Movie review: Human Flow (2017)

After seeing Human Flow, you could be forgiven for thinking that all of humanity around the globe is displaced. Ai Weiwei produced this documentary about the massive migration of people all over the planet—people who are displaced by war, by politics, by economics, by capricious governments. No one isn’t complicit in forcing massive migrations and no one is free from them.

Human Flow spends a lot of time in the Middle East where wars and politics have forced people from their homes throughout the 20th and now 21st century. Countries can both be a source of refugees and host of refugees.

Iraq, for instance, spurted forth refugees after the US-led invasion in 2003. But thanks to the unending war in Syria, Iraq also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria.

This documentary provides historical and legal context for the mass flood of migrants. In 1989, at the time that the Berlin Wall fell, 11 countries had border fences or walls. The end of tyranny seemed at hand. Communism was dying and Eastern Europe was free of the Iron Curtain.

Fast forward to 2016, 70 countries had border fences or walls. The lurch to the right that the world made in the 2010s is not in your head. It is real with right-wing governments and anti-immigration policies.

Human Flow spends some time on the refugees pouring into Greece. Fleeing the Middle East or Africa, a spike of people put their lives at risk trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in what could only charitably be called boats. News outlets at the time recounted the lives lost in the crossings and showed images of the dead who washed up on the shores.

Once in Greece, these immigrants were left to die in squalid camps. They hoped to immigrate north to inland Europe, often touting Germany as the end destination. (Merkel opened Germany to millions of refugees seeking asylum.) But the countries in between erected barriers and walls. There was no way that the immigrants could even walk to Germany. A rather cold shoulder from the continent that established the 1951 Refugee Convention.

But Greece was not the only destination for refugees. Italy took in African refugees fleeing hunger thanks to climate change. Jordan has absorbed 1.5 million Syrians, which the movie pointed out would be akin to the US taking in 60 million refugees. (Can you imagine?!) As if the 1.3 million refugees weren’t enough, Jordan is also home to 2 million Palestinians, perpetually displaced from their homeland.  Lebanon is also home to massive numbers of refugees. Half of their population are Syrians and Palestinians.

None of the reasons why these refugees fled their homes will resolve quickly. In fact, the average length of refugee status is 26 years. 26 years. That is a heck of a long time for people to live displaced, where they do not belong, without roots. Long enough to forget what normal life is like. Long enough for generations to be born and grow up with knowing any other way of being.

Human Flow seems to touch on most groups fleeing war or oppression. The movie mentions the Kurds, the Kurds who were so recently in the news again when the US removed their troops from Syria and let Turkey move in to slaughter our Kurdish allies. Or the Rohingya, an ethnic group of Muslims, who fled Myanmar when troops burned down villages and murdered residents. 500,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Bangladesh, with its own humanitarian woes, seemed like an unlikely spot to me to host refugees. I too had no idea that Pakistan was hosting refugees from Afghanistan…and the horrors the refugees face there too. With the rise of ISIS, Iraqis have fled, even as Iraq hosts refugees from elsewhere.

And the Mexican border. A movie about refugees wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the US-Mexican border. Ai Weiwei didn’t venture into the US to interview refugees or film their living or detention conditions (though understandable since he wouldn’t have been allowed access to them; human rights lawyers, humanitarian groups, and even lawmakers find it difficult to gain access to refugees being held in the US).

The movie also didn’t discuss or visit refugees in Australia or South America. But the themes are evident: mass migration of humanity, caused by violence, suffering compounded by anti-immigration tactics. The movie is already a few years old but I do not imagine any of the situations have changed, or at least not changed for the better.

The cinematography was breathtaking. Some really beautiful landscapes and seascapes grace the screen. It seems almost blasphemous to see beauty in the midst of the human suffering that the movie portrays. But it does remind oneself that Ai Weiwei is an artist. Human Flow is where Ai Weiwei the artist meets Ai Weiwei the activist.

Ai Weiwei is a refugee of sorts himself. He is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and investigated government corruption. In 2015, he left China for Berlin, and then he moved to Cambridge, UK last year.

Movie review: The Irishman (2019)

The latest Scorsese film hit Netflix. I waited. And then waited some more. Then I, somewhat reluctantly, sat down to watch the three plus hour movie.

It’s not that I thought it would be bad. I thought it would be excellent. Scorsese films always are. And the actors! How wonderful to see Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci on the screen again in a serious drama.

It’s just that it was just another gangster/mobster film. (These aren’t the only types of films that Scorsese does, but dang, it sure feels like it sometimes.)

The movie is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses and focuses on Frank Sheeren, a hitman for the Bufalino family. An Irishman, Frank gets in close with Russell in an accidental meeting over a broken truck. Russell is high up in the Pennsylvania mob.

Frank starts out driving trucks for meat delivery but soon is trusted with more. He evolves quickly into quite the reliable thug. He is the lone Irishman in a world of Italians, but he and Russell remain close. Even in prison. Even when Russell is wheeled away for one last visit to the church before going to the hospital and then the grave.

But this isn’t just a movie about mobsters and crime families. The Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa are front and center, mixed up with the mob. Hoffa personally signs off on any loans from the union pension fund to mob projects.

Russell introduces Frank to Hoffa and the two hit it off. Best of friends. Frank is constantly trying to rein in Jimmy or advise him in ways that will prolong his life with the mob. But Hoffa is portrayed as quite the hot-head. He trusts Frank with his life. According to the narrative pushed by The Irishman, that was his mistake.

Hoffa disappeared one night in 1975 and was never heard from again. In real life, the FBI set their sights on Chuckie O’Brien, claiming that he drove Hoffa to his death. A recent book by Chuckie O’Brien’s step-son disputes this narrative (and claims that even the FBI has rejected their theory about Chuckie being behind Hoffa’s murder.)

The Irishman never explains why Chuckie was driving the car but also never implies that he was knowingly involved in Hoffa’s disappearance. Frank was merely following orders from Russell but was clearly bothered by killing his close friend. The film shows that one of Frank’s daughters, who was always aloof with the mobsters, formed a close bond with Hoffa. When Hoffa disappeared, she rightly suspected her father and broke off all communication with him for the rest of his life.

At various times in the story, the movie displays textual updates on mobsters, indicating what happened to them later. Most died. Some were imprisoned. Frank Sheeran and Russell Bufalino were two of the few who didn’t die a gruesome death. Instead, Russell died a natural death in prison and the implication is that Frank will die soon in his post-prison nursing home.

The point of the movie (and the book on which it is based)? Crime isn’t a lifestyle to emulate? Crime isn’t glamorous? Hoffa was killed by Frank? I am not clear. It began with Frank sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home and ended with a priest leaving his side at the nursing home. No remorse. No regret. Just a life of violence and loyalty to Russell over Jimmy. A life that is coming to a close.

Movie review: Trumbo (2015)

Trumbo who? I confess I had no idea about the man in the movie’s title. I was interested in this movie because of the actors: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman. And the subject matter: The Communist witch hunt of the 1950s where people were blacklisted and their careers ruined.

I wasn’t disappointed in this movie. The acting is superb. And the storyline…well, in good Hollywood fashion, the good guys win in the end.

Dalton Trumbo was a famous movie screenwriter behind several successful movies. If the movie is to be believed, he was the most famous and highly paid screenwriter of the time. He also joined the Communist Party in 1943 and was an agitator for workers’ rights. But he wasn’t alone. He was joined by other screenwriters, producers, and directors with similar sentiments.

In 1947, they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to answer questions about their Communist affiliations. They refused to answer. They were imprisoned for contempt of Congress. When they emerged at the end of their sentences, the so-called Hollywood Ten found themselves blacklisted. None were allowed to work in Hollywood.

The movie depicts how Trumbo got around this ban and ultimately helped end the blacklist some ten years or so after it started. In the intervening years, the blacklist took a toll on his family. To make ends meet, Trumbo approached a producer of B-rated movies about writing scripts for him without getting credit for the movie scripts. That way, he gets paid for work he does but skirts the blacklist. The producer was game.

To make enough money to survive at the low pay he was receiving, Trumbo had to produce an ungodly number of scripts. He became a non-stop screenwriter. Of course, this pace wasn’t sustainable. He took two tactics to solve the dilemma. He enlisted other blacklisted writers to write scripts and he commandeered his family to help with answering phone calls and delivering scripts.

The involvement of his family was anything but normal. Rather than living their lives as teenagers, his children were forced into the family business for their financial survival. The stress on the family was enormous.

The movie also touches on the stress felt by other writers, directors, and producers who were blacklisted. Some named names in front of the House committee for their own survival. Others tried to skirt the issue for as long as they could.

Trumbo wrote scripts, such as Roman Holiday, that other, non-blacklisted writers added their names to. Years later it came out that Trumbo actually wrote Roman Holiday and was eventually given the Oscar that it won in 1953.

The turning point in the movie was when Kirk Douglas shows up and asks Trumbo to rewrite a script for a movie he was acting in. That movie? Spartacus. Spartacus would go on to win awards. At the same time (according to the movie), the director Otto Preminger approached Trumbo to write the script for Exodus, which also went on to win awards.

Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger gave Trumbo screen credit for writing scripts. (Note: The breaking of the blacklist is a bit disputed. Others used blacklisted artists for movie before Spartacus and Douglas’s role in ending writers being blacklisted has been disputed.)

The movie also errs with a tidy version of history by implying that once the blacklist was broken everything went back to how it previously was. Writers went back to writing. Producers to producing. But things were not so tidy. In reality, some could never work again or work under their real names.

And to my surprise, the House Un-American Activities Committee did not disbanded until 1976. 1976. That seems incredibly late to me. How easy it is to forget the anti-Communist fear that gripped the US for much of the 20th century.

Movie review: A Star is Born (2018)

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that I had never seen any rendition of A Star is Born. I finally remedied that with the fourth version, a directorial debut for Bradley Cooper.

I knew it was going to end badly but darn if I still didn’t want it to. The story follows the life of one star and the rise of an amateur singer. Their paths cross and their lives are never the same. Jackson encourages Ally and draws her out on stage during his concerts. His fans go wild for her and her singing. In time she lands her own manager and her career takes off.

His career on the other hand is starting to wind down. He is still talented. Still beloved by fans. But his hearing loss is taking a toll and the ever-present drinking and drugs nearly destroys him and almost derails Ally’s career.

The relationship experiences some bumps but on the whole is a loving and supportive partnership. After embarrassing her and himself on stage at the Grammy’s during Ally’s acceptance speech for best new artist, he finally checks himself into rehab. It finally seems like he is getting his life back on track.

But all it takes are a few words to destroy any hope for him. He encounters Ally’s manager who doesn’t mince words. He cuts Jackson down and flat out accuses him of holding Ally back and hurting her career.

Ally, of course, doesn’t present this view of the world to Jackson. Always supportive, she wants him to join her on stage at her concert. Instead, he takes his life, leaving her grief-stricken. The movie ends with her singing a last song he wrote her.

The movie is well-made with outstanding actors. The singing is delightful. Cooper underwent vocal training to lower his voice. The only slight hiccup is near the end when Ally is singing the last song he wrote. The movie suddenly cuts from her singing on stage to them singing the song at home. Clearly meant as a flashback showing what Ally was thinking about, I found the transition too jarring.

Unfortunately, I cannot compare Cooper’s and Lady Gaga’s version of A Star is Born  to earlier ones. But this one has a haunting quality to it. Talented couple in love destroyed by alcohol and drug addiction. Not a unique storyline but touching nonetheless.

Movie review: Walking Out (2017)

Walking Out seemed like worlds away for me. I have no experience with hunting or the sparseness of the Montana wilderness or father-son relationships. In many respects, I was an outsider looking in, trying to match sense of the world that I found myself observing.

David, a fourteen-year-old boy, had flown in to visit his father who lives in a remote area in Montana. He didn’t seem nearly as out-of-place in this world as I but it definitely wasn’t the world that he typically inhabits. Every year he flies in from Texas to spend time with his dad. He seems comfortable enough with guns and hunting, though it doesn’t really seem to be his cup of tea. He tries to make his father happy as his father tries to impart hunting and wilderness words of wisdom to him.

As often seems to be the case in movies, one decision alters their lives. Parking the jeep at a junction, David speaks up about not wanting to embark on the hunting trip they are about to do. They need to hike several miles to get to a small hut that has just enough room to lie down and sleep in. Then they will hike further up the mountains to hunt a moose that Cal, the father, has been tracking for two weeks. He has saved this moose for David—his kill to make. Cal mentions that he too hunted with his father at age fourteen to bag his first moose. Now it is David’s turn.

As the movie unfolds, David draws out the story of his father’s first moose kill. It is not what we were led to believe. Hunting with his father, which we see in flashbacks, was not the idyllic experience it was first presented as. There are certain rules to hunting and respecting nature that young Cal violated. This first moose kill was the last time he hunted with his father. And the hunt ended with no bagged moose.

Spoiler alert: David doesn’t bag his own moose on this trip. Chances are that he never will. And like his own father, this was the last hunt that father and son shared.

The movie takes a dramatic turn. The story morphs from a hunting outing where father tries to impart knowledge about the outdoors to his son into an outing of survival. David has to put into practice everything his father has tried to teach him. He succeeds in some and not others.

Walking Out is really about father-son relationships, the difficulties in communication and the ways that love is expressed between fathers and sons. The movie shows lots of harsh moments and judgments but also some moments of tenderness.

I was surprised that the movie didn’t end neat and tidy—I am too accustomed to movies tying up loose ends. But Walking Out left me with a feeling of realism. Lives are not neat and tidy and things do not always end the way one hopes.