As connect-the-dots biopics go, the Jesse Owens story Race isn’t bad, primarily because it’s not afraid to venture off the dots every so often, although not always successfully. What made Owens’ story so compelling when he was living it was a combination of great athleticism and timing. There’s no denying that the Owens on display during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin might have been the greatest athlete in the history of the world. But the pressure of being a black American, often despised in his own country—and certainly loathed by Adolf Hitler leering down at Owens from a private box in the Olympic Stadium—besting Hitler’s finest Aryan runners is almost too good to be true as a storytelling device.
Without a doubt, Race captures these moments quite beautifully, beginning with a minutes-long unbroken shot of Owens walking into the stadium before tens of thousands of onlookers and running his first 100-meter race. You could have opened or closed with that race, and this movie would have been infinitely better, but you have a lot of backstory and a fair amount of aftermath to deal with in this version of the tale.
I have no doubt in my mind that Jesse Owens (played by Selma’s Stephan James) was a good man, and this film offers us nothing to the contrary. At a young age, he worked to take care of his family back home, as well as his new wife Minnie Ruth (Shanice Banton) and their newborn child. He never fought back when whiles insulted him, even his fellow athletes in college, where he began his training with Ohio State track-and-field coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis, the usually comedic actor in a credible dramatic turn). Owens made friends in the unlikeliest of places, and while he sometimes made it clear verbally that he understood the racial problem in America, his way of dealing with it was to be the better runner. And very little of this makes for particularly compelling cinema. I’m certainly not suggesting that screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse change Owens as a character just for the sake of a more interesting film, but maybe we don’t need such a long preamble when the exciting material happens in Berlin.
The training sequences and watching his bond with Snyder grow is nothing we haven’t seen before in a sports-related film, but director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2, The Ghost in the Darkness, and many episodes of “24” and “House of Cards”) peppers unusual side-stories throughout Race that make it sometimes fascinating, sometimes just plain odd. The subplot about the U.S. Olympic committee (led by Avery Brundage, played by Jeremy Irons) deciding whether the nation should boycott the games because of the Nazi’s policies on Jews and non-whites should have been a centerpiece to Owens’ story, but making Brundage a corrupt corporate head who cared more about making money off the games than issues of equality, while maybe true, cause the film to drag.
Far more interesting is the other major subplot involving Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat) working with Hitler’s favorite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carine von Houton of “Game of Thrones”) to document the games in the film Olympia. The two didn’t see eye to eye on the concept for the documentary, but Race makes the case (as others have throughout history) that Riefenstahl wasn’t interested in glorifying the Master Race at all; she was obsessed with the perfect human form in any shape or color, and her fascinating with Owens was undeniable, even as Goebbels attempted to shut down the cameras whenever Owens was competing, once it became clear that he was going to win everything.
Perhaps most significant to the messages in Race is the portrayal of the friendship that began during the competition between Owens and his closest German competitor, Carl “Luz” Long (David Kross of The Reader), who deeply admired Owens as a pure athlete who cared nothing for politics. I wish there had been more scenes of the two of them getting to know each other, discussing their countries’ differences, but this film—which soars past the two-hour mark by quite a bit—would have been made even longer by doing so.
Even today, there is something deeply satisfying about watching Hitler and his cronies squirm with each new Owens’ victory. And his friendship with Long provided even more of a slap in Hitler’s face (for which Long paid dearly after the games). But even after this fairly epic-length film, I don’t feel like I learned that much about what drove Jesse Owens to be the best, which seems strange since this film was sanctioned by Owens’ family. It’s also frustrating to a lesser degree that so much emphasis is placed on Snyder, although by all accounts he was instrumental in getting Jesse to improve his running style and get him into the Olympics. But once we get to Berlin, the film should be all about Owens, and it just isn’t.
Even with its flaws, Race is an easy film to watch and enjoy. There are only a few truly dead moments where you’ll wish your movie screen had a fast-forward button. Stephan James pulls off the almost impossible balancing act of showing us Jesse Owens, the man and the myth in a single character, and anything resembling depth in this character is the result of his fine work. I find myself split on whether to actually recommend Race, although I think I’m leaning toward doing so. There are enough strengths in the film and the Riefenstahl material is just kooky enough to keep things interesting.
To read my exclusive interview with Race star Stephan James, please go to Ain’t It Cool News.
The Witch is not the scariest horror film you’ve ever seen, but it might be the best you’ve seen in quite some time. As hard as it is to believe, a great horror film is not about lining up the scares every 5-7 minutes and making you jump at a noise or a music cue or a broom falling out of a closet. What I’ve often found is that the best works of horror would function as solid movies if you took the scary stuff out. The Witch has been spoken in the same company as recent offerings such as It Follows and The Babadook, and all of these films have stories with compelling and interesting characters, all of which combine to make a movie into which scares are sprinkled, sometimes liberally.
The debut feature from writer-director Robert Eggers (a one-time production designer), The Witch is rarely concerned with having things pop out at you from the dark; this film is about sustained dread, occasionally punctuated with hints of an evil force that might be a witch. Or it might be something far more human, emanating from within. Or it might be both.
Set in 1630s New England (in fact, the film is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”), the film opens with a Puritan family leaving the community it has lived in since arriving in the New World. Their accents are still quite thick, and Eggers even has the characters speaking in a type of Old English that make take a few minutes to get used to. They are leaving because they don’t feel the community is god-fearing enough for their tastes, and they exit in search of an isolated place where they can live a self-sustained life of religious solitude. Thanks to some devastatingly raw camera work from cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, we know that his washed-out landscape and the thick woods that surround the farm are going to be nothing but trouble, with or without evil forces present.
The parents are the ragged-looking William (Ralph Ineson) and mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, best known from her brief run on “Game of Thrones”), and they feel blessed because none of their five children have died an early death, which for the time was saying something. But that is about to change. When the oldest, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after newborn Samuel, the infant vanishes almost before her eyes, and the belief is that an animal came out of the woods and snatched it. But we are shown the truth: that an old woman (Bathsheba Garnett), presumably a witch, grabbed the baby for truly awful intentions. The family doesn’t know this, and they immediately begin to fracture over whose fault the disappearance was and what did the taking.
One of the many ingenious concepts of The Witch is that almost nothing that happens is for sure the result of a witch in the midst of this deeply Christian family. Or everything that happens is. What is one person’s possession is another’s mental illness or raging fever. The family pet, a terrifying goat named Black Philip, might be on edge or it might want to murder you. The film is set in a time where jumping to the conclusion that a beloved family member was a practicing witch wasn’t that much of a jump. These things just happened in the world; you learned to accept and deal with them.
Like all great horror stories, The Witch operates at numerous levels, some quite grounded in reality (21st century style) and some supernatural—both interpretations of events work equally well, and one is no less terrifying than the other. Thomasin is only just becoming a woman, and her oldest brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is starting to notice and take glimpses of her. Temptation is taking hold in his young mind, and there’s a level of shame and guilt in his heart that may explain what happens to him later. Or he went into the woods alone looking for the missing baby and was cursed by a tempting witch who sensed his burgeoning manhood.
Thomasin’s mother has also noticed her pretty young daughter’s changes and may feel threatened in some way, driving her to accuse her daughter of witchery rather abruptly. A case could easily be made that The Witch is a feminist statement on the repression of female sexuality and power. Filmmaker Eggers has done something remarkable in his construction of his story by taking text and transcripts from witch trials, diaries and other historical records of the time and treating them as fact. What if these events were not the result of a repressed society; what if they were facts. Digging deeper into the psychology of The Witch, another way to look at it is that the old witch who steals the child did so to spark discourse within the family (which also includes twins, a young boy and girl), which she uses to insert her nasty ways and further drive a wedge into this close-knit clan.
Eggers’ attention to period detail only adds to the authenticity and merciless fear that builds as the film goes on. Every building on the farm was built the way it would have been at the time; even Mark Korven’s haunting score was composed using period instruments, as well as a ghostly all-female choir (this might be my favorite horror film score in a decade, at least). And then there are the thick, unforgivingly dense woods themselves (the film was actually shot in Northern Ontario), which block the sun even during its peak and appear stale and dead.
Everything about The Witch works to the common goal of moving us deeper and deeper into the dark corners of our hearts and minds and beliefs. What the film does not attempt to do is make you pee your pants in fear with cheap tricks and jump scares. The Witch is about the long game—sustained, drawn-out, ever-building fear. And by the time you get to the final 15 minutes or so (the film is only 90 minutes long) and Eggers reveals the truth of the situation and source of all torment to this family, you’re already long gone in your terror-filled brain. The film feels personal, genuine, as much a statement about the dangers of religious fervor as it is about those who don’t believe enough. It’s a stone-cold scare film with art-house aspirations, and it all somehow works beautifully. So go in with expectations and just let it happen to you.
TOUCHED WITH FIRE
I tend to loathe films that paint the mentally ill either in a comedic light or as some sort of eccentrics who see the world in a magical way that none of us normals could possibly understand, as if being bi-polar (for example) is a window into a world of unicorns and rainbows and fairies. This isn’t some personal crusade for me; I don’t have any family members with a mental illness as far as I know. But I’d like to think I have enough sense to know that films like Crazy/Beautiful are portraits of someone who is deeply disturbed and in need of help.
Touched with Fire (known on last year’s festival circuit as Mania Days) is a better film than that one, but it still treads a fine line between genuine concern for its lead characters and placing them in a context that enables their troubling conditions. Luke Kirby plays Marco, who meets Carla (Katie Holmes, in an impressive turn) in the waiting room of a psychiatric facility, and the two seem to connect over Marco’s more than slightly twisted reading of Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” He also believes (as do many) that Van Gogh’s unique paintings were the product of a bi-polar mind, a point emphasized in the film by subtle animation of his paintings to add motion. In some ways, this couple are good for each other, especially when they’re on their meds, but Marco thinks that medication kills his special way of seeing the world and refuses to stay on them.
Writer-director Paul Dalio (who also co-edited and scored the film) has been fairly up front about his personal history with bi-polar disorder (medication did wonders for him), so there is certainly a great deal of insight into the condition in Touched with Fire. Often stories such as this view the parents or caretakers of these folks as the bad guys, but here Marco’s father (Griffin Dunne) and Carla’s parents (Christine Lahti and Bruce Altman) seem to genuinely care about their grown children, even allowed the couple to stay together as long as things stay relatively normal. But both Carla and Marco are artistically inclined, so staying on their meds proves increasingly difficult when attempting to be creative. The film’s greatest flaw is predictability, and we spend the majority of the movie waiting for the next bad things to happen. Carla becoming pregnant further complicated the relationship and their mutual belief that pharmaceuticals are bad.
Both Kirby and Holmes are remarkably strong here, capturing the core of their characters’ disease with a measured balance of intensity and caring. We care deeply about these two coming through this alive and better than when we meet them. In their eyes, we can see that they know that something is wired differently in their minds, and at times that terrifies them. When that look isn’t there, that terrifies us. If you find the film moving and impressive, it will likely be because of how much you admire these performances. Not surprisingly Dalio lends the right amount of empathy to his characters without ignoring the good work of doctors and loved ones caring for these two. Touched with Fire is a tough sell, admittedly, but it’s an impressive feature debut from Dalio, featuring some of the finest acting I’ve seen in the last year.
Often when documentaries feature journalists, they offer up a talking-head reporter whose beat makes them an expert in whatever the subject of the film might be. But occasionally the subject of the film is the reporters themselves, and few films about news writers manage to be both witty and compelling the way Rolling Papers is. The story here begins in Colorado right as the legalization of marijuana kicks in as 2014 begins. Anticipating a statewide learning and growing curve on how legal pot was going to change the culture, The Denver Post hired “marijuana editor” Ricardo Baca, who oversaw The Cannabist, the pot section of the paper.
As you might expect, The Cannabist featured product reviews, recipes and general news stories about dispensaries popping up all over the state, but to make certain his portion of the newspaper was treated seriously, Baca took the necessary steps to explore issues regarding banking, crime, testing protocols, issues related to child and adolescent safety, how to be a responsible stoner parent, and even the way the international community looked at the state’s permissive laws. There’s an absolutely fascinating look at how Uruguay’s federally mandated laws forced its citizens to accept legal and cheap weed when the majority was not in favor legalizing it.
Rolling Papers follows the progress and adjustments The Cannabist makes during its first year, during a time when newspapers continue to fall by the wayside or severely cut staff. Director Mitch Dickman (Hanna Ranch) allows us to get to know The Cannabist staff, whose roles and responsibilities are ever shifting as the section takes shape. Baca readily admits that striking a balance between responsible journalist meeting deadlines and frequent pot smoker is tough, which is why one of his primary staffers is a straight-laced non-user. While another columnist (who writes about parenting) is a mother who is always in fear that Child Protective Services is going to break down her door and take her two-year-old son away, since the laws about combining smoking and parenting are…hazy at best.
Probably without meaning to, Rolling Papers becomes one of the finest films on how traditional journalism is finding new ways to stay relevant and increase readership, especially with its online presence. And as more states move to legalize marijuana usage in some capacity, there are certainly avenues opening up for a new brand of writer. But the film is also about locating that sweet spot where the establishment squares and the counter-culture find a middle ground, even if that place is all about making money. This is that rare doc that manages to be wholly entertaining and surprisingly informative and perhaps predictive. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.
70MM FILM FESTIVAL: THE ULTIMATE EDITION
Still utilizing its massive, 40-foot (and sadly, temporary) screen that it installed in December to properly project Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm The Hateful Eight, the Music Box Theatre is embarking on the most impressive edition of its 70mm Film Festival (subtitled “The Ultimate Edition”)—three solid weeks of archival prints, 70mm blowups and restored 70mm prints, many with 6-track magnetic sound. The festival starts today and runs through Thursday, March 10, and features 15 features and a rare 70mm shorts program.
In addition to a few returning features to the festival—including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brainstorm, The Master, Lawrence of Arabia, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Vertigo, West Side Story, and the return of the glorious The Hateful Eight: 70MM Roadshow Edition—the 70mm Film Festival will include prints and digital restorations of:
- Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison;
- Ghostbusters, directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Harold Ramis, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd;
- Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon;
- Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine;
- Krull, directed by Peter Yates, starring Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony and Freddie Jones;
- Starman, directed by John Carpenter, starring Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen and Charles Martin Smith;
- Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin, starring Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas; and
- The Wild Bunch (director’s cut), directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan.
For more details on the 70mm Film Festival, a complete list of showtimes and prices and to pre-order tickets, go to the Music Box Theatre’s site. I’m sure I’ll see some of you there.