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Life Through the Lens: Netflix and watershed moments

“They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice.”

***

To me, Moses is as cool as it gets. From beginning to end, his story is unparalleled. Hidden at birth, strategic basket-floating … this secret-Hebrew becomes the Pharaoh’s adopted-grandson — life is luxurious! Until he is 40, that is, and he murders some mean-guy. All the sudden, he is a wanted felon, fleeing in the desert, never welcome home again. He settles in Midian and, for another 40 years, is a shepherd of someone else’s flock. He goes from every-want-fulfilled in the palace to tending someone else’s dirty animals in the wilderness. From down-right-pleasant to down-and-out-peasant. That is quite the change.

He spends 80 years of his life without contact with God, not really knowing where life is leading him. What was once taken for granted is then taken from him. Maybe he always had this strange feeling that he didn’t belong in the palace … but does he really belong out in the middle of nowhere?

Then Moses is introduced to God in a wonderfully-wacky-way. In the peace of his established life — a life of solitude and labor — Moses glimpses the Almighty in a scorching bit of shrubbery. The fire begins to talk, and Moses begins to listen.

This is what is called a “watershed moment.” The term signifies a specific moment or decision that changes the course of your life and direction. Moses, sweating from the heat of God’s unexplainable-presence, has to make a choice: heed the word of this foreign-yet-fantastic fern or just shepherd-the-heck out of this flock forever. Going through this “door” would be terrifying and difficult yet ultimately freeing — staying would be easy yet unfulfilling.

When the whisper enters your ear, can you deny it? When the call resounds in your heart, can you stay on the sidelines? Although Moses gave every excuse in the book as to why he couldn’t do this thing God was asking, I picture this conversation happening as Moses was packing his suitcase. He didn’t want to go — he didn’t want to leave what was familiar — he didn’t want to sacrifice what was comfortable — he certainly didn’t want to go back to Egypt to save a people he didn’t even know … but the stinkin’ bush was talking to me, man!

“One ticket to Egypt, please. I’m going to need 3,000,000 return tickets, though …”

***

It is Chicago 1968, and the nation is in turmoil. Racial injustice, political chaos, and anti-war protests have all come to a head at the Democratic Party Convention. It is here that so much fire and anger have marched on the city and ground it to a halt.

Although non-violence is a key talking-point amongst MOST of the protesting groups, there is rage on all fronts. When the police begin to assemble, the temperature in the whole city begins to boil. With one action, one statement, violence breaks loose: 11 dead, 138 wounded, and 2,150 arrests.

The film then follows the trial of “the responsible parties.” Seven seemingly unaffiliated people are on trial for their lives … but is it more than that? Is this an attempt to make an example of anyone opposing Power — to put in place anyone who dares question Authority? This is a watershed moment for everyone involved: back down or stand tall …

It is always eye-opening to see a true-story about something you know very little about, especially something so culturally significant. My wife and I were astounded at the level of scary-but-true facts presented in the film; it will certainly put a little fire in your blood.

Writer/director Aaron Sorkin has revolutionized the art of script-writing … but I don’t think he is bringing the same level to his directing. His movie is entertaining but rarely exceptional. It becomes a balancing act of too many underdeveloped characters.

Sacha Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman) is consistently funny. Mark Rylance (as William Kunstler) is powerful and precise. The real scene-stealer is Frank Langella (as Judge Julius Hoffman) — his every breath is offensive and heartbreaking.

This film can be streamed on Netflix.

***

REPORT CARD: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Grade: B

Comment: A worthwhile and timely message delivered with adequate skill

***

It is Chicago 1927, and the music scene is changing. The consumer is tired of tradition and is now wanting feeling and emotion, so the Blues are on the rise. The inherent tension in that is: the white-populace is devouring this black art form. In some ways, that is great and integrating and expanding … but it is also about money which tends to be callous and cruel. Like the entertainment business today: make me money or make yourself scarce.

Today is a recording session for Blues performer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) and her band. Even as a lucrative artist, she still must fight tooth-and-nail against racial discrimination. As she plays her momentary upper-hand against management and production by stalling the recording, her band meets downstairs to rehearse. Down in the dank and cold, we see and hear musicians bemoan their state and position. If Ma is mistreated as “the talent,” what chance do we have as her “backup”?

It is down in this basement that we see our watershed moment. The trumpeter Levee (Chadwick Boseman) has two options represented by two doors. There is the known-door that leads OUT of the basement (to a world of challenge and promise) — and there is the unknown-locked-door IN the basement (that he is convinced leads to release). Should he leave and pursue growth or stay and fight futility? Shoulda left, dude.

Massive praise is being heaped on Chadwick Boseman for his final role, and I agree it is his best performance. In a career marked by true-but-tiresome roles, this one allows him to go deep into his own character. While I believe he deserves an Oscar nomination, I am still missing something in his performance … something in his eyes. The monologues continue, but the eyes remain the stagnant.

Viola Davis is wonderful again — she never does anything but go ALL IN. I have to say, though … I am not a fan of lip syncing. It feels so distant.

Overall, I was not in love. The direction of George C. Wolfe is common-place and non-descript. The script adaptation was flat. The source material from August Wilson was sharp but a bit narrow. It feels like 2016’s Fences (starring Denzel Washington) … just not as good.

This film can be streamed on Netflix.

***

REPORT CARD: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Grade: B-

Comment: Great performances in a decent movie

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