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Review: Elián

It has the decency to recognize that only Elián González has the right to define his sense of truth for himself.

2.5

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Elián
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

For almost 20 years, I’ve been thinking of Elián González. He is, after all, a kindred spirit. I, too, escaped to this country across the Straits of Florida, though I came here as part of the Mariel boat lift, which was a controlled enough social experiment to almost guarantee that my four-year-old anemic self would be alive by the time he reached Florida. I lost iron getting here, while Elián lost his mother. He was the only survivor of a group of 13 Cubans to make it to the U.S. when he was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale in late 1999. Later, he would say that dolphins periodically kept him afloat whenever he started to lose strength.

I don’t remember hiding in a field with my mother while proponents of the Cuban revolution threw rocks at our home and screamed, “Gusanos!” Nor do I remember being pelted with eggs as my grandfather walked with me off a bus and toward the port of Mariel. Those are truths I’ve received over the years from family. Because of that lack of remembrance, I’ve always felt removed from my experience, but it’s a disconnect that might be preferable to what seems like Elián’s curse of being unable to resurrect an authentic memory because of the way the dueling sides of the seemingly eternal U.S.-Cuba conflict mediated the trauma of his own youth for political leverage.

Tim Golden and Ross McDonnell’s documentary Elián is itself a resurrection, stitched together primarily from archival footage from the period between November 1999 and April 2000 that saw a little boy from Cuba caught between a rock and a hard place. The film’s triumph resides in the reasoned associations it draws between the putative agendas of the Cuban exile community looking to keep Elián in Miami and the Cuban government seeking his return: The filmmakers see the spectacle of Elián, in Miami, being draped in an American flag and the boy, back in Cuba, parroting the mantras of the Cuban revolution (“Homeland or death! We shall prevail! Pioneers for Communism, we shall be like Che!”) as sides of the same jingoistic coin.

There’s a scene in Elián that shows an African-American man on the streets of Miami voicing his opinion that Elián should be returned to Cuba. This father’s gist is that the bonds of family should trump politics. I share that opinion even today, and the film itself seems to intuitively comprehend the logic of Juan Miguel González Quintana’s desire to be with his son as an essential right that can’t be taken away from him simply because the Cuban exile community believed, and loudly so, that Castro was pulling his strings.

As for the wails of outrage that greet the black man on the street, you can trace them all the way to the rancor surrounding the ending of the “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” policy, a relic of the Cold War era that gave Cubans the right to political asylum should they literally set foot on American soil. It seems like a matter of fairness for Cubans to (pardon the analogy) be in the same boat as all immigrants wanting to taste our country’s freedoms, yet many in the Cuban exile community remain adamant about the Cuban struggle to escape the grips of communism being so exceptional as to merit unique reward.

That sort of entitlement amplifies the voices of those protestors who silence the African-American in their midst, and it certainly explains why so many Miami Cubans felt that it was their right to keep Elián from his father—to turn him into a pawn without regard for his emotional and psychological well-being. Like Marisleysis González, Elián’s loving cousin, and Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman and former evangelist who rescued Elián from the waters off Fort Lauderdale on Thanksgiving 1999 and was holding the boy when federal agents took him from the González home in Miami. No one who was interviewed for this film, including Marisleysis and Donato, admits to sculpting or misrepresenting Elián’s desires, but certain archival footage featured throughout the documentary—such as the videos of Elián screaming to a plane in the sky to be taken back to Cuba and a man coaching the boy’s anti-Castro rhetoric from off screen—still tells no lies to this day.

Raúl Esparza provides narration for Elián, and while necessary at times to contextualize some of the footage from the Elián González case on display in the documentary, his words are unnecessary at least at the start, when they too fancifully announce that Elián’s story is one of warring ideologies. That theme speaks loudly enough for itself through the film’s objective correlations, which are so coolly delivered as to make the footage of Donald Trump—from both 2000 and the present—feel especially smug as cheap shots, disconnected as they are from any larger, particularly useful point about Castro’s lifelong mission to defy the presidents of the United States.

Elián’s even-handedness and propulsive montage is remarkable, but a smarter film might have elaborated on the fetishization of victimization that’s almost perversely common between Cuban exiles and the adherents of Castro’s revolution. A richer acknowledgment of that victimization—even of the older Miami Cuban community’s understandable attraction to the self-reliance message of Republican ideals—would have at least made the acknowledgement of the correlation between Elián and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election feel less like an afterthought.

The film, too, rushes through the easing of restrictions against Cuba during the Barack Obama administration and the death of Castro, letting the footage of interviews with Elián and the Cuban press speak nebulously about him being some kind of cog in the communist machine. That, though, is probably the intent of the filmmakers, who see that earnestly melodramatic and distinctly Cuban flair with which Marisleysis spoke to members of the press during the height of the Elián González news craze as being of a piece with, say, the audacity it took for a woman to fall down in a faux faint for cameras as then-Attorney General Janet Reno’s feds took Elián away.

Maybe because the Elián story was almost a precursor to reality television, and this film arrives in the era of “peak television,” it was inevitable that my mind looked for ways that Elián’s unbearable crisis was in conversation with the darkness of our prestige television. Imagine the work that must be required to get a crowd of Cubans to scream in unison, “We are Fidel!” Think, then, of Eugene on The Walking Dead, after being kidnapped from Alexandria and being taken to the Sanctuary, claiming his commitment, like so many others, to the fascistic Negan: “I am Negan!” The question remains, on the AMC show, if Eugene actually believes that. And the question remains, for Marisleysis, if Elián means it when he says that Castro was his friend.

Allow me a final reference point: The Elián who Golden and McDonnell interview in Cuba isn’t the Paige of The Americans, caught between the gospel of American exceptionalism and her parents’ fidelity to the Soviet Union. Elián has already claimed his side: While he says that he doesn’t know religion, he’s already pledged allegiance to god, and the now-23-year-old says that this god’s name is Fidel. He sounds like someone I might have become had I never been given the chance to leave Cuba, someone who’s possibly measuring his words, just in case speaking truth to power comes back to bite him. Today, Elián’s sense of the truth may be received, but it may also be self-evident to him. Elián doesn’t pretend to know which it is, as it has the decency to recognize that only Elián has the right to define it for himself.

Director: Tim Golden, Ross McDonnell Screenwriter: Tim Golden Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 108 min Rating: NR Year: 2017 Buy: Video

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Film

Review: The Changeover Enjoyably Pinballs Between Disparate Fantasy Styles

If, in the end, the film’s narrative fails to cohere, the journey getting there is at least enjoyably swift-paced.

2.5

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The Changeover
Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie’s The Changeover is an unusual and mostly enjoyable hybrid of disparate fantasy styles. Based on the 1984 young adult novel by Margaret Mahy, the film suggests a superhero origin story, developing a convoluted internal mythology involving a coven of benevolent witches, an evil vampiric “larva” who sucks the youthful vitality out of young children, and a “sensitive” schoolgirl, Laura (Erana James), who receives psychic premonitions of future harm. When the larva, Carmody (Timothy Spall), picks Laura’s kid brother (Benji Purchase) as his next victim, it’s up to her to save him.

It can be a little difficult to keep the story’s mythos straight, particularly when, in its final third, the film launches into a lengthy Inception-style action sequence that takes place entirely in a dream realm. By the time the credits roll, it’s not entirely clear what just happened, and exactly why. McKenzie’s script has to resort to voiceover narration—present only in the very beginning and end of the film—to fill in some of the gaps, and even then, not every piece of the puzzle seems to fit together. This makes for an ultimately somewhat confusing and unsatisfying viewing experience, at least for anyone who’s never read Mahy’s supernatural teen romance. But sometimes it’s better to feel a little lost than to know too much: The film confidently powers ahead without feeling the need, as so many fantasy stories do, to halt the momentum every reel or two to offer a dull exposition dump.

As directors, Harcourt and McKenzie eschew the soporific melancholia of teen fantasy films like Twilight in favor of a lithe, angular visual approach—including impressionistic close-ups and skittering, almost Michael Mann-ish handheld shots—that grounds the story’s supernatural goings-on in a sense of reality without draining them of their fantastical charm. Spall strikes a similarly appealing balance between plausibility and outright camp, digging into his villainous role with teeth-gnashing glee. Pitched somewhere between a deranged hobo and Mr. Dark from Something Wicked This Way Comes, his performance provides a fun yet menacing foil to James’s haunted, obsessive turn as Laura.

Even when the specific details of the film’s plot may seem silly or confused, Laura remains credible and compelling. It’s this carefully managed equilibrium between the inherent preposterousness of its mystical milieu and the convincing emotional reality of Laura’s journey that ultimately makes The Changeover, for all its muddled mythos, a lively and engaging excursion into an unusually naturalistic world of magic.

Cast: Timothy Spall, Melanie Lynskey, Lucy Lawless, Nicholas Galitzine, Erana James, Kate Harcourt, Benji Purchase, Ella Edward, Thomasin McKenzie, Claire Van Beek Director: Miranda Harcourt, Stuart McKenzie Screenwriter: Stuart McKenzie Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 95 min Buy: Book

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Film

Review: 1900 Obliterates the Barriers Between Story and History

Bernardo Bertolucci’s film is a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity.

3.5

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1900
Photo: Paramount Pictures

A handful of iconic films are inseparable from a single, equally iconic review. Whether it was a pan, a rave, or somewhere in the middle, is immaterial: The piece of writing and the film are, by chance rather than design, now joined at the hip in the minds of every well-read viewer that encounters the film from that day forward. There’s John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie, which inspired Graham Greene to write a provocative contemplation of wee Shirley Temple’s “adult” appeal. (A consequent lawsuit by 20th Century Fox further inspired Greene to flee to Mexico.) 1900 was Italian maestro Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film after Last Tango in Paris, the runaway international success of which can at least partly be attributed to a goalpost-shifting, all-stops-out rave by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael.

1900 didn’t necessarily send Kael into comparable flights of exaltation, but her review is almost as much a landmark as the one for Last Tango in Paris, in its way. Before getting to the business of weighing and measuring the qualities and liabilities of Bertolucci’s epic, a multi-generational mural that seeks to envelop the whole of the century up to that point, Kael circled the pool before swimming, meditating on the very idea of the director’s—any director’s—grandest gesture, the epic that danced on the knife edge between brilliant and insane, noble and foolish. It wasn’t a “think piece,” in today’s parlance, not the way Kael transmitted levies and decrees from her high judicial seat. Rather, it sought to address as directly as possible the tendency for auteurs of a certain stripe to render unto mortal audiences a monument of—and to—the cinema, a true gesamtkunstwerk in motion-picture form.

The gesamtkunstwerk, generally attributed (not exclusively) to Richard Wagner, has a special resonance with the cinema. While in the 19th century a “total art work” would combine or hybridize elements of several different media, the movies seemed to be one-stop shopping for visionaries with similar dreams of amalgamation and “total”-ness, pitched at the grandest scale, and encompassing the largest themes. Directors like D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance, as well as Hollywood moguls like David O. Selznick, attempted such Herculean exertions, but a film like 1900 is unimaginable during earlier decades. It requires the picture-window magnitude of widescreen cinema (without the lateral restrictions of the Cinemascope frame). It requires the new open-mindedness of art-house moviegoers in a post-Midnight Cowboy, post-Last Tango in Paris era, given the graphic nature of some scenes—some of which, without getting too specific, you’ll never, ever, be able to un-see. There’s the relentlessly mobile camera, requiring the most up-to-date production technology, and which seems to prowl and sweep at the same time. And there’s the melting pot of American and European stars, emblematic of an international cinema scene preordained by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town.

Similar barriers between story and history are obliterated. 1900, of course, doesn’t draw lines around the world’s 20th century so much as limit the breadth and depth of the whole world to the story of modern Italy, from the death of Verdi in 1901 to the innumerable planes of struggle following WWII. This isn’t the kind of film that adheres to any tradition of screenwriting discipline; resolutely episodic, even its episodes (which are countless) are often amorphous, flowing and breathing into what happened before, and what comes after.

The heads of the principal characters are drunk on tempestuous cocktails of primal urges, political convictions, and sexual impulses. No corner of Italian society seems to escape Bertolucci’s attention, but, if anything, it’s most frequently concerned with class warfare, setting up Robert De Niro’s Alfredo Berlinghieri and Gérard Depardieu’s Olmo Dalco as respective totems of the landowner and peasant class, locked in eternal conflict, right to the end of the line—and to the present moment. Bertolucci’s concept of the epic is to fashion a living, fluid organism that spans the distances between several poles of extremity: ancient and modern, agony and ecstasy, life and theater, rich and poor. Foremost, perhaps, is Bertolucci’s trademark ability to weave intimate spaces into infinitely larger tapestries. If it fails, as some critics have noted—beginning with Kael—to live up to its ambition to stand as the greatest of all films, it is perhaps only because the century is itself profoundly, humanly disappointing.

Cast: Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Burt Lancaster, Dominique Sanda, Sterling Hayden, Donald Sutherland, Francesca Bertini, Laura Betti, Werner Bruhns, Stefania Casini, Anna Henkel, Ellen Schwiers, Alida Valli, Romolo Valli, Bianca Magliacca, Giacomo Rizzo, Pippo Campanini Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Screenwriter: Franco Arcalli, Giuseppe Bertolucci, Bernardo Bertolucci Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 317 min Rating: NR Year: 1976 Buy: Video

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Actress

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress.

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Glenn Close
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Sometimes it’s important to just step back and pay your respects to a remarkable actress for having given a performance that, while not your, um, favourite nominated one, is still deserving of an Oscar victory lap. Now, if only others felt the same. Very early on in the awards season, there was already a sense that this award could become a career-achievement coronation for the six-time losing Glenn Close—and that people were going to have a problem squaring that with the fact that her Oscar would be tied to a film perceived to be a piffle. That’s not an inaccurate perception, but it’s difficult to remember a time when critics have used that as an excuse to not do their homework.

In short, have you seen The Wife? Indeed, until the awards-media system’s attention shifted full time into covering AMPAS’s A Series of Unfortunate Oscar Decisions, it seemed as if every day brought us a new article by some pundit about the Oscar race in which it strangely sounded as if the The Wife was still a blind spot for the writer. Which is shame, because Close gives good face throughout the film. Certainly, few Oscar-nominated films this year are as absurd as The Wife, but I’ll do battle with anyone who thinks Close is getting by on her legend alone. Close’s triumph is recognizing The Wife’s inherent ludicrousness and elevating it, and without condescension, with a kabuki-like verve that seeks to speak to the experiences of all women who’ve been oppressed by their men. It’s a turn worthy of Norma Desmond.

Today, the most reliable Oscar narrative is the overdue performer. And if you take stock in that narrative, then you’ll understand why I texted Eric, my fellow Oscar guru, the following on the morning of November 29: “I think Close is going to Still Alice at the Oscars.” After that morning, when the New York Film Critics Circle officially kick-started the Oscar season (and gave their award for best actress to Regina Hall in Support the Girls), no actress ran the table with the critics and guilds, but most of the cards that matter did fall into place for Close, and much as they did for Julianne Moore ahead of her winning the Oscar for Still Alice.

This was a done deal when Close won the Golden Globe, received a standing ovation, and gave the night’s most impassioned speech, immediately after which Eric conceded that my instincts had been right. Of course, that was no doubt easy for him to admit given that, by that point, the oxygen had already seeped out of A Star Is Born’s awards campaign, leaving only Olivia Colman in Close’s way. Colman has worked the campaign trail in spectacular ways, giving speeches that have been every bit as droll as this, but in the end, she doesn’t have the SAG, and as bold and subversive as her performance certainly is, it isn’t sufficiently big enough to convince enough AMPAS members that Close should continue waiting for Oscar.

Will Win: Glenn Close, The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

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