Archive for November, 2011

Take Shelter

November 30, 2011

Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a powerful and disturbing film about a man struggling to keep his sanity. Curtis (Michael Shannon) works for a sand mining company in Ohio. He and his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), struggle to make ends meet, while raising their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. Samantha has to struggle to get their insurance provider to pay for Hannah’s treatment. (Sound familiar?) Curtis begins having vivid and disturbing dreams about storms. In some of them, he and Hannah are physically attacked. Curtis begins to believe that the dreams are a sign that a terrible storm is coming. He becomes obsessed with the idea of expanding a storm shelter in his backyard. He takes out a risky loan to pay for it, even though he and Samantha already owe a lot of money. He “borrows” equipment from his workplace to carry this out, which results in his being fired. This strains his marriage almost to the breaking point. Curtis begins to question his own sanity. His mother suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, so Curtis begins to wonder if he is beginning to develop this illness himself. However, the growing hostility of his neighbors, who believe he is crazy, merely cause him to convince himself that his fears are correct. When a storm hits the town, Curtis believes that his dreams are coming true. He and his family rush into the storm shelter. After a good deal of time has passed, Samanth tells Curtis the storm has passed, but Curtis refuses to believe it. It is with a great deal of difficulty that she persuades him to open the shelter door.

Nichols is very good at creating a sense of foreboding. He has a remarkable ability to give the impression that a lot more is going on than what we see on the screen. In one of the dream scenes, for example, we basically see Samantha standing next to a kitchen counter with a knife on it. Somehow this scene conveys such a feeling of menace that it creeped me out. (I swear, I still get goosebumps when I think about it.) Shannon and Chastain give excellent performances. Shannon makes his character’s extreme behavior completely believable.

My criticism of this film is that it goes on too long. It should end right after Curtis and his family emerge from the shelter. Instead, it goes on to a “trick” ending that I found unconvincing and a bit too cute. Also, the family’s financial concerns, which are enormous, inexplicably seem to disappear towards the end.

Still, I highly recommend seeing Take Shelter.

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The Skin I Live In

November 24, 2011

The Skin I Live In was written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, based upon the novel, Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. Robert (Antonio Banderas) is a plastic surgeon who is haunted by the death of his wife, Gal, who committed suicide after being severely burned in a car accident. Robert is determined to develop a new type of skin that cannot burn. He carries out his experiments on Vera (Elena Anaya), a woman he holds captive in his mansion. The only other person who knows about this is Robert’s servant, Marilla (Marisa Paredes). Robert succeeds in giving Vera burn-proof skin, but then he realizes that he can’t tell anyone without revealing his criminal methods. (Apparently, he never thought of this before.) At this point, Vera starts making sexual advances towards Robert, but he resists her. One day, while Robert is out, his criminally inclined half-brother, Zeca (Roberto Álamo), shows up, finds Vera and tries to rape her. Robert arrives home at this point and kills Zeca. (Robert doesn’t know that Zeca is his half-brother. This gets really complicated. I will try to stick to the bare essential details.) Afterwards, Robert and Vera sleep together.

The film then jumps six years back in time. Robert goes to a wedding party with his daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). She meets Vicente (Jan Cornet), and they go out in the woods together. Vicente tries to rape Norma. When she resists, he hits her and knocks her unconscious. He then flees. Robert finds Norma and brings her to. However, Norma, who who is on drugs, thinks Robert tried to rape her. She has a mental breakdown and eventually kills herself. Robert decides to take revenge on Vicente. (He supposedly knows that Vicente is the culprit simply because he saw him riding away on a motorcycle.) He tracks down Vicente (the film doesn’t explain how) and abducts him. He then performs a sex-change operation on him. If you think that’s perverse, Robert then performs surgery on Vicente’s face to make him look exactly like his dead wife, Gal. (Why? The film never indicates what his motive is for doing this.) You guessed it: Vicente becomes Vera. The film then returns to the present. Matters come to a head when one of Robert’s medical colleagues figures out what Robert has been doing.

What lifts this above your average, run-of-the-mill mad scientist movie are the skilled direction, camera work and acting. (The performances of Banderas and Anaya carry the film.) Yet, for all his cleverness, Almodóvar can’t disguise the fact that the story is basically a lurid melodrama. What’s more, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. The characters say things like “I will report you to the scientific community”. (I swear, this line actually occurs twice.) The idea that Vera has burn-proof skin is never really used in any way. And, not surprisingly, the depiction of Vicente’s transformation into Vera is not convincing.

Some humor would have helped this film, yet Almodóvar plays it straight, despite the story’s absurdities. It might have been better if he had gone over the top and made the movie into something Ed Wood might have written. All in all, this is a disappointing film, especially after seeing Almodóvar’s brilliant Broken Embraces.

General Strike in Egypt

November 23, 2011

J. Edgar

November 14, 2011

Clint Eastwood has certainly come a long way from Dirty Harry. His new film about J. Edgar Hoover, from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, will upset many right-wingers. I wish I could give this movie an unqualified endorsement, but I have some reservations about it.

The film portrays Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a repressed homosexual, and it suggests that this repression was the source of his obsessive behavior. He and his number two man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), have a relationship similar to that between Burns and Smithers on The Simpsons. When Hoover tells Tolson that he intends to propose to Dorothy Lamour, the two of them have what amounts to a lovers’ quarrel. Their relationship, however, is never consummated. Hoover is portrayed as being obsessed with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), while being emotionally estranged from his father. Some will no doubt make the valid complaint that this reproduces an all too common “explanation” of homosexuality. You must admit, however, that this fits with what we know about Hoover.

Hoover is portrayed as petty and jealous. He deliberately wreaks the career of an F.B.I. agent named Melivin Purvis, because the latter has received more publicity than he has. He is also extremely prone to self-delusion. He says things like “love is the most powerful force in the world” without the least trace of irony. He tells people that he saved the U.S. from a “Bolshevik” revolution in 1919. In one scene, Hoover complains that newly elected president Richard Nixon wants him to do things that are illegal, oblivious to the fact that he has been doing illegal things all his life.

The film reminds us that Hoover began his career as a librarian. (Yes, it’s true.) He helped the Library of Congress develop a new system of organizing books. In one particularly eerie scene, the young Hoover tells his future secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) that he wishes he could organize and identify people the same way he does books. “Information is power”, he tells her.

I found this movie fascinating to watch and even darkly funny at some moments. The acting is very good (DiCaprio is brilliant). However, it seemed a bit over-long. One weakness of the film is that it devotes far too much time to the Lindbergh kidnapping. Eastwood and Black apparently wanted to make the point that Hoover claimed to have solved the case when he actually hadn’t. (All the F.B.I. proved, really, was that Bruno Hauptmann was somehow connected to the crime.) This is a valid argument, but it skews the film towards a relatively minor episode of his career. For that matter, the film devotes too much time to the “Hoover was a closet queen” theory. This would have been a better film if it had spent more time on COINTELPRO and the way it destroyed people’s lives.

The posters for this movie call Hoover “the most powerful man in the world”. This is an enormous exaggeration. Hoover was actually an extremely ruthless and shrewd courtier, one who built his own fiefdom inside the U.S. government. This film attributes Hoover’s power to his knack for blackmailing people. There is a good deal of truth to this, but there was more to it than that. Many powerful people defended Hoover (or at least looked the other way), because they knew he was defending the interests of the ruling class. This could have been a more powerful film if it had made this point in some way.

Why Occupy?

November 10, 2011

Saturday, November 5, Occupy Eugene moved from Millrace park to Washington-Jefferson park. This is reportedly a temporary location. Occupy Eugene will decide later this month whether to move to another location.

On Wednesday, November 9, a teach-in titled “Why Occupy?” was held at Harris Hall in downtown Eugene. It was sponsored by We the People Eugene, an organization that is dedicated to bring about a constitutional amendment prohibiting “corporate personhood”. The hall was filled to capacity. Fergus Maclean (I hope I’m spelling his name right), a member of We the People, made a brief opening speech. He noted that the early capitalist economists saw global capitalism as a “transitory phase”. Smith believed it would last about 200 years. Maclean said the Occupy movement is a “reaction against an exhausted, collapsing paradigm”.

Daniel Pope, a history professor at the University of Oregon, moderated the panel. He pointed out that the 99% movement belongs to a long tradition of radical struggle in the United States. He called it a “reawakening of populism”.

Joseph Lowndes, professor of political science at the UO, pointed out that social movements arise at times of crisis. He called the 99% movement the broadest popular movement since the 1930’s. (Broader than the civil rights movement? I’m not sure I agree with that.) He praised the 99% meme, saying that it is inclusive, yet it draws a clear enemy. He said that the movement indicates a desire for public good over private good. The Tea Party is for the politics of privatization; it is the opposite of the 99% movement. On the downside, he pointed out that the tactic of occupation is costly in terms of resources. He also expressed the fear that it could lead to the movement becoming “culturally insular”. Overall, however, his comments were positive.

Stan Taylor, who chairs the Lane Community College Peace Center, said that the 99% movement is “revolutionary” in its goals. He argued that the younger generation needs to lead the movement.

William Wise talked about the devastating effects that government budget cuts have had on people in Lane county. He reminded people of the suffering caused by Bill Clinton’s “Welfare Reform” bill. He expressed hope that the 99% movement would lead to a society that is more “fair”.

Lauren Regan, an organizer with Occupy Eugene, took issue with the idea of a leaderless movement. She said everyone in the Occupy movement is a leader. She said the strength of the Occupy movement is its broadness. “We should push for the most radical demands we can make,” she said. She talked about how the movement has reached out to homeless people. “It’s amazing what can happen with homeless people when you give them a place to sleep and food to eat.” She talked about how hard people in the occupation have worked and how the community has supported them. She predicted the movement will continue to grow. Referring to the growing environmental crisis, she said, “Absolute necessity mandates greater growth [of the movement].”

Jamil Jonna, another organizer, said that homeless people began to join the occupation as soon as it began. In response to Lowndes’s concerns, he said that the occupations are central to the whole movement. They create a space where people can meet and discuss issues face to face. The occupations make possible “empowerment and inclusiveness”.

An organizer whose name was only given as Karen talked about why she joined the occupation. “This movement is connecting the whole world through radical change,” she said. “It’s about people taking responsibility.”

The overall tone of the meeting was upbeat and optimistic.

Bellflower

November 9, 2011

Bellflower is one of the most remarkable films I have seen in recent years. Indeed, it’s not quite like any other film I have ever watched.

Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are friends who have recently moved from Wisconsin to Southern California. There, they indulge in apocalyptic fantasies. They imagine that a war will one day destroy most of the human race. They will then form a gang called “Mother Medusa”, which will use flame throwers and other weapons to conquer the world. (They are both fans of the Mad Max movies.) To prepare for this eventuality, they build a flame thrower in Aiden’s garage. When they’re not tinkering with weapons and motor vehicles, they spend most of their time getting drunk and stoned. Neither one of them has a job, yet they have plenty of money to spend on weapons and cars. Although the film never makes it explicit, they clearly come from wealthy families. (Their names suggest that they are from upper class backgrounds.)

When I was young, I knew people like the characters in this film. No, they didn’t build flame throwers, but they did practice other types of obsessive behavior (such as forming untalented rock bands). These people didn’t have jobs, yet they seemed to always have money. They spent much of their time getting drunk and stoned (“partying” as they called it).

Woodrow meets a girl, Milly (Jessie Wiseman), who shares his inclination towards impulsive, reckless behavior. They go on a road trip to Texas, and when they get back, Milly moves in with him. One day, however, Woodrow discovers her having sex with Mike (Vincent Grashaw), which immediately leads to a fight. Afterwards, Woodrow is injured in a motorcycle accident. While he is recovering, he begins to have a relationship with Milly’s best friend, Coutney (Rebekah Brandes). There is a growing spiral of violence as Woodrow seeks to get even with Milly. I won’t say much else about the story except that this is one of those films in which part of what you are seeing is being imagined by one or more of the characters. Although some things in this film are far-fetched, the characters nevertheless come across as thoroughly believable.

Bellflower is a criticism of our society’s fascination with violence, with weaponry, with apocalyptic fantasies, and with revenge fantasies.

This film, written and directed by Glodell, has a unique look to it. This is partly because the cinematographer, Joel Hodge, used a new type of camera that Glodell built from scratch.

This is Glodell’s first feature film. It is a most impressive debut. It is the kind of movie that you just have to talk about after you see it. Glodell has a promising future as a director.

You can find a trailer for this film here.

The Future

November 7, 2011

I was not familiar with the work of Miranda July before I saw The Future. She is a filmmaker, performance artist and short story writer. Her work has provoked sharply divided reactions from people. Some critics have dismissed her work as shallow and empty, while her defenders say that her work is “whimsical”. This a word that makes me wary. Americans are not good at whimsy. When Americans try to be whimsical, the results are usually abominations such as Forrest Gump. Americans should leave whimsy to the French, who have given us directors such as Jacques Tati and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The only American director who has even come close to being good at whimsy is Terry Gilliam – and he can be unbearable at times.

The Future is about a thirty-something couple, Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They decide to adopt a cat in one month. They talk about this as something that will change their lives as much as having a baby would. Perhaps this is meant to be a joke, but it isn’t funny; it merely makes them seem vacuous and shallow. They decide that they have one month to “experience life” before their lives become slavishly devoted to a feline. They do this in different ways. Jason gets a job selling trees, while Sophie has an affair with another man. (Clearly Sophie is the more ambitious of the two.) Sophie begins her seduction by calling up a man she has never met – Marshall (David Warshofsky) – and asking him strange questions over the telephone. She then pretends to be a client for his sign-making business. Right away, she leaves Jason and moves in with Marshall and his young daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres). Not surprisingly, this arrangement doesn’t last very long. One evening, Gabriella buries herself up to her neck in the backyard and announces that she is going to spend the whole night like that. Sophie tries to talk her out of this (as any human being would), but Marshall says that this is okay. Later that night, an enormous shirt crawls into the house. This clearly symbolizes Sophie’s past life. Sophie puts the shirt on with her legs through the sleeves and pulls it over her head. When Marshall sees her like this, he is shocked and horrified. This is a man who finds nothing wrong with the idea of his daughter spending the night buried up to her neck in dirt, yet he is repulsed by the sight of a woman with a shirt over her head. I guess this is supposed to be whimsical.

As for Jason, he has the ability to stop time. (Or at least he thinks he does. The film is not really clear about this.) He also talks to the Moon, and the Moon talks back to him. (Again, this could be imaginary.) Oh, and there’s a talking cat. Since I watched too many Disney movies when I was growing up, the last thing I want to see in a film is a talking cat, especially if it’s a film about a thirty-something couple having a mid-life crisis. It’s interesting to note here that July is married to Mike Mills, whose film, Beginners, which I saw earlier this year, has a talking dog in it. (Well, he doesn’t actually talk. Subtitles appear in front of his face.) So, are talking or semi-talking animals the hip new thing in movies nowadays? Someone please tell me this isn’t so.

There are a few surreal moments in this film, as when we see Gabriella buried up to her neck in her father’s backyard. For the most part, however, this is simply a tepid romantic comedy with some fantasy elements and some pretentious dialogue in it. It can safely be said that I am not one of Miranda July’s fans.

John Carlos

November 3, 2011


l. to r., Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos.

We live to make history!
– John Carlos

John Carlos came to speak at the University of Oregon. He was one of two athletes – the other being Tommie Smith – who protested against racism in the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists during the playing of the national anthem. Carlos has recently published his autobiography, The John Carlos Story, co-written with Dave Zirin, who also spoke at this event.

Carlos started out by talking about his childhood. He grew up in Harlem. His mother worked as a nurse, his father owned a shoe shop. Carlos was offered a track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow, finding segregated restrooms. “In Texas, my name suddenly became ‘Boy'”, he recalled. He eventually transferred to San Jose State University. The Olympics were coming up. Some people were organizing an Olympic boycott, to protest how the U.S. used the Olympics to create the false impression that Blacks are treated as equal citizens. Carlos was invited to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr., who told him that the boycott would be a great move. When Carlos expressed doubts, King used the metaphor of a lake: if you drop one rock in it, it creates ripples. During their conversation, King mentioned that he was going to Memphis to support a garbageman’s strike there. When Carlos asked him why he was doing that, King replied: “I have to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.” Carlos recalled that when he looked in King’s eyes, he could see “no fear” in them. Ten days later, King was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Carlos said that the lesson he learned from this is that one has to “make a total commitment.” At the Olympics, people began backing out of the boycott. It ended up with just him and Tommie Smith raising their fists during their medal ceremony. Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia, wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Righs) button as a sign of solidarity. Carlos said of Norman: “He is my blood brother, because he did the right thing.” Smith and Carlos were told to leave the Olympics early. They were both harshly criticized in the media, and they received death threats. Carlos also said that the Olympic committee put out the false story that their medals were taken away. He said they invented this story to intimidate any future athletes who might get out of line.


John Carlos today.

During the question and answer session, someone asked Carlos how he managed to have so much courage. He said, “I found me. Most people don’t know who they are.” In response to another question, he reminded the audience that 2,000 people were massacred by the Mexican government just before the Olympics. A student brought up the university’s recent plans to defund ethnic studies. “We need to know each other’s histories,” said Carlos. He also talked about the Occupy movement. He said that the movement is giving people courage to stand up for themselves. Another observation he made: “We’re going to have struggles for eternity.”