Posts Tagged ‘tribeca 2018’

House 2 (Tribeca 2018)

In November 2005, in Haditha, Iraq, twenty-four unarmed Iraqi civilians were shot in a small back bedroom in what would become known as “House 2.” After the deaths were brought to the attention of a Time magazine reporter, and then to the NCIS, it became clear that these deaths were not civilians caught in crossfire, or insurgents fighting with Marines, but innocent men, women, and children killed deliberately and at close range. But out of an entire team of Marine responsible for clearing houses after an IED explosion and subsequent shooting, only one soldier, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, was indicted on multiple counts of murder.

Director Michael Epstein crafts a deeply disturbing documentary with House 2, which follows Wuterich’s legal team as they prepare for his trial, the most expensive in military history. Crossing over interviews with defense attorneys, NCIS investigators, and Wuterich himself, the film pieces together a case and explains, in precise detail, what they know and don’t know about what happened in House 2. The film intercuts video from the aftermath of the shooting, taped transcripts of witness testimony, and images taken by one soldier to document what they found when they entered the house. It’s a horrifying and far-reaching chapter in the War on Terror, an expose of violence, with the  question of who killed those people, and why, at its center.

The murkiness of the case is evident from the outset—the murders weren’t investigated until six months after the fact, when it became clear that Time would run a story about the incident. The NCIS investigation was interfered with by higher command, immunities handed out to other members of the team in order to obtain their testimony against Wuterich. Wuterich himself is an enigmatic figure—he’s shown at home with his wife and children, always claiming that he doesn’t know what happened in House 2, because he can’t actually remember. His own legal team believe their client is being railroaded into taking responsibility for the murders in order to avoid a scandal similar to the My-Lai massacre. What he actually knows, or remembers, is unclear—he neither admits to committing the crime, nor does he explicitly implicate anyone else.

What does become clear over the course of House 2 is the spectacular miscarriage of military justice. There’s no doubt that the film takes a particular angle on the events—there are no interviews with prosecuting attorneys, and no representatives of Marine command, save for Wuterich himself and his defense team. This doesn’t completely skew the perception of the case, however, though I would have liked to hear something from the other side. The presence of two NCIS investigators helps to balance the narrative, as they present their accounts of how they carried out their investigations, and where they were told to stop by higher-ups and the gaps that the prosecution and the defense attempted to fill.

House 2 is an absorbing, infuriating documentary, difficult to watch. It brings the viewer close to the events with images of the murdered women and children examined in forensic detail. The investigators attempt to establish how many shooters there were, where they might have stood, how they would have committed the crimes. The film doesn’t flinch from showing the humanity of the victims, the investigators, the Marines, and the attorneys, forcing the viewer to reckon not just with the forensic evidence, but with the reality of human life purposelessly cut short.

The downside to a film being as well-put-together as House 2 is that it can occasionally come off as an entertaining thriller rather than a documentary examining a disturbing and far-reaching event in America’s military history. There are a few revelations introduced late in the film that seem to be present more for dramatic value than in the service of telling the story. But because the film makes use of contemporary footage, it seems to play out as more information comes out. Wuterich’s legal team change their approach to the case regularly, trying to reconcile contradictory evidence and the behavior of a prosecutorial team that seem to be playing by a different set of rules. What comes out is the way that military justice is manipulated and abrogated to avoid culpability for the deaths of so many innocent people.

House 2 elucidates the degree to which Iraqi lives have been dispensable in the so-called War on Terror, and the degree to which even military lives will be thrown under the bus in service to buoying a desirable narrative. But in the end, a group of unarmed women and children were murdered in their beds by Marines “clearing” a house. That is itself a scathing indictment of the War on Terror, and the atrocities still being committed in its name.

House 2 is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Mapplethorpe (2018)

Director Ondi Timoner’s new biopic turns the camera on Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist who revolutionized art photography in the 1970s and 80s, raising controversy with his images of hardcore BDSM juxtaposed against tender portraits of calla-lillies and celebrity portraits. Mapplethorpe looks at the life of the artist from his relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendon), his time at the Hotel Chelsea, fascination with gay BDSM, and the permutations of his art until his death at the age of 42. Through his images and relationships with friends, lovers, family, and ultimately to the art itself, Mapplethorpe attempts to elucidate a contradictory, contentious subject.

Matt Smith’s performance as the central character is Mapplethorpe’s greatest strength. He embodies the conflicts that the film lays out. He’s charming and funny, vicious and unkind, loving to his subjects and exploitative of them in the same breath. He toes the line between exploitation and appreciation, such that it seems he does not fully understand his behavior. As he ages and becomes ill, he delves deeper in the light and dark, becoming more demanding of those around him and crueler in his behavior. Smith’s physical investment in the role is almost Expressionist, recalling Conrad Veidt’s total embodiment of his parts. Mapplethorpe blends with his own images, pressed between the light and the dark, the violent and the tender. The film’s often spectacular cinematography lends itself to this portrayal, as the colorful vibrancy of New York in 1969 gives way to black and white palettes of the 1980s that finally wash out the central character, turning him into a walking specter. Smith forces us to acknowledge the brilliance of the artist and the gentleness of his touch while at the same time seeing his cruelty and self-interest. And the film doesn’t excuse Mapplethorpe’s behavior – it simply seeks to represent it.

But for a film about so revolutionary a subject, Mapplethorpe remains oddly chaste in its onscreen depiction of male nudity, homosexuality, and BDSM. While it doesn’t shy away from showing Mapplethorpe’s image, in effective intercuts of the actual photographs, it coyly cuts away from sex scenes, avoids filming Matt Smith (or almost anyone) in full body shots, and reduces Mapplethorpe’s friends and lovers in the BDSM community to barely realized characters. Surely these men were more than just images, either to Mapplethorpe himself or in their own right. Surely they had personalities, thoughts, experiences of their own. In the middle of the film, a friend tells Mapplethorpe, “They must really trust you,” but we never see how he earned that trust, how his friendships developed, or how he staged these images in the first place. The film’s unwillingness to truly engage with Mapplethorpe’s subjects, and thus avoiding dealing with its own subject, makes it feel slight – the people photographed become just images, body parts, and we never see them as full characters.

In fact, the entirety of Mapplethorpe is slight, avoiding too much investigation of who Mapplethorpe is or what his art meant, either to himself or to the wider culture. His relationship with Patti Smith flames out, and she almost immediately becomes a nonentity, a person solely there to drive him from one aspect of his art to the next. There are little indications of the artist’s psyche—he relates the conflict and symbiosis between his Roman Catholic upbringing and his homosexuality and interest in bondage, and more than once remarks that his art must be viewed as a totality, hardcore images as well as the more “palatable” flowers and portraits. The juxtaposition of his portraits of celebrities and still-lifes of flowers with hardcore images, his interest in photography “as an artist” that never extends to learning how to develop the photographs himself, the very light and dark of his images…all of them provide interesting fodder for an exploration of a deeply conflicted artist producing deeply conflicted art, yet the film never follows through on any of them, instead leaving the deeper themes at the peripheries, content more to delve into one man’s suffering than to examine his work. While I don’t think we needed an explanation of Mapplethorpe as a person or an artist—those are always pat and ineffectual, even in the best biopics—there needed to be greater exploration of what he meant as an artist, what his art meant to the developing scene of the 70s and 80s, what furor he caused. We are told he was revolutionary, but we never shown why.

In some ways, Mapplethorpe is as much a contradiction as the man himself, a film that wants to investigate both art and artist, and yet can’t quite come to terms with either. There is so much hanging at the peripheries, begging to be examined, that one wishes the camera would shift focus just a little, to look at those people, themes, desires, fears that made Mapplethorpe what he was. Maybe it’s impossible to truly reveal the artist through a different medium than the one he employed, maybe the art must simply speak for itself. But it would’ve been nice to see this film try.

Mapplethorpe is currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

Nigerian Prince (2018)

Cinephiles enjoy quoting the factoid that Nigeria has one of the biggest film industries in the world, on par with and often exceeding both Hollywood and Bollywood. But unlike Bollywood, which has had some success in exporting films across the Atlantic, Nollywood films rarely cross to America (despite being deeply popular across Africa). Nigerian Prince, the first full-length feature by director Faraday Okoro, is not a Nollywood film per se, but it pushes American viewers to reckon with our relationship to Nigeria, and perhaps to begin to treat Nigerian and Nigerian-American cinema with the respect it deserves.

Nigerian Prince focuses on two cousins, Eze (Antonio J. Bell) and Pius (Chinaza Uche), who meet in Nigeria when the American-born Eze is sent to stay with his aunt Grace (Tina Mba), Pius’s mother. Eze thinks he’s just in Nigeria for a few weeks, but soon learns that his mother has arranged to keep him there for much longer, enrolling him in school to, as she says, learn “where he comes from.” Eze protests—he’s an American, not a Nigerian, and rebels at being basically forced to remain in a country to which he has no connection. Pius, meanwhile, has become a barely successful scammer—both by email and in person—and has run afoul of a corrupt police chief Smart (Bimbo Manuel), to whom he owes a great deal of money. As the two cousins become more embroiled with each other, Pius begins to see a way clear of both his own and Eze’s troubles.

Nigerian Prince takes on two stories: a fish out of water narrative, and a crime thriller, converging them as Pius “teaches” his younger cousin about Nigeria. But it also escapes the clichés of a young man learning about his heritage, embroiling Eze deeper in Pius’s problems without romanticizing Nigeria or its inhabitants. There is no aha moment when Eze falls in love with the country he’s never known or had particular attachment to—rather, he learns how to live differently, and how to understand the far murkier depths of morality. Pius explains that his scamming isn’t really stealing, because those he scams always willingly part with their money. As we see this in action, it’s easy to be charmed by Pius (thanks to Uche’s excellent performance) when he convinces a greedy American that he can become rich by washing “black money,” actually just rectangles of construction paper. Pius is good at his job, but he also has difficulty navigating the degrees of corruption within his world and reconciling it to his basic decency. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, or so it seems.

The film’s greatest flaw comes in its third act, as Pius’s story becomes a central focus, pushing Eze to the background. We meet a few characters—like “Bimbo” (Crystabel Goddy), one of Eze’s classmates—who vanish as quickly as they appear onscreen, making the narrative occasionally feel unfinished. Eze’s story stops being a concern, his character only important insofar as it provides Pius with an opportunity to pay off the price on his head. This shift of focus doesn’t wholly damage the film, but it does mean that we begin to forget that this story started off about one character and has become about another, so when the final payoff comes, it’s hard to feel great emotional investment.

But it’s hard—very hard—not to get sucked into Pius’s story. Okoro has a deft touch with the camera, treating the streets, the countryside, and even the darkened alleys with a mixture of fear and love, a recognition of Nigeria’s complexity in the images of poverty and wealth, and in the character of Pius. Pius is charming, erudite, a talented con artist who begins to con the audience as well, transforming fluidly according to his situation. He’s untrustworthy, but he’s also scamming himself, constantly claim that he can survive if he does just one more scam, sends one more email, gets just one more day. He wants success in his field, but he has a conscience; he can convince himself that he’s not really stealing, and also knows when he’s taking someone for a ride. His relationship with Eze is untrustworthy because it’s impossible to know what he’s really going to do, if he’s really going to scam his cousin, if he’s really going to hurt someone he comes to care for. That tension, the danger that Pius represents and that even he does not seem to fully control, is one of Nigerian Prince’s most deceptively simple features.

And like Pius, Nigerian Prince pulls you in, charms you, and tells you a complex and powerful story without losing itself. The film draws no clear moral conclusions, no clear solution as to what, or who, is right or wrong. While it stumbles on occasion, Nigerian Prince is a damn fine film, from a director who should be watched.

Nigerian Prince has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

Love, Simon has brought the teenage rom-com into the 21st Century, finally giving us a funny and heartfelt story about the difficulties of coming out (and falling in love). The Miseducation of Cameron Post is Love, Simon’s more serious sister film, a coming-of-age drama about teens sent to a camp to undergo conversion therapy. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and is now making its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post follows Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) as her aunt ships her off to God’s Promise, after she’s caught having sex with another girl on prom night. Cameron meets a host of other teenagers, there to “recover” from their same sex attractions through the dubious therapies of Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) and her brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.), himself a supposed success story of his sister’s methods. But Cameron is resistant and begins to develop a set of friendships within the camp, particularly with Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), who help her learn to perform her therapy without letting it truly affect her.

The film strikes a surprising degree of nuance and sympathy for all the characters—the misguided adults included—highlighting the sense of confusion and anger as the teenagers try tto change their own sexualities. Flashbacks and dreams show Cameron’s romance with her friend Chloe, as well as the reasons her fellow campers have been sent away to “get better.” Without focusing too heavily on the suffering of the embattled teens, the film delves into the evangelical mentality of “fixing” homosexuality with a combination of faith-based teaching and misapplied psychology. Cameron is encouraged to figure out what in her past “made her gay,” and thus purge herself of her same-sex attraction. The film exposes not just the wrong-headedness and damage caused by such a blending of badly applied scripture and twisted therapies, but also the degree to which the people using those therapies truly believe that they are helping. Reverend Rick has also been forced to alter and repress himself, his cheery smile concealing a pain that he cannot fully repress. Each of the teens handles the therapy in their own way, some coming whole-heartedly to the belief that they are broken and in need of God’s love, while others (like Cameron and her friends) come to recognize that there is nothing wrong with them to begin with. Coursing through the film is the uncertainty—that maybe something is wrong—as each therapy session and Bible verse is twisted to imbue in them a sense that they are sinning simply by existing,

Although the focus is ultimately on Cameron and her experience, the film encircles her with a host of other characters, each of them played with intimate nuance. There are boys rejected by their fathers for being too “feminine,” and girls desperate to fulfill their parents’ notions of femininity. The intensity of teenage desire is multiplied among teenagers who are constantly being told that they’re wrong, confused, damaged, sick; that they cannot be loved by God and be gay, or even be anything other than a very narrow understanding of what “correct” gender looks like. And the film doesn’t so much fault religion as it faults the abuse of religion—in a particularly powerful scene, a boy passionately quotes a Bible verse as he begs to be loved for his “weakness” in loving men. Director Desiree Akhaven proves herself a deft touch in this film, which allows for the explicit expression of sexuality (there are more than a few love scenes) without turning them into a mere titillation for the audience. These are teenagers just awakening to their sexualities, both aware of what they want and frightened of what it means. The insidiousness of evangelical teachings permeates everything, yet the film doesn’t dwell in darkness or suffering. It is, in its own way, about purification, about final acceptance of who and what we are, despite what we’re told to the contrary. The teenagers can’t leave God’s Promise, even when they want to—their parents or families might decline to take them back if they’re not sufficiently “cured.” And if they are changed, then they must live their lives denying themselves and who they truly are.

I won’t go into spoilers, but it’s worth noting that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is not about the suffering of LGBTQ teens. There’s a humor—sometimes an uncomfortable one—that runs throughout and helps to keep the narrative from dropping too far into the darkness. The strength of friendship, the searching for identity in a world that contains only narrow definitions of it, expands the story, giving it heart and understanding and even sympathy for the adults imposing their warped fears on teenagers who actually do know better. But the true heroes are still the teenagers, especially Cameron herself, who tries to survive without denying who and what she is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post will have its New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22.