The other night I once again found myself pulling out the stalwart and timeless DVDs of The Avengers. This time my attention was drawn to an episode near the end of Emma Peel’s second and final season, entitled The 50,000 Breakfast. I wanted to watch it initially based on a remembrance of the episode’s unusual music score, which does not recur as much as some others do in other episodes of the series and thus, stands out more on its own. I did not expect on revisiting the episode at this particular moment in time to see a clear allegory for the present uneasy political moment in the USA.
In the story, our heroes Steed and Mrs. Peel encounter a team working for the mysterious and accomplished Litoff Organization, focused on finance in Central London. Of particular note in the present era comparison are the two lead individuals they interact with from the company. One person is Miss Pegram who is not given a specific job title but is clearly the woman in charge, an idea which is quite revolutionary for 1967. In the other camp is company butler Glover, whose exact raison d’etre for being part of the company is not made clear by the script (well, I guess he’s Mr. Litoff’s butler, but Mr. Litoff is never seen) and so Glover stands as a bastion of an older time, where men and women had more traditional and formal gender roles. Near the end, when Glover is revealed to have malicious negative intentions that place him aligned with the rest of the villains, he presents a brief and strikingly abrupt (for the rest of the series) monologue, claiming that he “want(s) to be ill mannered and rude and uncouth, and order people about, especially women. I look forward to being excessively rude to a considerable number of handsome women!” – and so he is obviously, with the present day parallel, an elder Donald Trump, while Ms. Pegram, with ambitions to conquer the “man’s world” of finance and accomplishment, clearly evokes Hillary Clinton.
And that is another of many ways that The Avengers remains both timeless and ahead of its time.
My first impression of Joseph Gordon-Levitt came 22 years ago with the Disney summer flick Angels in the Outfield. Who would have thought that the energetic kid at the center of that story would grow up to be a versatile, accomplished and respected acting force? Indeed, it seems he’s had the market cornered on a late summer/early fall release for the last five years, with titles including 50/50 (written by a fellow Hampshire College alum), Looper, Premium Rush, Don Jon (which he himself wrote and directed), The Walk, and now Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. The point in mentioning those films is that Gordon-Levitt has subtly and solidly established an impressive versatility, especially for someone who “grew up” in the acting business.
So, last Sunday I caught Gordon-Levitt’s latest work as the titular character in Oliver Stone’s new Snowden, which chronicles the recent past of its subject, with some modest Hollywood embellishments here and there.
As Edward Snowden himself, Gordon-Levitt mostly exercises restraint, in an effort to portray the seemingly mellow international man of (dubious?) renown as accurately as possible. He’s supported by a range of drawn from real life characters, most notably Shailene Woodley as his longtime girlfriend Lindsay Mills, but also including Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant and several additional character actors.
I enjoyed seeing Snowden, and appreciate its efforts to provoke and document Snowden’s story in itself, and his effect on world affairs. But thinking about it again a few days after the fact makes the overly Hollywoodized elements of the story stand out more, such as a strong focus on Snowden’s love life as a moral compass. Such choices seem to have been done as a negative effect on the actual nuts and bolts of the story, in that there was not much opportunity to discern how Snowden himself was processing the information he came into contact with, and what was driving him to make the fateful decision to leak the information to the public.
Of course, Snowden’s story was told without pretension and artifice in the documentary Citizenfour, which this movie references, and I had caught at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center near the end of 2014. I guess the existence of the documentary gave this film an odd redundancy, in that it could have gone further, but didn’t, and yet it was still well-done.
This month has been unintentionally quiet on the blog front, likely a combination of my self-imposed hiatus from social media and increased workload in the second semester of Grad School 2.0.
However, upon hearing today’s sad news of actor Leonard Nimoy’s death, I remembered that some of my most inspired recent writing here has been about Star Trek. And I realized that I’m paying tribute to Nimoy this afternoon and early evening by (once again) spending some time at Detroit Metro Airport, located in none other than Romulus, Michigan.
I was honored to share a hometown with Mr. Nimoy, and one time, my dad and I even got to see him live. In the fall of 1995 Nimoy underwent a book tour for his recently released second memoir, I Am Spock, and one of the stops was the Somerville Theatre. Oddly, this remains the only time I’ve ever been inside that locally acclaimed venue, although I’ve been outside it many times since that fall night.
Nimoy introduced a special screening of the two Trek films he directed – The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home – and gave an “intermission” talk about his new book. There was a raffle of just a few autographed pictures he’d signed that night, and to our surprise, we won one of them! The picture occupied a prominent home location for a number of years, and I still have it, somewhere…
Inevitably I feel a little bit of “I should have seen Nimoy live again at that Star Trek convention, that special screening, that art opening” – especially since he had a well rounded career with lots of diversity beneath the surface. But I’m grateful to have that one special memory and to have witnessed his gradual embracing in his later years of being a strong role model for the younger generation, as seen in many tributes today.
Trying to keep up the daily posts, at least until the end of the month, so for today I will keep it brief and say that it felt weird to be watching my home state Massachusetts get hit by a blizzard while I went about my business in sunny and cold Detroit. Maybe it’s because the “expected” weather pattern is generally the reverse geography for the storms… but this winter has had its own plans.
This week’s Oscar nominations have created much discussion in the blogsphere and social networking brigade. I’m not looking to add to that conversation with this post. But I am pleased that I have now seen all of the Best Picture nominees for 2014.
Selma has built up quick and impressive word of mouth since its wide release began last Friday, and that was why I went to see it last Tuesday night. The film takes a detailed look at events surrounding the mid-1960’s segment of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership role in the saga of events in the Deep South, which eventually led to a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
The film is exquisitely well-cast in its central ensemble of committed African-American actors portraying real people. Those that stood out for me included David Oyelwo as King, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, and the extensive range of supporting actors around them; it was particularly cool to see former Bay Area actor Colman Domingo appear in a prominent role. I felt less agreeable about the Caucasian casting choices, such as Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson – surely there was a Texan or Southern actor who might have been more suitable? Or even someone like Bryan Cranston, expanding upon his recent stage success as the same person? Fellow British actor Tim Roth as George Wallace also seemed to be overemphasizing certain aspects of his portrayal.
Director Ava DuVernay uses a lyrical simplicity to convey the storyline of events, with many shots focusing just on the character in action, and little use of supporting objects and visual distractions. I would have preferred a few key dramatic moments to go without the musical accompaniment she chose, but I can understand why they are there. I’m undecided about her implied allegories towards recent national events, but I agree that there is more work to be done.
My Rating: ***
The film tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Texan who became known as the most successful sniper ever for the US, with “more than 150 confirmed kills in his career” according to multiple sources. Sadly, four years after ending his Army career to be with his family in Texas, Kyle was killed in February 2013, allegedly by a fellow war veteran he was attempting to help cope with PTSD.
Bradley Cooper stars as Kyle and continues an impressive run of recent acclaimed performances. Much attention has been paid to his “bulking up” for the role, but I found his use of character subtleties to be much more interesting. As Kyle, he displays an easy comfort with the role of command and methodical attention to detail in his lethal missions. But when he comes back to the USA, home of his wife (played by Sienna Miller) and growing family, Kyle doesn’t know what to make of the calm setting, literally worlds away from his war-torn “workplace”, and becomes distractedly distant. Cooper conveys this unease especially adroitly in these home-based scenes, which run the range from poignant to troubling.
I would have liked the film much more if it paid sharper focus to that tension in Kyle’s life between his role as a war hero and role as a family man. As it is expressed in the finish film, there is too much attention paid to the mechanics of the war, and it feels like a war movie, not one that is adapted from Kyle’s actual memoir. Cooper is left to convey the psychological and physiological tension over the course of several effective but brief scenes, while long stretches of the film focus broadly on the war mechanics. That’s not to say that they aren’t well-made (they are, of course, with Eastwood at the helm) but it lends the movie a different aftertaste than what might have been. I have to wonder what the story would have been like if original director David O. Russell had stayed at the helm (Three Kings 2.0?) or in the eyes of a female director, as seen in Kimberly Peirce’s underrated Stop-Loss back in 2008.
Sienna Miller deserves special mention for reaching new dramatic ground with her performance. The actress, who was better known for being tabloid fodder 5-10 years ago, has matured into a confident and assured performer. I’m sure that a close personal connection with the real life Mrs. Kyle helped her to draw the emotional truth of the role. I also look forward to seeing what Miller does next with a broader role, whether on film or on stage.
My Rating: **
I was intending to make a post referencing The Penny Seats successful opening night last night and my pleasure in being part of the production and initial opening festivities last night. The show enjoyed a sold out crowd and was spotlighted in a new review from Encore Michigan, the state’s premiere source for theatre news and goings – on.
But, as sometimes happens after a festive occasion, I got a curveball in my email as I set off back to Detroit last night, with news that an acquaintance has contracted the Ebola virus.
So that has been on my mind today, as the reality of a serious world health situation hits home and gains a personal face.