January 23, 2011

Playing With the Truth: Film in 2010

Based on a true story.

Inspired by actual events. 

I'm not sure if it was an actual trend in 2010 or just a common trait of the few movies that I saw, but phrases like those above seemed to appear on screen in quite a lot of films, including 127 Hours, Conviction, Howl, Carlos, North Face, and even more that I didn't see, such as Made in Dagenham, Casino Jack, Eat Pray Love, I Love You Philip Morris, Mesrine: Killer Instinct & Public Enemy #1, and Nowhere Boy, to name only a few (and to say nothing of the tricky-truthy documentaries like I'm Still Here, Catfish, and Exit Through the Gift Shop).

Are there this many films based on true events every year and I only noticed it in 2010, or is this a newly developing trend? Either possibility would surprise me. If this is common every year, why have I not picked up on it so acutely, particularly considering I usually see twice as many movies as I did in 2010, and that I have a running series about movies based on real life? On the other hand, if this is a newly developing trend - why?

I'm almost positive it's the former, that this is not a new thing at all, but in any case it doesn't matter. I'm always more interested in how these films depict the truth they are meant to represent and, in doing so, how they shape our understanding and perspective on past events. For example, when I ask you to imagine the sinking of the Titanic, what images come to your mind? What about Roman gladiator fighting in the Colosseum? What do you picture when you think of John Smith and Pocahontas, or the Zodiac killer who terrorized San Francisco, or the fate of United Flight 93, or the storming of Omaha Beach on D-Day?

You see where I'm going with this: for many people, films based on true events serve as the primary influence on the subconscious in remembering or imagining those events. If you've seen those movies - Titanic, Gladiator, The New World, Zodiac, United 93, Saving Private Ryan - you bring their images to mind without even realizing it, particularly when a.) the images are astonishingly rendered (Titanic), and b.) there are few other film adaptations, documentaries, or other visual aids to provide alternative images in your mind (United 93). In essence, perception becomes reality; what we see becomes what actually happened, even if it didn't actually happen.

But does it matter when those images and those memories produce a reality that didn't actually exist? Where does the truth end and the dramatization begin, and is the truth ever interesting enough to stand on its own, free of embellishment? I'm sure it's a question as old as film itself - as art itself, really - but I'd like to consider it in the context of five films I saw in the last few months of 2010: The Social Network, The Fighter, Fair Game, The King's Speech, and All Good Things.

January 20, 2011

300 Words About: Mississippi Damned

Taking its name from the provocative Nina Simone song, Tina Mabry's Mississippi Damned reveals itself as, in essence, an adaptation of the downbeat lyrics:"Lord have mercy on this land of mine/We all gonna get it in due time/I don't belong here/I don't belong there/I've even stopped believing in prayer...Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies."

Yeah, this one ain't for the kids.

Written and directed by Mabry (recent recipient of a prestigious United States Artists grant) and based on her own family history, the film is a generation-spanning tale of physical and sexual abuse, poor choices, missed opportunities, poverty and strife, and even sickness and disease. It's all of Shakespeare's tragedies wrapped up in one story, updated and set in the American South. The plot, such as it is, doesn't require much explanation: three sisters and their families live and then relive some truly awful experiences, with only young Kari keeping hope alive that one day she will escape the cycle.

The production values and acting are very impressive for an independently produced film, particularly considering there is more action, movement, and variety of setting than most small films would dare attempt. And, although seemingly every other scene presents itself as ripe for some scene-chewing, Mabry keeps the cast on an even keel. The actors are comfortable in their characters and the scenes mostly develop naturally, lending authentic emotion to the story. Ironically, the overwhelming bleakness that exists as the film's greatest flaw is also the central reason it's so affecting.

January 13, 2011

Perfect Song, Perfect Scene #9

Opening Credits, Jackie Brown (1997): "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack

January 10, 2011

Bittersweet: The Dark Side of Chocolate

If you're alone (or with other single friends) this Valentine's Day and are seeking the perfect downer for the occasion, look no further than The Dark Side of Chocolate. While millions of couples will express their love for each other with extravagantly wrapped boxes of candied cocoa of unknown origin, you can rest easy that you're not supporting what amounts to slave labor in regions of West Africa.

To be sure, for most people The Dark Side of Chocolate will be more personal and thus more disturbing than a documentary about the ugly underbelly of, say, the dried fruit industry. After all, chocolate is a globally traded commodity (or rather, cocoa is), a $50 billion/year worldwide business, and a veritable drug for women everywhere - and a few men, too, including me.

Concerned and curious about rumors of child labor on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, intrepid Danish journalist Miki Mistrati set off with a hidden camera and a bag full of questions about the source of the precious cocoa used by the world's leading chocolate manufacturers (The Hershey Company, Mars, Cadbury, Nestlé, and others). What he would find, tragically, is that children as young as seven years old are clearly being trafficked from neighboring countries to work in cocoa plantations for little to no pay. If the lack of an actual war prevents your favorite confection from being considered "conflict" chocolate, you should still feel conflicted about eating it.

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