Films I Neglected To Review: Thomas Speaks!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/31/20 12:25:04
Please enjoy short reviews of "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words," "Goalie" and this year's programs of Oscar-nominated Live-Action, Animation and Documentary short subjects.
No doubt spurred on by the critical and commercial success of the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary "RBG," "Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words" appears to have been designed solely to give her fellow member of the Supreme Court a similar shot at big-screen glory with a film aimed squarely at audience members who share his own conservative viewpoints. Considering the fact that he has been somewhat of an enigma since his contentious appointment to the court in 1991--he has rarely given interviews over the years and his reticence towards asking questions during oral arguments before the court is legendary--there may well a certain curiosity factor for viewers on both sides of the political spectrum to hear him speak for himself at last. Yes, Thomas speaks throughout the film, for which he sat through roughly 30 hours of on-camera interviews with filmmaker Michael Pack, but as the film goes on, it becomes painfully clear that he isn't really saying anything of note. The film is clearly meant to chart the political and personal evolution of a man who grew up facing racism wherever he went--even during a brief and abortive stint studying for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary--and who went from being a self-described "lazy libertarian" to a left-leaning Democrat to becoming arguably the most famous black conservative in America. That sounds interesting enough but the film does not do a particularly good or compelling job of charting out that evolution in an especially insightful manner--Thomas doesn't seem interested in offering anything beyond surface details and Pack seems equally uninterested in pushing him for any deeper thoughts on his evolving attitudes. Likewise, when the film gets to his Supreme Court appointment and the confirmation hearings that became a political flashpoint when he was accused of sexual harassment by a former colleague, attorney Anita Hill, Thomas once again offers up the old soundbites about being the victim of a "high-tech lynching"--even comparing himself to the falsely accused character in "To Kill a Mockingbird"--while Pack refuses to challenge him on any aspect of the story that doesnít jibe with his version of it. That is probably not that big of a surprise since the entire rationale for the film appears to be to give Thomas the chance to present his story without having to worry about explaining or defending anything that he doesn't want to talk about (the only other person besides Thomas who is interviewed is his second wife, Virginia). For some viewers, that will be more than enough, though even they may prefer to simply wait until it airs on PBS this May. Others, hoping for something a little more than mere hagiography, are more likely to find "Created Equal" to be a frustratingly opaque look at a frustratingly opaque man and his equally clouded legacy.
On the ice, hockey goalie Terry Sawchuck was an undeniable legend--throughout a 21-year-long career, 14 of them with the Detroit Red Wings, he played on four Stanley Cup-winning teams, and racked up more games played, games won and shutouts than any other goalie at that time. Off the ice, however, things were less rosier as the pain from his inevitable professional injuries (including over 400 stitches) combined with depression and alcoholism and led to abusive behavior towards his wife and an early death at the age of 40 following a dumb and seemingly minor brawl with a friend. "Goalie" tries to present viewers with a soup-to-nuts depiction of Sawchuck's entire life, beginning with his hardscrabble childhood in Winnipeg that saw him traumatized by poverty and the deaths of a littler of puppies and his beloved older brother, to his various trials and tribulations on and off of the rink. The trouble with Adriana Maggs's film (which she also co-wrote with her sister, Jane) is that it bounces so relentlessly from one incident to the next in an effort to cram everything in that none of it really sticks. As for the hockey sequences, which are likely to be the draw for most moviegoers, they have been rendered in a drab and unexciting manner that pales in comparison to a television broadcast of a typical game--it just assumes that viewers will know what they should get excited by instead of generating any of it themselves. Mark O'Brien and Georgina O'Reilly, married in real life, are okay as Sawchuck and his long-suffering wife but they fail to make any lasting impact while Kevin Pollak, as Red Wings GM Jack Adams, at least has some fun with an equally underwritten role. Although far from a sentimental take on Sawchuk's story (it does begin with his autopsy as a doctor checks off a litany of prior injuries), "Goalie" is little more than a deeply flawed attempt to grapple with his legacy that will leave hockey fans and neophytes alike wishing for something more.
As has been the case for the last few years, programs compiling all of the films nominated this year for Oscars in the live-action, animated and documentary short subject categories, both to expose these films to a larger audience than they might have otherwise received and to allow viewers to possibly get an edge while filling out their Oscar contest ballots. The Documentary program includes "In the Absence," a half-hour film from South Korea that explores in relentless detail the 2014 sinking of the MV Sewol--a disaster that claimed over 300 lives, many of them schoolchildren--and the fallout from the investigation to both the disaster itself and the pitiful emergency response that only made things worse. "Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If Youíre A Girl)" is an engaging 40-minute look at a school in Kabul that teaches girls how to ride skateboards as an outlet for living in such troubled times. "Life Overtakes Me" (which can also been seen on Netflix) examines a mysterious phenomenon that has cropped up among the children of refugees who have relocated toSweden thatís finds them entering coma-like states for months at a time. "St. Louis Superman," produced under the aegis of MTV, follows Bruce Franks Jr., an African-American rapper and activist as he is elected to the Missouri House of Representatives from Ferguson, the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement. "Walk, Run, Cha-Cha" recounts the story of Paul and Millie Cao, a Chinese couple who fled persecution in Vietnam to Los Angeles and who are now taking lessons in ballroom dancing, an activity that had been banned under the communist rule of their home country. All are good (though "Walk, Run, Cha-Cha" is perhaps a little too long for its own good) but the best of the bunch is the dramatically and visually fascinating "Life Overtakes Me," though "In the Absence" is a strong runner-up.
In the Animated program, there is "Daughter," a visually striking stop-motion work from Russia in which a young woman sifts through memories from her childhood while struggling to reconnect with her estranged and gravely ill father. "Hair Love," which is probably the most familiar title of the group thanks to its placement before screenings of "Angry Birds 2," tells a sweet story of a young black girl who is forced to employ her father's help in figuring out her hairdo for a very important occasion. "Kitbull" is perhaps the most traditional-minded film of the bunch in the way that it tells the story of a stray kitten who hides out from a storm in a junkyard and befriends the abused pit bull that lives there. "Memorable" tells the story of a painter who has been stricken with Alzheimer's and finds large parts of his once-familiar universe slowly reduced to paint-like goo. Taking place in the early 1990s, "Sister" finds a Chinese man offering reminisces of his experiences with his troublemaker younger sister that lead up to a gut punch of a finale. Outside of "Kitbull," which is cute but not much else, this is another strong category but my favorite would have to be "Memorable" for the way that it finds an inspired visual motif to help fully communicate the themes of the narrative.
As for the Live-Action program, "Brotherhood," the longest of the films on display, centers on a Tunisian farm family thrown into upheaval when the eldest son returns home from fighting in Syria with a mysterious new wife that causes his parents to question which side he was actually fighting for in the first place. Also set in Tunisia, "NEFTA Football Club" is a charmer about a pair of young brothers with a shared love of soccer who happen upon a donkey in the desert wearing headphones and with a load of drugs strapped on its back--suffice it to say, the two kids have markedly different ideas of what to do with their newfound bounty. Back in the USA, "The Neighbor's Window" centers on a New York couple, both frazzled by the necessities of parenthood, who are driven to distraction by the sexy activities of the new couple who has moved into the apartment building directly across the street from them. "Saria" depicts a real-life event that occurred in Guatemala in 2017 involving a pair of sisters stuck in an orphanage who join with their fellow charges to both survive life inside and perhaps escape to a better one in America. Belgium's "A Sister" is a taut 16-minute-long thriller involving a call center operator who soon realizes that the seemingly nonsensical responses from the woman on the other end of the call are actually a disguised cry for help. Again, there is not a real dud in this group but I kind of have to go with "NEFTA Football Club," largely because of the nifty and very funny final twist that it offers up.