Tag Archives: B

THE WAY I SEE IT

Producers: Dawn Porter, Evan Hayes, Laura Dern and Jayme Lemons   Director: Dawn Porter   Cast: Pete Souza, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David Wheeler   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B+

The stream of vitriol that Donald Trump has aimed at his predecessor in the Oval Office has obviously riled Pete Souza, A mild-mannered fellow who served as the chief White House photographer during the Obama administration (and, earlier, that of Ronald Reagan).  He had long taken the apolitical stance prized by photojournalists, but has now become a strong defender of Obama and critic of Trump, in the process earning—depending on your point of view—either praise or condemnation through his Instagram photo posts, books (most recently “Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents”) and public lectures.  Dawn Porter’s documentary (a follow-up to her recent film about John Lewis, “Good Trouble”) gives him the opportunity to have his say on screen—first the big one through this Focus Features release, and soon the small one via showings on MSNBC (one of the production companies behind it). 

“The Way I See It” is partly a biography of Souza, told with an often wry, self-deprecating tone and helped along by scads of film footage and stills as well as a few comments from his mother and sister, regarding childhood, education, early newspaper and magazine work.   There are also observations about his on-the-job, fly-on-the-wall picture-taking from Obama aides like Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as well as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.  (His years with Reagan—from 1983 to 1988—are handled more cursorily.  But what comes through, via photos like an iconic one of the President shattered by the report about the Iran-Contra affair, is that Souza had a high opinion of him as a man even when he disagreed with his policies.  And the fact that Mrs. Reagan asked him to photograph her husband’s funeral indicates that the respect was mutual.)

His eight years with Obama obviously impressed him.  What comes through clearly, in both his photographs and his words, is admiration for the President as a man (especially a family man), particularly in terms of the exceptional empathy he showed toward those impacted by national tragedies.  One of the most affecting sequences focuses on the President’s report to the nation on the horrendous mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, and his visit to comfort the families of its victims; the photos Souza took of Obama hugging the mother of six-year old Benjamin Wheeler, and the recollection of the boy’s father David, remain heart-rending.  The film also offers extensive coverage of the moving eulogy the President gave at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, the pastor murdered in the Charleston church massacre of 2015.  A sequence memorializing Obama’s continuing concern for a Marine seriously injured in combat, even visiting him at home, is also extraordinarily powerful.

Here and elsewhere Souza emphasizes the genuine human contact Obama made not only with other “ordinary” citizens, especially children—shown in photos he took at the events he and confirmed by those who attended them—but with his own staff, including a health bill staffer whose sons the President made time for and Souza himself.  The President greeted members of the photographer’s family at the White House and even officiated at his wedding (which he encouraged) in the Rose Garden.

More generally Souza applauds Obama’s grace and dignity in office, in both word and deed, and his openness to having the activities of his administration documented so fully and honestly.  He finds a complete contrast in Trump, who apparently allows only carefully staged, “official” photographs and is, Souza believes, doing immeasurable harm to the office by his vulgarity, invective and mendaciousness.  It was that belief that, Souza says, impelled him to shed his reticence and become increasingly outspoken in comparing the two men, first through his popular Instagram postings and then in his books and lectures.  In his view, Obama represented the way a President should behave; Trump does not.           

Some viewers—especially those hostile to Obama—will find “The Way I See It” as hagiographical ; certainly it is fulsome in its respect and admiration, but it does occasionally touch humorously on the President’s foibles—like his competitiveness, which comes out clearly in basketball, as both occasional court battles and one instance when he coached his daughter’s school team show.  Of course, that will hardly be enough for those who seem to despise Obama as much as Trump does; the motives behind such inordinate hatred can only be guessed at, though some guesses are better than others.  It might be noted, though, that the attitude toward him on the part of his former staffers contrasts markedly toward Trump from many who have left his circle, whether voluntarily or otherwise.

In any event, abetted by first-rate work from Porter, composers Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders and Brandon Roberts, cinematographers Clair Popkin and Keither Walker and especially editor Jessica Congdon, who ensures the film’s fluency, Souza, an ingratiating host, presents a strong case for his view that our two most recent Presidents are different as night and day.  It probably won’t change a lot of minds, but will leave those who feel as Souza does longing for a return to the days that prevailed in the Oval Office four long years ago.            

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME

Producers: Randall Poster, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker and Max Born   Director: Antonio Campos   Screenplay: Antonio Campos and Paolo Campos   Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Robert Pattinson, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Michael Banks Repeta, Kristin Griffith, Haley Bennett, Harry Melling, Eloise Landrum, Douglas Hodge, Pokey LaFarge, David Atkinson and Donald Ray Pollock   Distributor: Netflix

Grade:  B

There are no doubt lovely places in the area where the two states meet, but the towns of Knockemstiff, Ohio, and nearby Coal River, West Virginia are locations that—at least on the evidence of the Donald Ray Pollock novel of 2011 from which Antonio Campos’ film was adapted—you might not want to visit.  They were filled with violent people in the 1950s and 1960s, and might still be today.  (Despite its name, Knockemstiff actually exists—it’s where Pollock was born.)  Of course, spending a couple of hours there from the comfort of your living room could be something you’ll want to consider, if you have the stomach for some pretty grim portrayals of folks brought up in the more fundamentalist forms of rustic American Christianity—the old time religion William Jennings Bryan would no doubt have championed.

Tom Holland is first-billed in the movie’s cast, playing a young fellow named Arvin Russell, but the actor doesn’t actually appear until forty minutes or so into “The Devil All the Time.” The first portion of the picture is devoted to Arvin’s father Willard (Bill Skarsgård), a G.I. returning from World War II in 1945 after the traumatic experience of finding a Marine crucified alive by the Japanese and having to put the man out of his misery.  On the way home to his mother Emma (Kristin Griffith) and Uncle Earskell (David Atkinson), he stops at a diner where he falls immediately in love with a waitress, Charlotte (Haley Bennett). 

Emma has other notions about whom he should marry—in fact, she’s promised the Lord he’ll wed Helen (Mia Wasikowska), an orphan to whom she is close.  But that is not to be, and Helen will instead marry Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who comes to town with his wheelchair-bound, guitar-strumming partner Theodore (Pokey LaFarge).  Willard does in fact marry Charlotte, and they settle down with their son Arvin (played as a child by Michael Banks Repeta).  During their years together Willard becomes very religious, but in a private way—he erects a cross on a log in the woods behind their hilltop home, and prays intently there, his son at his side.  He also teaches the boy never to back down from confronting evil, and gives a demonstration when two men speak disparagingly of his wife.

When Charlotte falls ill, Willard and Arvin beg God for her recovery, and Willard even goes so far as to turn to sacrifice, Old Testament style, to ensure it.  But his pleas fail, and he cannot bear to go on without his beloved.  That leaves Arvin an orphan who goes to live with Emma and Earskell.  But he will have company there: young Lenora Laferty (Eloise Landrum).  Her mother Helen had been killed by her husband, who was deluded into thinking he could resurrect her and went on the run when he was proven wrong.  Emma took in Lenora, too. 

As for Roy, her father, he was picked up along the road by Carl Henderson (Jason Clarke) and his wife Sandy (Riley Keough), a serial-killing couple who specialize in giving hitchers a ride, stopping for a picnic and posing victims with Sandy for photos before murdering them.  Carl and Sandy had also met, coincidentally, at that little diner on very morning that Willard and Charlotte did.

Now effectively brother and sister, and played by Holland and Eliza Scanlen, Arvin and Lenora are close, and he is as protective of her as Willard was of his wife, as he demonstrates when she’s mistreated by three thuggish classmates.  His anger is also aroused when naïve Leonora turns for advice to the charismatic young pastor Preston Teagardin (Robert Pattinson), who turns out to be quite a womanizer. 

What follows requires Arvin to leave home abruptly, and whom does he run into on the road but Carl and Sandy?  Their encounter rouses the attention of Sandy’s brother Lee Bodecker (Sebastian Stan), a corrupt sheriff whose dealings with his town’s sleazy boss have already resulted in violence.

As is evident from this litany of sins and sinners, “The Devil All the Time” is a complicated tale.  Fortunately Pollock himself is on hand to serve as narrator, delivering in his crusty drawl not only a continuous rundown on the many characters but not-so-pithy commentary on what they’re up to.  The result, to be honest, doesn’t allow for much more than a sketchy dramatization of the action, which is pulpish to begin with, marked by dialogue more colorful than credible.  But the narrative holds one’s interest as such homespun melodrama tends to do, especially when religion and murder are involved.  (As proof from the same region, there’s “The Night of the Hunter,” by Moundsville, West Virginia native Davis Grubb.  Of course, the film made from it is a masterpiece.  This one isn’t.))

Nor does this sort of ensemble piece invite great acting; but showiness of an entertaining kind is certainly on hand.  The Russell men are rather restrained characters, and so Holland and Skarsgård can’t stand out, but Pattinson certainly thrives on such over-the-top material, and so do Clarke and Melling (as usual, the villains get the best opportunity to chew the scenery).  But everyone does what’s required to draw good, if perfunctory, portraits of characters that haven’t much depth.  The technical side of the movie is certainly effective, with Craig Lathrop’s production design and Lol Crawley’s cinematography of high quality; the period detail is careful, though it doesn’t always look truly lived-in.  Pacing is slow, but that’s more the result of Campos’ languid direction rather than Sofia Subercaseaux’s editing, while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans pumps up the action. 

“The Devil All the Time” is pretty empty entertainment, but it is entertaining—in a rather sordid, guilty-pleasure kind of way.