2 Knock Out Films

So what are they?  Where to Invade Next and Room.  One doc one fiction and both tremendous.

Michael Moore has taken his boat ride to Cuba with 9/11 rescuers who couldn’t get adequate medical care in their own country and find what they need in Cuba, from Sicko, and made that gesture into a film. Did you know Italian workers can get 8 weeks of paid vacation time/year, 5 months of maternity leave, paid, and a 13th month of salary routinely? Did you know that half of the members of corporate Boards of Directors have to come from the workers in Germany? Or that Finland is far ahead of the U.S. in achieving educational goals by spending less time in school, requiring little or no homework, having no standardized testing, and relying on innate curiosity to drive students to learn?

How about Norway’s prisons, even for murderers, where prisoners have apartments with their own keys and freedom of movement as they learn how to become responsible member of society? Or Slovenia’s free university education for anyone, including foreign students? (It’s just one of dozens of countries to do so.) Or the gourmet meals Moore enjoyed in France, 3 or 4 courses, with scallop appetizers and fantastic main courses, followed by cheese and desert, not at a restaurant, but at a middle school? Or the Constitutional right to equity that women enjoy in Tunisia but not in the U.S.?

The list goes on. Moore has gone to numerous countries, not to expose their corruption and failures but what they do right. And they do a lot that we don’t even know about, even though in many cases, the idea first came from here. Penchants for insularity and attitudes of superiority have cost us dearly. Presidential candidates lie about our greatness when most of the industrial world, and beyond, is doing better than we are with such basic issues as health, education and welfare. The film is a genuine eye opener and could easily form the platform base for Hillary or Bernie, if they were brave enough to say we can actually learn from people different from ourselves.

Room is a different kettle of fish. A young woman and her five year old son have been confined to a single room for seven years when the film begins. We learn she’s been abducted and help captive, that her son has no clue what the rest of the world is like. It is, in fact, only the pretend world he sees on TV, and the view from the too high to reach skylight is like the Reality that Plato’s prisoners fail to turn around to see.  But they are not duped by illusions; they are held captive by a pervert.

The film’s power resides in 1) the fact that much of it is told from the pov of the five year old boy who is just beginning to grasp what lies beyond his room, 2) the incredible performance by Brie Larson as the fiercely protective mother of a son whose father is not to be spoken of, trusted, or believed for a moment, and 3) from the totally not fairy tale aftermath to freedom when Joy and Jack, the captives, must contend with friends and family and media that cannot comprehend or accept what these two brave souls have gone through. The film packs a visceral punch far beyond that of most films. It hits at our wounds from childhood and how we are all trapped inside the rooms and stories we are given and create. It forces us to ask how hard are we willing to struggle to escape, what price we are willing to pay, with what risk to body and soul? It’s no wonder Larson is up for an Oscar and very likely to win, but even more, this is a film up for consideration as one of the most painful, probing, disturbing, and emotionally powerful films of recent years.  It operates in a zone far beyond the formulaic dimensions of the otherwise truly best films of the year, Spotlight,  The Big Short and Revenant. And, perhaps because of that, it’s not an Oscar nominee, but it is one  of the most memorable films I’ve seen in quite some time.

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Boyhood: Too Good to be True?

A few years ago, when Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, came out, it got rave reviews and I thought, “If everyone loves it, it is either far too middle of the road or far too heavily marketed.” I was wrong. It’s an amazing novel and that’s a separate post, but I learned my lesson: sometimes the vast majority of critics can be right about the same thing and Boyhood is another example.
The film amazes. I kept saying, wow, they’ve done a great job with make up and special effects, only to pinch myself and say, No, those changes are real. Does it matter? –About as much as the difference between documentary and fiction matters, which is probably less than we often think but enough to be important. Every fiction is a doc to some degree. It captures parts of the world and the life of actors at a given moment. Here the doc degree is quite great. But the maturation or aging isn’t the primary point: it’s how the characters all evolve over time and do so in something closer to real time than we have ever seen in a fiction before. We can each assess each character’s evolution, and I just want to note that Patricia Arquette’s may be the most challenging to assess. She doesn’t get the big moments with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) like Ethan Hawke, his largely absent dad does. Hawke opines about everything to this young boy becoming man, but Arquette keeps the family unit intact and above water, at the considerable expense of frequent moves, prioritizing her effort to become a professor, and surviving some very abusive men. Why is she not a fount of wisdom, however well-intentioned and misguided or self-serving (as Hawke’s often is)? Why is she the suffering, self-sacrificing but also self-advancing mom who doesn’t bond very well with her kids, and even less with her daughter than her son? Linklatter’s Delpy character in his paris trilogy always struck me as a bit strained and I feel a similar lack of deep connection here.
That said, this is a spectacular film. “Problems” with women characters–giving them the density and complexity of their male counterparts–is hardly unique to Linklatter and he does, to his great credit, not make Arquette one-dimensional by any means. It’s just the complexity to Hawke’s errant dad is more overt and engaging, and seems to be where Linklatter’s instinctive energy is most fully realized.
I suspect this will be a film we’ll a lot more about at Oscar time.

The Oscar Boys of 2013

Cate Blanchett is a strong choice for Best Actress, but the Best Actor category is full of strong contenders who all deserve to win. But one stands out.
Bruce Dern: very solid as the cranky old man in Nebraska. He captures the idiosyncracies of someone who never was the brightest light in the room or the life of the party but still commands the love of his son and a mix of emotions from others. His quirkiness and selective memory keeps the picture from going off the rails into the nostalgic or maudlin but the picture leans heavily that way. Not one of Payne’s best efforts. The ironies are far less rich than in Election, Citizen Ruth or Sideways. Dern deserves praise but probably not an Oscar.
Christian Bale: a terrific job as the off-balance scamster in American Hustler. As we might expect, it’s hard to know when he’s scamming himself as well as others and his shrewd playing of others against each other is brilliant. Still, it’s probably not quite as brilliant as the actor I’m leaning toward.
Chiwetel Ejiofor: great role, great performance in a fine, wrenching film. Ejiofor does not play the over the top Avenger or the simmering-inside Rebel, but a dignified man who finds himself in a world where dignity is denied, relentlessly. His expressions of suppressed astonishment and frustrated yearnings makes the movie a true stand out. Would that it were on the global sex traffic in women, teens mainly, that is with us now, but long ago is a bit safer and more nobel as a statement about injustice and abuse. That slight edge of safety may be enough to tilt the Oscar into other hands.
Leonardo diCaprio: here we go again. Marty Scorsese on a delerious whirlwind tour of male misogyny, depravity and greed. DiCaprio captures it brilliantly but he also lights up, like a giant billboard, the repetitious nature of Scorsese’s obsessions. Goodfellas and Casino covered this perfectly and now we have a selfish, heedless huckster who takes Wall Street by storm, makes his millions and learns nothing. A film more about addiction than greed, though that is clearly one addiction, DiCaprio is caught in a paint by numnbers tale that demands little growth or change in his character. In fact, he seems like an addict who never hits bottom and that one-note quality will probably be enough to send the Oscar elsewhere.
Matthew McConaughey: An amazing job as the womnanizing, drug-addled rodeo hanger-on who sees the light and becomes a beacon for HIV infected others, like himself. Like Bale, McConaughey sacrifices his body for the role, losing a huge amount of weight but, more than Bale, pulls out all the stops on a ride to heaven, and hell. His range is breath-taking and we are not hampered by the need to scam the viewer as well as other characters that leaves key parts of the Bale character shrouded in mystery. Like Jared Leto, my choice for Best Supporting Actor, McConaughey takes huge risks and they all pay off. He demonstrates what great acting in a powerful film is all about.
He’s my choice for Oscar, but not necessarily the Academy’s. On that: Ejiofor is strong choice for liberal sentiment, DeCaprio for career sentiment, Dern for hanging in there sentiment, and Bale, for playing the guy everyone in Hollywood’s seen over and over–the scam artist. McConaughey is then a bit of long shot for sheer brilliance in acting. My guess is the Academy will go for Ejiofor and it’s clear all five of these guys deserve it. How about an arm or a leg each?
Final Note: Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey show what great actors can do in terms of adapting themselves to challenging roles. They have become what many thought, including me, Johnny Depp would become: an actor of amazing range and depth willing to do whatever it takes to bring a role alive. Depp has drifted into playing parodies of that idea but Bale and McConaughey show us what risk and reward are all about and on a grand scale. This point is not uniquely mine: the Huff Post had an article contrasting Depp’s descent with McConaughey’s rise on 1/3/14 but I just found it today. That, though, makes two of us wishing McConaughey further success and hoping Depp can pull himself out of the dreck.

12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor steals the movie. With innumerable close ups of his face contorted in anguish at the indignity of not being recognized for who is truly is, Ejiofor brings enormous emotional intensity to the role of the free man who gets thrust into slavery and only escapes, not through heroic feats of daring do but through, essentially, the kindness of a stranger who is willing to risk seeing him for the man he is. It is an implication, then, that those not so recognized and not legally declared free within the United States, ought to be, but they are left behind as Solomon Northup regains freedom and returns to his home and family in upstate New York where they seem to live with a level of comfort that would put a lot of middle class whites to shame even now.
McQueen gave us the frenzied Fassbender as a sex addict completely out of control till film’s end in Shame, and here he gives us Fassbender as a not at all genteel southern plantation owner (did the rural, cotton-economy have a different ethos from the South of the cities; where did that mythic gentility reveal itself?) whose infatuation with a slave woman (Lupita Nyong’o in her first film role) exceeds his love for his wife. Infatuation is no barrier to cruelty, though. Epps, the de Sadean sadist, is always willing to see a good flogging imposed on the slowest of the cotton pickers or on any who appear insubordinate, including Patsey (Nyong’o) when she visits another plantation without his knowlege, to obtain, as she puts it so powerfully, soap. Soap to wash away the smell and grime of slavery. Soap that Epps wife, an avenging fury if there ever was one, denies her.
McQueen is no stranger to intensity. He seems to thrive on it. A hunger strike in his depiction of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in prison; frantic sex addiction in Shame and now the horrific violence of slavery in 12 Years. There is the profound violence of having your identity stripped away, of losing all sense of dignity in the eyes of others, of that great reduction to “property,” and there is also the appalling violence of physical punishment. McQueen shies away from none of it. Unlike the jaded, clever but empty play with generic conventions that are the cruz of Django Unchained, McQueen goes to the historical heart of the matter: what slavery felt like for those who suffered its immense indignities, without cardboard heroes riding to the rescue. Ejiofor deserves enormous credit for bring it all alive with his understated and deeply human performance, a performance that denies the unalterable assumption of his “masters” that is less than they at every turn.
This is a wrenching, disturbing, deeply affecting film and we will probably hear much more about it come Oscar time.