Matewan (1987) starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, & David Strathairn

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Director John Sayles at AFI Silver Theater on May 17, 2017.

I’d never seen this movie (part of DC Labor Film Fest this year) before, though I’m a BIG fan of independent director John Sayles. On this blog, you’ll find reviews of Passion Fish and Casa de Los Babys– two of his more female-centered works. In my view, Sayles was a “masculine feminist” even before the term became popular. He writes BOTH male and female characters who are multi-dimensional living inside stories which are realistic.

Now, you may be thinking- HOW does Sayles keep doing his own high-quality, yet rather low-budget projects!? He explained that his day job is “writer for hire”- he worked on movie and TV scripts, many of which didn’t get made by the big Hollywood studios. “In the past 15 years or so, studios seem to want their leads to be like Tony Soprano,” Sayles explained in the Q&A session after the film. (Most of the audience laughed at this part.) 

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Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper) addresses the miners.

Matewan is based on true events which occurred in a rural town in 1920s West Virginia. Some of the character names are real; others are amalgams of several people. When I first saw the trailer for the film two weeks ago, it reminded me of the Western genre (which Sayles was inspired by). The cinematographer here was Hollywood veteran Haskell Wexler (d. 2015); he won two Oscars, one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and the other for Days of Heaven (1978)- considered one of the MOST beautiful films by critics and fans alike. The music is also a crucial element here; there is a blending of different styles.

A stranger- Union organizer Joe Kennehan (Chris Cooper in his first film role)- arrives in the town of Matewan. (Cooper plays the lead in Sayles’ Lone Star, which also stars a young Matthew McConaughey.) He gets a room at a boarding house run by a widow, Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell- lead in Passion Fish), and her teenage son Danny (Will Oldham, then just 17 y.o.) Danny recently went to work in the mines, though he’s NOT yet 15 y.o. His real passion is preaching. 

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Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) is a representative/leader of the black miners.

Joe meets w/ (white/native born) coal miners at the local restaurant. These workers, struggling to form a union, are up against the Stone Mountain Coal Company operators and thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency (basically guns for hire). Black and newly-arrived Italian immigrants, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught in the middle. A tall, burly black miner- nicknamed Few Clothes (James Earl Jones)- boldly comes to this meeting. He’s an advocate for the African-American men brought in to work recently from further South. The local white miners don’t want to include the black men (or Italians) in the union; they consider these two groups to be a threat to their livelihood. (Well, some things NEVER change! And yeah, Italians were NOT considered “white” at this time in American history.)  

You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a goddamn club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy. -Joe explains to the white miners

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Police chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) readies his pistol in his office.

I’ve met Mr. Felts. I wouldn’t pee on him if his heart was on fire. -Sid Hatfield tells the men from the Baldwin-Felts agency

This film contains some colorful characters, including stone-faced cop Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). Kevin Tighe (a veteran of film and TV) and Gordon Clapp (who later made a name on NYPD Blue) play the main villains. Sayles is in the small role of a fiery, anti-union Baptist preacher. Producer Maggie Renzi (herself of Italian heritage) takes on the role of Rosaria, wife to one of the Italian miners and mother to several kids. Sayles and Renzi have been creative and life partners since their days as students at Williams College. Sayles also met Strathairn at Williams; they’re good friends. Local people (NOT professional actors) were used in MANY of the scenes of Matewan; they give authenticity to the film, as does the setting.

I think ALL the actors did a fine job; I esp. liked the characters played by Jones (what a great get for young filmmakers) and Renzi (who spoke in Italian). Cooper was the first actor who auditioned for the role of Joe; he had ONLY done theater before. Sayles revealed that several well-known actors also went in for the part, BUT he and Renzi kept thinking back to Cooper. As for Jones, they wanted someone like him, b/c they thought there was a small chance of the man behind Darth Vader taking on a supporting role. Well, you NEVER know until you try!

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Ali & Nino (2016)

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Ali (Adam Bakri) and Nino (Maria Valvarde) share a picnic on a hill.

[1] We get a rare glimpse into an era at the onset of the formation of the Soviet Union. Also, the interaction between two religions, Islam and Christianity, is carefully portrayed and interesting to observe for that time period and location.

[2] The culture of the East was well-depicted… revolution and fight for independence scenes, despite of low budget [$20 million], are well executed- impressive and tragic, as they should be. 

[3] My only concern is that movie is really short- only 1.5 hours. Way too little to show such a complicated time period of Azerbaijani history… You just cannot help but wish for story to slow down and take its time to show more details…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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Bakri and Valvarde with director Asif Kapadia.

This little gem of a film is now streaming (Netflix). If you liked The Promise, or are interested in some of its themes, then you will enjoy this (smaller, yet well-done) love story. The director is British Asian (or South Asian, as we say in US) and a recent Oscar winner- Asif Kapadia. Amy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015; it focuses on the troubled life of singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse. The film was an international box office hit and is the highest grossing UK documentary of all time. 

There is only one word to describe the cinematography and music- AMAZING! The composer is Italian- Dario Marianelli; he worked on some very good films, including: V for Vendetta, Atonement, and Pride and Prejudice (2005 big screen version). The screenplay writer (Christopher Hampton) may also be familiar; he worked on Dangerous Liaisons (1988), The Quiet American, Atonement, and A Dangerous Method. Hampton adapted Kurban Said’s book Ali and Nino, which I had come across MANY years ago, BUT haven’t read. (There is a VERY interesting story re: the author of the book, too, if you want to look that up.)

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Ali (Bakri) and Nino (Valvarde) dancing at a ball after a graduation.

The desert doesn’t ask for anything, doesn’t give anything and doesn’t promise anything. -Ali explains why he loves the desert landscape 

The cast here is multi-national and multi-ethnic: Adam Bakri (who is a Palestinian Arab) plays Ali Khan (meaning: ruler) Shirvanshir, the handsome/cultured son of a Muslim nobleman. Maria Valverde (who hails from Spain) is Nino, the petite/wide-eyed princess from a Georgian Orthodox Christian family. Nino’s father is played by American film/stage actor Mandy Patinkin. Ali’s father is Iranian actor Homayoun Ershadi; he can be seen in The Kite Runner and The Queen. These veterans lend gravitas to the film, along w/ strong supporting characters (several of whom hail from Turkey, as does the cinematographer).

Ali’s father laments that though his family has been here for hundreds of years and is well-respected, they have no political authority (Russia was in charge). Though Ali and Nino have different religions and backgrounds, they move in the same small circle of upper-class society in Baku, Azerbaijan (an area rich w/ oil). Nino’s family is originally from Tblisi, Georgia; her father is in Baku on business. 

 

La La Land (2016) starring Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

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Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) dance in Griffith Park.

[1] What has been thrown, hurled and heaved at this film is Oscar-seeking acting, Oscar-seeking direction and Oscar-seeking technical twiddling. And hey ho and guess what? It got Oscars.

[2] No legit Broadway-style singing technique. I cannot imagine what real Broadway singers and dancers must be thinking about this travesty.

[3] The big red flag with the story is that the music simply is not very good. There is not one memorable song or dance in the entire film! 

[4] The biggest fault with the movie is the complete lack of supporting actors to flesh out the story. The two main characters are just not strong enough to carry the movie for more than two hours without help. 

-Excerpts from various IMDB reviews

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Director Damien Chazelle (just 32 years old) and Gosling on the set of Sebastian’s apartment.

I find L.A. kind of romantic, actually. As a movie junkie, it’s a city that was built by the movies. There’s something really weird and surreal about it that I find energizing. -Damien Chazelle, director

Ugh, what to say re: this movie… My mom wanted to watch it (it’s on Fios On Demand) when we were hanging out at my parents’ house last SAT. We got through it… somehow. My dad and I saw it together (pausing here and there), then my mom saw it the next day; none of us liked it (as I’d guessed). “What kind of movie is this!?” Mom commented, confused and disappointed. She wanted to see what the fuss was about this Oscar-winning film, like many of you out there (who didn’t see it in theaters). A FEW of my friends saw it on the big screen; their opinions went from “I hated it” or “It wasn’t that great.” 

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Mia (Stone) talks with one of her roommates in her colorful bedroom.

People love what other people are passionate about. -Mia explains to Sebastian

Um, you CAN be passionate re: something, BUT that doesn’t mean other people will be invested in it- sorry, that’s reality! Speaking of passion, WHERE is the chemistry between Stone and Gosling? Also, where is the interesting dialogue (which is something that makes or breaks a movie for me)? The script could’ve been written by an idealistic, sensitive, above-average 16 y.o. kid! 

How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future. -Keith comments to Sebastian

If Sebastian is SO crazy re: jazz music, then WHY don’t we hear any of it (such as the greats mentioned or something new)? I mean, I’m crazy re: Shakespeare, and those who know me will definitely get an earful! LOL… I think John Legend (who also acts here) worked on ONLY one song. What a waste! 

 

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Sebastian (Gosling) and Mia (Stone) walk over a bridge.

You could just write your own rules. You know, write something that’s as interesting as you are. -Sebastian says to Mia 

Mia is more interesting than Sebastian; she’s also more likable. She suffers through a variety of demoralizing auditions (like a LOT of aspiring actors), has a nice boyfriend (what was wrong w/ him, anyway?), and is on the verge of quitting L.A. I DO like the fact that she writes her OWN story (trying to be a BIT positive here). Why don’t we get to see some of her play? Well, if you have 2 hrs to waste, check it out for yourself. If you’re a fan of classic musicals, smart/snappy dialogue, and effective acting- don’t bother.