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. 

 

The Promise (2017) starring Oscar Isaac, Christian Bale, & Charlotte Le Bon

NOTE: This review contains MILD SPOILERS for the film.

The brutal and harrowing atrocities depicted are diluted by the affairs of the heart leaving the film unbalanced as it strives to be both an epic war drama and a tragic love story.  

Terry George [the director] has aspirations of “Doctor Zhivago” but the end result is akin to an attempt at turning “Schindler’s List” into a romance film. 

-Joseph Friar (FLIX!)

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Mikael (Oscar Isaac) arrives in Constantinople, Turkey to begin his medical studies.

Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a small-town “apothecary” (like a modern-day pharmacist) w/ the dream of becoming a doctor. He becomes engaged to Maral (Angela Sarafyan)- a woman w/ wealth in his community. We see that he’s NOT in love with Maral, BUT he needs her dowry (400 gold coins) to finance med school. As their parents hope, maybe love will come later? 

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Ana (Charlotte Le Bon) and Chris (Christian Bale)

Once Mikael begins school in the big city (Constantinople) in 1914, he makes friends w/ Emre (Marwan Kenzari)- a jovial, world-traveling “party boy” who’d rather flirt than study. Emre’s father is a big shot (pasha), who’s NOT amused by his son’s behavior, which includes hanging w/ foreigners. Emre is a Turkish Muslim male who has privilege in this society.

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Ana (Le Bon) and Mikael (Isaac) at Emre’s birthday party.

In his uncle’s house, Mikael meets Ana Khesarian (Charlotte Le Bon), a beautiful dancer-turned-teacher to his cute young nieces. Ana is living w/ Chris Myers (Christian Bale), a famous/hard-drinking American reporter for the AP.  She met him after the sudden death of her musician father in Paris. Ana has a French accent (b/c she grew up mainly in Paris), BUT also a an affinity for her people- the Armenians. While Chris is busy covering the growing tension between the Turks and Armenians, Ana and Mikael begin falling in love. After all, they’re of similar ages, personalities, and have a shared heritage. And also b/c Hollywood MUST put a love story in the middle of (almost) every movie!

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Chris (Bale) takes photos of a nationalistic parade.

Isaac is one of my fave actors; NOT only does he have GREAT hair (hey, it’s true), he has the range to pull-off MANY different types of characters. With Mikael, he creates a wide-eyed, goodhearted, yet (quietly) passionate young man who yearns to know more and contribute to his corner of the world. Bale does a good job- he’s the privileged American (outsider) who is a witness to history. He sends the story out to the wider world. It was a nice surprise to see some strong (veteran) actors in the cast: Shohreh Agdashloo, James Cromwell, and Jean Reno. 

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Ana (Le Bon) and Chris (Bale) share a quiet moment.

The Promise looks and feels like a big budget film; there is some gorgeous cinematography.  There are moments of intense sadness and acts of bravery (incl. by characters who DO NOT use guns), which take the film to the epic scale. I recommend the film, BUT it wasn’t as GREAT as I’d expected. Yes, it was emotional, BUT I wanted more backstory (history/politics) and characterization.