Black or White

Posted on January 29, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Copyright 2014 Relativity
Copyright 2014 Relativity

Writer-director Mike Binder sure likes to get Kevin Costner drunk. As in his uneven but impressive “The Upside of Anger,” Binder once again has Costner playing a man who is a little lost and usually shnockered, a role well suited for Costner’s loose-limbed, naturalist wryness. Binder’s strengths are evident here. He creates complex, unhappy characters who are articulate without being artificially quippy. He casts superb actors and gets outstanding performances (“The Upside of Anger,” flawed as it was, is worth seeing just to watch Joan Allen work through so many variations on ferocity, loss, and doubt). And in this film, he takes a highly charged situation that could easily be overly melodramatic, formulaic, or polemical and gives it nuance and dignity. No matter what your inclination on the custody dispute over a biracial child at the center of the film, you will rethink it.

Costner plays Elliot, a lawyer who learns in the first moments of the film that his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) has been killed in a car accident. She has had most of the responsibility of caring for their granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), who has lived with them since she was born, because her mother, then just 17 years old, died in childbirth.

Elliot is so overwhelmed by loss that the next morning he takes Eloise to school without telling her what happened. He has no idea of what the morning routine is, how to fix Eloise’s hair, or even where exactly the school is located.

That afternoon, with some bolstering of his courage via alcohol and his law partner, Elliot finally tells Eloise that her grandmother has died. He is committed to continuing to care for her. But her other grandmother, Rowena (a terrific Octavia Spencer) wants to have a bigger role in Eloise’s life. She files for joint custody. Her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a successful litigator, tells her that if she wants to succeed, she will have to have a more powerful argument than her rights as the child’s grandmother. She will have to claim that Elliot is not a suitable guardian for a black child. “Do you want what is best for the child?” asked Jeremiah. “Then has a problem with black people.” Elliot’s counsel urges him to be aggressive. “Are you okay getting ugly?”

Rowena and Elliot respect, even have some affection for one another. Each knows the other is far more than the extremes alleged in the court filings. But the system is not set up for anything but extremes. Jeremiah is successful in getting the case before a black woman judge (the excellent Paula Newsome), and both sides think she will be inclined to give Eloise to her black relatives.

But both sides are vulnerable, and, as the judge has warned them, once a child is in the system it is within her power to decide that neither grandparent should have custody. Elliot and Rowena both understand that the litigation will bring them to the brink of mutually assured destruction. But things heat up. Rowena brings in her son Reggie (André Holland), Eloise’s father and amends the suit to call for full custody, saying Elliot is not fit to raise Eloise because he drinks.  While his legal claim is stronger on paper because he is her parent, his claim is also weaker because he has a record of drug use and criminal behavior and has never cared for or even spent time with his daughter. We see the contrast between Elliot’s big, luxurious, but empty house and Rowena’s crowded, chaotic, but loving home. Elliot is white and male. Can he understand Eloise? Both of Eloise’s grandparents are still struggling with their failures as parents the first time around as well.

Binder continues to be better with the small moments than the big ones, and there are affecting one-on-one moments with Reggie and his mother and uncle, and with Elliot and Rowena. But he still has trouble with finding a good way to end a story, and he has no idea of how to write for a child. Estell has a likeable screen presence, but is asked to deliver some unforgivable lines that are far too idealized and age-inappropriate for her character. It is too bad that a film that shows exceptional sensitivity to its adult characters so badly fails the girl on whose behalf they are fighting.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, including racist epithets, drug and alcohol abuse, and sad offscreen deaths.  The family issues and custody battle may be upsetting to some viewers.

Family discussion: If you were the judge, where would you put Eloise? Why does Duvon write so many papers? Why does he learn so many languages?

If you like this, try: Clover and “Losing Isaiah”

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Courtroom Drama Family Issues Inspired by a true story Race and Diversity

Black Sea

Posted on January 29, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some graphic images and violence
Profanity: Constant strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, some accidentally, some intentionally
Diversity Issues: Diverse cultures
Date Released to Theaters: January 30, 2015
Copyright 2015 Focus Features
Copyright 2015 Focus Features

Two comments made by characters in this film summarize what it is that makes submarine stories so instantly compelling. “Outside is just dark, cold, and death,” says one. “We all live together or we all die together,” says another.

Submarines are the setting for the ultimate locked room story, the purest form of human interaction, with a small group of people (usually all men), cut off from everyone else. You can’t call the cops, appeal to higher authority, or run away.

This submarine story ramps up the conflict. In most cases, the crew may have some conflicts about how to proceed but everyone is literally on board with the task, whether exploration or military action. But “Black Sea” adds the most divisive element of all: greed. This crew, half British, half Russian, is going in search of lost Nazi gold at the bottom of the Black Sea, with 40 percent going to the rich guy who financed the expedition and the rest to go to everyone on board. None of these people are American, but just to make sure we get the message about the value of a huge pile of gold bars, Captain Robinson (Jude Law, with receding hairline and Scottish brogue) counts it up in dollars.

It’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with a bit of “Moby Dick” and “The Towering Inferno,” plus some Occupy Wall Street thrown in for good measure.

We first see Robinson getting laid off. It has nothing to do with his performance, he is assured. It’s just that they don’t need sub captains or even subs any more. They have better ways of doing marine salvage. They give him a paltry £8000 and the job he has had all his life, the one he lost his wife and son by being away too much, evaporates.  “They want me to flip burgers,” he says. Everything he has devoted his life to seems lost.

Then a friend tells him “I think I knew a way not to be like this.” He knows about missing gold, and puts Robinson in touch with the representative of the wealthy man who will fund the operation, at least to the extent of a rusty old tub of a Russian submarine, in exchange for 40 percent.

Robinson assembles the crew, understanding that it is a volatile mix. “He’s a psychopath, but he’s an incredible diver, half man, half fish,” he says about one member of the crew. When the one who told him about the gold commits suicide, Robinson replaces him with an 18 year old who has never been to sea. They also bring along the man who negotiated the deal on behalf of the wealthy American (Scoot McNairy), who has no experience at sea and suffers from claustrophobia. Also arrogance and a highly questionable sense of integrity.

Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) skillfully navigates the narrow corridors of the decrepit submarine as the tension builds, though equipment problems, crew battles, and the overheated impact of all that money. Suddenly, people who would think themselves wealthy with thousands of pounds are calculating how much more their share of the gold would be with a smaller number to divide it among. The political overlay and flashbacks to Robinson’s (possibly imagined) idyll with his family are heavy-handed and at least one of the plot twists is preposterous, but the fundamentals of the story and that irresistibly cramped and isolated setting keep the tension level high.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language, extended and peril and violence with many characters injured and killed, fighting, knives, guns, some very disturbing images, and mild sexual references.

Family discussion: Why was Robinson so protective of Tobin? Do you think he was a good captain?

If you like this, try: “The Hunt for Red October,” “U-571,” “K-19: The Widowmaker,” and “Crimson Tide,” and, for a change of tone, “Operation Petticoat”

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Drama Movies -- format Thriller

For the First Time at Sundance: A Panel on Faith and Films

Posted on January 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Copyright 2014 Paramount
Copyright 2014 Paramount

The acclaimed Sundance Film Festival, where ground-breaking films and indie favorites often premiere, will have its first-ever panel discussion of faith and films this week. “Hollywood reflects society, society reflects Hollywood, and each needs the other,” Tim Gray, founder and president of Gray Media said of unprecedented panel discussion. “Years in the making, this conversation will challenge storytellers’ notions of faith in films and inspire filmmakers to next levels.”

Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2014 Sony Pictures

On January 29, 2015, the 4 p.m. panel will open in a one-on-one with Devon Franklin, now president/CEO of Franklin Entertainment. At MGM and as SVP of Columbia Pictures, Franklin produced “Pursuit of Happyness,” “The Karate Kid 2,” “Heaven is for Real,” and “Annie.” He is the author of Produced by Faith: Enjoy Real Success without Losing Your True Self.  This will be followed by a panel moderated by Gray, featuring Franklin along with Adam Hastings, Pure Flix Entertainment director of marketing and operations, whose 2014 “God’s Not Dead” earned more than $60 million domestic box office; Bill Reeves, founder of Working Title Agency, behind faith-market groundbreakers “Fireproof,” “Courageous,” “Soul Surfer,” “Heaven is for Real” and more; and Julie Fairchild of Lovell-Fairchild Communications, whose film work ranges from “Fireproof” to “Get Low,” “20 Feet from Stardom.” and “Heaven is for Real.”

This is an important step forward, and I hope it becomes an annual tradition — and, unless they want to change the name to “Some Sects of Christianity and Films,” that future panels include a broader range of faith traditions.

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Spiritual films Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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