearances, especially in those films dealing with Western and imperialist historical topics. James Grey’s The Lost City of Z (pronounced “Zed”) however, might be the first I’ve seen which makes a conscientious effort to reverse this Hollywood treatment. To, in fact, make it a point to say native peoples are actively marginalized throughout imperialist histories, and it’s main protagonist, Colonel Percy Fawcett, as a beholder to their intellect and power.

The main obstacle to Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam) was not to convince England he had discovered a lost tribe, but that it was, in fact, a civilization, one replete with the advancements of cookware, art, weaponry, and buildings that constituted a people of intellect and scientific and engineering knowhow. In a boisterous and argumentative session before the Royal Geographic Society, he makes his case to the horror of many of the “intellectuals” who’s fear of a non-white race achieving civility and discipline shattered their world view.

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Fawcett’s adamant stance on the intelligence and advancement of native cultures is an important counter to our biased views of Western civilization. Despite a more politically correct polish on what used to be incredibly racist stereotypes of the civilized white towards the native barbarian, we still don’t acknowledge in textbooks or discussion of colonization how much more advanced Natives actually were in regards to their understanding of natural and environmental science and food cultivation than any settlers were.

Previous treatments of native cultures contained them as entities having to be “saved” by a Western hero (Dances with Wolves). It was a veil of digestibility for our sake and a continuation of the lies that native cultures never really had an “order” before the Conquistadors or Pilgrims came to settle and command. That there were no rules or governance and thus, the land was essentially for the taking and the people free to be “educated”.

In contrast to such restrictive Hollywood tropes, James Grey’s The Lost City of Z might be considered unique in its “progressive histrionics”. There are conversations regarding women’s roles in society and home, white and non-white race relations, the erasure of cultures, and the validity of scientific findings. The film has quite a clear argument in favor of progressive views of the world, even if its setting is in the old world where such thoughts were considered preposterous or worse, treasonous.

 

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The Mission (Roland Joffé, 1986)

 

Take these views into consideration with Roland Joffé’s The Mission, a critically acclaimed historical epic which uses a very traditional Hollywood construct of native people as a group looking to be conquered or brought to salvation… or both. Joffé’s film also creates a good vs evil dichotomy, wherein its progressive politics are poised as a fight between the peaceful salvation of the Jesuit order and the ruthless slavery-driven economy of imperialist Portugal. There is even a character, Rodrigo Mendoza (a miscast but adequate Robert DeNiro), who spent time on both sides of this fence; a former mercenary and slave trader who corrects his ways and finds God with the help of Father Gabriel (the impeccable Jeremy Irons).

Much like Fawcett’s character, Father Gabriel and Mendoza fight for the dignity and independence of the indigenous Amazonian tribe they befriend, the Guarani. Unlike Fawcett however, their attempts at protection of the tribe, i.e., “conversions” via their mission, is on its head a form of cultural erasure… the elimination of the Guarani’s spiritual and traditional beliefs in favor of the Holy Spirit.

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The Mission is much more politically volatile than The Lost City of Z and thus, much more exciting and entertaining, but also much more unforgiving. But what makes one a tale While Grey maintains his central characters in such a steady and unbending light for “good”, for the true understanding of native peoples in the fact of evil imperialism, Joffé’s story is more about the inevitable genocide of the native, caught between enslavement via the Monarchy or coerced abandonment of their century-old cultural beliefs.

The Oscars 2017! or, something like that

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Ugh, these Oscars… the Best Picture nominees (except for Moonlight) this year are boring. The individual acting and directing nominees (except for Moonlight’s cast and director) are uninteresting and tired. The show is just going to be a sling of overused jokes about a toupeed orangutan all of us are tired of thinking about . I frankly care less about who wins or loses this year (but Moonlight is great, it should win) more than any year in the past.

So here’s just ONE THING you should keep in the back of your troubled minds while you’re sitting on your couch watching this charade thinking about the 6th Mass Extinction that scientists keep mentioning and wondering when it will finally take all of humanity with it:

The Real BEST PICTURE Nominees are in the BEST DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY:

I just made 3 straight not-subtle references to Moonlight if you were paying attention, but even that movie is nothing compared to the merciless bitch-slap across the face the Best Documentary category has in store for you. These movies are challenging, frustrating, the “I want to throw my computer against the wall because what I just watched pissed me off to no end” sort of great realistic, unapologetic and volcanic documentation of LIFE.
I mentioned in my Best Films of 2016 list that O.J.: Made in America was the #1 movie of last year. That hasn’t changed, and I wrote enough about it here to not have to go into an explanation:

But look at the other 4.

The 13th is a film by Ana DuVernay in multiple parts on the epidemic of unlawful and dangerous incarceration of black people throughout American history. There is zero excuse for you not to watch it considering it is on Netflix right now and I know all of you send them $7 straight out of your paycheck every month. Stop wasting that money watching F.R.E.I.N.D.S. for the millionth fucking time and support the voice of a filmmaker in DuVernay who is doing important work.

I Am Not Your Negro is probably the best title for a movie since Leos Carax’s Pola X (the explanation for that film title is here). On the manuscripts of James Baldwin, the film runs through his thoughts on and furious anger over the civil rights violations of a nation coming to grips with its own horrifically racist past, present, and if nothing changes, future.

The Italian documentary winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rossi’s Fucoammare (Fire at Sea), showcases the lives of immigrants from Northern Africa who sail to find solace in Europe. The film’s raw footage gives the depth, danger, and peril of the journey of many of these individuals who understand the risks of death and proceed at all costs.

The final film is the least political, but still important. Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated showcases the coming of age a young boy with autism, who escapes the isolation and discrimination from society and learns to cope with his disability through his love for Disney movies. Most of our childhoods were defined by the Disney Renaissance, but for some, it wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. This doc is a great testament to how cinema can change a life.

Watch these movies. If you have watched ANYTHING from the year 2016, makes sure you watch these:

OJ: Made in America (on WatchESPN for free)

The 13th (on Netflix)

I Am Not Your Negro (on Netflix)

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) (on Netflix)

Life, Animated (on Amazon Prime)

The Oscars : 2016

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The Oscars were riddled with some serious controversy this year, sparking a change in the Academy’s selection process for membership. For thoughts on that whole debacle, CLICK HERE

Now, the awards. I’ve been saying this for 3 years running now but I will say it once again, THIS IS NOT A PREDICTIONS LIST. This “ballot” is movies which I believe should win the Oscar for their respective categories. I will, in passing, refer to the movies and people I think will win, but those are not as important. The main thing that I want to note is that for the Short Film categories, I have watched only a few of those movies, so those will be mostly uneducated picks..

For reference (click the link, in italics) here is my Oscar picks post from last year.

ONTO THE NOMINATIONS!

Non-Feature Categories

Best Live Action Short Film: Day One (blind guess)

This one sounds the most interesting. Day One is about a soldier working for the U.S. Army who must deliver a new-born child to the wife of an enemy bomb-maker. Very problematic, very perfect for the politically charged Oscar voter crowd.

Best Animated Short FilmSanjay’s Superteam (Only one Ive watched)

Pixar’s latest cutesy short film comes with a twist. This one is about an Indian boy who’s strict religious father forbids him from engaging in fantasy day-dreaming and fun at the detriment of his religious duties. It’s the only animated short film I actually saw so far, so it’ll get my vote.

Best Documentary Short SubjectA Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

An incredibly harrowing story, this doc is about honor killings in Pakistan. The documentary has created such a stir and such an outcry over the barbaric and storied ritual that has existed in the country for a long time, that it is actually kickstarting a movement to ban all honor killings in Pakistan and has ever gotten a number of other legislative policy reforms under way in the country. Be on the look out for if they are followed through.

The “Other Best Pictures”

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (dir. Laszlo Nemes – country, Hungary)

This one was a lock for a long time now, but with the Oscars Foreign Film category, the most weird and outdated and badly in need of reform category at the ceremony, no lock is a sure lock. It should also be noted that the films nominated in this category are hardly the best foreign films released in the past year. Please don’t think Son of Saul is the best that non-American cinema had to offer in 2015. But out of these 5 nominees, it is clearly the cream of the crop.

Best Animated Film: Inside Out (dir. Pete Doctor & Jonas Rivera) 

I don’t have the emotional attachment to Inside Out that a lot of other people have accumulated over the past year. Even if Shaun the Sheep Movie won, it wouldn’t really faze me. But lets be honest, Pixar’s got this in the bag.

Best Documentary Film: The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

It was incredibly sad that Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking doc The Act of Killing didn’t win in the year it was nominated, but that is the nature of this category…. if the Academy does not deem a topic “important enough” for them, then its hard to win. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. I know Asif Kapadia’s AMY is the frontrunner and most-likely winner and I’m really happy that Kapadia is finally going to get his due… but I’m going by what was clearly the most well-made and most eye-opening doc of the year, and that is The Look of Silence. Watch it, but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Technical Awards

Best Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m sorry Star Wars fans, but unless its by some sense of pity or conselation, George Miller’s Mad Max reboot has your number this year in technical prowess. It’s not that The Force Awakens wasn’t impressive visually, its just that we’ve seen all that shit before, the Millenium Falcon, the space explosions, the alien creatures. The VFX team for Mad Max did something truly original, and it was no better captured than the race through the sandstorm near the beginning of the film. The swirl of tones and shades, the props, makeup, and dust and lightning all created a visual canvas that was unrivaled… so much so, that it looks all-time incredible even in Black and White:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5s62tpM5fo

Best Sound Editing: Sicario

I loved Sicario, so I’m going to unabashedly chalk this as a consolation prize for that movie. The sound editing in Sicario, from the opening heart-thumping scene inside the cartel house was utilized almost as a soundtrack in its own right, and Villeneauve’s ability to frame action sequences with such fervor allowed the sound to contribute to the growing tension and unease in every scene.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max : Fury Road

What set Mad Max apart from most other action flicks this year was the emotional weight of its character. Even without the benefit of nostalgia (Star Wars) or the heartbreak of a cast member passing away (Furious 7), Mad Max was still able to create a passionate plea for its own characters and the sound mixing, which coupled together a thrilling music score with the powerful, echoing voices of its cast made it happen.

Best Make-Up: Mad Max: Fury Road

Uhhh… Just click this

Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

….. click again

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s production team headed by Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson decided to go the old-school route with real props and real settings, which makes the production design of Mad Max even that much more impressive, that it didn’t come majorly out of doctored and fantasized video-game imagery, but from people making things with… their HANDS. Wow.

Best Original Song: “Simple Song #3” from Youth (music and lyrics by David Lang)

Simple Song #3 plays a major part Youth‘s main character, famous composer Mick Boyle, re-connect with the specters of his past which he has continually rejected in his old age. The violin interlude to the song itself gives such a beautiful feeling, that Simple Song #3’s is anything but simple.

Best Original Score: Carol (composed by Carter Burwell)

I always judge this category on how well the musical score stood out to me as memorable, and also how the film’s images, feelings, and nuances come rushing back into my brain the moment that I hear the music. Such is the case with Carter Burwell’s timely score for Carol… I can’t listen to this score on headphones without automatically seeing Carol and Therese’s burning stares from across the room, or a snowy Christmas afternoon in New York City. It just fits.

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road (editing by Margaret Sixel)

The entire movie is basically one giant chase scene… and that puts a lot of the pressure on the film editor to keep things well-groomed, exciting and paced with moments of heart-pounding thrills but also some breif relief. What Margaret Sixel was able to do, keeping our attention glued to the screen in every sequence of what was just one giant road-rage venture is remarkable. You’d think at some point we’d turn away and say “alright already, get to where you want to go”… but Sixel made the rip-roaring journey a million times better than the eventual destination.

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road (camerawork by John Seale)

Emannuel Lubeszki doesn’t deserve 3 Oscars in a row in my estimation, and Roger Deakins (Sicario), I feel for you man, having been nominated what seems like 10 times but never winning an Oscars… but this isn’t your year either. Mad Max‘s visual splendor is as much a product of John Seale’s beautiful panoramic framing as it is the VFX team and Production team’s prop making and action staging. This whole film was a production dream come true, where everyone contributed their share of filmmaking craftsmanship and artistry onto one glorious canvas.

The Supporting Cast

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Rooney Mara (Carol)

This year’s best Supporting Actress category is ruined by a gigantic problem. No, it’s not race-related, its politics related. Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl… this year’s frontrunner) are clearly leading actresses in their respective movies, but the Oscars have been unabashedly shameful at allowing producers and promoters to be able to coin in leading performances as “Supporting” for a better shot at an Oscar, especially in years when the leading Actress category is loaded. Not only is this disingenuous, it is basically announcing to the world that you don’t care the Oscar ceremony is as much of a muddy politics game as the presidential race. I will choose Rooney Mara for this award but honestly, I hope no one wins.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

The internet’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio always makes people get pissed off at me when I say that Leo usually gets upstaged by his co-actors in most of his movies. Well, internet, hate me if you want, but it happened again. The best actor in The Revenant was Tom Hardy. His intensity, writhing bitterness, and raw biting ferocity was pitch perfect from first shot to last. This may be the best performance of his career and it blew any other supporting performance out of the water… maybe with the exception of Jacob Tremblay, who got snubbed from a nomination. If Sylvester Stallone really wins this year, it’ll be once again a case of Oscar politics over performance.

The BIG 5 Awards

Best Adapted Screenplay: Carol – written by Phyllis Nagy

The book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was a landmark novel for gay/lesbian literature because of its treatment of homosexuality in a positive and optimistic light amidst discrimination in America, and that comes with a lot of pressure. The personal depth with which the novel was written can always been hard to transmit on screen, but Phyllis Nagy’s script does an incredible job of allowing the film’s director, Todd Haynes, a master storyteller in his own right, to evoke all the emotions that novel displays. Out of all the other nominees in this category, hardly any of them tell as affecting a story as Carol.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight – written by Tom McCarthy  & Josh Singer

The subject matter of Spotlight is something I said earlier last year really blinded and engulfed any sort of critical discourse about the film’s merit as a work of cinema. This meant that I could never really give much credit or anything to director Tom McCarthy for the way this film was handled because as long as it was “competently made”, the subject matter and its implications in our life will carry it on its shoulders anyway. Spotlight‘s take on the Catholic Church’s horrific exploitation of young boys and the brave news team from the Boston Globe who brought this injustice to light, is showcased most appropriately in its writing. McCarthy may not get the benefit of the doubt from me as a director, but him and Singer surely do as writers, because their plotting and staging of interviews, probing of the issue and long agonizing periods of uncertainty in such a terrible case lend to the film’s successful unraveling of its nightmare.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson (Room)

I remember watching Jennifer Lawrence in her first big performance in the movie Winter’s Bone. I knew when I watched her that her acting was something special. The same goes for Brie Larson, who I saw in the indie-Sundance film Short Term 12. It was a small unnoticed performance by those who don’t play close attention to the film circuit, but it was a showcase for the tornado of acting talent that is Brie Larson. Now, in this year’s Oscar-season favorite, Room, about a young mother and her son who try to escape their prison inside a small room being held by a sadistic kidnapper, is where Brie Larson makes herself known as Hollywood’s next great actress. Her performance is something to behold. Watch it, and yes, its okay if you cry through the whole thing, a lot of people have.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Congrats internet. You won. Now you can move onto Gary Oldman to complain about being Oscar-less.

This year of 2016, we’ll watch 2 “lovable losers” win the big prize. Leonardo DiCaprio this Sunday at the Oscars…..

….and the Chicago Cubs in October in the World Series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (The Revenant)

Difficulty in directing a project really shouldn’t be a factor in determining who should win best director, but when the product that you churn out is this good, this exciting, and just a jaw-dropping wonder of depth and intense gut churning treachery to behold, I’ve got to give it to you. Innaritu has been a prolific filmmaker, and there’s only really one movie that he made that I would consider sub-par (his 2006 hyperlink miscalculation Babel). With The Revenant, Alejandro continues his Oscar success with another captivating film, just one year after another movie I loved, Birdman.

Best Picture: The Revenant

I have given The Revenant 4 Oscars in this countdown… and none of them are for the technical brilliance of its cinematography, stage-setting, makeup, and metaphysical elements, and that’s only because Mad Max: Fury Road was so dazzling. But in the end, Innaritu’s The Revenant has all the pieces that make a solid epic Oscar-winning film, and while it won’t be a time-transcending important classic like 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, it will be an enjoyable showcase of directorial ambition and the performance that finally landed Leo DiCaprio the elusive statue.

My last two favorite Oscar-nominated Best Pictures both won… 12 Years A Slave and Birdman. Unless Spotlight steals the Academy’s moral strings and captures votes for its all-important message, this year should make it 3 in a row.

THE TALLY (Films with more than 1 win)

Mad Max: Fury Road – 7 wins

The Revenant – 4 wins (Best Picture)

Carol – 3 wins

Gone Girl

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Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

By creating films based on timely novels, stories, and pop-culture phenomena, David Fincher almost guarantees his films will draw attention for a longer time than they really deserve. I mentioned a while ago how people really need to start “getting over” Fight Club because frankly, it’s not that great of a film (gasp! did he really just write those words with a straight face?!?), it is simply a pop-culture relic of counter-culture thought. That’s not to say it’s not good, it certainly is, but again Fincher’s movies hitting American culture’s popular artifacts right at the apex of their relevance helps propel them further than they could have gone.

Anyway, in this sense, imagine if Fincher decided to make The Social Network after people got tired of Facebook, or something better was about replace it? What if he decided to adapt Gone Girl say, 15 years after the book’s inception? Would we have payed so much attention to it? Would there be some time to digest the material and concentrate more on the pathology of marriage and it’s decay, its turbulence, and eventual reconciliation? This is all hypothetical, but it’s important to ask this because Gone Girl if anything is a representation of reactionary filmmaking to a controversial event. Gillian Flynn’s book is certainly not a traditional story, it does not have a comfortable trajectory. For popular fiction, this book rides against a tide of what people usually expect from this kind of novel. In the same way Oliver Stone’s W or that Ashton Kutcher-Steve Jobs movie hit theaters right after their subjects became a tidal wave conversation piece, in the same way Fincher’s Gone Girl treats Gillian Flynn’s novel as something that is supposed to make people react. It works because it’s topical… the book released recently, there was already buzz about it everywhere and due to the movie people who are adverse to ‘reading’ will be able to eagerly join in on the conversation.

Double-edged sword alert: Just like Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush piece and the Kutcher-Jobs film, because of Gone Girl‘s topicality, it completely forgoes saying anything about its own subject. There’s nothing insightful that Fincher adds to what Flynn said in the book, and its because the film is riding entirely on the book’s reputation. In the same way the Harry Potter films desperately clung onto J.K. Rowling’s reputation as a precedent and then continued replacing every ounce of magic in Rowling’s world with elaborate special effects, David Fincher replaces any conversation of marriage that Flynn wanted to address in the story with a simple “He’s an asshole/She’s a bitch” mind-game. That’s probably why the ending of the film felt a bit gimmicky because it never really ended with a bitter compromise, but just a bleak captive situation in which we feel sorry for Nick that he’s caught in a spider’s web… the more he struggles the harder it is to escape. I would like my readers to go watch John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence to gain an interesting perspective on marriage, and see how a “bitter compromising ending” is handled well in a film script… and trust me, the wife and husband’s tug-of-war is just as infuriating if not more so because it’s displayed as being rooted from a completely normal circumstance (alcoholism).

But let me save Fincher’s soul after I’ve picked it apart. The acting in this film is phenomenal. Rosamund Pike and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) steal this show, and interestingly enough for completely opposite reasons. Pike is incredible because she signals you to be uncomfortable right from the get go with the way she purposefully offers stilted dialogue delivery. The idea of making her read her lines to Affleck as if she was reading straight off of her character’s journal was inspired because you automatically sense something between the two isn’t normal or real despite their initial passionate love. Tyler Perry on the other hand is perfectly cast, and his character is the most likable… this is rather cheeky because Perry’s Madea character is one of the most infuriating people on the cinema screen. It’s very refreshing to see Perry play someone who maintains the enthusiasm with a completely laid-back unassuming attitude. I like to call these kinds of characters the “Gandalf characters” because when they show up, you’re always assured things are going to go right.

What Fincher succeeds with in his actors counters his lack of exploration of Flynn’s novel, but it should never replace it. The most important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that it is a story of marriage above everything else, and psychology, regardless of how haywire it becomes, is still rooted to the issue of being with someone else for the rest of your life and the mental fortitude that takes. In this sense, I wished Fincher thought about these things instead of lacing together a sleek and polished product to latch onto a novel’s coattails, but it’s still a movie worth watching… even though it’s not really a movie worth remembering.