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Young Israeli soldiers trapped in tank in 1982 invasion of Lebanon
As the 2009 Israeli film Lebanon reminds us, the best historic film finds a nugget of truth in its subject event that applies to the wider historical arc. It makes that moment in human history a reflection of a truth beyond itself. The incident itself becomes a metaphor of greater resonance. In Aristotle's terms, that's where a history achieves the validity of poetry.
Wrier/director Samuel Moaz based the film on his own experience in the Lebanon war of 1982. He was the gunner in a four-man tank unit. As if his psychological wounds were not enough to work out through this project, lingering pieces of shrapnel fell out of his skin during the film-making. That's not in the film.
Shot almost entirely within the overheated, suffocating, cramped, smelly and swampy tank, the film focuses exclusively on the visceral engagement in the war, not on any political issues. And yet....
The film is framed with shots of a brilliant field of blowing sunflowers. The first reads as an emblem of the garden that the Jews transformed the desert into when they planted the Jewish state in 1948. In the last the tank appears at the back of that field, bogged down, unable to move. The garden has become a quagmire. Another Eden is being lost.
The Israeli tank soldiers are of course civilians. At first they exude an impressive efficiency and strength. But the stress takes its toll. One dies. The gunner freezes, unable to shoot, causing unnecessary deaths. The captain crumbles into paralysis. The irascible maverick holds together the best.
As the tank lumbers into the ruins of a town on the first day of the 1982 invasion, it becomes a metaphor for the Jewish state, forced to constant military self-defence since its very inception. Though the tank is invading, its soldiers seem the real prisoners, encased in the attack, helpless to break out of its path, mission and fate.
The smashed town and the scattering of murdered and dismembered Lebanese citizens form half the film's argument against the war. The other half is the militarism forced upon the Jewish state's defenders.
These Israelis show compassion to their enemies. One one soldier covers the naked Lebanese woman with a blanket, her clothes having born away ablaze. The Israelis refuse the Christian Falangist's demand to be given over the Syrian prisoner for his sadistic abuse. The victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre were not thus protected.
One of the film's most dramatic motifs is the shot of a numbed victim staring wide-eyed and accusing at the gunner. In the Israeli theatres that heart-rending stare was at the Israeli audience the gunner was defending.
That battle is over and in history but that war goes on. Israel invaded to attack the PLO, but other animosities erupted as well, tensions that continue in Lebanon unabated. Indeed they percolate anew as Iran spurs Hezballah to wage its proxy war against Israel.
And there is Israel, perpetually besieged however powerful. Its every defensive move is assailed as aggression in the global agora. It's still that impenetrable tank that can't quite move out of the blossoming field that is the state's miracle, that continues to need that defence.
Syrian refugee street boy in Lebanon sues parents for giving him life
This my be the best political film I've ever seen. It's Bunuel's classic Los Olvidados (1950) on steroids. Of course, it's not about politics. But its every fiber arouses fury at the political systems that enable such hell on earth.
In Lebanon a 12-year-old Syrian refugee boy Zain is serving a five-year jail sentence for stabbing the adult man who married and fatally impregnated the boy's 11-year-old sister. Their parents forced her into marriage.
Now Zain is suing his parents for bringing him into a life in which they could not provide for or protect him. He's prompted by his mother's proud announcement that she's pregnant again, adding to her innumerable horde of children, all unregistered, unfed, uneducated, the disdained doomed.
The trial scenes are intercut with the events that led up to it. His father expels Zain for interfering with his sister being sold into marriage. The boy finds refuge with an illegal Somali refugee Rahil. He tends to her infant son Yonas while she works. When Rahil is arrested for her lapsed ID Zain struggles to care for Yonas. He's ultimately forced to let a Lebanese trafficker sell the baby.
For 126 minutes the film displays a gripping sweep of suffering. There is not a moment of drag or boredom. The cityscape looks like a giant warehouse crammed with storage boxes. There is little evidence of any living creatures enjoying any life. The humans we meet are locked into either selfish or desperate improvisations of escape and exploitation. All the actors are unprofessionals living out variations on real experience. If the merciful happy ending seems a bit miraculous, thus witnessing these people' suffering has earned us that relief.
The film is full of images and situations we haven't seen before. In one, Zain draws on his unsteady experience and observation to teach his sister how to deal with her first period. He wants her to conceal so her parents won't sell her into marriage.
When he's forced to steal a bottle of milk from a sleeping baby, Ionas tastes and refuses it, then drops off - it's been drugged. Even the less suffering have their afflictions and desperation.
When Rahil is under arrest, she begs her absent baby's forgiveness when she milks herself in her jail cell, to relieve the pressure. This entire drama is the milk of human unkindness.
In court Zain's parents are allowed their moments of sympathy. Unregistered, unacknowledged, helpless and hopeless, they resign themselves to perpetuating their cycle of suffering. Neither knows the simplest self-respect at even the thin end of the spectrum of white privilege. "We're ants," says the father, so why let Zain go to school when he could be working for the man who will wed and waste the girl.
Of course this Lebanon story speaks to the suffering and torment throughout the world's third world countries, the disenfranchised and the despairing, to which Donald Trump's attack on refugees and asylum seekers has also plunged America.
The film's title means Chaos. But make no mistake: this film is not about the apparent chaos. It's about the World Order so uncaring for the world's suffering as to nourish that chaos.
Two recent news items shadowed my consideration of this film.
(i) Hundreds of millions of dollars have been offered to help the penurious Catholic Church restore its infernal Notre Dame cathedral. Right. Build the edifice and ignore the suffering. That's what Jesus would say. Let a symbol override humanity,
(ii)Disney CEO Bob Iger's salary was $65.6 million in 2018. And that paled beside Discovery CEO David Zaslaw's one-year salary of $129.4 million. Those are one year salaries.
This is the World Order. This callousness sustains the chaos this film exposes so heart-rendingly
Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)
Palestinian nebbish collaborates in screenwriting wth Israeli captain
In Ramallah a contemporary Palestinian TV crew produce a popular soap opera in which the characters set out to change the historic record of the Six Days War of 1967. A Parisian Arab star Tala plays a spy who goes undercover to seduce the Israeli commander, planning to steal his plans for Israel's surprise attack. History did not then set Tel Aviv on fire but this popular TV drama would.
This film is a light-handed but thoughtful examination of the myths and fictions that drive both sides in that conflicted area. The Israelis and the Palestinians cling to their respective histories, which define their present perceptions and impede their warmer human connections.
This is most explicitly dramatized in the debate over whether the TV drama should conclude with a marriage between the spy and the Israeli soldier, now in love with each other. That would allow for another season of drama, salaries, and work, but at the cost of political integrity. Or will the bride blow up the (camouflaged church) synagogue? Spoiler alert: at least in this fiction the inner fiction opts for life over death.
As in myths, the end is latent in the beginning. In an early scene the cast and writer argue over whether calling a beautiful woman "explosive" is romantic.
The film also traces the maturing of the hero Salam, an unpromising fumbler who draws a menial salary by making coffee for his producer uncle, when he isn't stumbling into sets. When Salam tells the border crossing captain Assi he's a screenwriter his lie gradually turns into a truth. That's what myths do.
The Israeli drafts scenes for him, in hopes of impressing his wife, sister and mother, who are enrapt at the drama. Their partnership cracks over the classic distinction between "terrorist" and "freedom fighter." For all their mutual help Assi's seizure of Salam's ID card is a harsh reminder of their imbalance in power and the danger beneath the present charm.
As Salam gains confidence and starts attending to the conversations around him and his own feelings and impulses, he starts to write scenes himself. As he outgrows the Israeli's control he lives out the history of a colonized people growing into independence. As Israel did in 1948.
His new talent and career also win him the girl he loves and earlier lost. He wins her by replaying on screen the sentiments he awkwardly tried to express in life. Art amends the failures in life, as the Palestinians hoped their '67 war rewrite would do.
Captain Assi initially requires Salem to bring him the esteemed Palestinian hummous. Here the drama alludes to the fervid debate over who invented that delicacy, Israel or the Palestinians. Here it's advantage Palestine as Assi rhapsodizes over a junk hummous Salam concocts out of canned hummous long past its shelf life. For the men's climactic reconciliation Salem brings him to the best.
Both warring cultures in the audience may bristle at the odd line, or find a historic nit to pick. But the overall warmth and charm should prevail. Among the various international sources of funding for this project, the Israeli government's film support looms significant.
Israeli family saga studies tension between authority and compassion
As this TV drama was the most compelling and detailed since The Sopranos, I gave it the same kind of episode by episode analysis that I gave The Sopranos about 20 years ago (The Sopranos on the Couch, published by Continuum). My new study is Reading Shtisel.
Lune de miel... à Zgierz (2018)
Newlyweds visit Poland to commemorate Jewish slaughter.
Writer/director Élise Otzenberger gives her Holocaust-observance film a woman's angle. The newlywed couple travels to Poland to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the eradication of the Jews from the small town from which husband Adam's grandfather came. But it's wife Anna, not he, who insists on the trip.
More importantly, the primary healing from the experience is between Anna and her mother. Their relationship begins in mutual abrasion.
When the mother disturbingly pops up in Poland, the eruption turns positive because she brings information about her own mother's past in Poland. When they visit the site of the grandmother's old home the formerly combative women bond over their lost history. The mother establishes a new connection with her daughter through realizing her neglect of her own mother's history. She now imagines what she had failed to learn.
The primary theme is focusing one's identity. This plays out in the framing use of Hava Nageela. Its initial appearance is an instrumental version which - like the Chopin Nocturne that follows - we recognize but have to pause before we Name that Tune. At the end we get the version with lyrics, which asserts its identity. Also,the lyrics make it more bouyant and celebratory, reflecting the two women's growth.
Adam and Anna are both prone to emotional outbursts. Adam bristles from Jewish self-consciousness in that once flagrantly antisemitic country. He's sensitive to others' sensing he's Jewish and belligerently asserts that identity.
He has ample cause, given the apparent monetizing of Holocaust guilt, with tours of Auschwitz advertised in glossy pamphlets, a bus offering tours of Schindler's Factory and school kids touring the plundered remains of Jewish cemeteries. These scenes add a tone of black comedy to the serious issues.
Anna's sensitivity centers on the challenges to her recovering her past. Mainly it's her complete break from her grandmother, her lack of any grip on that history. This need takes comic form when she drunkenly explodes at the fine restaurant's profaning of her traditional meat-based borscht.
For the past is, indeed, another country, as L.P. Hartley observes in The Go-Between. They do things differently there, even when the modern world veers dangerously close to repeating its nightmare.
Todos lo saben (2018)
Family tensions resurface at a wedding abduction
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi established himself as a major director with A Separation, The Past and The Salesman. Each film played an intense drama against the unfamiliar Iranian social backdrop. They forged international sympathies across our borders of political differences and fears.
With Everybody Knows Farhadi takes a quantum leap forward. He wrote and directed what's probably the best Spanish film of the year. With an all-Spanish cast, script, music and culture this gripping thriller incidentally erases differences of nationality. Instead its theme isThe film is unbelievably believable.
Perhaps because that tribalism bridges the two cultures Farhadi feels natural there. He singlehandedly validates that bogey, cultural appropriation. This is not appropriation but an alien culture lived as one's own because it is so much like one's own. That most local of identifications proves global.
When a 16-year-old Buenos Aires girl, Irene, is kidnapped from her aunt's wedding outside Madrid, a pinwheel of dreads, suspicions and seething anger erupts in the family. With her father Alejandro back in Spain, her mother Laura reunites decorously with old flame Paco, who joins the family's attempt to save Irene.
At the heart of the kidnapping and its resolution is a paternity secret that Everybody Knows. I will say no more. As the family try to recover the girl several members feel suspected of abetting the well-organized abduction. In most mysteries suspicions arise from clues, but here they come from decades-old resentments. Suspicion breeds in the atmosphere. The drunk old sire's rantings are their embarrassing expression.
Laura's family resented her love affair with Paco because he was a servant's son. When Laura needed money for Alejandro Paco gave her all he had for her lands, which he and new wife Bea spent seven years turning into prime vineyards. Laura's family still feel they were robbed, both in that land sale and in her father's gambling losses. In a small town decades-old resentments burn like this morning's.
The opening shot reveals the internal mechanism of the old church belfry clock. That's a metaphor for the plot: as time unwinds the cogs of family relationships and secrets inexorably work themselves into a public peal. Apart from its regular operation, it disturbs the order and peace of a wedding service. The orderly progression of time and life is always open to an irregular eruption. As Paco puts it, "It's time that gives character, from personality to wine."
The opening scenes may feel confusing and opaque because we're plunged pell mell into an extended family reunion, where we don't know anyone, or their links. This film cries out to be seen again, if only for the ironies there embedded. One line springs to mind. Paco tells Laura "Every time I see you, you have a different child." "What makes you think this is Alejandro's?" she asks. At that point none of us knows anything.
Whether as a thriller, an anatomy of family relationships across economic and cultural lines or as a director of one national culture totally absorbing another, this is an astonishing achievement.
Iranian laborer sells himself to settle in Denmark
The Charmer is a poignant contribution to the European - indeed, Western - debate on the management of immigration. There are regulations, of course, but there are also basic human needs and aspirations those regulations should be humane enough to accommodate.
Iranian director Milad Alami worked with a Danish co-scriptwriter to detail the damage political systems do to normal human relationships, to reasonable needs and desires.
Hero Esmail is a charming Iranian man who has come to Denmark in hopes of establishing residency. By day he works as a casual labourer with a moving company. He lives in a cheap tenement so he can send money back to his family. A familiar story.
He earns his (i.e., the film's) title at night when he trawls the bar scene, picking up one-night stands that he hopes will quickly convert to the formal co-habitation that will satisfy the Danish government and secure his visitors' status. He's in one when we meet him, but he moved ("fell in love") too fast for the woman's comfort so she dumps him.
The opening scene is mysterious - a blonde woman's suicide. We eventually learn she left her husband for Esmail. When he wouldn't marry her she went back to him. After having sex with him she jumped out the window.
As Esmail learns from Lars, the stranger who joins him in the nightly hunt, his exoticism gives him an advantage over the Danish men. Lars's function is to remind the charmer that his actions are not free from consequences. He also imputes to Esmail his unfair advantage in the sexual arena.
The script carefully frames out his and his family's religion and any subversive political intentions. He simply wants to get his family a better life. That urge and innocence - and the specious terror it encounters - make this film equally pertinent to the theatre around America's Southern border.
Now the spoiler: Lars is the suicide's husband, embittered by his loss to what appears to be an unscrupulous exploiter of women. Also, Esmail can't marry anyone in Denmark because he has a wife and two daughters in Iran, whom he hopes to resettle in Denmark once he establishes himself.
The rigours of the immigration rules makes him use whatever he can to gain residency. The "charmer" might have been titled the "male prostitute." Typical embarrassments occur, like neither party being able to bring the date home or a woman's young son interrupting the act thinking Daddy's home. The run of coarse love never did smooth true.
Before we learn Esmail's marital status we're rooting for his success with the spirited, Westernized, modern Sarah, an Iranian girl studying - unwillingly, "law" - in Denmark. She lives opulently with her mother in the Iranian expatriate community. When that community meet Esmail they reminisce glowingly about the country they fled - and sniff around for signs of his social status. Could he be Afhgani?
Sarah immediately twigs to Esmail's predicament. "Don't hit on my friends." Later, when she is falling for him: "I won't marry you just so you can stay here." But when she decides to marry him it's for her own escape - from her famous mother - and the all-seeing all-judging portrait of her General father, who - whether living or dead - enabled their comfortable transplant.
In the perverse morality of government regulation of lives, Esmail is doomed when he falls in love with Sarah. "This is not how it was supposed to work." He can't just live with her and he can't marry her so he returns home.
He has open emotional reunions with his daughters and father-in-law. But there's an apparently new abyss between him and his wife, who stands apart. "Will you still be my husband?" "If you let me." The modesty in his response bears the hint of confession, regret, tentativeness, enough to cloud her eyes. To recover his life here he will need more than the charm that took him so far - yet nowhere - in Europe.
The character's name obviously draws on two literary references. Ishmael, Abraham's son by Hagar, his first, is the patriarch of Islam. Melville's Ishmael is part of - and our portal into - the madman Ahab's pursuit of the great white whale in Moby Dick. Esmail derives from both, the questor from Melville neutralizing the religious threat from the Bible. Here the great white whale so many seek is the better life democracies have to offer the global oppressed.
The defeated Esmail passes his fine suit on to another man, a younger man, for him to deploy when he sells what he has in Europe in hopes of admission. For the exotic we fear is also the exotic we desire.
Dog-carer avenges bullying
The opening shot declares the film's subject: a powerful raging vicious snarling white beast, strains against the chain preventing his attack.
That elemental topic can be read in the abstract - the existence of Evil in the world - or in human particulars, whether in the individual psyche, the social network or - dare one suggest? - the community of nations, especially today.
The dogman Marcello in a quietly heroic manner tries to clean the beast, to calm him, to cool him. The chain provides his only chance.
Meanwhile, a community of dogs uniformly watch that drama, quiet, dignified, perhaps remembering that wildness once in themselves but now secure and peaceful in their separate cages. Perhaps feeling he still has something to prove, a little chihuahua yips a scolding.
Marcello works his small career - grooming, healing, tending dogs - to sustain his modest life and provide exciting holidays for his young-teen daughter, on the holidays his Ex allows. Their deep-sea diving is a metaphor for his sunken hopes, virtues, away from his dusty village life.
How good is Marcello? He's bullied into playing getaway driver on a two-man burglary. He's given a few modest jewels as his "share." When one of the thugs gloats that he left the victims' yapping dog in the freezer Marcello actually goes back, climbs into the house - and revives the almost dead pooch.
Of course, we expect him to be arrested there and left to carry the can. But that will only happen later. His doom is too preordained to happen early.
In the opening scene Marcello works his civilizing magic on this white beast. He's not so lucky or effective with the village bully, Simone, a hulking cocaine-addicted ex-boxer who terrorizes the community. As Marcello flatters him, when Simone beat up two Romanians it took 10 cops to restrain him.
As in Billy Budd, here an incredibly innocent hero confronts an elemental villainy - and must be sacrificed. The extremities of absolutes and the rule of law allow no compromise.
But - spoiler alert - there are differences. Marcello is innocent enough to believe he can survive contact with evil, even abetting it. He provides the brute Simone with cocaine, despite his irregular payment, even despite his ignoring Marcello's pleas not to take it during the daughter's visit.
He enjoys some rewards from abetting evil, like his coke-driven night at the disco. This compromises him enough that when Simone is gunned down in the street Marcello exhausts himself to save his life. His reward is to become even more profoundly Simone's patsy.
The shooting was clearly on contract. Marcello's besieged community of merchants met to discuss how to handle their common threat. A contract killing was considered, but without unanimous support.
Marcello enjoys that community. He eats with them, jokes with them, plays football with them. "They all like me," he futilely pleads, against Simone's coercion to betray his neighbour jeweller.
Simone forces Marcello to enable his robbery. He promises to make him rich. Marcello suffers a year in jail rather than squeal on his bully. We don't see what he suffers in jail but we see he emerges changed.
Certainly his station has. His daughter and pet dog are happy to see him but to his neighbours he is a pariah. He is banished their games and their bar.
Now Marcello is operating on irrational instincts. When Simone refuses to pay for Marcello's prison time, he batters Simone's motorcycle. Not a wise move, for he can't support that rage. Simone beats him up even worse than before. That turns the worm.
Marcello used to talk to his dogs as if they were people, sweeties to be wooed. Now he treats Simone like a dog: flattering him, baiting him with coke, luring him into a cage, then locking and chaining him up.
What he wants is unclear. As if to recover a dignity he never had he requires an apology. He wants his sacrifice recognized and rewarded. At one point Marcello and Simone seem locked in a mutual death-grip. In effect, Marcello only appears to escape.
After killing Simone, Marcello abandons his plan to burn the corpse. Instead he lugs it to the football field - in deluded hopes of winning back his friends. But they're not there.
In the last shot Marcello sits alone, the corpse on the ground, in the crudely patterned field, having achieved his personal revenge - but at the inevitable cost of his freedom. Where the title initially referred to a man who cares for dogs it ends up with a man reduced to one. As Billy found and accepted, the pack won't readmit its maverick.
Før frosten (2018)
peasant farmer loses soul to survive
This harsh, elemental story dramatizes a Danish freeholder farmer's hard-scrabble struggle to survive in 1850s Denmark. "Before the frost" ends up meaning the urgency man has to prove himself as he approaches the big chill, death. That moral imperative shadows all his worldly drives.
Cow Jensen (named for his deft hand with cows) lives in constant urgency. At the beginning he rushes to complete the harvest. Then he rushes to bring in the hay before the rains rot it.
Add the vertical urgency to maintain his social status. After he's forced to sell his cow Merna to feed his family, the church deacon - who represents the civil as well as religious law and order here - moves him back a pew in church, because of his reduction in possessions and status.
Jensen is a widower, responsible for his blossoming daughter Signe and two young nephews, Peder (about17) and Mads (about 6). As his crops fail and his resources and prospects dwindle, he negotiates Signe's marriage to Ole, the neighbour's strapping young son Signe likes. That procures a new cow and a share of Ole's father's pension. But it fails to secure his nephews' future, so Jensen looks beyond.
The rich Swede Gustav wants to buy a swamp portion of Jensen's land to cash in on the new "white gold," sugar beets. Mads and Peder have never tasted sugar. Jensen initially rejects the offer because he needs the land to feed his cows. To Gustav's manager, Jensen's rejection of the deal shows he knows more about cows than about business.
Jensen proves otherwise when he breaks his deal with Ole and proposes a sweeping sale to Gustav: all the land, the cattle, the barn home, but also responsibility for Jensen, his nephew labourers - and marriage to Signe.
The deal closes with a shady rider: the old home will have to be burned completely and the hefty insurance payment turned over to Gustasv. The family moves in with Gustav to prepare for the wedding. The boys get their own sparse rooms. Signe learns to play a classical piece on the piano, a step up from helping her father deliver cows. Jensen gets to wield authority over the workers. But this family doesn't name its cows.
The story shows the way one dirties one's hand in getting ahead in life. Arguably Jensen's hands are never cleaner than they are when he shoves an arm up a cow to help deliver a new calf. After he washes that one up, he sinks into the swampy trenches of social advancement.
In the final scene the severely soiled old farmer is dressed more finely, boasts a better seat in the church - ostensibly closer to the alter, deacon and God - and he's the happy father dancing with his beautiful well-dressed wife at her wedding. Signe radiates joy, transformed by her new station and life.
But Jensen's face is a freeze of moral paralysis. The feet are bouncing but the face is stern. His ambition, proper for a father, has severely compromised his soul. Gustav's prim and stately mother puts a gloss on the murderous consequences of Jensen's deeds: "The things we do for our children."
Dick Cheney expands presidential power against the constitution
Cavils have been raised against this film. There may be some factual errors (e.g. Richard Armitage, not Libby, leaked Valerie Plame Wilson's secret agency). Inadequate attention is paid to what most dramatically distinguishes Dick Cheney from Donald Trump: Cheney's insistence on expanding American influence abroad, not abandoning it.
But this is a movie. It's not a biographic essay or a character analysis. It's a story that uses the historic particulars of Cheney to reveal a truth beyond his specifics.
So the title is not Vice-President Cheney. Its focus narrows to Vice. That can be read at least three ways. One, it abbreviates the title only to enlarge the character's role. It excludes "president," as Cheney elbowed George Bush out of key presidential authority (military, energy, foreign policy) as a condition of becoming his running mate.
The title also refers to the vice-like grip that Cheney thus put on American government, especially by promoting the argument that the president stands above the law. As Nixon argued wistfully and Trump insists urgently, If the president does something, whatever it is, however illegal, it can't be considered illegal because the president did it.
Third - and here the film shows its political point - that argument is a vice, a crime, a sin or weakness, because it flies in the face of the US constitution which the Founding Fathers developed to escape regal tyranny not to create one. That is the film's key thrust and clarion call to current concern about the American government.
At several points writer/director Adam McKay dramatically reminds us that he is not passively recording a reality but purposefully telling us a story.
He reminds us the film is a film. Thus he runs end-credits in the middle, as if Cheney's story/life (and the film) stops at his retreat from politics into Haliburton.
Even more dramatic, his Dick and Lynne perform a Shakespearean, indeed Macbethean, dialogue on a married couple's lust for power. This right after the film's narrator has said he/we have no way of knowing what the Cheneys were thinking and saying between themselves at the time. This openly privileges story over history. It reminds us we're watching a constructed story not real life.
That's also the point of the later interruption of the real end-credits. A focus group breaks into a fight over the political bias of this film. These are the facts, one man insists, only to be rejected as a libtard by the Trumpist. By definition, both are right. The key point is that here McKay states that he is telling the Cheney story to express his own current political perspective.
That also explains Kurt, the narrative voice the film uses and occasionally shows. He's a veteran of the Afghanistan war, now living a working class life in Cheney's America. He's the victim of the Haliburton government. Not till the end is he identified -the man whose heart is transplanted to save Cheney's life.
Speaking from the grave - as the Founding Fathers do if we respect the Constitution - Kurt is hurt that Cheney refers to Kurt's heart as his own. Cheney doesn't respect this donor any more than he respects the workers and soldiers, always preferring the Haliburton class. Denying the heart of the American constitution - as Cheney here and Trump outside do - betrays an absolute lack of heart in considering the rights and liberties America's founding vision promised.
At Eternity's Gate (2018)
Van Gogh's aspiration and last days, from his perspective.
As one might expect of a painter, Julian Schnabel's take on Vincent is from within the artist. Hence his subjective views of the fields, of the artist walking, of the sun-dappled trees, and the artist's direct representation as a voice over the empty/full black screen. The shots of Vincent walking in the fields are far longer than the shots of his actually painting, because that art is a journey - as much away from the mundane as into the dense layers of the work.
As Van Gogh says, his painting is a compulsion, his gift from God, what keeps him alive and sane, and a refuge from thinking and disintegrating.
As the title suggests, this is the artist as spiritual seeker. In Van Gogh's interview wth the pastor two religious systems collide: the authority's institutional, mediated experience of the theoretical divine vs the visionary artist's personal, direct experience of the divine in nature. The pastor finds the painting ugly because its energy is alien to him, as is the direct, unmediated passion of the visionary. The pastor is only used to the simple surface of nature, not its meaning (for which he prefers The Book).
The full screen shots of the pastor show a wan, subdued landscape. He is sensitive, caring, humane, but unable to fathom Vincent's alternative dedication and experience. His conventional religion is learned but not sweated out to the point of fainting and hallucinating, as Vincent's is.
In virtually all these scenes of Vincent painting, he works in darkness.The brightness is in his interior vision, his apprehension of the divinity he alone feels connected with. The "real" sunflowers here are skeletal shadows of the blooms that live ablaze in the art.
That's what makes this film a valuable addition to the sub-genre, Van Gogh films. The narrative materials are by now familiar to all. What's new here is the artist Schnabel's attempt to articulate and - more importantly - show the springs and fruit of Vincent's distinctive perception, which is religious as much as aesthetic.
The Unorthodox (2018)
Orthodox Israeli printer campaigns of political equality.
This very engaging, touching story takes us down two interweaving rabbit holes: a spectrum of Israeli orthodoxy, social and religious, which layers citizens according to their historic origins - Sephardic, Eshkanazi, Mizrachi - and the compromises that idealists perforce make in venturing into effective politics. Though the referents are specifically Israeli, the exposure of political maneuvering is clearly global.
What's most Israeli is the tension between the religious and the secular. Hero Yaakov's political awakening begins in a domestic issue: his daughter is expelled from the seminary on apparently false charges of excessive worldliness. The allegations of a slit denim skirt and a TV in the home are fake news.
That personal injustice drives the hero into politics. His personal campaign grows into a municipal movement. That success leads to a campaign for the Knesset. Each success breeds new problems, as the stakes rise.
Another campaigner softens into lay sentimentality when he hears The Bee Gees. More seriously, a shortcut in name-taking threatens the entire revolution. A campaign contribution melts into an apparent bribe. The need to succeed opens into the thuggery of bare-knuckled politics, within the parties as well as between them.
The title works two ways. Its initial register is the religious, where there is a profound conflict between the isolation of the Talmudic scholar and the need to become politically active. But there is a parallel tension between the purity in political orthodoxy and the temptation to compromise its idealism - in order to become effective. That's where the winners lose.
Creed II (2018)
Rocky helps Adonis Creed avenge father Apollo's fatal defeat.
The new Rocky franchise movie doesn't open on the Rocky world but in the Ukraine. It focuses on the defeated Russian Ivan Drago and his bigger-chip-off-the-old bloc son Viktor. Coming to see a Rocky flick we're jolted to start in Drago's world. But then we're not living in the original Rocky's world either. America is no longer the America - Nam war America - in which Rocky first taught his lesson that sometimes you don't need to win. It's enough to survive.
Present America has nothing of the hope, integrity and purpose that marked even that fractured America. As America seems outside "America" this chapter starts in Kiev.
The strain of being outside is arguably the film's driving theme. We meet Adonis Creed as he's winning the heavyweight boxing title. But he feels no security in that No.One ranking, because he's immediately challenged by Viktor, son of the Drago who a few movies ago killed Creed's father Apollo.
Rocky himself is always outside, hoping to come in. We hear him before he walks on camera. The three-step climb into the ring is momentous, he intones. He lives a solitary life in a plain Philly apartment, with only Adonis to care for him. He lives like he lived at the outset, a loner, tossing his ball, crumpled hat and slouch. He owns a restaurant (Adrian's) but he comes in at night to punch the dough - that's all he kneads.
Rocky has three emotional climaxes in the film: (i) the birth of Adonis's daughter, his god-daughter; (ii) Adonis beating (spoiler alert) Viktor; and (iii) his own, long-alienated son greeting him at his door with "You want to come inside?"
Here everyone wants to come inside. Adonis feels twice compelled to fight Viktor because he has no other connection to his dead dad. He takes Rocky's initial refusal to train him for the ill-advised fight as a personal betrayal, a father's expulsion. In the (yeah, maudlin but hey...) graveyard scenes Rocky and Adonis soliloquize a connection to a dear departed. They need to feel in their dead family member's presence.
As it happens, Adrian remains a stronger presence in Rocky's life than Drago's wife is. She deserted her husband on his loss and repeats that when son Viktor seems about to lose.
Adonis's sweetie Bianca is a partially deaf professional singer. Their born-deaf daughter starts another kind of outsiderhood. But her mother and - thanks to Rocky's tutorial on fatherhood - her father will totally embrace and include her.
Bringing in the excluded extends to the actors as well as to the characters. In addition to Rocky and the Creed family, the resurrections include Dolph Lundgren as Drago dad, Brigitte Nielsen (Stallone's Ex) as Drago's Ex, and Milo Ventimiglia as again Rocky's son Bobby.
Paradoxically, our climactic sight of Rocky has him contentedly on the outside. His boy Adonis is in the chaotic ring celebrating his triumph. Rocky sits in ringside, taking it all in from a lower distance, detached, his back to us with "Creed" emblazoned on his jacket. Not Rocky but Creed. His ego is content, His creed has won another. He's not in the ring because he has nothing to prove. Except for his suspended fatherhood.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Six Western tales reflect upon contemporary America
The Coen Brothers revive the tradition of using the Western film genre to reflect upon contemporary America, especially its relationship to its core ideals and history.
If one thing sets this work apart from the traditional Western it's its wordiness. Against the reticent Westerner, here babblers abound - the poetic Buster, the crazed banker, the "dramatic reader," the tediously compulsive prospector and trapper. This Western occupies a time of noise and verbal profusion. Like today.
Also against the genre grain, the film opens on high comedy that unwinds into the tragic. The comic is the hero and the mortal doom the sidekick.
Otherwise, the six episodes draw on the genre's most familiar icons: the innocence of the white-garbed singing cowboy, the criminal individualist ennobled by vigilante "justice," the American aspiration to and detachment from European "culture," the settler's (here miner's) violation of his idealized Nature, the hazards of the wagon train's spread of civilization through the savage wild, and finally the ambivalent "glories of civilization" revealed in a stagecoach trip to salvation (in the 1939 Stagecoach the journey went literally to Lordsburg). The film's parables start in America's political Now but move toward the universal.
The eponymous opening story records the death of American innocence and power. That's the meaning of the all-white dressed singing cowboy, freshness and innocence but preternaturally gifted with lyric and gun. This is the pure America that supposedly was. But as the gunslinger myth always proves, "Can't be top dog forever." So here the invincible hero perforce trades his spurs for the angel's harp and wings. The ghost of the innocence of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry - the ghost of the America that led the world in democracy, humanity and idealism - gives way to a new, more pragmatic and corrupt power. Pause for reflection indeed, as Buster uses a mirror to take a backward shot, and again to discover his own mortality, despite his astonishing effectiveness in his world.
Buster's nemesis, a black-garbed gunslinger, segues into the matching villain in the second story. In a setting of Beckettian simplicity and despair, he robs a crazed teller in an isolated bank on the creaking prairie. But for this model "hero" his destiny proves Absurd. His lynching is interrupted by an Indian attack, then by a bypasser, who only leads him to be lynched again for rustling. Anticipating the film's last scene, the brief anticipation of a romantic salvation is curtly killed. That last black joke follows on the series of comic killings in the Indian attack and the irony of the stretched rope in the first lynching.
The third story carries the film's heart. It centers on a travelling entertainer, a promoter who tours the west with a pop-up show of "Dramatic Readings." His "Meal Ticket" is a legless and armless young man who recites, rivettingly. His opening poem is Shelley's "Ozymandias," where a legless, armless torso discovered in the desert celebrates the global conquest of some lost king, now reduced to dust. He ends on Prospero's valedictory epilogue, "Our revels now are ended," while his manager passes the hat - to a dramatically diminishing audience. In between come the story of Cain and Abel, Shakespeare's sonnets 29 and 30, and Lincoln's Gettysburg pledge that "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Right.
As Buster liked to call himself a singing bird, the reciter here is "Harrison, The Wingless Thrush." As his Shelley bemoans "the decay of that colossal wreck," the Shakespeare enables him to "beweep his outcast state," yet still feel equal to the richest kings. The tour initially celebrates the frontier's hunger for culture. But winter comes, the audiences dwindle, and that classic culture is supplanted by a conman who offers more sensational entertainment: a chicken that purportedly does math. Harrison's partner is gulled into paying big bucks for the chicken (Fake Math?) and dumps the lad who embodies America's highest aspirations, for which grasping limbs are unnecessary.
In a variation on that theme, in "All Gold Canyon" the film celebrates the glorious abundance of American nature - only to pock it with a prospector's hunger for gold and a young criminal's attempt to rob him. The prospector switches between singing "Mother Macree" and apostrophizing "Mr Pocket," the spirit of the gold he craves. The humans pass but the glorious nature persists, defiled but surviving its insentient plunderers.
"The Girl Who Got Rattled" provides an alternative example of people reaching out to each other. The two-man team of wagon train leaders become involved with a naive young woman when her brother, a dogmatic, headstrong failure, dies of cholera, leaving her helpless in the wild. The younger man Billy wins her hand, but the older man unwittingly leads to Alice's death by handing her a desperation refuge from abduction and rape. Alcie found her brother Gilbert's "certainty" oppressive and inadequate to the times. She accepts Billy's preference for "uncertainty," the pragmatism and openness required to navigate the world's dangers. Alice kills herself because of her premature certainty that her guardian is doomed.
The final episode continues that moral dialectic. The stagecoach passengers exchange conflicting views of human nature. To the cynical trapper, people are all like ferrets. To the sermonizer's wife, people can avert sin, exercise virtue and sustain selfless love. The French sophisticate takes a broader view, positing moral relativism against the others' absolutism.
The audience for this debate are a couple of bounty hunters, the one a diverting storyteller (like the Coens) and the other the effective killer. The latter's ballad of romantic betrayal makes poetic expression and storytelling instruments of justice. Significantly, it's the cosmopolitan pragmatic who cockily closes the door on his fellows' fate.
Fascist forces destroy widespread love and trust
In adapting German author Anna Seghers' 1944 novel, Christian Pertzold strips out all specific references to Naziism. The French setting is explicit but the time setting is left open. The clothing and buildings are contemporary but without our cell phones this could be anytime, anywhere. The "cleansing" of "illegals" here is fascism attacking humanity. It could be in Marseilles in 1942 - or Washington in 2022.
Against a backdrop of government raids, public murders, terrifying sirens, a citizenry bent upon or suspected of serial betrayals, honour consigned to whispers and the shadows, the narrative unfurls as a series of touching, intense personal relationships. For a suppressed and doomed society, there is a lot of love here.
Despite being warned that his friend is "dragging you down," Georg tries to smuggle out his stricken friend and doesn't leave him till he's dead. Georg drifts into a friendship with the dead friend's young son, Driss. Their street soccer blossoms quickly into a surrogate fatherhood that leads to double heartbreak when they're parted.
Georg's attempt to deliver two letters to the outlawed Communist writer Wiede opens into another complex of emotional connections. Wiede killed himself in despair at his wife Marie's leaving him. But her abandonment may have been out of political necessity and selflessness. She still loves him and wants to reunite. She's falsely encouraged by the embassy reports that Wiede is proceeding with their plans to emigrate to Mexico. They, of course, are deceived by Georg's having found himself slipped into Wiede's identity.
Marie is involved in another love affair with the dedicated paediatrician Richard. Though he feels bound to emigrate to start a hospital, he can't abandon Marie. But she can't leave off her commitment to recover her husband. As she and Georg find themselves drawn to each other, she agrees to leave with him only because she believes she will find Wiede on board. Georg tells her he's dead but can't bring himself to explain that he is now the "Wiede" she's confident of meeting.
That is a lot of love. In such a troubled time, a time of such brutish, unnatural assault upon human rights, normal conventions no longer apply. Richard, Marie and Georg form a romantic quadrangle that only confirms her commitment to Wiede. The writer's suicide may have been out of despair, but Richard's and Georg's sacrifices of their love for Marie are heroically selfless.
Of course even their virtue is doomed. If the evil of tyrants doesn't get them, there is always their malevolent aid, Destiny.
The ending is open. We don't know if Driss and his mother Melissa made it over the mountains. Melissa being deaf and dumb means her young son has massive adult responsibilities. His doom is imaged in his face being constantly shot in shadow. In losing Georg Driss loses his last hope of being just a child.Their old room briefly filled with immigrants reveals another bunch of driven, doomed souls.
Melissa being deprived of speech is a metaphor for the period's political silencing of individual voices, the government's poisoning of communication. Her antithesis is the range of story-telling in the film. The woman in the street and the hotel manager both "tell" on Georg.
The film's sudden introduction of a third-person narrator confirms that narrative is a theme of the film. Wiede's last work becomes a relic of a lost culture, freedom and spirit of resistance. So, too, the refugees compulsively unload their own personal stories. They confirm their existence - for now.
Under such horrible political conditions we make up stories to hide ourselves - like Georg's embassy claim - as "Wiede" -to retire from writing. Or a fiction is devised to impose some meaning on a broken life. Thus the dog-keeper gussies herself up and has one last splash, a luxury evening dinner with the possibility of romance around her - before mid-cigarette diving to death.
The narrator's intervention may also suggest Georg did not make it over the Pyrenees either. He can't tell his own story.
But the film ends open. We don't know what happened to any of the characters. We can assume the worst. But Marie's last appearance could raise the hope of a miraculous saving - or it's a manifestation of how Georg remains haunted by his thwarted generosity.
In any case the film closes on a musical eruption consistent with the film's refusal to be rooted in any one time period: the Talking Heads' trip on "the road to nowhere."
These characters' lives reveal a reality distant from the security Georg recalls from his mother's nursery song, in which a range of animals find their way to their homes. Here there is no home, no secure emotional roots, despite the proliferation of people needing and committing to emotional relationships. Here the fascist government has stripped all lives of security and warmth, leaving everyone in - transit. And indeed, it's a pretty sick transit, Gloria.
The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
Colleagues and critics circle round dead master's unfinished film
A blessing - another Orson Welles feature (i.e., masterwork) to live with over the years, to re-experience at every opportunity and to grow into and along with over time. Sure, 50 years after Welles's filming, other hands finally put it together - but those hands knew Welles, knew his aspirations and instincts and know the medium. We can read Welles in it.
On my first viewing, my first take is the bookend it forms with his titanic debut, Citizen Kane (1941). Welles's curtain call plays off his bow, his valedictory off his arrival.
Both films start with the death of a famous, powerful man. Both films explore that character's enigma. In both the apparent power is revealed to conceal a vulnerability, a weakness. Kane's aspirations ultimately fail his need to achieve any reconciling grace or satisfaction. Long after he lost everything, he loses everything.
The film's lesson is that we can never know Kane - or indeed anyone - on the basis of biographic facts and experience. We're all unfathomable enigmas - which we take pains to remain.
So even when we "know" what "Rosebud" is - whether it's the sleigh we see in the film, or the psychological implications we can still within the narrative impute to it, or the flowers place in our poetry, or even that it was Hearst's private term for Marion Davies's pudendum, as outside research teaches us - we're no closer to knowing Kane. Or anyone. The fire that identifies the burning sled kicks up a thick obscuring smoke, not light. That is, the illumination is a deception.Similarly, in the earlier projection room scene the heads project dark shadows not light. (And similarly unsettlingly, Joseph Cotten appears in the scene and speaks but not as the character he portrays). The film closes on the same dark wire fence and sign that brought us into the film: "No Trespassing." The film let us in only to remind us we're left outside.
In this last film as in that first Welles deploys an unprecedented command over his own expansion of film rhetoric and devices. However expansive the medium's growth the Maestro could still deploy it in inventive ways. As a newsreel triggers Kane, here Jake Hannaford's unfinished contemporary feature triggers a documentary about its ambitions and disappearance.
Some cast members evoke the Welles career, most notably Paul Stewart - the secret bearer in Kane, is a similarly wily Costello here - and Mercedes McCambridge, still a forceful gangleader, promoted from Touch of Evil. Lilli Palmer evokes the latter's Dietrich.
Welles deploys the wide range of film stock, sound and colour resources, the narrative liberty (chaos?) well beyond what the new bloods of the '70s were doing. Some 30 years after his initial mastery and innovation, the old guy struts that swagger again.
As the film world raved about the new maestro Antonioni's ground-breaking Zabriskie Point (1970), King Orson would have reclaimed his throne with this fascinating pseudo-documentary around an obvious parody of that film. Welles resets that particular film - and its culture - into an exoskeleton that's like the hall of mirrors in A Lady From Shanghai. We see everything clearly but the mystery of perspective and reflection denies us certainty.
In addition to the new technology, the '70s cinema also gave Welles unprecedented freedom to show nudity. The inner-film footage predominantly deploys the nude beauty Oja Kodar, Welles's last companion. The cast credits identify her only as "The Actress," but she's also named as Welles's co-writer, presumably of the inner film. She's more than just a pretty bod.
The abundant nudity plays in several ways. Welles clearly embraces its new freedom in film. But for all Welles's creative energy here, the blatant sexuality makes it feel like an old man's film. It recalls Picasso's late period of urgent, graphic sexuality - like an old compulsion recollected furiously in tranquillity.
The sexuality also defines Jake Hannaford's central enigma. Motorcycle actor John Dale evokes the success of Easy Rider and the doom of James Dean. Hannaford is himself reputed to hide his homosexual desires by seducing his actors' women. As played by the gruff John Huston, Hannaford is the Man's Man director, the Hemingway of the screen. The insecurity in this character's maleness appears in his outrageous humiliation of the homosexual.
While that scene feeds the current condemnation of Hollywood's sexual power stricture, the film remains an open-ended, spiralling mystery. All the hints and eruptions don't settle anything.
Again, Kane's signature metaphor was Susan's giant jigsaw puzzles. Isolated in the mansion she spent her life piecing together little bits of a large picture. That represents the jumble of pieces the questing journalist came up with on Kane - and left us with in the "No Trespassing" concluding dark.
Having reached The Other Side of the Wind we've again been blown through a tumult of resonating and conflicting lament on life and illusion - no better in the knowing but richer by the mystery.
I'm already looking forward to next time.
First Man (2018)
The humanity and heroism of astronaut Neil Armstrong
On the level of plot the title refers to subject Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon. The level of theme points elsewhere: The man precedes and predominates over the astronaut.
From beginning to end the film puts us into Armstrong's life, his experience. First as a father, his heart broken by the cancer death of his little daughter, then living a dedicated, stoic model for his young sons. The older son's handshake shows the promise of his manhood., Then as a husband - sorely testing and relying upon his oak-strong wife. Finally, as the professional, disciplined, dedicated, steady even as his friends die on their parts of their mission.
Ryan Gosling gives Armstrong a profoundly sunken emotional life, feeling deeply but all expression virtually buried. But for one outbreak, he keeps his head about him privately as well as professionally. His job interview for the Apollo mission is the most revealing since Judge Kavanaugh's.
The film reminds us how human our heroes are. Their losses, suffering and demands upon them and theirs make their successes so much more impressive than those of the superheroes. That makes this film so much more engaging and emotionally illuminating than the abstractions of Kubrick's 2001.
Finally, this film very much addresses the American moment. That was the Kennedy future. There's a sad nostalgia in harkening back to an American government that respected science, that propounded lofty ideals and that embraced America's responsibility of giving the world political, scientific and moral leadership.
For me three moments stand out. One is the repeated scenes of the capsule spinning wildly out of control, Armstrong manfully trying to recover its stability. That's the true American, of the great America, trying to bring stability to chaos, in the lab as on the globe and beyond. The good old days.
Then there's Armstrong's rationale for the space exploration program: "I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it'll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it'll be more the fact that it, allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But, just haven't been able to until now." His craving for the fullest possible perspective upon mankind and the universe is so at odds with today's willful ignorance and tribalism.
And the last shot. Armstrong and his wife have been through so much that separated them - even beyond the shattering loss of their child - that their reunion still carries a chill. They have so much gap to cross. In the quarantine room they can only play at a touch, through a glass darkly, a gathered pain between them. It's the perfect end to a story of heroism so dearly bought. And an America so sadly lost.
Les frères Sisters (2018)
Two sensitive brothers resist their brutalizing gunslinger careers
A Canadian novel, filmed in Spain and Romania, co-scripted and directed by a French director, not surprisingly casts an acerbic eye on an American cultural tradition. Here it's the toxic masculinity mythologized in the American Western mythology.
It starts in the title. The brothers begin as their family name, Sisters, but are driven by their abusive father into a patricide, then into the hired guns' violent cycle of deaths in life. Their colleague John Morris is similarly driven from gentleman to outlaw by his abusive father. The Commodore is the visible father figure, despatching his young men to kill until they are killed.
Extending the theme of brutalized sensitivity, the town of Mayfield is owned and tyrannized by a gruff-voiced, masculine woman, Mayfield. If we didn't know the actor is named Rebecca we'd take her as a man in drag.
The Sisters' mother has also done very well running the family homestead on her own, ready to blast away any attacker and even her own sons if they are coming to hide from the law.
The sons' homecoming is an explicit homage to the opening and closing shots of Ford's The Searchers. But unlike John Wayne's Ethan Edwards, these gunslingers can come in from the cold frontier desert; they can recover their civilized roots.
Her sons personify delicacy abused, a feminine nature struggling to survive their violent pattern of life. Eli is the more obviously sensitive, as he treasures a woman's gift shawl, chafes at his murderous career, and reaches out to others - the prostitute, the scientist, brother Charlie - with a reflexive tenderness.
But Charlie may still be the more sensitive. After all, he carries the burden of patricide. He finds an outlet in the bravado of his drinking and killing, but he still whimpers in his sleep, even after pretending to, to trick Eli. He also pays the greater price, limb wise.
The dark-skinned scientist Herman Warm is the most feminine male character here. The utopian society he plans to establish - in (of all places) Dallas - is sensitive, generous, caring, free of profiteering and power systems. Its appeal not only converts Morris form his mission but drives him to accept his father's inheritance, to dedicate to that cause.
Morris and Eli share another sign of the creeping civilizing of the wild macho west. They are both introduced to the toothbrush, a radical encroachment upon their macho strut and breath.
Is "toxic" too strong a term for the Western's macho spirit, under attack here? Not when you attend to the most dramatic metaphor in the film. Herman Warm's system is to pour a corrosive acid into the water, then stir it, to expose the gold nuggets beneath. But that acid also eats away the flesh, if the men aren't fast enough to wash it away. Charlie loses an arm and a hand to it, Warm the flesh on his legs and finally his life.
America's macho swagger may have delivered it some fortune, but only at the cast of flesh, blood, humanity. The lesson sticks.
There are no African Americans in this film's wild west, though there's a possibly racist sneer in citing one "Sanchez." The delicate Warm is played by a Pakistani rapper, Riz Ahmed, possibly evoking contemporary Islam. Director Jacques Audriard frames his vision of contemporary America very specifically here. His subject isn't the racial divide but the high cost of violent male privilege - not just to the nation but to the trapped individual soul.
Le retour du héros (2018)
Shrewd woman resists fraudulent coward
This comic romance is set in the early years of Napoleon's heyday. The First Empire asserted France's new authority against Europe and promoted a new aristocracy, however seediy it seemed compared to the past.
Against that heroic backdrop Captain Neuville plays a cowardly fraud who abandons his unit in war, abandons his fiancee, then returns to pretend to a false heroism. How rotten is he? The other stagecoach passengers can't bear him. Yet the entire society succumbs to his ridiculous bragging. The hard headed businessmen beg to be conned by him.
His moral antithesis is his fiancee's older sister, Elizabeth Beaugrand. She and her family seem straight out of Jane Austen. The heroine stands apart in wisdom, insight and character against a family and society of silly, greedy fops. Even her sister's naive innocence betrays a sordid appetite.
But Elizabeth too has indulged in fraud. To spare her sister's despair Elizabeth writes her loving letters in Neuville's name, maintaining his pretence to care and creating a heroic, widely successful version of the cowardly failure. Later she unleashes a series of schemes to defeat him, stopping only when his danger threatens death.
Like so many Benedicks and Beatrices before them, the sprightly snipers end up together.
For all the film's putative reference to its historical particularity, its satiric target ranges far more widely, of course, beyond 19th Century France, even beyond contemporary Europe. For, alas, the rampant spread of false honour, the seduction of the gullible, the grab for power by individuals or by states on the basis of false pretences - that is all quite too common in the current world. And that - not 19th Century France - is this satire's target. Fake heroes.
Private Life (2018)
disappointed couple fails to conceive
This wonderful, intense domestic drama has topics, conversations, relationships perhaps never shown before in American cinema. As it traces a fractious couple's arguments and struggles trying to get a baby, it provides rare insights into tensions in a marriage and in its larger community.
The couple's dilemma is embodied in gynaecologist Dr. Dordick: Will the conception be by doctor or dick? The latter having failed, a range of alternatives are suggested, rejected, then tried, then lost. (Happily, the film is far too sensitive and tasteful ever to stoop to that level of vulgarity or silliness.)
Professionally as well as conceptually, the couple have been disappointed in their lives. They live in a small flat in a pre-gentrified NYC neighbourhood.
Richard was a brilliant off-Broadway theatre director until his company expired. Now he sells pickles in a market. He keeps an old Village Voice rave review at hand. (He has only one testicle.)
Rachel is a writer between books, long obsessed with having a child. This is American brilliance, defeated. The intellectually rich, down at its heels and its mouth.
And yet they end up representing American entitlement. For all their inabilities, failures and disappointments, the couple persists unbowed in their quest for parenthood. They feel entitled to become parents, no matter their limitations, their failures.
Indeed, that quest seems to have become their only bond. Their quarrels and their compromises circle around that subject. They seem to have no other connections. They've had sex only once in the last year. They alternately erupt, then retreat.
That obsession makes this modest couple a possible personification of American exceptionalism. This makes the intimate family drama a microcosm of America. Its confidence sapped, its limitations overwhelming, its promised solutions futile and illusory, it stumbles along in dream after dream, defeat after defeat, unable to acknowledge and to accept that some successes are simply not theirs to have. Their deluded quest for their Eden leaves them suspended at Appleby's.
A Star Is Born (2018)
Old star fades as protege rises
The key line comes early: "A Jon Peters Production." Bradley Cooper's new film closely adheres to the previous Jon Peters version, the one with Barbra and Kris. Very closely. Only out of discretion was this not titled Another Jon Peters Production, Another Star is Born.
Ally's leggy version of "La vie en rose" evokes Judy Garland sufficiently for Cooper to have cut her "Over the Rainbow" from the film (it's still in the credits). His Jackson Maine replaces Norman Maine. But apart from these homages the '76 version weighs more heavily than the '54 on this update. (The March/Gaynor nonmusical is out of it altogether). Bradley looks and sounds like and plays Kristofferson. Ally has Barbra's nose-concern. The score is updated but kindred.
The plot still works. That's how art works, recombining familiar, basic elements, as Jack explains the elemental power of the 12-note core of music: "Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave - 12 notes and the octave repeat. It's the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That's it."
The songs, lyrics, music and overall production deserve their warm reception.
But I find the acting plaudits overhyped. If there are any proper Oscar performance nominations here they are Andrew Rice Clay as All's father and Dave Chappelle as Jack's friend. They feel real and new to them. The others make only marginal departures from their familiar personae.
Lady Gaga is a pleasant and impressive surprise, but she remains an image not a fully-rounded new character. To remember what an Oscar-worthy "performance" might be, check out Emma Thompson in The Wife. That is a nuanced, intense, deep apprehension of a character on another level altogether. That's "acting." Lady Gaga was excellent, but more as a surprising presence than as a fully realized new "being."
In my favourite irony, when Ally - in Jack's view - sells out and accepts her new manager's showbiz glitz over her simple sincerity, she lets herself be remade into - Lady Gaga. On that SNL show she perfectly matches Alec Baldwin's persuasive "performance" of himself.
Cooper makes his Jack the centre of this film more than James Mason or Kristofferson were. He gives himself the more fully detailed backstory, with his problematic dad, sibling rivalry and debilitating afflictions.
When his addictions are described as a "disease" the film is more attuned to our understanding than the 1950s. But the old puritanism persists when brother Bobby assures Ally it was all Jack's fault. A disease isn't the victim's fault, remember? There's more balance in Jack's tinnitis, the other physical affliction that he fails to address and treat.
I show my age here, but this fine film doesn't supplant the Garland-Mason one. I hope it encourages younger audiences to check that one out. It may be time "to let the old ways die," but it's also the time to revive the best old art.
The Bookshop (2017)
Courageous widow starts bookstore in fishing village
"No-one ever feels alone in a bookshop." This film revives literature and the literary culture/business as an agent of community. That makes it a bracing alternative to our current world's creeping tribalism.
When widow Florence Green revives an abandoned, decrepit heritage building to serve as her home and bookshop, she attempts to bring both the old and the current culture to the isolated East Anglian fishing village. As she is welcomed by even the non-readers, the community shows a general decency.
But that is in effect outweighed by what Coleridge ascribed to Iago: "a motiveless malignity." The primary villain is social leader Violet Gamert (the Violet feeling displaced by the Green), the ineffectual lawyer and banker, the traitorous Londoner Milo North and the unseen nastiness that drove Edmund Brundish to become a recluse. We don't know what drives all that malice; it's just there, an ineluctable element in the social fabric in that village as in nations.
Brundish and Florence are drawn together specifically by Ray Bradbury's dystopian vision of a world that forbids books, Fahrenheit 451, and Nabokov's controversial Lolita, which at that time fired up the book-banners. The first valorizes the old culture and the second heralds the new. Indeed, just the bookstore scenes recall the vanishing species of ... bookstores!
This film aspires to the condition of the novel. There is a voice-over narrator, unidentified until the end. At least one sequence revives specifically the epistolary novel, advancing the plot through an exchange of letters.
Some scenes evoke literature, like the pseudo-Edwardian party that Florence enters ill-fitted in her - not red but "deep maroon" - dress. Marooned she feels. The school scene evokes Dickensian cruelty. There are even interludes of novel-like landscape shots, that establish the setting, their metaphors of natural beauty and strength left unverbalized: the trees, the ocean, the blowing tides of a wheat field.
Florence's emotional beach scene with Brundish seems straight out of the Bronte tradition he loathes. Here he comes out of his isolated self to try to help his new friend resist Mrs Gamert's high-level political machinations.
The angry politics may win here, but our defeated bibliophile leaves an impressive legacy. Little Christine - the wild-haired precocious little schoolgirl - picks up her mentor's mission. Her first action may be destructive. But she outgrows her impulsive violence to advance Florence's legacy: a large, successful bookstore run by the wild-haired woman she converted to read. One last irony: Will this magnificent woman survive the Amazon attack on independent bookstores?
So Lolita works beyond recalling the prominent literary scandal of the day. The allusion establishes a contrast between the two girls. Christine may have Lolita's precocity in understanding and appeal. But where Humbert leaves Lolita as a prosaic defeated housewife, all her allure lost, Christine emerges as a strong, self-assured, competent woman of the world, reviving her mentor's empire of literature, continuing her campaign.
Our reflex assumption that this film is yet another of the Brits' attempt to relive their lost glory takes another shock. This film is written and directed by the Spanish Isabell Coixet. But that's what literature does: it bridges cultures as it could the classes.
Who Will Write Our History (2018)
Doc and recreated scenes describe the archive of Warsaw Jewish life under the Nazis
Who Will Write Our History
USA, 2018, 96 minutes
Jewish life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto was remarkably recorded and preserved by one history teacher, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, and his cadre of dedicated friends who created the Oyneg Shabbes (i.e., "Joys of Sabbath") Archive. It comprises 60,000 pages of writings, posters, announcements, photographs, product labels, doodles and other memorabilia. This film is based on historian Dr. Samuel Kassow's book on the archive. Dr. Ringelblum's project undertook to record the minutiae of the Jewish people's lives in Warsaw, from their prewar cultural richness, through the suffering under the Nazi occupation, to the tragic defeat of the uprising. "Will the Germans write our history," he asked, "or will we?" Leaving it to the Germans would have left the Jews to be eternally defined by German propaganda. The intention grew from recording the day to day lives of the Jews in Warsaw, then detailing the gathering storm of persecution, and finally providing evidence for the postwar prosecution. The amassed material was buried in three caches in a cellar bellow a cellar. Recovering the two we have was like an archaeological probe under the ruins of Warsaw. Ironically, a church spire was used to locate the right ruins. Throughout the film, such poetic moments ruffle the wash of horrors. Though this film is commonly labelled "documentary," it actually interweaves documentary footage (in black and white) with dramatic reconstruction of scenes (in colour). Polish actors play the historic figures, with American actors (e.g., Joan Allen, Adrien Brody) doing the English voice-over. The actors read the diaries from the Archive, but they're still actors playing roles. That certainly does not diminish the realism of the drama, nor its significance and emotional impact. The film was shot in Poland, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Its languages are English, Polish and most pointedly Yiddish, the momma loshen threatened with extinction. It was written and directed by the American, Roberta Grossman, who has worked in film and TV documentary for around 30 years. Her titles include In the Footsteps of Jesus (2003), Women on Top: Hollywood and Power (2003), Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action (2005) and Hava Nagilla: The Movie (2012). Her own career suggests she may have found some identification with the character who brings us into the film's world, from the opening narration to the epilogue: Rachel Auerbach, a Warsaw social and arts critic whom Ringelblum persuaded to stay in Warsaw to help run a soup kitchen. There's a curious touch in the title. Dr. Kassow's book asks the question that inspired Ringelblum's project: "Who will write our history?" The film drops the question mark. For now we know the answer. The Oyneg Shabbes heroes managed to write the history. This film passes it around. We should also observe how timely this history proves to be. It appears when Poland has been attempting to evade its historic responsibility for the Warsaw horrors. Worse, it recalls the kind of racist dictatorship that seems to be stirring itself back into life today.
Eighth Grade (2018)
Introverted teenager struggles to connect in smartphone alienated world
There are so many beauties in this heart-breaking glimpse into contemporary adolescence.
It opens on Kayla's YouTube video - a halting advice to kids to "be yourself." Whatever that is, however to be it, that is the mystery engaged. These videos afford Kayla the appearance of confidence, self-knowledge, poise, success, in which her real life falls short.
Kayla's day begins with her following a make-up instructional video to put on her face. Only then does she video herself waking up ("Ugh!!"). In scene after scene we watch her facial acne gradually reappear under her fading make-up. The film is about preparing a face to meet the faces that we meet.
It's also an anthropological record of the smart phone generation. The teens seem constantly plugged in, whether it's Kayla at dinner or in her bed or the snotty Kennedy and her friend together/apart in the school halls. This constant connection betrays a tragic alienation.
Kayla's scenes with her "shadow," the four-years-older Olivia and her friends, replay that dynamic at another level. Olivia needs Kayla to be "cool," "awesome," to confirm herself. Riley's backseat seduction attempt is a harsher version of the needy pretending to be strong. Kayla's humbling there ends her YouTube pretence to grace.
Her crush Aiden is the wouldbe bad boy, with his cool swagger, mouth-farts and rep for demanding sexy photos. Happily, Kayla abandons her training to give blow jobs and instead settles into the more civilized dinner party with Kennedy's much nicer cousin Gabe. Over chicken nuggets and fries, across a long dining room table, Gabe and Kayla self-consciously attempt something so old-fashioned, a conversation.
This wonderful scene balances the pool party where they met. Kayla didn't want to go to the party that Kennedy didn't want to invite her to. The insistence comes from Kayla's father and Kennedy's mother.
At the party Kayla's slow approach to the pool conveys her excruciating fear, her sense of inadequacy, indeed shame. Her disastrous bathing suit emphasizes the inferiority she feels around those carefree, buoyant beauties. Only Gabe shows any interest in her. He challenges her to a breath-holding competition, then shows off his pool handstand. Their dinner date is a hopeful parallel to this scene.
As Kayla's second "time capsule" box suggests, the struggle for a confident identity doesn't end at any point in school - or any time soon after, as we elders know. Kennedy's mom's apparent interest in Kayla's dad suggest these needs and ploys continue past puberty into adulthood, if not indeed adultery.
As the film examines Kayla's age-appropriate self-centredness we don't learn much about the other characters. In her scenes with her father he tries to connect and she snappishly rejects him.
They finally connect when he helps her burn her old box of dreams. Sensing her despair, he pours out his own emotions. He recalls his old fears about how he would raise her when her mother left them. He tells Kayla how much he loves and respects her and how confident he is in her ability to handle herself. She leaps into his embrace.
This connection should sustain Kayla - until her next everyday challenge.
Para Aduma (2018)
Radical orthodox Jewish leader rejects daughter for emerging emotional independence
Red Heifer would be a more appropriate title. It would replace the implication of bovine insentience with the tribal impulse to eliminate - the ennobling euphemism is "sacrifice" - something natural but irregular. That murder nominally serves the socially constructed "natural".
The obvious victim is the freakish red heifer, which is to be sacrificed on Rosh Hashannah to fulfill some biblical injunction. It will be killed, then burned, on the grounds that something unusual must be killed to protect the rather proscriptive version of God's nature.
The other - more central - victim is the 15-year-old heroine Benny whose emerging sense of her lesbianism and increasing political awareness alienate her from her widowed father, Joshua. The first shot fills the screen with Benny's cascading blonde/red hair. This introduction defines her in sensual, luxuriant terms. This is the natural beauty that here evolves into her lesbian passion, her sympathy for the pent and doomed heifer, her need to escape her father's strictures and her own inhibitions. In the first shot she is starting to emerge from sleep (i.e., girlhood).
There's another coming-of-age twist here. Joshua leads a radical movement against the Jewish ban from Temple Mount. As the film is set on the eve of Itzhak Rabin's assassination, it prefigures Israel's national shift of consciousness from its initial harmony into a new, internal violence.
When Benny ultimately flees to Tel Aviv to make her own life amid that liberal modernity, where poems crop up around the corner, her personal quest reflects Israel's potential shift away from archaic rituals into modern humanism. In contrast, the heifer stays put in its pen, even after Benny has offered her freedom. The question is whether Israel will turn modern or revert to its harsh orthodoxy.
Though the woman director properly focuses on Benny, she makes Joshua an equally intriguing figure. He was widowed at Benny's birth, so perhaps has made her too important a figure in his life. There are shots where his gripping her hand seems too firm. In naming her Benny he has made her his son (Ben) as well as daughter. In that spirit he lays the ritual teffilen with her, a rite not normally accorded women. He is remaking her in his image.
Joshua admits to her his unfulfilled longing since his wife died, confirmed in his early morning cold bath in the cave. After his bath he first covers his privates, then puts on his skullcap, then his inner talles, then his pants and the rest. That order reveals his total commitment to religious propriety.
He seems to have invested his emotions entirely into his religion and its political extension, to the point of violent radicalism. This fires his rejection of his daughter's sexual identity. Because his religious and political extremism has overridden his human values, Joshua rejects his daughter's lesbianism and independence.
He also expels her lover, Yael, the troubled teenager he brought into the community for therapy. She has been cutting herself, for the pain that briefly penetrates her emotional numbness. Joshua punishes both girls for their love, the girl recovering from emotional detachment and his daughter's awakening.