It’s the weekend before my birthday (thirty-something). Instead of clamoring for gifts, I want to spread the love to you, my wonderful reader. So two of my books are on Kindle Countdown sale. That means the longer you wait, the more it’ll cost. So get in there now!
Mexico is a hot political topic in the US these days. Illegal immigration and the drug trade are always the forces behind the conversation. Cartel Land provides us an inside look at the border conflict from the perspective of two very different vigilante groups fighting against the drug cartels that have had a huge role in creating this mess.
On one side of the border, we have an American “militia” group fighting to enforce laws that the government seemingly can’t or won’t enforce themselves. The film examines this side of the story primarily through the perspective of one man, Tim “Nailer” Foley. He and his cronies fit the stereotype of the anti-Mexican movement; angry, white, Fox News watching, gun toting men out to do their patriotic duty. But Foley is characterized as more than that; he’s also a dedicated father and a child abuse survivor who feels compelled to do the right thing even if it means risking his own life.
On the other side, in Mexico, we have Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. He’s the leader of the Autodefensas; a paramilitary group that strives to fight the cartels by any means necessary. They are fighting for their people, their country, and their right to live in peace.
Two sides, fighting for the same thing, but never the twain shall meet.
Although the film does try to give both sides equal footing, most of the real action happens in Mexico with the Autodefensas. Their story starts out heroically; Dr. Mireles and his forces flush out cartel forces from a small town, storming in and being welcomed as liberators. Dr. Mireles is known far and wide and regarded as a hero and an icon. Things turn pretty dark from there.
After a suspicious event takes Dr. Mireles out of the picture for a while, the leadership of the Autodefensas passes to his #2 guy (known as ‘Papa Smurf’). Under his leadership, the Autodefensas adopt very questionable strong-arm tactics and start to resemble the very bad guys they’re supposedly working against.
This is also where the action in the film really kicks up. The brave cameramen capturing the footage get all up in the mix, running through the ramshackle streets of Mexican towns while gunfire peppers the air. Cartel thugs are caught, roughed up, and sometimes “disappeared”. But it’s not always clear that the victims of this violence are actually guilty of anything.
Mixed with this action are stories of the poor Mexican citizens caught up in this drug war. Through close-up interviews, we hear tale after tale of family members killed, mutilated, kidnapped, and raped. Cartel Land does a fantastic job of humanizing the injustices suffered by ordinary innocent people caught up in the drug trade. They are poor and they are helpless and they just want peace from horrors most people can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder that they’d try to escape any way they can?
There’s a classic line in Nolan’s The Dark Knight script (another story about a vigilante): “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That is the perfect way to describe what we see documented in this film. The environment that our protagonists work in is toxic, permeating everything from local law enforcement to prisons to politics. They are up against insurmountable odds. And, at the end of the day, they are human. Who can stare into the heart of darkness every day and never lose faith?
Cartel Land provides more questions than answers. How did we get to this point? How can we ever fix it? Who can we ever trust to handle it? For this film, where everyone who thought they had the answers falls far short, the questions prove more enlightening.
Winter on Fire is an incredible look at the Ukrainian protests of 2013 and 2014. For 93 days, an immense movement of Ukrainian citizens from all walks of life fought against the threat of Russian political domination. If it had been a peaceful event, perhaps it would have gone down as merely a footnote in history. But a heavy-handed government escalated the situation into a deadly brawl that is immortalized in this fearless film.
The first thing that hits you when you start watching Winter on Fire is how very personal it is. The movie uses a mix of citizen journalism via cellphones and the footage from professional journalists who were right in the thick of things, even when bullets started flying. You see everything right up close, close enough to see every facial expression, hear every yell, and experience the fear and chaos.
The first quarter of the film quickly sets the scene: the Ukrainian President makes a back-room deal with Vladimir Putin that cozies up to Russia. But a very large portion of the Ukrainian citizenry wants to join the European Union and put Russia firmly in the rear-view mirror. The events cause a surge of anti-government sentiment, protests start, and the government sends in troops and special forces to stomp on the resistance.
Those efforts backfire, as they always do eventually. But what makes the Ukrainian protests so remarkable is how swiftly and forcefully the citizenry hit back. They take over the Independence Square in Kiev, and set the stage for a brutal conflict.
As the resourceful and highly organized protesters put up barricades made of wood, wire, and anything else they can find, there’s a strong Les Miserables vibe, and even one of the protesters mentions that it feels more like an 18th century defense than a modern day one. But the thematic comparison helps connect this struggle to the French Revolution, and all the subsequent revolutions it inspired.
Despite the beautiful display of human spirit and perseverance, most of the time this is a film of ugly and uncensored brutality. The beatings of the early days of the protest give way to shootings, with snipers picking off hapless citizens armored only with flimsy metal pots and thin sheets of aluminum.
There are several scenes where the first-person footage shows us a Ukrainian citizen get shot by sniper fire, fall down, and die. The daring up close and personal camera work makes it feel like you’re right there next to the man, watching him breathe his last breaths.
Later, when the tides turn and the throng of protesters overcome the government forces, there’s a haunting shot of a citizen striking one of the cops who had lost his helmet. Blood spurts. Skull fragments fly into the air. He drops to the ground in a heap, motionless. The frantic crowd of protesters, garbed in makeshift armor and weaponry, swarms past his body, on to the next fight.
It’s so real it’s surreal. For most of us, these kinds of scenes only play out in movies and video games.
Winter on Fire unwittingly and unintentionally becomes a film about the horrors of war. No sane person can watch this movie and ever gleefully celebrate any declaration of combat. This is vibrant, hopeful human life extinguished right before our eyes in a way that the US Armed forces doesn’t allow embedded journalists to show. It is a civil war for a nation that should be unified in their culture and traditions. Instead they are fighting among themselves and wasting their most precious resource: the lives of their young people.
Those people died for the most precious of human ideals: freedom. But was that really what they accomplished in the end, or simply a brief respite?
If there is a weakness in the film, it’s the limited political context surrounding the events. There’s only a brief description of the political environment at the beginning of the film, then it’s all focused on the chaos of the protests. The Ukrainian situation was (and still is) much more complicated than a simple matter of one shady politician. More information about the political and cultural forces surrounding the world outside the protests would have been really helpful. But I think that can be forgiven since the producers wanted to have full focus on the remarkable battles between the common people and the government agents who were supposed to be protecting them.
The result is a story that could have been taken right out of the pages of the V for Vendetta graphic novel. People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.
The next entry in my series on this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary feature is Amy, a well-crafted film that is like watching a beautiful Rolls Royce crash in slow motion.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably old enough to remember the meteoric rise to stardom that Amy Winehouse experienced, which makes watching this movie so surreal. It can seem like it was so long ago, when in reality it’s only been a little over a decade since her album Back to Black threw her into the global spotlight.
And it was that spotlight that killed her.
Amy is, put very simply, a movie about a troubled but extremely talented young woman with personal demons that were made infinitely worse by the pressures of stardom. You can’t come away from this movie without thinking that if only a few things had been different – if she had gotten treatment earlier or she didn’t get married or if her father hadn’t been her manager – that Amy would still be alive today. And that’s the true tragedy that this movie reveals. We all know how it ends, but it’s very sobering to see how many times it could’ve ended so differently.
The film tells the story of Amy’s life from the beginning, through a remarkable amount of video footage that spans years. It really seems like there was a documentary of her life being filmed since she was a teenager. We’ve lived in a digital age with ever-present cameras for a long time now, but no other film really drives that fact home like Amy. We get to see her grow from a plucky teenager to a worn out adult through camcorder and phone footage that is flawlessly edited together with professional shots and paparazzi snaps. The end result is as eerie as it is effective.
Music drove Amy’s life, and it drives this movie too. From her young days starting with a small label, to her explosive rise to the top of the global charts, we follow Amy as she writes her lyrics based on whatever is happening in her life at the time. All of her songs are about relationships: with her friends, with her family, with her boyfriend (and later husband), and even her relationship with drugs and alcohol. This film cleverly and carefully puts the song lyrics into the context of the story we’re seeing unfold on the screen, and that technique goes a long way towards giving us a very intimate and revealing picture of who Amy was and what her art meant to her.
But the art soon takes a back seat to the drama, and it’s almost painful to watch the last third of this film. As we witness Amy’s long battle with bulimia, drug/alcohol addiction, and a destructive relationship with her enabling husband, the story becomes less about her amazing musical talent and more about problems that could have been fixed with more consistent and stern guidance in Amy’s life. You do definitely see some of that in the movie, as record executives, Amy’s friends, and even therapists try to put her on the right path. But, as is mentioned in a very early part of the movie, Amy was the kind of person who desperately needed someone to tell her no. Her parents were never those people in her childhood, and not quite in her adulthood either.
Nobody really comes out looking good in this movie. Amy’s father comes off as a greedy opportunist, her former husband looks like an enabling self-interested d-bag, her mother comes off as loving but completely ineffectual, and Amy herself appears incapable of maturing past being the petulant young lady whose parents couldn’t control her.
But, most of all, it’s people like us that come out looking the worst. As I saw the paparazzi descend on Amy like vultures time and time again, as I watched late night talk show hosts make fun of her in front of millions, as I watched and remembered the entire world turning against this poor woman who clearly needed help, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all complicit in this. So often in our quest for idols, we lift our stars up to heaven and then tear them down and bury them when they don’t live up to our lofty ideals; offering no help or solace, just judgement. Amy shows us the other side of that experience, and it’s never flattering.
You can watch Amy for free on Amazon Prime. Check out my review of another Oscar-nominated doc, What Happened, Miss Simone
I’ll admit it: I’m weird. I actually really look forward to the nominations for best documentary every year. The 2016 class is one of the best I can remember. They’re all sad stories, as documentaries often are, but each offers a compelling look at both the unique personal struggles that people face every day, and the harrowing dangers involved in movements that sweep across nations.
In this post, I review a film about an amazing, unsung titan of music history:
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Chronicling the unlikely rise, tragic fall, and comeback of singer, songwriter, pianist, and activist Nina Simone, this movie takes an unflinching look at a talented woman’s life through old footage, new interviews, and the revealing personal diaries she left behind.
I has happy to see Nina get some love here since pop history has largely forgotten her role in the music scene of the sixties and seventies. She wrote the classic, “Feeling Good”, which is one of the classic jazz/big-band songs and was more recently popularized by Michael Buble’s (capable but watered-down) cover. She influenced everyone from John Lennon to Alicia Keys to Adele. All throughout the movie, I saw shades of Lauryn Hill, and I was reminded that so much of who an artist is comes from those they idolized.
The film does a great job of chronicling her triumphs as a young black, Southern girl who wasn’t very pretty but she did have immense talent. That talent brought her out of her humble beginnings and made her a jazz legend, and the story is told through some interviews with family, but mostly in Nina’s own voice from various archival interviews she did decades ago. Everything is flawlessly edited together to create this sense that Nina’s almost talking to you, personally.
This is a documentary about a musician, so of course there’s a lot of music in it. Jazz isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, so I can’t say that everybody will love the music here. But every song is carefully chosen and timed to fit into the film’s narrative. This isn’t a fluff film about a singer’s greatest hits. This is an honest, holistic look at the life behind the music; a life that is a sad reality for so many artists.
The movie’s strength does not lie in how it portrays Nina’s greatness. The film really works because of how it handles the truth of her weaknesses. She could be a menacing person, both in her performances and in her personal life with her husband and her daughter. We see and hear the people who knew her talk about how challenging she could be, but through Nina’s diary entries we also see that she was very aware of a maelstrom of conflict and emotion going on inside her. Her problems led to a dramatic downturn in what was once a lauded career.
The most controversial aspect of the film is Nina’s relationship with her husband and manager. It doesn’t take long to learn that he was abusive, and the film allows him the opportunity to tell his side of the story through footage of old interviews (which don’t really paint him in any better light). But the film also very clearly states that Nina seemed to be complicit in her abuse. There’s a sense that, in some perverse way, she lived for the conflict; perhaps even needed it. It is a brutally complex story that is woven throughout the middle of the film.
Later in the movie, we get a medical explanation for all those years of sound and fury that put Nina’s family, her managers, and promoters into chaos. But it comes almost as a matter of course. By that point in the film, any viewer can come to their own conclusion that she just…wasn’t quite right.
But her diagnosis (which is revealed through an interview with her daughter), leads into the final act of the movie where we see Nina enjoy a resurgence in her career. And, for the first time, she seems really happy to perform. It’s a peaceful resolution to a film that spent so much time detailing Nina’s rocky, roller coaster life, but it does deliver something close to what you almost never see in a documentary these days: a happy ending.
You can catch What Happened, Miss Simone? for free on Netflix. For a review of another Oscar-nominated documentary about a troubled starlet, check out my review of Amy
Writing a novel is a marathon. It takes months, if not years. You have to be in it for the long haul.
You have to train for a marathon. If you want to run a marathon you have to gradually build up to it with shorter runs at first. Gradually, inexorably, you find the skill and endurance to persevere. To keep going.
You have to train for a novel. You have to write, and write, and edit, and rewrite. The long form of storytelling will ruin and exhaust a novice. You’ve got to build up to it.
Too many marathons will ruin you. Your body will fall apart. Joints and bones will give up after repetitive pounding against concrete. You can’t run a marathon all the time. But you don’t have to stop running.
You can sprint.
There is freedom in the sprint – the freedom of laying it all on the line in short bursts. No time for boredom. No time to think of giving up. Just go.
Novelists need to sprint sometimes too. Write a short story. Write a screenplay (which, in comparison to a novel, is a pretty short endeavor). Give yourself time to recover and do something that is joyously brief.
Yes, this is one more post about the lack of diversity in the Oscars. But, hopefully, this one will bring some perspective you haven’t considered before.
Last night I engaged in a spirited debate on Reddit about the merits of the #OscarsSoWhite movement. I think I changed a lot of minds, judging by the number of upvotes. So I want to put those thoughts on a broader medium, and hopefully arm others with the points they can use to win their own arguments.
As a writer myself, I create casts of characters that reflect the world at large. Diversity is one of my main themes, because that is the world I see when I go outside and live in the rich metropolis that is LA. But, sadly, many creators here fail to translate these multicultural gifts into their work.
So we know there is a deeply disappointing lack of diversity in the Oscars again. But what’s the cause? How do we fix it? Is this hashtag movement even doing anything?
Let’s try to answer those questions by responding to the most common retorts to the movement.
Don’t blame the Oscar voters; blame the industry
This ignores who the Oscar voters are; they ARE the industry. This isn’t the press or fans voting. These are people who worked (or are currently working) in the industry. Top of their field. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) membership overlaps most with the Academy’s. These are people who have the ability, resources, and influence to help get more minorities into film. They are the exact people you’d want to lobby.
And, unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly white (94%), old (62 and up), and male (74%).
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being an old white guy. The world needs old white guys. But when such an important body that is supposedly curating the best film contributions of all groups is overwhelmingly comprised of just one group, it leads to a lack of diverse perspective that can appreciate a film or script or actor outside the Oscar “norm”.
There weren’t enough “black” movies out there that warranted nomination
Putting aside the problem with designating a movie as “black” or “white”, this statement just isn’t true.
Just a few of the critically lauded films with majority black casts that were eligible for Oscar noms:
- Girlhood – French film, critically acclaimed (96% on RottenTomatoes), yet never made it to the conversation for best foreign language film (because France submitted Mustang, a similarly reviewed film about pale Turkish girls, unlike Girlhood which is all dark black girls. Just sayin’).
And it’s not just “black” movies here. It doesn’t have to be black movies. Latinos and Asians do make movies too.
Me, Earl, and the Dying girl – diverse cast, won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize AND the Sundance Audience Award, directed by a Latino. No Oscar love.
Yeah, but those movies you mentioned didn’t make a lot of money. Nobody saw them
I hear this argument often, and it’s somewhat valid for the industry as a whole, however when it comes to the Oscars it falls apart for one simple reason:
It’s only very recently that many Oscar nominated movies did well at the box office, and even today, a lot of them don’t.
Take Birdman for instance. It was far, far from a box office smash. The only reason it did as well as it did was BECAUSE of the Oscar buzz. It was one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever.
The Artist grossed less than 50 mil in box office but it beat out The Help for Best Picture (which did very well, grossing 177.5 million, proving that black women can indeed bring in both money and award recognition if you cast them)
Children of Men? Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing. Ho hum at the box office (widely considered a commercial flop).
The Hurt Locker hadn’t even cleared 15 million at the box office until the Oscar buzz started.
So it’s safe to say a lot of people didn’t see a lot of Oscar movies, or were even aware of them until they started getting Oscar buzz. And that’s okay; the Oscars aren’t supposed to be about who made the most money.
But a big part of the discrepancy that is very important in the spirit of #OscarsSoWhite is that movies without majority white casts aren’t getting the “Oscar bump” that pulls them out of obscurity, like so many other movies got (including last year’s best picture winner Birdman).
Yeah but black movies specifically don’t make money unless they’re stupid comedies and that’s why the industry doesn’t make them
- Creed: 181 million box
- Straight Outta Compton: 200 Million Box office
- 42: 97 million
- The Butler: 116 million domestic alone
I could go on.
Okay, so what’s the deal? Why aren’t more minorities getting roles in these movies
This is the most important question, and there are many theories. Here’s mine.
I live in LA (I can actually go outside, look up, and see the Hollywood sign), and I am dipping my toe into the screenwriting businesses. There is a strong culture of “default white”. Meaning that UNLESS you very specifically make a character a certain ethnicity, the producers and casting directors will just default to white.
And it’s not just me saying this. The ScriptNotes podcast (led by screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin) is arguably the most famous and influential podcast on Hollywood filmmaking. They covered this very problem in their 180th episode where they had guest Aline Brosh Mckenna (who wrote The Devil Wears Prada).
Quote from the transcript:
John: And I want to go back to something you said earlier. If you don’t stipulate that a person is a certain — is not white –
John: That person will be white. And that’s the thing I sort of found again and again as you sort of go through the casting. So I do that thing what you talk about where I will deliberately give a person, you know, a Chinese last name so that they will look at Chinese actors for that part, because if you don’t do that, the default just tends to become white.
That doesn’t mean that casting directors are racist. In fact a lot of them are quite nice, open-minded people. But they’re working in a world that has been traditionally white, largely because it was allowed to be that way for so long. Every art looks to what came before for inspiration, but in the case of Hollywood cinema the past was lily white because nobody else was allowed to play.
Additionally, a lot of these people grew up in WASPy environments with not a lot of diversity. So they stick to what they know, and everything ends up default white, until you challenge them on it.
Perhaps the best example I can think of here is the casting of Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon. Marion Dougherty, legendary casting director who blazed trails in her own right as a woman, read the Lethal Weapon script and talked with director Richard Donner. And the convo went something like this:
Marion: “What about Danny Glover?”
Donner: “But he’s black!”
Marion: “So what, he’s black. He can act. The script doesn’t say anything about Murtaugh’s race.”
To his credit, Donner had an epiphany, questioned his own prejudices, and cast Glover (and became good friends with him). Donner talks about this in a speech he gave awarding Glover some award (I can’t find it now, but it’s in the great movie Casting By).
Moral of the story: nothing changes if we don’t call it out consistently and vocally. Many times people aren’t even really aware of what they’re doing, or they’re working off of outdated beliefs about what can work in the industry.
As long as we keep calling the industry out on it, things will change. We need more Marion Dougherty’s.
*header image courtesy of Lee and Low books (blog.leeandlow.com)