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: 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.

Movie review: Obit. (2017)

Obit. takes a look at the world of obituary writers at The New York Times. The documentary delves in their world. Various writers are interviewed and accompanied through their daily tasks.

Rather than a leisurely job of writing about interesting people, obituary writing is a hectic fast-paced job of writing about interesting people. Anyone who had an impact in the world could be fair game for an obituary. And their obituary must go out in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

For this type of work, people need to be called, facts tracked down, news clips gathered. Yes, news clips. The Times has a department devoted to news clips of people and events. Thousands of drawers in filing cabinets contain files on individual people. A team used to maintain these files. These days one person oversees the department. When a writer is assigned an obituary about a newly deceased person, they wander to the morgue (i.e., morgue file department) to gather information.

Writers search for the odd fact or interesting tidbit that speaks to a narrative that they are crafting about the deceased. On occasion they write advanced obituaries for famous people who may be at the end of their career or life that can be pulled when they die. Usually though the writers are scrambling to gather the facts and craft a narrative in time for the 6 pm newspaper deadline.

Oh yes, and before then they have to check the facts. They must call and track down people to corroborate items. But of course, Murphy’s Law. Mistakes happen. And corrections must appear in the following day’s paper.

The documentary covers some people for whom obituaries were written. Some you may know. Some you may not. Kinzler who saved Skylab. (Did he really or was this a family myth? The answer is the former. He really did save Skylab.) Pete Seeger and the photos they had on file (in the morgue) when he was a small child. The bass player for Bill Haley and the fight to keep in the obituary the fact that his father was a hog butcher. (It helps define his life, the writer argued.) Or Stalin’s daughter and her life as an ex-pat after Stalin’s death.

Why, one writer explains, are women and minorities often missing from obituaries? Obituaries are retrospectives, a reflection of the times 40, 50, or 60 years previously. In the past, the movers and shakers tended to be white men. But now women and minorities who had an impact during the civil and women’s rights movements are now passing away. Equality increases with the passing of time.

Obit. is an interesting look into the obituary department at The New York Times. The writers have the unique opportunity of learning about lots of people who led interesting lives and had an impact on the world. In their role, they occupy a fascinating seat to witness and celebrate the passing of history.