How the ’13th’ Amendment of United States perpetuated modern-day slavery

The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution was taught as a law of liberation: the one that freed slaves from servitude; however, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix-original documentary, “13th,” reminds us that the blade that protects us can also maim us.

Yes, the 13th Amendment proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States,” but the amendment also provided an exception — a clause that calls slavery by another name and makes it perfectly legal.

Inserted within the fine print of the 13th Amendment is the clause that explains how African Americans are still persecuted today. Convicted criminals don’t received the protection of the 13th Amendment. And so the 13th Amendment became a economic and political weapon that ensnared blacks through mass incarcerations.

DuVernay enlists the help of activists, historians and politicians to explain more than 150 years of American history. Interviews with figures like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Angela Davis, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel, Van Jones and Cory Booker explain how blacks continue to be criminalized.

“13th” is a disturbing and sometimes overwhelming portrait of how people of color have been wronged, but more frightening still, is how people of color continued to face persecution through legislation and the media. Stereotypes perpetuated in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” have been mirrored in modern political ads and news segments. However, like how a blade can simultaneously maim and protect, DuVernay also offers a weapon for the Eric Garners, Philando Castilles, Sandra Blands, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants and Emmett Tills. 

Only media and technology can change the narrative.

“13th” was written by Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. DuVernay’s film “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.  

‘The Lobster’: a bizarre satire of loneliness

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” is a piece of performance art exploring the meaning of love.

Written by Greek writers Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, “The Lobster” is about a series of bizarre rituals in a dystopian society where uncoupled humans are harvested for blood and body parts and then transformed to spend the rest of their lives as an animal of their choice.

Couples get to live in the city and grow old together, but when a couple divorces or when a mate dies, their partners are checked into a painful purgatory of sorts.

That’s where this painstakingly long two-hour film begins: with David (Colin Farrell), a man recently separated from his wife of nearly 12 years.

Without time to grieve, David’s immediately checked into the hotel — where hospitality staff strip him of his clothing and monitor his moves.

Singles and couples are segregated here with couples on tennis courts and yachts while singles are quarantined to other single-designated areas. The catch: singles must find a partner with a similar physical feature within 45 days or else they will be forced to spend the rest of their lives as an animal.

Even if that isn’t enough pressure to find a suitable mate, singles are forced to watch propaganda on why coupledom is better. A wife can rescue a man from choking to death while a husband can protect a women from being raped.

Lanthimos film is a disconcerting journey because for much of the film, you feel lost — wandering a world without knowing its rules. The voice of your all-knowing narrator (Rachel Weisz) seems more focussed on bizarre details like the color of David’s shoes than helping you understand. Just when you begin to get your bearings though, you hear three unnerving cords that make your whole body tense.

“The Lobster” is a frustrating experience — as if you were a puppet guided by a cruel and whimsical god. This one, Lanthimos, sends your ship to whirlpools and sharp rocks. You survive and persevere, somehow, but even if loneliness isn’t torturous enough, perhaps love is just as absurd.

“The Lobster” was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.    

The story of ‘Life, Animated’

To hear Ron and Cornelia Suskind describe it: It was like some sort of grim fairy tale — you know, the one where your son gets kidnapped by fairies and leaves a changeling in its place. You’re never going to see your real boy again; it’s like he’s been kidnapped right before your eyes.

Of course, I’m paraphrasing here. Ron Suskind already told this story — wrote it in his 368-page book, “Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism.” Excerpts were published in New York Times Magazine in 2014.

Now, this story is retold in Rodger Ross Williams’ Oscar-nominated documentary, “Life, Animated.”

“Life, Animated” begins as a parents nightmare. Once upon a time, Ron and Cornelia’s three-year-old son Owen was diagnosed with regressive autism and losing cognitive abilities including the ability to speak. Autism was like a death sentence in the early nineties.

The breakthrough came, however, when Owen regained some communication and understanding of the world by parroting the lines and ideas in the collection of Disney movies he memorized.

“Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Lion King,” and “Bambi” became the lens in which he viewed the world and he thought of himself as these characters’ protector.

“Life, Animated” is a moving tale, but it’s far from a fairy tale. Owen, now in his early-to-mid twenties, still feels like “The Jungle Book’s” Mowgli, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” Quasimodo, “Peter Pan’s” Peter and “Dumbo’s” elephant. He spent his high school years bullied. He still struggles to tie a tie. And his parents, in their mid-fifties, won’t be around forever.

But even if real life doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” you get the sense that everything will be OK.

“Life, Animated” was directed by Rodger Ross Williams, filmed by Tom Bergmann and edited by David Teague. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. 

‘The Hurt Locker’ houses the horrors of war

Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” would be predictable as a horror movie. You come in expecting monsters to jump out of the closet and for the most part, that’s what you get.

But still, you watch with a sense of foreboding.

“The Hurt Locker’s” monsters appear in broad daylight when the sun is beating down your neck. They hide under ground and under cars and strapped to the flesh of human bodies. They’re the stuff of nightmares that haunt grown men and women even after they’re far away from war.

And worse yet, they’re real.

The monsters I’m referring to, of course, are the improvised explosive devices that have killed thousands of soldiers over the years. As of 2013, more than 36,000 U.S. soldiers were dead or wounded from IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bigelow shows us these casualties with grainy, distorted video. The feet of women and children scampering across crowded roads. The hums from tanks and the honks of cars. It feels like we’re too close up to see the full picture, and in some ways we are.

“The Hurt Locker,” written by Iraq war journalist Mark Boal, follows a small U.S. bomb dissembling unit in Bagdad, 2004. They spend their aldrenaline-filled days counting bombs they’re dissembled, times they’ve almost died, and the number of days before they can return home.

This gets much more complicated when the group welcomes a new sergeant, William James (Jeremy Renner), the devil-may-care Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer who has trouble following Sgt. Sanborn’s (Anthony Mackie) orders.

This adds much more tension to a mentally and physically draining film. As you’re watching men dissemble bombs with the precision of neurosurgeons, you’re hands ball into fists and your fingernails dig half-moon crescents into the meaty part of your palm.

This next second could be the one where a guy with a burner cell phone fires an IED. This next minute could be the one when another U.S. soldier returns home in a coffin wrapped with an American flag.

I can’t tell you that no one dies in this film. People do — both physically and psychologically — killing men, marriages and the mind. But even though “The Hurt Locker” hurts to watch, it’s worth watching.

Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” does what television did with the Vietnam war: it gives you a greater understanding of the horrors.

“The Hurt Locker” was directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal. The film won 2010 Academy Awards for best original score, best achievement in cinematography, best achievement in sound editing, best achievement in sound mixing, best achievement in film editing, best original screenplay, best achievement in directing and best motion picture of the year. 

 

‘Rain Man’ bats for our hearts

At one point in “Rain Man,” a famous Abbott and Costello bit takes center stage: “Who’s on first?” — a comedy sketch about two men speaking the same language, but not quite understanding each other.

The same analogy can be applied to the film’s two central characters: Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman).

The brothers, although foils for each other, share more than a family name. They both possess a madness. Charlie has an obsession with money; his eyes gleam with jealousy when he learns that his father cut him out of his will. Raymond, on the other hand, is more conventionally mad — muttering the same refrains over and over to himself, banging his head on the wall and shrieking.

Written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass and directed by Barry Levinson, “Rain Man” (1988) mirrors the conventional storyline of “Beauty of the Beast.” It acknowledges the characters beastly attributes while humanizing them over the course of an hour and a half.

On the road to redemption is Charlie Babbitt, a monster of a businessman. He’s a fast talker who shouts rather than listens, often cutting corners and driving over curbs. As the film opens, we see him towering over us with Ray Ban aviators and Lamborghinis shielding him.

He’s the type of guy who would speed past Raymond and the Walbrook Institute without even looking back.

But when Charlie’s father dies and leaves a $3 million fortune to a mysterious benefactor, Charlie’s life slows down.

He discovers that he has an older brother named Raymond Babbitt — who is 15 years his senior and also the sole benefactor to his father’s fortune. They’re from different worlds.

Whereas Charlie dons tailor-made suits, Raymond prefers K-Mart. Whereas Charlie is handsome, Raymond looks average. Whereas Charlie’s life moves fast, Raymond’s is slow.

Raymond is a highly functional autistic savant, Dr. Bruner (Gerald Molen) explains. Someone who wouldn’t know the value of $3 million dollars. His life revolves around a carefully constructed routine: pancakes on Tuesdays, fish sticks on Wednesdays, 15 cheese balls as a bedtime snack, and every single episode of “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “People’s Court” in between. 

Hoffman, who won an Academy Award for best actor for his role, is extraordinary as Raymond. With his head tilted to the side and his eyes staring either up at the sky or down at the floor, Raymond resembles an alien creature whose undeniably human.

Take the scene when the brothers are first introduced. Hoffman launches into the Abbott and Costello sketch, parroting the lines to himself while pacing anxiously around the room like a caged animal. His hands twitches as he mutters to himself.

“It’s his way of dealing with you touching things,” his caretaker, Vern (Michael D. Roberts), explains.

Hoffman’s Raymond may look frightening when he’s throwing temper tantrums on strangers’ porches, but beneath his roars is a confused man-child — whose none the wiser for repeating “who.”

While “Rain Man” isn’t as funny as Abbott and Costello’s skit, it does what comedy often succeeds at: it forces us to take another look at the ugly truths in life. In doing so, we reach an understanding and start seeing life in another way.

Levinson’s film sheds insights on the frustrating realities of caring for an autistic individual, and in doing so, his triple play of double entendres gives you a warm feeling of home.

“Rain Man” was directed by Barry Levinson and written by Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass. The film won the 1989 Academy Award for best picture, best director and best original screenplay. Hoffman also won best actor for his role as Raymond Babbitt. 

‘The Broadway Melody’ sounds out of tune

Opening the 65th annual Tony Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris sang a showstopping number about the status of Broadway: “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore!”

His tongue-in-cheek song signifies how the tune of Broadway has changed from its golden era of “The Broadway Melody” (1929) to its current clientele: “the gays and the Jews; and cousins-in-from-out-of-town that you have to amuse.”

The changing lifestyles and viewpoints might explain why the familiar, melodramatic storyline of “The Broadway Melody” sounds sour. Although the film won the second annual Academy Award for best picture in 1930, the overplayed storyline (written by playwright Edmund Goulding, Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason) is trite and oversimplified.

Directed by Harry Beaumont, “The Broadway Melody” stars Anita Page and Bessie Love as sisters, Hank and Queenie Mahoney. Like Katharine McPhee’s character in NBC’s cancelled television series “Smash,” Hank and Queenie have dreams of stardom: to sing and dance on Broadway, playing back-up dancer to Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King).

Like “Smash,” this tale stars drama, jealousy and ego; however, this “Broadway” isn’t synonymous with a “broad’s way.” Men make the rules and Hank and Queenie have to fight for one spot: to be the leading lady in Eddie Kearn’s life. After all, his leading lady gets to star behind him — both on and off stage.

If anything, “The Broadway Melody” got its award for its production value at the time. The film was MGM’s first musical and its among the world’s first talkies. This one was complete with “bigger” song-and-dance numbers than anything before 1929.

There’s even long tap dancing sequences.

But life isn’t a musical and we’re not charmed by neither the film’s formulaic script nor its dated production. Instead, we’re wishing for “better” rather than “bigger.”

“The Broadway Melody” was directed by Harry Beaumont and written by Edmund Goulding, Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason. The film won Best Picture in the second annual Academy Awards. 

‘Birdman’ soars

Editor’s Note: This review was intentionally written with long winding sentences to mirror cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s oner. 

“Birdman’s” director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki give new meaning to “theatre in the round.” In one scene in Iñárritu and Lubezki’s Oscar-winning picture, the camera circles around a group of actors on stage, rehearsing a scene from the impending off-Broadway Raymond Carver production, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The camera circles several times, bringing us up close and personal to the faces of Naomi Watts, Jeremy Shamos, Andrea Riseborough and Michael Keaton — actors who play actors in a movie about theatre. The film’s ironically subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” but writers Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo are not ignorant to art. Iñárritu, Giacobone and Bo were also on the writing team of Iñárritu’s last Oscar-nominated picture, “Biutiful” (2010).

Their film is beautifully precise — taking the viewer from dressing rooms through winding corridors and down stairs to the stage. The camera moves through open windows giving us aerial views and low angle time-lapses of sunrises over towering buildings. In one scene, the camera even moves through time — from a shot of Keaton looking at a mirror to a dream sequence to a memory of what could have been weeks or months ago.

Scenes begin where others ends — making the entire film feel as if it were shot in one long continuous take. In reality, there are 16 visible cuts in the film and “Birdman” was edited in two weeks after a two month filming process.

While Lubezki’s dizzying cinematography and Iñárritu’s exacting direction makes this film soar, “Birdman” satirical script gives us another layer of “super realism.” Keaton’s cast as Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for his portrayal of Birdman in the superhero movie franchise. Keaton himself starred as Batman once upon a time.

Meanwhile, Edward Norton, a serious method actor who plays a well-known theatre personality named Mike Shiner, also stars as a parody of himself. Norton’s notorious for being difficult to work with, even “shadow directing” films he’s starred in. In one scene of “Birdman’s” self-aware script, Shiner’s seen directing actor/director Thomson’s character. Ironically, Norton gave Iñárritu his own two cents about the scene with Keaton.

This play’s both personal and intimate (it’s about love, after all). And as the show goes on, Keaton gets naked — both figuratively and literally — lending more and more of himself to his characters. The division between reality and imagination blend until you don’t know what’s real anymore.

That’s the blessing about the play, writes theatre-critic-at-large Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan):

“Thompson has unwittingly given birth to a new form, which can only be described as super-realism… The blood that has been sorely missing from the veins of American theatre.”

One thing’s for sure: you’ve never seen theatre like this before.

“Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. The film won four Academy Awards including for Best Directing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. 

Conducting ‘Whiplash’

When you think of the jazz greats, there’s Buddy Rich, Charlie Parker and Andrew Neiman. You probably haven’t heard of the latter, though, unless you’ve seen Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

In the 107-minute drama, Miles Teller stars at 19-year-old Neiman, an aspiring jazz drummer attending the prestigious and cutthroat Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. He could be one of the kids from “Fame.” His dream is to become a household jazz icon and to do so means earning the respect of Shaffer’s studio jazz band conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher is not the encouraging chorus instructor in Ryan Murphy’s TV comedy “Glee”; instead, Fletcher resembles the abrasive cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester or a male version of Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada.” He’s the type of virtuoso that you both love and despise; you secretly hate him while constantly seeking his approval. Meanwhile, Fletcher spews cruel, racial, homophobic and religious slurs at you. He sounds like a football coach rather than a conductor, punctuating his speeches with curse words. But he can also be deceptively sweet.

In one scene Fletcher is reassuring Neiman: “The key is to relax,” Fletcher says. “Don’t worry about the other guys. You’re here for a reason. Have fun.” In the next scene, Fletcher humiliates Neiman in front of the band, hurling a chair at his head while enacting his favorite didactic story:

“Imagine if [Jo] Jones had just said: ‘Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job,'” Fletcher says. “And then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.”

Simmons is absolutely captivating as Fletcher, abruptly changing his voice and moods like a finely tuned fiddle. One minute, he’s calm, melodic and inviting. The next, he’s loud, harsh and grating, instilling fear among his students. He dismissed his fourth chair trombone player, Metz (C.J. Vana), because the musician couldn’t answer if he was playing out of tune. He wasn’t, Fletcher later discloses, but that’s even worse.

Simmons and Teller jerk you back and forth from sympathy to disgust. Teller’s Neiman is driven, passionate and ambitious — literally drenching his drum sets with blood and sweat. But he can also be self-centered and high strung. At times, Neiman reminds you of Jesse Eisenberg’s antisocial portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s 2010 drama “The Social Network.”

When he prematurely breaks up with his love interest, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), you expect her to slap him. His reasoning seems distorted and he drowns a guarantee for normalcy with a slim chance for greatness. Drumming becomes his obsession; Fletcher, his role model. But this relationship is an abusive one.

The antagonistic relationship between a mentor and his young protégé isn’t new. We’ve seen this in dozens of films from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “Varsity Blues.” But director and screenwriter Chazelle (both literally and figuratively) drums up new momentum with the soundtrack (composed by Justin Hurwitz). Trumpets provide the sexy backdrop to young love while the breakneck double-time drumming provides the pulse in an adrenaline-driven frenzy. It’s uneven and all over the place —  just enough to give you whiplash.

Of course, the title of the film works on multiple levels. It’s the song that Neiman is learning to play when he joins Fletcher’s band. It’s also the visceral feeling you get when you watch some of the performances. (Chazelle’s even incorporates a car crash into his script, putting triple entendres to use.) It’s almost packaged too neatly, undermining the film’s playful and improvisational subject matter. That’s doesn’t mean this concert isn’t worth listening to.

Although “Whiplash” is only Chazelle’s second feature-length film, he’s a master conductor — cuing exacting cuts and powerful performances. It’s predictable and the story ends much like it begins — with a coda to Fletcher and Neiman’s perfect duet.

“Whiplash” was written and directed by Damien Chazelle. J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for his role. “Whiplash” was nominated in the 87th Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing.  

From ‘Selma’ to Ferguson

Although the march from Selma to Washington that inspired the movie “Selma” occurred more than 50 years ago, Ava DuVernay’s Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated film feels very modern. Early on in the film, Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) is petitioning President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the Oval Office — asking him to expand voting rights for southern states.

King understood that voting was fundamental to change. There were murders and lynchings; the KKK blew up four girls in a Birmingham Baptist church. Everyone knew who the murderers were, but the terrorists were never punished. That’s because the scales of justice are weighted. “You can’t serve on a jury unless you can vote,” King tells Johnson. So white murderers were tried in white courts by white juries.

Oyelowo speaks like a Baptist preacher preaching the gospel of injustice. Scripted by Paul Webb and directed by DuVernay, Oyelowo’s speeches are very eloquent — full of metaphors and repetition. His words aren’t the ones King actually used — those words are copyrighted to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. for Steven Spielberg’s pending MLK biopic — but they wash over us like poetry. In one scene, Oyelowo compares the black suffrage movement to trying to get a seat at any lunch table. Unfortunately, blacks and whites are given different opportunities and blacks can’t even read from the menu.

DuVernay slams us with imagery, appealing to our pathos. Edited by Spencer Averick, each bomb and gun shot is slowed down and personified. The four black girls from Birmingham look like broken porcelain dolls as debris flies everywhere. Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) is taken down by Selma police officers like a big black gorilla. Time freezes when Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) is shot. These scenes are as violent and as controversial as when Hammond police smashed a car door window to tase the African-American passenger in the car. When we eventually watch the violent and historic showdown at Edmund Pettus Bridge, it feels as if a dam broke, and we can’t stop the waterworks as we cringe with each beating.

We know how this story ends. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6.

But even as “Selma” presents us with a form of closure, we know that years later, the white police officers responsible for Oscar Grant, Travyon Martin and Mike Brown’s deaths were also tried by courts. BART officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years in prison; he got out in less than a year. George Zimmerman was acquitted for charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder. Ferguson’s former police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted.

And we still march crying, “No justice, no peace.”

“Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb. The film’s song “Glory” won a Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Original Song. “Selma” was also nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards. 

Photographer grants more than three wishes in ‘Butter Lamp’

Wei Hu’s “Butter Lamp” begins with that iconic portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong, hanging in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s only when a couple of poor Tibetan nomads stumble into frame that you notice the wrinkles in the backdrop.

Nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 87th Academy Awards, “Butter Lamp” provides plenty of modern commentary. Remember that Dutch girl that faked her five-month vacation to South East Asia?

Hu’s film reminds us of today’s Instagrammed culture and how our images are cropped, edited and filtered to perfection.

Like the Instagram and Facebook demographic, the villagers in Hu’s 16-minute French picture seek to invoke the illusion of wealth and affluence associated with Western culture. The changing backgrounds feature the Great Wall of China, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the streets of Chinatown, Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Potala Palace — a place an elderly grandmother dreams to visit.

Instead of Slumber, Mayfair or Nashville, the photographer adds his own “filters,” such as a large red ribbon, modern Western jackets and a motorcycle. (The photographer himself sports an Abercrombie shirt.)

In this way, the photographer serves as both the Genie and the “Selfie Stick,” granting the wishes of these Tibetan villagers. Out of frame: we can only imagine that these portraits will be framed and displayed proudly in their households —where these Tibetans can share their worldliness with unsuspecting visitors.

Their visitors will stare with envy, not knowing how manufactured photos can be. 

“Butter Lamp” was written and directed by Wei Hu. The film was nominated for Best Live Action Short in the 2015 Academy Awards.