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An Old Classic And A Trio Of New Films For This Weekend
‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’ and ‘The Hate U Give’ serve up very different calls to action
Friday, October 12, 2018
The San Diego Italian Film Festival wraps up this weekend, TCM Big Screen Classics hosts a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” and a trio of new Hollywood releases hit theaters.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
If we ever needed a dose of Capra-corn it’s now. Frank Capra had a particular point of view that championed idealism, decency and kindness. Some find films such as his “It’s a Wonderful Life” as too sappy for their modern sensibilities. But I have always loved his sincere belief that honest, decent people could achieve good things.
His 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is one of his best as it chronicles the journey of a naive junior senator as he comes up against the corruption of Washington, D.C. and refuses to back down because lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.
James Stewart is perfectly cast as the wide-eyed Jefferson Smith whose enthusiastic idealism contrasts with the wise-cracking cynicism of his secretary played by the splendid Jean Arthur. The film is optimistic but not blindly so. Capra acknowledges the corruption surrounding the idealistic hero and recognizes he has a bitter, lonely fight ahead of him. But it’s Capra's genuine sense of hope that buoys the film and leaves the audience invigorated to go out and fight a good fight no matter what the odds.
That’s a message that many of us seem to need right now. And Mr. Smith’s heroic filibuster to a nearly empty Senate at the end of the film recently had something of a real-life counterpart as Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, took the Senate floor for two hours starting at 4 a.m. on Oct. 6 to read into the record the testimonies of sexual assault survivors to a nearly empty chamber as Bret Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court looked to be moving forward to confirmation. So maybe there still are idealists out there fighting the good fight.
“Mr. Smith” was controversial on its release and offended senators who felt it depicted the Senate as corrupt and its members as just a bunch of crooks. But the film did well at the box office, won good reviews and garnered 11 Academy Award nominations.
“Mr. Smith” screens Oct. 14 and 17 at multiple theaters as part of TCM Big Screen Classics through Fathom Events. I highly recommend seeing it. It has the power to inspire.
The new film “First Man” looks to the story of Neil Armstrong and the famous Apollo 11 moon landing.
The poster for “First Man” proclaims, “experience the impossible journey to the moon.” But what the film actually delivers is a marital drama with the space program as mere background detail.
Based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film seems to take little more than the title from its source. The creative team is not without talent. Director Damien Chazelle dazzled with “Whiplash” and screenwriter Josh Singer scored with “Spotlight.” But both faltered with more recent projects. Singer’s script for “The Post” ignored the realities of Washington publisher Katharine Graham in order to craft a feminist tale of his choosing while Chazelle tried his hand and — I thought — faltered badly at making a modern Hollywood musical with “La La Land.”
Their film of “First Man” provides little insight into Neil Armstrong (played with emo prettiness by Ryan Gosling) and doesn’t successfully explore why what made him a great pilot and astronaut did little to help him in his domestic life. Instead, the film resorts to stereotypes about noncommunicative males and their long-suffering wives. But we see little of what drives Armstrong’s passion for engineering and space travel.
The film does, however, suggest that Armstrong’s determination to reach the moon is tied to some sort of grief therapy over the death of his young daughter to a tumor. That feels like the kind of simplistic emotional through-line that you might find in a Steven Spielberg film, so it’s not surprising that Spielberg happens to be the producer on the film.
Armstrong’s wife, Janet (played by a severe Claire Foy), gets a couple of moments to assert herself but not really the time to develop into a three-dimensional character.
The film also delivers a decidedly somber portrait of the space program with little acknowledgment of the right stuff needed to get a man on the moon.
The film, which feigns being a portrait of the first man on the moon, takes time out to turn the space program into a racial and political issue. So we get a whole montage to “Whitey’s on the Moon” and get to see protests about how money could be better spent on education or poverty. These are valid issues that could be raised in a bigger discussion of the space program and its value to the United States, but when the film can’t take the time to develop its characters in depth, these narrative tangents only end up making the film feel more messily unsure of its purpose. Raising these issues in the context of this film just feels like a concession to political correctness without really addressing them in any depth.
“First Man’s” one asset, however, is the way it puts you inside a rocket or spacecraft to make you feel the stress of that situation and how challenges had to be met with a cool head. So much about the space program is fixed in our minds from footage we see from the outside — the impressive launch of a rocket, the view of the earth from space, a capsule floating gracefully. But we don’t often see the claustrophobic interior with the barrage of flashing lights and switches, or sense the vibration and centrifugal force.
Chazelle employed some horror film devices in his first film “Whiplash” to heighten the tension in a relationship between a demanding teacher and his student. He finds a certain element of horror in some of the scenes inside the X-15 or the space crafts as well to give us a more intimate sense of what these astronauts go through. But everything outside of the space program comes across as trite melodrama.
The chief problem with “First Man” is that when it ends, you are left wondering why Chazelle wanted to make the film in the first place. It has no focus and therefore never develops much depth. It’s a little bit about the space program, a little bit about the trials of marriage, a sidebar on grief and loss, and social consciousness thrown in as an afterthought.
To me, “The Right Stuff,” based on Tom Wolfe’s book and brought to the screen by Phillip Kaufman, managed to weave all those divergent plot threads into a much more satisfying tapestry. In succinct but smartly written and executed scenes it managed to sum up the problems of being married to the particular kind of men who became astronauts and to convey the media circus of the space race while acknowledging and celebrating the skill set of the men risking their lives to get into space.
It also managed to do all that with humor, drama, and a sense of wonder. “First Man” has none of that. At the end of “First Man” we are shown John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about why we feel driven to explore space, but by the time it plays, it no longer feels inspiring because Chazelle has painted such a bleak picture of the cost of the space program. His film fails to capture any of the excitement or wonder that I felt growing up during those Apollo years or the sense of what a remarkable scientific and engineering achievement it was.
The San Diego Italian Film Festival wraps up this weekend, Fathom Events hosts a screening of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” and a trio of new Hollywood releases hit theaters.
“The Hate U Give”
Sometimes young adult books tackle serious topics with the kind of directness that films and literature aimed at older audiences try to avoid. But sometimes pushing the message to the forefront can have an impact as it does with the film version of Angie Thomas’ YA novel “The Hate U Give.”
The book and the film spell out their message quite clearly: it’s a message about race, about being black and being fed up with seeing African Americans being killed by police officers who are rarely held legally accountable for their actions. If a film intends on delivering its message like Western Union, then it can often be faulted for lacking subtlety and artistry. But it feels like we are at a point in time when subtlety needs to be replaced with some clear statements.
What “The Hate U Give” succeeds in doing is conveying a point of view clearly and with the calculated goal of trying to inspire a sense of action and personal responsibility.
The film is not a great work of art, but it is well crafted to achieve its purpose. It opens with our young African American protagonist Starr (played by Kai N. Ture as a little girl and then by Amandla Stenberg as a teenager) being given a talk by her father about how to behave when — not if, but when — they are pulled over or stopped by a cop. After the talk, her father gives another form of advice with a printout of the principles of The Black Panthers and tells her and her siblings to memorize it. This is the kind of talk that I as a white mom never had to have with my child, and it's infuriating that we live in a country where some parents do have to open their children's eyes to such realities.
The film is set in motion by the fatal shooting of Starr’s friend at the hands of a cop and the aftermath as Starr has to decide whether or not to step forward as a witness. The film tackles the issue very directly but tries to get beyond the statistics to personalize this single incident of an innocent black youth killed by a police officer.
Stenberg shines brightly as Starr and makes the audience see the world through her young eyes and feel her growing anger at the injustices she experiences. It’s a film aimed at young audiences, but hopefully, it’s message reaches across generations and racial lines to reach a broad, mainstream audience.
“Bad Times at the El Royale”
“Bad Times at the El Royale” desperately wants to be a Quentin Tarantino movie but with something to say.
Drew Goddard had wild success with his directorial debut “Cabin in the Woods.” That film cleverly played off of horror film tropes in a manner that felt fresh and energetic.
“Bad Times at the El Royale” feels more self-conscious of trying to construct something clever and original as opposed to genuinely being clever and original. I’ll give Goddard props for having ambitious goals and occasionally delivering scenes that play out with an artful flair. But the end result is something not very satisfying.
There is a lot of artifice to the film, not just in terms of the carefully designed setting of the El Royale Hotel but also in terms of characters that are each hiding a secret. The filmmakers are asking critics not to reveal any of the twists or surprises, but none of them are that shocking or well devised that it really makes that much difference.
In its favor is a cast stacked with talent that includes Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo and Lewis Pullman — less interesting are Dakota Johnson and Chris Hemsworth. But Erivo, in particular, shines as a sessions singer who dreams of stardom. She may, in fact, have the film's best scene when she faces off with Hemsworth.
But the film never seems to find its groove or settle into a style. It too often feels forced or stilted as if too aware of its own carefully constructed design with each character and room given its own chapter. The story moves through each chapter and then backtracks to replay scenes from another character’s perspective.
Goddard has talent, and it’s nice to see him testing himself and trying to up his game by layering in some ideas with a flashy style. But ultimately “Bad Times at the El Royale” proves to be an unsuccessful experiment.
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