The Overlooked Cake

JenniferAnistonCake_article_story_largeSome stories take you on a journey toward a preconceived answer to one of life’s many perplexing problems. Daniel Barnz’s Cake, which stars Jennifer Aniston, is not one of those solution-oriented stories; the issues it tackles–grief, loss, and chronic pain–have no tidy solutions.

We begin with Claire (Aniston) attempting to deal with an accident that has left her with chronic pain and a subsequent addiction to pain medication. There are hints of the true horror of the accident, but it does not fully surface until later in the film. We begin with a sarcastic, nasty drug addict who has a strange compulsion to understand the suicide of a woman from her chronic pain support group, Nina (Anna Kendrick).

It is a difficult task to take such an unlikable character and make her the center of our compassion, and director Barnz is able to do that, eventually, but not without some work on our part. More importantly, Aniston bravely takes on this role and creates a complex portrait that never dips into sentimentality or melodrama, even when the depths of her character’s loss are ultimately revealed.

All I knew about Cake before I saw it was that it was about a woman in chronic pain. I had seen Aniston take risks before in the Miguel Arteta’s criminally underrated 2002 film The Good Girl, so I was not worried about her ability to shed her Friends image. Her take on Claire is so subdued (as you’d expect from a depressive) that when her anger arises after simmering beneath the surface for so long, we are relieved.

I didn’t know that the film is actually about emotional, rather than physical pain. In fact, Claire’s stubborn exterior, and her ability to make everything about her physical pain in order to hide the intensity of her inner pain, are perfectly mirrored by the structure of the film. We are always finding ourselves struggling to truly know her, only to be shut out just before we do.

Barnz’s approach is no-nonsense. There is a quirky, 1990s-indie-film feeling to Cake, with depictions of Claire’s various levels of consciousness, as she is in and out of drug-induced sleep. But Barnz always stops short of invoking pure surrealism, keeping it very approachable instead. The result is a quietly realistic film about depression that is carried by Aniston’s performance.

Talking About Selma

SELMA

Left to right, foreground: Colman Domingo plays Ralph Abernathy, David Oyelowo plays Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., André Holland plays Andrew Young, and Stephan James plays John Lewis in SELMA, from Paramount Pictures, Pathé, and Harpo Films

A film about Martin Luther King, Jr. has a few obstacles to overcome at the outset. For one thing, much of the audience already knows the story, and for another thing that story ends in the main character’s assassination. But perhaps a more difficult obstacle is the perception that the film is like a serving of plain, unbuttered, unsalted vegetables–something you won’t enjoy and don’t want, but which you know you should have because it’s “good for you.” It is this perception that kept some audiences away from movies like last year’s 12 Years a Slave, and no doubt it will keep some from seeing the movie Selma. But in both cases, missing the movie is more than just a lost opportunity to absorb something you “should” watch; it means missing an excellent film with a compelling story.

I was fairly neutral in my expectations when I went to see Selma at the Chatham Orpheum Theater last week. I don’t read much in advance about the films I see, but it would have been impossible not to know that Selma was a potential Oscar contender. With that in mind, I had the slightly jaded expectation that it would be “that kind of film” – one Hollywood could get behind because it was good for everyone’s image and because it was just nonthreatening enough to embrace. But as the film unfolded, I was quickly drawn into something much better than that; something that made a part of history I already  had strong feelings about become even more real to me.

Director Ava DuVernay does not shy away from the brutal realities, and her script, co-written with Paul Webb, does not tack on any false, feel-good moments to make us feel everything is okay. It’s not okay. In fact, in the current climate one cannot help but connect Dr. King’s words and methods with recent cases and Ferguson, Staten Island, and elsewhere, despite the more complex circumstances of those devisive of cases.

More importantly as the film follows Dr. King from his Nobel Peace Prize win through the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, we meet a range of people who demonstrate moments of strength and often, moments of human weakness. No one really comes across as a pure hero in the comic book/Hollywood sense. This includes President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Even Dr. King (David Oyelowo) is revealed to be a human being with doubts, flaws, and weaknesses, particularly in his tense relationship with wife Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), who is shown to be torn apart both by his infidelities (just hinted at, never shown) and the terrifying spotlight he has shed upon their family.

At its core, this is a film about politics and the push and pull between living one’s beliefs, controlling ego, and playing the game that needs to be played. Peppered throughout this story of power and playing politics, there are horrifying, true incidents of racist violence that are portrayed unflinchingly. I was shaken–literally jumped in my seat, in fact–very early in the film by something I knew, from history, was going to happen. It’s hard to describe such moments without destroying their impact for those who have not yet seen the film, but anyone who has seen it knows what I am talking about. (If you’ve already seen the film, I recommend checking out this NPR interview with the director for more details: http://www.npr.org/2015/01/08/375756377/the-sounds-space-and-spirit-of-selma-a-director-s-take). This is why for me, the Oscar nomination is confusing. The best things about this movie can be attributed directly to both the editing and the directing, so how can it be that Selma was nominated as Best Picture, and then have no other nominations other than for one song? What does the Academy think makes it the Best Picture?

Another point of contention out there is the criticism of how LBJ is portrayed. I was unaware of those criticisms when I went to see the film last Friday, so I wasn’t  looking specifically at whether or not they were valid complaints. But afterward, when I heard and read these criticisms, I was surprised. LBJ is not portrayed as a bad guy or as someone with no interest in helping the civil rights movement. If that were true, I’d call it a major flaw in the film, but when I watched Selma, I felt it was very clear that he was a politician – the president, in fact – and so he was pulled in a lot of directions. The weakness in the portrayal, which is what I think has given rise to this criticism, is in Wilkinson’s performance, which lacks conviction (not to mention the right LBJ accent and manner).

In contrast, Oyelowo does an excellent job becoming Dr. King in this film, as does Tim Roth as Alabama Governor George Wallace. In addition, I was taken by newcomer Keith Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson, a civil rights marcher who was brutally beaten and shot to death by Alabama State Troopers, while trying to protect his mother and elderly grandfather in 1965. In fact, the scene in which he is murdered was one that still shakes me, a week later.

Selma has flaws, for sure, but overall it is so well put together and so meaningful in what it represents that those flaws recede into the background. About midway through the film, I was consumed with the desire for my 11-year-old son to see the film. My son is white and he lives in a place where there are not many people of other racial backgrounds. This doesn’t make him racist and it doesn’t predict anything about who he is or how he will interact with people of the world, but it does shelter him from having to think about things that a black 11-year-old boy would have to be aware of. I don’t have to have “the talk” with my son, as African-American mothers do. And even just acknowledging this one reality, makes me ill.

I realize now that I was consumed with wanting him to see Selma because I feel it is a story about us – it’s our history, too– and I want him to have some context for understanding the dynamics in the world that don’t necessarily touch him here on Cape Cod. I have taught him about these things; we have discussed Ferguson and the Holocaust and other atrocities as they come into his consciousness, but I don’t know a better way to show him the historical context for the Black Lives Matter movement than through the medium of film. My hope is that he will get it, viscerally, feel it in his bones. I hope he will see how movies can be important and bring things to light that are hard to really fully imagine. And I hope it will help drive home the point that Dr. King’s message mattered then and still matters now.

It’s possible that he will get none of this from Selma, but I am at least looking forward to talking with him about it. While it is a disturbing movie (rated PG-13), if you have children over 11, I hope you’ll think about taking them to Selma, as well, if only for the potential conversations it may provoke.

Chris Rock’s Top Five

Chris Rock stars with Rosario Dawson in his indie flick "Top Five."

Chris Rock stars with Rosario Dawson in his indie flick “Top Five.”

The last movie I saw in theaters in 2014 was Chris Rock’s Top Five, a personal film Rock wrote directed, and stars in about a comedian trying to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. It’s easy to draw connections between Rock and the character he plays, André, but André’s plight is a familiar one for anyone trying to break out of his or her expected role. We often are seen as being one thing even when everything we do demonstrates that we actually fit into an entirely different category. Unfortunately, I think this is what is happening with Rock’s movie itself.

It’s an issue for any independent filmmaker who is racial, gender, or other identity marker flags him /her as good at one particular thing. Women are nurturers and like romance, so their films should be romantic or about families, or perhaps about being female if they are independents (and therefore assumed feminist). Gay filmmakers must make films about being gay or coming out or else they have sold out. And black filmmakers make movies for urban, inner-city crowds, so they must be crude, angry, violent, and suited to an audience that is unfamiliar with and uninterested in the cinematic conventions of independent filmmaking. Rock, as a major comedian with great crossover appeal, is also more closely associated with television, stand-up, and a Hollywood sensibility than he is with the filmmakers he actually resembles, like the late Adrienne Shelley, Richard Linklater, and even Woody Allen.

In the film André has just made a dramatic movie about a Haitian slave rebellion, but whenever he’s interviewed the press only want to know about his reality TV star fiancée and they repeatedly ask about sequels to his most successful comedy movies in which he plays “Hammy,” a bear. When they do ask about the movie, it is only in reference to how many white people are killed in it with half the interviewers offended by the high number and the other half offended by the low number.

In the meantime, André is followed around by an attractive Latina film writer (Rosario Dawson) for the New York Times (only in a movie does this happen) with her own secret identity struggles. As André reveals to her the key moments in his life leading up to their interview, focusing on his struggles with addiction, we see a man imprisoned by his celebrity who is forgotten his art—the thing he loved and which, ironically, made him famous in the first place. But, interestingly, Rock doesn’t elevate André’s forays into seriousness as though that is his more authentic self. The Haitian movie is also an inauthentic endeavor. He is not a misunderstood genius who just needs to break the shackles of his comedy past; he is a comedian who has just lost his way. The desire to move in the direction of drama is inevitable, (because drama is always taken more seriously than comedy and given more weight), but it is not André’s true path and so it is a failure.

I went to see this film on a Monday night in a suburb of Rochester, New York, so that could explain the small audience, but it was also an audience drawn in by Rock’s celebrity and the rap reference of the title ( top five refers to the question each character answers in the film: who are your top five rappers). Perhaps the film can cross over, as Rock himself has, but I’m not sure it has the legs to do it. Though there is some crude humor (in the best sense), and Rock himself is clearly a charismatic performer, this is a more quiet exploration of identity and the difficulty of being authentic, in opposition to the expectations of others. When “others” means millions of people, as it does when you are a successful performer, that struggle is exponentially greater.

Rock’s directorial style is subtle, straightforward, and focused on character interaction rather than sweeping cinematography or fast cuts. It’s funny in some places (over the top, laugh out loud funny), but it is also a very real human story about losing your way. It isn’t a perfect film, and the performances are uneven, but it is a truthful, smart film and one that deserves a wider audience. More importantly, it deserves a more thoughtful audience than it will likely find.

When I returned to the Cape I saw that only the Cape Cod Mall multiplex was showing the film, even though it is actually better suited to an intimate art-house theater. I don’t think it will do well with this kind of release, but then again the typical art house crowd has grown awfully stodgy in the past decade or so, and they may not be right for it either.

This film about resisting outside pressures and fighting against labels to be who you really are may end up a casualty of the current exhibition climate, which demands classification, low risks, and familiarity bordering on duplication.