Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

FYI: This film was released in 2018 in France, Israel, and parts of Europe. It is now in theaters here in the U.S. Have you ever been a fan of a soap opera? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

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Glory (1989) starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, & Andre Braugher

I re-watched this Civil War drama on TCM recently; it’s one of my fave (and most-watched) films! The music is used very well; each scene is enhanced by it, incl. the battles. It was originally released in the Summer of 1989; Fathom Events will be having its 30th anniversary screening later this year in select cities/theaters. Kevin Jarre (a white man) was inspired to write the screenplay when he saw monument to Shaw on Boston Common (shown in the closing credits). Jarre’s inspiration came from two books: (1) One Gallant Rush: Robert Gould Shaw and His Brave Black Regiment (1989) by Peter Burchard, a novel that itself was based on letters written by Shaw and (2) Lay This Laurel (1973), a photographic tribute to the Civil War sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens with text by American writer/arts patron Lincoln Kirstein. Jarre has a brief (yet notable) cameo as the white Union soldier who shouts “Give ’em hell, 54!”

Edward Zwick was initially apprehensive about how his African-American cast would feel about this telling of a crucial part of their history by a young Jewish director. To his delight and relief, he found his cast to be very affable and good-humored towards him, some of them even grateful that he was brave enough to tackle such an important subject. Zwick and Denzel Washington (here in his breakout role) would continue to work together on other (successful) movies. The director later commented (during a promo tour for Courage Under Fire) that “Denzel is always doing something interesting. I don’t want to take the camera off him.”

Several of the extracts from Shaw’s supposed letters to his mother (in voice-over narration) were taken from Army Life in a Black Regiment, an 1870 book by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (who commanded the 1st South Carolina Regiment). The historical figures in this movie are: 1) Francis George Shaw, Sarah Blake Sturgis Shaw, and Ellen Shaw (direct relatives of Robert Gould Shaw), 2) John Albion Andrew, the governor of Massachusetts, 3) Charles Garrison Harker and George Crockett Strong, Union generals, 4) Charlotte Forten Grimké, an antislavery activist, 5) James Montgomery, Union colonel, and (6) Frederick Douglas, former slave turned abolitionist, speaker/activist.

Any negro taken in arms against the Confederacy will immediately be returned to a state of slavery. Any negro taken in Federal uniform will be summarily put to death. Any white officer taken in command of negro troops shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection and shall likewise be put to death.” Full discharges will be granted in the morning to all those who apply. Dismissed. -Shaw reads a proclamation sent from the Confederate Congress

Zwick explained that, for the flogging scene of Trip (Washington in his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning role), the actor was lashed at full contact, with a special whip, that would not cut his back, but still stung. For the final take, Zwick hesitated calling “Cut!” to signal the flogging to stop, and the result was Washington’s spontaneous tear down his cheek. The deep scars on Trip’s back were Washington’s idea; they showed how Trip was already a survivor of many lashings (being a runaway slave w/ a willful nature).

That Col. Shaw- he a hard man! -Jupiter Sharts comments, tired after a tough day of drills

He’s a boy. A scared white boy. -Trip quickly retorts with disgust

At first, the regiment is only given manual labor; this was a fact w/ the “colored” soldiers. They were also given less pay; in real life, Shaw was the one who protested this matter. As my A.P. American Government teacher commented, Shaw used his class privilege (incl. his sense of entitlement and rank) to get what is needed for his men (shoes, uniforms, and rifles); we see this in the scene in the Quartermaster’s office. Shaw is surprised at how quickly his men learn (even under their tough, racist Irish drill sergeant). Broderick’s small, youthful face and micro-expressions (when Shaw was uncertain, nervous, or looked in over his head) were played so well. Andre Braugher (currently on the comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine) has perhaps the most interesting role; Thomas is an educated, free man who has never before had to fight for his survival. Trip takes an instant disliking to Thomas; they come from such different backgrounds, though both are young black men yearning to prove their worth. Thomas was partly based on a successful freedman who owned a shop in Boston.

I ain’t fightin’ this war for you, sir. -Trip quietly explains to Shaw (after being praised for his skill in battle)

Unfortunately, most of Elwes’ scenes were cut from the film. He and Broderick did not get along, according to Zwick; I think they also had differing acting styles and personalities. Many scenes/subplots were cut from both the theatrical version and DVD; these include Shaw and Forbes attending school together and fencing one another. Nearly all of the scenes of veteran actress Jane Alexander (Shaw’s mother) were cut. Freeman (who brings gravitas to this film, being older and more experienced than his co-stars) did his own stunts, as Zwick asked of all his actors. He used his own experience (Air Force) to inform how relationships would be formed in the unit.

At the end of the film, Shaw is thrown into the mass grave with the black soldiers. Normally, officers were given formal burials, but the Confederacy had such contempt for the black regiment, that the officers were thrown in with the regular soldiers (w/ no honors). After the war, Shaw’s parents visited the site where their son had died. When asked if they wished to have his body exhumed, so they could take it home to Boston for burial, they declined. “We would not have his body removed from where it lies, surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers,” explained his father, Francis George Shaw. “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. What a bodyguard he has!”

Related Links

Article by historian (a consultant on the film):

Fathom Events: Glory

 

Mudbound (2017) starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, & Mary J. Blige

NOTE: This review contains MILD spoilers for the film (which opens in theaters on NOV 17th).

I was lucky enough to attend a pre-screening of this film (produced by Netflix Studios) at Landmark E St in DC last week. I ran into two friends/movie fans there; we ALL liked it (though it contains some dark, gritty, and violent moments). It will stay in your mind for some time, no doubt. The director is Dee Rees, an openly gay African-American woman, who made the critical indie coming-of-age drama, Pariah. (I read about this film, BUT haven’t seen yet.) At Sundance, Mudbound received a standing ovation. 

The story is one part fiction (based on a novel w/ a white female protagonist) and one part fact (based on real events in the life of a black family). In the hands of another screenwriter, two different films would’ve been made from this material- one focusing on genteel/educated Tennessee spinster turned wife/mother, Laura McAllan (British actress Carey Mulligan) and her straight-talking/stubborn husband, Henry (Jason Clarke, an Aussie); the other on the African-American family farming part of the McAllan’s ancestral land in Mississippi, headed by Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife, Florence, Mary J. Blige (the R&B singer). What ties these two threads together is the unlikely (and potentially dangerous) friendship between Laura’s charming/handsome brother-in-law, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, giving a strong/layered performance), and the Jackson’s eldest son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell, a fresh/compelling young actor recently in Straight Outta Compton).

Both Jamie and Ronsel, though of different ages and races, are WWII vets suffering through symptoms of PTSD after returning home to rural America. Jamie takes to drinking and wasting time, which greatly disappoints Henry, the responsible older brother and family man. Laura has strong feelings for Jamie, though she has long repressed them. Unlike his father, Ronsel can’t quietly acquiesce to the white people in town (whether it be Henry, his blatantly racist father- Pappy, shop owners, or even the sheriff). Hap and Florence worry about their son, who quietly seethes upon realizing the (very limited) role he will have as an adult black man in the segregated South. 

Top 10 Moments from Selma (NOW PLAYING)

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NOTE: This post contains mild SPOILERS.

10) J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) tells President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that the FBI can create a wedge in the family of MLK, Jr. (David Oyelowo).  

9) Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) quietly meets with Malcolm X in a church.  He offers assistance to the movement. 

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8)  Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) punches out a policeman who violently lay hands on her in front of the Selma courthouse.  

7) LBJ tells Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) that “no way in Hell” will he be on the same page as the backward-thinking man when it comes to history. 

6) Coretta confronts Martin about her fears and insecurities, including the other women in his life.    

5) Rev. Reeve, a white Episcopal priest from Boston, is attacked by a group of young (also white) men.  (I didn’t know about this event before!)

 

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4) The prayer on the Edmund Pettis Bridge- a silent, BUT powerful moment.

3) Some little girls in their Sunday best discussing Coretta’s hair before the church bombing (of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham). 

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2) Amelia Boynton’s “you are already prepared” speech to Coretta- VERY well-written, touching, and inspiring!  (Ms. Boynton is still alive at age 103!  She’ll be a guest of honor on Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech.)

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1) MLK, Jr.’s emotionally-charged speech at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral.  (Jimmy, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a state trooper in a diner.  This was witnessed by his mother and elderly grandfather.)