Thursday, February 26, 2015

Leviathan, Timbuktu, plus Shorter Reviews on Oscar Nominated Shorts in Animation and Documentary, as well as even Shorter Reviews on Kingsman: The Secret Service, McFarland, USA, Fifty Shades of Grey, and She's Beautiful When She's Angry

                                      A Post-Oscar Catch-Up Posting
Now that we’re past the cycle of Best of 2014 lists, along with the various details on Oscar nominees and winners, I’ll get back to a more standard review structure on some of what’s piled up lately, but given the many areas of commentary below I can’t promise an appropriate Musical Metaphor for each one, just where the spirit strikes me as appropriate to the film under review.
                                                         Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
                                               Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The misery that is modern Russia is well explored in the story of a car mechanic whose property is about to be confiscated by the corrupt local mayor.  He brings in a Moscow lawyer friend of his who tries to blackmail the mayor but things just get worse until it’s clear that the power structures in place are not to be toyed with as they're very dangerous.
What Happens: In the sad coastal town of Pribrezhny on the Barents Sea in Northern Russia, local car mechanic Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is, like most everyone else he knows, struggling to get by, trying to support his younger second wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and his contemptuous son from the previous marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), but the corrupt mayor, Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madianov) wants to grab Kolya’s land for some unspecified purpose.  Given that about all that Kolya and his local friends have as a strategy for any of their troubles is to drink even more vodka, he tries a new approach by bringing in an old-army-friend/now-lawyer from Moscow, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who thinks that negotiation is useless with such an adversary so he tries blackmail instead, given that he has clear evidence of Vadim’s ongoing criminal activity.  For awhile this puts a scare into the belligerent mayor and his closest cronies (including one of the local judges who turned down Kolya’s appeal to stop the land grab), but with the encouragement of the local Orthodox priest (no paragon of justice himself) Vadim soon reasserts himself.  Dmitri’s getting more assertive as well, initiating an affair with Lilya, which Kolya soon finds out about at a birthday party where the general intention was to consume even more vodka while shooting at old portraits of former Soviet leaders.  From this point, it all falls apart for Kolya because even though he reconciles with his wife she feels so guilty about her infidelity to her decent husband (and the condemnation she gets from Roma) that she commits suicide, even as Dmitri leaves town quickly after being beaten up by Vadim’s thugs and having his daughter’s safety threatened if he doesn’t return to Moscow or beyond (we see a shot of him and a little girl on a train, implying that they’re trying to anonymously relocate).  Kolya is soon framed for Lilya’s “murder” by what passes for a legal system under Vadim’s control, convicted and sent to prison for 15 years while Roma is fostered to Kolya’s supposed friends (a local cop and his wife) in return for their false testimony so that they can get childcare payments.  To cap it off, Kolya’s land is used to build a new church where the corrupt priest gives an ironic sermon on honesty and virtue, even as Vadim beams in admiration while the locals lap it up, with no thought anymore on the injustices rained down upon Job-like Kolya.

So What? The film’s poignant title has 2 important references: (1) The description of such a beast in the revered Old Testament (Torah) Book of Job where God tells his intentionally-put-upon-worshiper that this monster (which some interpret as a whale but sounds more like a cross between a whale and a dragon to me) cannot be captured by human efforts (a clear connection to the might wielded by those who operate via brute, corrupted force—as with Vadim—as opposed to those who attempt to subvert them, such as Kolya and Dmitri, shown very simply in a scene with Kolya in the mayor’s office trying to reason with this blighted figure of authority about taking away all that the mechanic has in the world while a picture of President Putin looms over their conversation), and (2) The title of the famous book on governance philosophy by Thomas Hobbes (1651), in which he argues that a sovereign with awareness of and concern for the citizenry is the best form of social organization, an argument being bitterly satirized here as the powers that be—in church, state, and the courts—have no concern for anything but their own comfortable welfare.  Director Zvyagintsev sums this up: “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all,’ and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.” This is a bitter film to watch, yet one that speaks truth to power (so much so that I’m surprised it was even made in Russia, let alone distributed to the world at large where it’s garnered fabulous critical attention [Rotten Tomatoes, 99% positive reviews; Metacritic, 92%—more details in the links far below] and a nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 2014’s Documentary Feature award).  Putin has shown the West that he’d like nothing more than a resurgence of the former Russian empire as a major player in world politics; this brutally honest film from within his own domain (even somewhat financed with state money—along with official denials that Zvyagintsev is showing anything true about the Mother Country) helps us understand why he needs distractions such as the growing civil war in Ukraine to distract his own people from the troubles he’s created.

Bottom Line Final Comments: The only beautiful things about Leviathan are the stunning landscape shots of the ocean and shore in this otherwise bleak location, the ominous music with the end credits that finally breaks the soundtrack’s background silence, and the director-cowriter’s (with Oleg Negin) intention to speak out against the inhumane conditions he finds with his native Russia:  “[W]hatever society each and every one of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man.  And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously mistaken.  In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the ‘world,’ and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”  In this story, Kolya attempts to take that stand, only to be ground down by a society that’s lost all use for principles because material rewards have replaced them, what the director calls “deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community.”  For all practical purposes, this contemporary Russia has devolved back to its former Soviet state of mind and practice, so I’ll try to lighten it up a bit here with my Musical Metaphor from The Beatles, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” (from the 1968 album The Beatles, also referred to as “The White Album”) at, a pseudo-live-performance of this song using concert footage from the mid-1960s with some digitally-enhanced (or carefully-chosen) mouth-manipulation to make it seem like they’re really singing this song instead of the one(s) they were actually playing.  This parody of American-celebration-songs such as Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” won’t do much to help out the destitute Russians struggling under an absurd, power-mongering, oligarchical rule, but maybe it’ll help them laugh a bit as they break open another bottle of Leviathan vodka.
                                 Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)

Islamic insurgents take over an ancient city in the West African country of Mali, imposing their harsh standards on those who haven't fled from their harsh dictates.  Problems arise when a herder's cow is killed by a fisherman, leading to another death and a cruel sentence, even as the new regime undermines its own laws with hypocritical actions by the fundamentalists.
What Happens: In the West African country of Mali, the ancient city of Timbuktu has been taken over by Islamic extremists (based on an actual event from 2012), a group known as Ansar Dine, although their dictates for how the population should now conduct themselves are at best feared, at times actively rejected (often by a woman who may be a local mystic, openly defying the soldiers as they drive through her dusty streets; at other times by the local imam challenging the rebel leader as to his violent interpretation of Islam, as well by the local merchant women being required to wear gloves in public even as they’re trying to handle and sell fish), largely ignored by anyone who can hide their actions from these often-hypocritical-fanatics (even though soccer—or, as the rest of the world calls it, “football”—is banned we see a conversation among some of the occupying militiamen discussing the superior stars of the sport [in a great rebuke of their new controllers some boys “play” football without a ball, simply mimicking the actions that would happen if they had one]; in another scene, although smoking is also banned we see one of the occupiers sneaking off for a cigarette, even though his transgression is known and tolerated by his partner), and considered only occasionally by those who live out in the countryside near Timbuktu in this just-barely-sub-Saharan-country where herding cattle seems a difficult task to my eyes, given the abundance of sand but lack of grass in the area.  One of these herders, though, Kidane (Ibraham Ahmed, aka Pino) is living a decent life with his wife, Satima (Toulou Kiki), daughter, Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their young shepherd, until the day when one of his cows gets tangled in a fisherman’s net in the local river.  Soon, the fisherman has killed the cow, the herder comes for an angry confrontation that escalates into the accidental shooting death of the fisherman (presented in very subdued long-shot, long-take fashion to force us gradually into the drama of the event), then he’s sentenced to death because he doesn’t have 40 cows to repay the fisherman’s family.  

 In other scenes we see the brutal lifestyle and the consequences for defying it as a female singer is given 40 lashes for singing (even in a private home, with a further question raised about whether it’s still a sin if she’s singing in praise of Allah) along with another 40 for being in the same room as her male instrumental accompanist and other men, even with no implication of bodily encounters among them (despite Ana Steele’s curiosity about the BDSM lifestyle that’s revealed to her in Fifty Shades of Grey—see mini-review below—I think she’d better steer clear of Mali for the time being); another situation shows a cohabitating unmarried couple paying the ultimate price as they’re buried up to their necks, then stoned to death.  At the finish, though, a mysterious masked biker brings Satima (desired by one of the rebel leaders, further undermining any substance to their rigid interpretation of their own laws) to Kidane’s execution where they flee as the biker shoots some of the soldiers than races off himself; the film ends with Toya running toward the camera, leaving us with the hope that some have escaped their miserable fates, which still haunt many in Mali today.

So What? This is the first film from Mauritania (next door to Mali, where the story had to be shot because of the difficulties still in place in the director’s home country), with French backing as is often the case for these independent African films shot in former colonies of France, to receive an Oscar nomination.  Given the current global concern about the catastrophes being initiated by ISIS (or IS or ISIL, depending on how you interpret what they call themselves) this film is an important, slightly-less-horrific presentation of what you might find on a Middle Eastern newscast as the latest atrocity occurs from these actual butchers and their various affiliates in countries far from Syria and Iraq.  No one is beheaded nor set on fire here, but the brutal (if self-serving rather than purely ideological) mindset is clearly on display, showing us Westerners who have yet to suffer these dire consequences of simply living a life unburdened by religious ultra-fundamentalism what occurs when a form of dictatorial authority viciously imposes itself on an innocent, resistive community.  The opening scenes where the jihadists come roaring across the plains in a jeep shooting at a gazelle with their machine guns, then use ancient African sculptures as target practice are still disturbing to remember, especially when considering the irony of these commandos imposing their will on the locals for not properly following the ancient commands of the Quran when these militants are quite willing to use all sorts of modern technology—from cell phones to AK-47s—to empower their rule, but even that has its limits when translators are needed to navigate among the Tamasheq, Arabic, French, and English spoken by various people in this story, further obliterating any sort of unity that these armed insurgents are determined to impose, underscored by the shots of this mostly-empty-city where many of the 60,000 former inhabitants have fled to escape these brutal “purifiers,” whose worldview is rejected even by local Muslims.

Bottom Line Final Comments: This is a strong, haunting film that simply had the misfortune of being up against some other equally-compelling competitors (including the stunning Leviathan, reviewed above, and the eventual winner [and still my favorite, although I’ve yet to see Tangerines (Zaza Urushadze, 2013; Estonia) nor Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón; Argentina)], Ida [Pawel Pawlikowski; review in our June 3, 2014 posting]), but hopefully Timbuktu's presence in the Western marketplace will give those of us removed from this overt pseudo-religiously-based-persecution a better understanding of the cruelty imposed by these extremists as well as bring about a better awareness of the almost-unnoticed-high-quality-cinema that comes from these little-known-and-appreciated-former-colonial-countries, especially those in West Africa.  (During my years teaching at Mills College in Oakland, CA I’ve had the privilege of working with Cornelius Moore, the Director of the Library of African Cinema, a project of California Newsreel in San Francisco, so I’ve seen a lot of fine work from what I’d call the “Ignored” rather than the “Dark” Continent; you can get more information here, which I highly encourage you to do because you’re not likely to find these films much of anywhere else.)  I’ll wrap this review up with a Musical Metaphor, Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance” (from his 1986 album of the same name)—a song directed toward U.S. policy against insurgents in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1980s Reagan years—with a video version at using images opposing U.S. policy attempting to establish a Western presence in Iraq during the G.W. Bush years earlier this century.  While this video was posted in 2007, its intentions could easily continue into the present Obama years as our country continues to choose which dictators to support with our ongoing actions in the Middle East, although my purpose is to use the combination of Browne’s lyrics and images such as these to address the current religious zealots depicted in Timbuktu, setting themselves up as a guerrilla-government with total power that shows little regard for the lives they destroy in their quest for subservience to their dictates on what is acceptable in their reconfigured vision of a society.
Short(er) Takes
2015 Oscar Nominated Shorts—Animated
 I wrote about the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Film nominees from 2014 releases previously, but even though the other 2 programs of Shorts are playing theatrically in my San Francisco area there were logistical considerations (honestly: time and money) that kept me from seeing them on a big screen before the Oscars were presented last Sunday night.  However, thanks to Steve Indig of Landmark Theaters and Michael Gortz of Disney I was able to view the Animated Shorts online just prior to the ceremony so here’s some commentary on films that prove that more length doesn’t always mean better results, even if my notes are after-the-fact of the awards.

 I’ll start with the Oscar-winner (my pick as well, which I’m sure made all the difference in the voting), Feast  (Patrick Osborne; 6 min.), from the Walt Disney Animation Studios, a dialogueless romp of a dog’s life from alley mutt to junk-food-loving-man’s-best-friend to confused pooch when a new girlfriend wants man and dog to join her in eating healthier to active ingredient in bringing the split couple back together just in time for a quick wedding, baby, and continued-canine-frolic; if nothing else, the quick pace of this story just swirls you along to a joyful conclusion.  A Single Life (Marieke Blaauw, Joris Oprins, Job Roggeveen; 2 min.) from The Netherlands is a marvelous bit of humor as a woman keeps bumping a record player so that as the stylus moves further into the disc she gets older to the point of ending up in an urn as the song runs out. Me and My Moulton (Torill Kove; 14 min.) from Mifrofilm AS (Norway) and the National Film Board of Canada is the simple reminiscence of the middle 1 of 3 sisters telling about their childhood, culminating with the gift from their parents of the bicycle of the title.  The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs; 7 min.) from the UK would be my second choice, a story about 2 adult brothers—1 very dutiful, the other more agitated—and their aging mother; the impasto-paint-technique of the images (as with the work of Vincent van Gogh) is a fine match for some of the surreal events that occur before a quiet ending.  Finally, The Dam Keeper (Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi; 18 min.) from Tonko House (USA) is a fable about a little grammar-school-age-pig who’s left with the daily responsibility of maintaining a windmill atop a dam that keeps a sooty-sort-of-gloom from engulfing his community; however, the other animal kids bully him at school until he makes friends with a girl fox, but he mistakes an incomplete look at one of her drawings to be a slur on him so he just lets the darkness flow until he realizes his mistake, starts up the windmill, and regains her friendship—it’s a sweet, sad little story done in a fashion that looks like soft pastel chalk or watercolor.
                  2015 Oscar Nominated Shorts—Documentary
 Again, thanks to Steve Indig of Landmark Theaters, along with Jessica Driscoll and Anna Klein of HBO, for getting me the needed online access for this group of Shorts, the most impactful of the 3 programs.  Once again I’ll begin with the Oscar-winner (as well as my personal favorite, although the powerful human emotions on display in all of these Short Doc nominees is incredible), Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (Ellen Goosenberg Kent; 39 min.) from HBO (where there’s lot of celebrating because they also had a hand in the winning Documentary Feature, Citizenfour [Laura Poitras], my late favorite here as well, now that I finally saw it on HBO cablecast a couple of nights ago—check your local listings if you haven’t seen it yet).  In Crisis Hotline … we get the same situation put into fictionalized form as in one of the Live Action Shorts (The Phone Call [Matt Kirby; UK], Oscar-winner in that category), where Sally Hawkins portrays a worker at a suicide-prevention-center, but there we get some visual sense of the distraught person on the other end of the line; in … Veterans Press 1 all of the footage is on Christmas Eve in the upper-New York-state crisis center itself, where a dedicated team of responders attempt to talk distraught vets back from self-termination or get police aid to the vet’s location; it’s amazing the drama that could be shown from the simple presentation of voices (and responder faces) involved in telephone calls, with the culmination coming from either success (sometimes after many hours of intense interactions) or the sickening sense of failure, but either way the work goes on day after day.  In Joanna (Aneta Kopacz; 40 min.), from the Wajda Studio (Poland), the focus is on a mother dying of cancer and the daily interactions with her husband and young son; her concern for their lives after her gets more intense as the film goes on without ever veering into melodrama.  Our Curse (Tomasz Śliwiński; 27 min.), another Polish entry, this time from the Warsaw Film School, is a heartbreaking cinematic autobiography of the director and his wife whose infant son, Leo, has congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS—also known as the Ondine’s Curse), a disease which causes secession of breathing during sleep, requiring lifetime mechanical ventilation through a tracheotomy tube during slumber; they’re able to maintain some humor as they frequently face the camera to discuss their situation, the film ends on an upbeat note as Leo’s still alive, but you know that a lifetime of distress awaits this sadly-burdened family.

 In The Reaper (La Parka) from Mexico (Gabriel Serra Argüello; 29 min.) death is the subject, with the focus on and narration by Efrain, the executioner at a slaughterhouse, where he's put down about 500 bulls daily, 6 days a week, for the last 25 years; the melancholy atmosphere and the environment of blood and carcasses suspended from hooks is sobering (yet, the man needs a job; this is what he’s good at) while the cinematography rivals that of any feature film in the Oscar competitions with stunning compositions.  We finish this group with White Earth (J. Christian Jensen; 20 min.), seemingly a thesis film from Stanford University, a straightforward look at the grim lives of oil workers and their families in a small North Dakota community that gives the film its name; as with the bulls’ blood in The Reaper, oil is a necessary liquid, despite the daily toll it takes on those whose daily existence depends on its ongoing flow.
(believe it or not, actual—for the most part—) Short Takes
        Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn)

An ultra-clandestine UK spy group gets some new recruits just in time to confront a billionaire megalomaniac whose plan is to rid the world of its excess population (except for those who can pay to protect themselves for the planet’s rebirth).  There’s lot of action here but it’s also an intentional parody of the James Bond franchise, leaving a bit of a mixed message.
 Moving on to briefer comments on recent releases, I’ll start with this secret-agent-tale where a super-secret-society of Kingsmen (all with code names from the Knights of the Round Table starting with agency head Arthur [Michael Caine]) find themselves in need of new blood so Harry “Galahad” Hart (Colin Firth) brings in Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), the rowdy, directionless son of a former member, who bests his competitors but can’t bring himself to complete his final task, killing the dog assigned to him as a companion, so instead Roxy (Sophie Cookson) is the new “Lancelot,” sent into combat against Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an obscenely-rich-guy with a plan to cause deadly havoc so that all but the elite (including President Obama and his Cabinet) will kill each other, ridding our planet of the human “virus” that’s destroying Earth.  Through the coordinated efforts of Eggsy, Roxy, and “Merlin” (Mark Strong), Valentine is defeated (along with his lethal-prosthetic-legged-assistant, Gazelle [Sofia Boutella], while all of the “protected” elite have their heads blown off), Eggsy’s inducted into the Kingsman corps (to take the place of Harry, killed along the way), and peace is restored to our overcrowded, increasingly-polluted-planet (Valentine’s analysis is correct, even if his solution seems to be something out of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [Stanley Kubrick, 1964])Kingsman … is a pleasant (although actually quite violent) romp (based on a comic book miniseries which becomes increasingly obvious the longer this movie drags out it’s last-second-rescue plot), but if it’s still a possibility for you I suggest bargain-matinee-prices.  I’ll offer a Musical Metaphor, though, “Live and Let Die” from Paul McCartney and Wings, given that this selection from this Bond film (Guy Hamilton, 1973) keeps us in a British mode throughout, with the video clip at com/watch?v=sn8alMYSu44 being the opening credits sequence for that movie.
                        McFarland, USA (Niki Caro)
Another of the contemporary trend of films based on true stories, this one goes back to 1987 when a novice track coach in a Central Valley California school convinced some of his Latino students to form a cross-country team that surprised everyone by taking the state championship, then continued to dominate the sport for years after that, bringing long-needed-pride to their community.
 With this film and Black or White (Mike Binder; review in our February 12, 2015 posting) Kevin Costner’s already established himself as the 2015 cinematic face of American racial consciousness, although I’d call this one more successful in accomplishing what it sets out to do.  (I did rate both of them at 3½ of 5 stars, though, simply because the earlier one was more ambitious in its intentions while this one needed to somewhat accommodate itself more to publically-known-events despite some creative rearrangements.)  Here Costner is Coach Jim White, a guy with a temper and its accompanying poor-employment-record who finds himself with the only job available, at McFarland High in a community populated by poor Hispanic farm workers and their kids, with a prison looming near the school.  More out of an attempt to land himself a better job than any true altruism, White recruits 7 boys to form a cross-country team then successfully trains them to not only qualify for the first-ever state meet but to win it, especially because of the efforts of Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts) and Danny Diaz (Ramiro Rodriquez).  Much of the purpose of McFarland, USA is to show Anglo White (an oxymoron, as his runners make clear until he better gains their respect, partly by sharing the backbreaking work with them in the fields) better learning the values of his new neighbors just as this downtrodden community learns new respect for themselves in a sport not considered part of their heritage (under the real Coach White they won 9 state titles over 14 years).  Plot events get a bit melodramatic at times, but overall McFarland, USA provides a useful backdrop to our ongoing debates over immigration laws and respect for Latin-American Americans (ironically, the real McFarland team lost their first sectional title in 25 years in 2014 after their success pushed them into Division I despite their school population being considerably smaller [750] than their new rivals [often with 2,000 or more]).  For a Musical Metaphor here, I’ll get a bit silly (and play into White’s initial misunderstood, stereotype-driven-fears about his neighbors) with War’s “Low Rider” (from their 1975 album Why Can’t We Be Friends?), used at under the opening credits of Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (Lou Adler, 1978).
                    Fifty Shades of Grey (Sam Taylor-Johnson)
An about-to-graduate young woman, Ana, meets a barely-older-than-her but powerful (in more ways than one) billionaire, Christian.  Sparks fly quickly between them but his relationship goal is much kinkier than hers so there’s tension and hesitation along with the almost-immediate sex.  We’ll need 2 more chapters to finish this up or you can just read the books.
 The most respectful things I can say about the cinematic adaptation of E.L. James’ blockbuster novel (with 2 more movies to go to complete the trilogy) are that its intentions to primarily appeal to the erotic desires of women are being seriously put forward by female artists (author, director, and screenwriter Kelly Marcel—although it’s curious that as presented any of these names could be easily misunderstood as male) and that its reception has likely exceeded even its own high expectations (its Valentine’s Day weekend opening was the biggest domestic draw ever for February, hauling in $85 million—already eclipsing its $40 million budget; it’s at about $133 million domestically after only 2 weeks in release, making it the 2015 front-runner so far [although The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Mike Mitchell, Paul Tibbitt) isn’t far behind at close to $128 million, once again demonstrating the high-culture aspect of American tastes*]; worldwide it’s now at $410.6 million, despite being banned in several countries).  Beyond that, the word “fantasy” just begins to describe what’s going on here, certainly more so than “erotic,” the other part of a linguistic pair often attached to this movie and everything it stands for.  What more could a 21-year-old mousy (not unattractive, but also not a fashion-model-beauty) English Lit major (Washington State U. Vancouver, just across the river from Portland, OR) wish for than a broodingly-handsome, 27-year-old billionaire to take an (unexplained, except for dramatic necessity) immediate, obsessive interest in her (despite the 15 contracted submissives he’s had in his “playroom” prior), promising every material thing her heart could ever desire (after he’s quickly dispensed with her virginity) as long as she submits to his “sex-slave” demands?  Apparently nothing, until she makes her own demand that he show her what he really feels when he desires to “punish” her, resulting in her willing splay across a bench (not even tied down this time) for 6 hard lashes with a belt, resulting in her immediate departure (but don’t forget those 2 sequels).  I’m not denigrating Fifty Shades of Grey (and its luxurious settings, meticulous wardrobes, and romantic helicopter flights to Seattle) for its BDSM focus because that works well for many lovers, including (for the most part) Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)—with his self-admitted “fifty shades of fucked-up” personality (his birth mother was a crackhead whore; a friend of his adoptive mother used him as her submissive for 6 years, starting when he was 15)—and willing novice Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson), but Christian’s level of instant fascination, his smothering need to be with her at all times (even as she’s to sleep in a separate bedroom), Ana’s level of willing obedience (including at the end when she could have yelled for the whipping to stop instead of enduring it, I guess to see if he’d actually go all the way to 6 as announced), and the whole concept of her quick immersion into his enticing-but-dangerous-web just left me more concerned with how my new cat was getting along at home with her surprised-step-brother during my absence at the theater (no pussy-petting jokes, please).

 If you’re among the few in the world who haven’t seen Fifty Shades … yet and wish to, be my guest (actually, no permissions needed as we don't have a contract, although I'll note that my 2½ stars is generous compared to the 24% and 46% positive ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, details in the links far below), but you might get just as much pleasure from my Musical Metaphor, John (Cougar, back when this song was first released) Mellencamp’s “Hurts So Good” (from his 1982 debut album American Fool) at YGQ (with a biker audience that looks like the more typical kind of advocates of what Christian Grey is promoting for himself and his subordinates).  Finally, I’ll note that I just couldn’t help but use the photo above with its oral sex connotations, even though we don’t get any of that this time nor even the anal sex noted in the links below regarding Kingsman … (gotta save something for the sequels).

* At least something of serious merit is still in the mix for 2014 films with American Sniper (Clint Eastwood; review in our January 29, 2015 posting) now at #3 with $321.8 million ($428.1 million worldwide), close behind Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn; review in our August 7, 2014 posting) with $333.2 million and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 (Francis Lawrence; review in our November 26, 2014 posting) with $336.4 million.
                 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (Mary Dore)
A documentary of the beginnings of the mid-20th century Women’s Movement featuring a lot of footage from the 1966-1971 period along with interviews from today with the many women featured in the film, making this a valuable historical document, if not a fully compelling documentary.

 I couldn’t turn down the chance to juxtapose this film with Fifty Shades of Grey for reasons that I hope are too obvious to need explanation.  However, while I understand that Oscar voters didn’t find She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry to be as powerful overall as their final 5 nominees (of which I can only speak only to the 3 noted in my links far above at the head of this posting, as I’ve still not seen The Salt of the Earth [Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Wim Wenders] nor Virunga [Orlando von Einsiedel]), I do think that She's Beautiful ... is an invaluable historical document of how the most recent wave of a feminist movement came to begin in the U.S. in roughly 1966, with footage from that time through 1971 matched with contemporary interviews with the many women included in this overview of the inspirations and actions that caused these brave people to build on the causes of their suffragette forbearers to take voting rights into a wider range of civil and social rights, addressing the vast inequities and sexism that had been taken for granted in patriarchal cultures since long before the writing of the U.S. Constitution.  While a little attention is given to more-famous-names such as Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem, the focus is mostly on movement leaders who were well-known to each other and their followers at the time but haven’t penetrated popular consciousness as much as their more-noted-sisters—although many who give testimony here praise Betty Friedan and her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, with its documentation of the unfulfilled lives of mid-20th-century  American women for giving them the courage to speak out against injustice, even when practiced by male leaders of the civil rights and anti-war movements, all contemporary with the women’s rights actions even as those males—White and Black—often continued to relegate women in their causes to menial supportive work while all the decisions and public statements were reserved for the men.  Friedan is also seen as the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 (curious footnote: when my wife, Nina Kindblad—a dedicated feminist if I’ve ever met one—and I went to San Francisco in June, 1990 to check into the Hilton on our wedding day we found ourselves surrounded by attendees at a NOW conference who seemed taken aback that she was there for our honeymoon package rather than to attend their gathering), another reason why she’s a key figure in this film, but certainly not the only one.

 She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry doesn’t shy away from the reality that many Black women felt they had to take their own directions for equal rights from what was being advocated by their White middle/upper-class colleagues, just as lesbians went their own “Lavender Menace” direction when the larger movement shied away from them (“It’s too soon!”) so as to not play into male-generated-stereotypes about “bitches” and “dykes”—even as J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was concerned that the mainstream movement presented a “national security threat.”  Overall, She’s Beautiful When She's Angry  is a tremendously important archive of what happened in a certain era of the ongoing struggle for equal treatment and opportunity for over half the population of our society (connected to the present with opening and closing scenes of Texas women still fighting for the right for personal choice where abortion is concerned, indicative of the attempts nationwide to restrict privacy freedom determined in the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision—especially when many of the young women I’ve taught at Oakland’s Mills College in recent decades have no sense of connection to these earlier bra-and-degree [because of lack of women’s studies in the curriculum of the time]-burning-activists), yet I still find this film more valuable as a verification of crucial determinism to right ongoing cultural wrongs than as a film that has a lasting presence in its own right (as with Citizenfour noted above), but then as a 67-year-old White guy originally from Texas (never an anti-abortionist, though), what the hell do I know?  Not much, probably, or at least that’s the opinion I get from my cats at mealtime when they both turn up their noses and trot away after a couple of bites (Nina may have the same reaction to my rating of this film).  Maybe you’ll find more value in my Musical Metaphor of Helen Reddy’s famous “I Am Woman” (from her 1971 album I Don’t Know How to Love Him, although the hit-single-version was a re-recording with an extra verse and chorus, released in May 1972) at, from TV’s The Midnight Special, February 2, 1973.  Sing along until we meet again, probably next week.
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Here’s some more information about Leviathan: (click below the trailer box after you’ve watched it—if you choose to do so—to get into the rest of this official site for the film)

Here are some film clips from Leviathan: (the drunken mayor comes to confront Kolya about taking his land), (mayor Vadim is concerned about the blackmail threats Kolya’s lawyer is making), and (Kolya and his friends go on a birthday party picnic where the entertainment will be shooting at portraits of former Soviet leaders)

Here’s some more information about Timbuktu: (15:04 interview with the Timbuktu filmmakers—director Abderrahmane Sissako, actors Ibrahim Ahmed, Abel Jafri, Hichem Yacoubi, Toulou Kiki—from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival)

Here’s some more information about the Oscar Nominated Shorts—Animated and Documentary: 

Here’s some more information about Kingsman: The Secret Service: (9:37 interpretation of the anal-sex “princess joke” by YouTube blogger Mundane Matt, along with his other commentary on the parodic aspects of this secret agent movie that combines action with humor; given the nature of this spy sendup, these comments seem as relevant as any others I could offer to you—with a warning that Matt’s language is a bit graphic at times as well)

Here’s some more information about McFarland, USA: (3:26 interview with actual cross-country running coach Jim White who confirms that some of what you seen in the movie was fictionalized; if you’re interested this flows right into a 23:48 Bakersfield TV news report, “McFarland’s Family of Champions,” on the actual McFarland High School cross-country program and some of the people you see in the movie and their reactions to how they were interpreted on screen, particularly Coach White and the Diaz family, but if it doesn’t play automatically you can find it at

Here’s some more information about 50 Shades of Grey: (2:40 parody of Fifty Shades of Grey; it’s silly as hell but then so is the original)

Here’s some more information about She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry: (18:24 interview with director Mary Dore)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. I found Kingsmen to be a good popcorn movie (small bag please) with just enough realm of possibility in their gadgets and techniques, reminiscent of the early Bond movies, sadly without a lot of the Bond girls except for the locked up Swedish princess. I heard there was a cut scene where Michael Caine regresses to his younger self when the holographic glasses were used in the board room. Maybe we will see that in the sequel.

    Fifty Shades is another light divergence (who would have thought from the books?) with Twilight ambiance (a given since Fifty Shades was actually serialized on a Twilight fan site originally).

    I must say Ken's bay area women must be something if Dakota Johnson rates a "mousy (not unattractive, but also not a fashion-model-beauty)". Of course Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson's girl is quite fetching and often topless in this "chick flick" (really?) [but the showing I attended was all women except for me]; however she is a model and has a reasonably long resume for a 25 year old, including an upcoming SNL hosting job this Saturday (Feb 28th) that I am sure will skewer Fifty Shades in a very righteous manner.
    SNL Trailer

  2. For those who didn't see the red carpet interview with Melanie Griffith and daughter Dakota Johnson as whiny valley girl (act?)
    Dakota Johnson Feb 22 Red Carpet ...Greatttt, you don't have to see it

  3. Hi rj, Thanks for the comments, especially on Fifty Shades ... because it encouraged me to look over the review again where I found I hadn't put in a summary blurb at the beginning (posting went way too late last night). As for Bay Area women, well you know what the Beach Boys sang decades ago (and still continue to this day in some configuration of their former lineup), "I wish they all could be California girls."

    Yes, Dakota is pretty, but I still don't see her as drop-dead gorgeous even if she is model; however, I am looking forward to her SNL gig, in hopes it's as funny as that pre-Oscar ceremony "conversation" between her and Mama Melanie. Ken

  4. Your Leviathan piece is a fine example of why I read your reviews; excellent recap picking up detail that escaped me while providing relevant references and analysis. For a moment I was suspecting the kid.

  5. Hi rj, Thanks for the kind words. Leviathan is a finely made, fascinating film, one that I was very glad to have seen but, like you, couldn't really know until it was over what was truly going on there, The kid, angry as he was, could easily have been the problem, even though larger, more sinister forces were at work here. Ken