Recommendations for this happy final quarter of 2016!

Hello again! Since this year is winding down, I’m going to make some movie recommendations (or rejections) based on films I’ve seen in the past year. I’ll start with suggesting several movies I saw at the cinema:

Love and Friendship (2016)

I LOVE Whit Stillman. And Jane Austen is Jane Austen. Both are witty, observant, and pointed, so Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s novella Lady Susan (confusingly named after another one of her obscure works) had very high chances of success. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a believable and marvelous villain, manipulative, self-righteous, and decked in gorgeous period costumes.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Taika Waititi has been another recent obsession. Boy (streaming on Netflix) is funny and touching, and What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious. Wilderpeople is a rollicking adventure about a foster child (Julian Dennison) who escapes into the New Zealand bush along with his crotchety foster father (Sam Neill). Lots of humor, a soundtrack with an ’80s vibe, and loads of wild fun.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Civil War manages to balance numerous superhero characters with a legitimate debate about whether these powerful people should be subject to international governing. Of the many characters, the smooth and driven Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the very young Spiderman (Tom Holland) stand out.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

I was reluctant to give more money to the Star Wars franchise after the prequels, but I still watched The Force Awakens in the movie theatre. At first I was frustrated with the derivative storyline, one that ostensibly picked up years after the original trilogy ended. In spite of the continuation not quite making sense, the movie eventually won me over due to the spirited and likable new characters.

Suicide Squad (2016)

While this superhero adaptation received an incredible amount of hate from critics, I ended up seeing it twice, enjoying it more the second time around. The second half occasionally devolves into an incomprehensible mess, and there are clumsy moments. Still, I enjoyed this cynical redemption story of sorts as well as its music video aesthetic.

That’s all for now, folks! I’ll come back with another short list in the near future. Cheers.

Hiatus

Even though I only started this blog a few months ago, I am unfortunately going to have to take a break from filmvivant. I will at least try to stay on Twitter, and I might still write the occasional post. Feel free to keep following! I just wanted to let everyone know why I’ll be posting even more sparsely than usual. I’m going to try to take advantage of an opportunity that recently emerged. Though it would be nice to keep this up, realistically, I need to devote more energy to this particular project. Thank you for visiting! 🙂

 

Reviews of Blue Car (2002): Disturbing views of abuse

Blue Car, directed by Karen Moncrieff, focuses on Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a teenage girl who struggles at home but finds an outlet in poetry. Her English teacher encourages her talent, offers a shoulder to cry on, and crosses a line of intimacy with a student. Meg is pretty, white, and blonde, and the subject resembles a Lifetime movie. Her poetry falls short, except perhaps her final piece. However, the film’s quiet portrayal of a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders rings true.

Thankfully, some things have changed since 2002, when the film Blue Car was released. Slowly, the public has become more knowledgable about abuse. The many reviews of the movie at its time of release, mostly written by men, display the ignorance at the time. Many of the critics expressed an inordinate amount of sympathy for the abuser, displaying a fundamental lack of understanding about the mechanisms of manipulation.  Some men decried the film for depicting abuse at all, saying it painted men and particularly male teachers in a bad light.

Of course, a number of the myths espoused in the reviews still exist. For example, even though the Entertainment Weekly review describes Mr. Auster the English teacher’s attentions to be dangerous, a later list of David Strathairn’s best roles describes Auster as both a creep and a hero. Moreover, it calls their relationship “mutually exploitative.” I’m going to reveal much of Blue Car‘s plot by pointing out the offense in calling a situation in which a fifty-year-old teacher has sex with his teenage student mutual in any way. (Her age is unspecified. Most sources say she is eighteen, but the actress was fifteen when she was cast.) Auster knows Meg has little money, an overworked mother, a recently deceased little sister, and a father who separated from her family during a divorce. Still, the writer at EW apparently holds them equally responsible.

Stephen Holden’s review in The New York Times focuses more on Mr. Auster’s psychology than Meg’s, seemingly identifying and sympathizing with him just a little bit more: “Faced with a young woman as dependent and adoring as Meg, who radiates a confusing mixture of innocence and sexual heat, he can’t resist the temptation to play God.” It’s a bizarre description of Meg. Even if she were openly flirtatious and precociously sexual, this would not justify Auster’s behavior. It would simply be a young woman exploring her sexuality. Meg herself is shy and quiet. She wears baggy clothes and only tries to dress up once Auster starts giving her attention. He approaches her, picks her up when she walks home, and requests that she share lunches with him. Holden’s choice of words suggests that all beautiful girls with crushes radiate a “sexual heat” that confuses poor old men.

The most offensive review I surveyed was written by a woman. I foolishly assumed a more acute take on the scenario would be found in The Austin Chronicle, but its writer Marjorie Baumgarten continues the trend of feeling sympathy for Auster, who, like Meg, supposedly “suffers from loss and self-doubt and is in need of support and encouragement.” Baumgarten also severely downplays the scene in which Auster has a sexual liaison with Meg. The director calls the moment “awkward and awful.”

It is actually a rape scene disguised as uncomfortable sex. Not only has Auster exploited an extremely vulnerable student, he takes her to a motel and attempts to have sex with her without any romance or preparation. He asks if she’s okay a few times, but she is clearly nervous and certainly does not enthusiastically consent. Eventually, she can only cringe in discomfort, and he finally stops. His expression might reveal guilt or shame, but he makes no attempt to comfort or apologize to her, even when she silently turns away from him on the bed.

Baumgarten outrageously characterizes the scene as a mild mistake that encourages character development: “Danger is recognized and averted, a few moments too late, perhaps, but still within enough time to rectify the course. … Although emotionally precarious, the moment is not a fatal collision, just a large bump in the road that leads toward Meg’s maturation.” Just because someone stops sexually assaulting someone does not undo the sexual assault. The betrayal Meg faces is heartbreaking. It is a tribute to the character, not the situation, that she handles her life as well as she does.

It was then refreshing to read The Washington Post review in which Stephen Hunter gives Strathairn credit for “how badly [he]’d like to beat Mr. Auster to a pulp.” He gives Meg credit as the story’s hero and observes Auster’s entitlement and weakness: his “sickest and most fundamental lie is to himself: that he cares, that he only wants to help.” Roger Ebert also points out how, “by maintaining a position of power and then overpraising her work, [Auster] gets inside her defenses.” He likely appears to be more well-intended than he is because the whole situation “must be within the twisted terms of his own compromised morality.” As Ebert says, “He is rotten in an everyday way, not in a horror movie way–and that makes him much more frightening.” He concludes the review by lamenting the high MPAA rating for the film, which he considers a cautionary tale.

Sexual predators must take responsibility for their actions. As much as our society outwardly condemns sexual abuse, we tend to extend forgiveness to the perpetrators and downplay the victims’ pain. These articles are perfect demonstrations of victim-blaming,  filled with myths about power dynamics and the intentions of abusers. We need to counteract these stereotypes in order to remove the enormous burdens that are placed on survivors of abuse. Blue Car is a sad and familiar movie about a young girl, struggling with too much, and an older authority figure who hurts her because of his monstrous self-absorption.

The jolly Poppy: ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ (2008)

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky stars Sally Hawkins as the silly and tender-hearted Poppy, a thirty-year old elementary school teacher. She giggles at everything, including pain, and can be both obnoxious and charming. This optimism makes her incredibly brave. She is the type of person who says “yes” to life, comforting her angry students and approaching homeless men in the middle of the night. Poppy has a few wonderful friends, particularly her housemate, who are on the same wavelength as she is, but a number of people say that her attitude is dangerous and immature.

One of these people is her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Their initially funny relationship plays off of their starkly contrasting personalities before turning into something darker. Though the descriptions of Happy-Go-Lucky suggest a lighthearted romantic comedy, it is instead a theatrical slice of life, Mike Leigh style, and includes some disturbing elements. The piece is not a gripping thriller, but it is a generally pleasant and memorable way to spend a couple of hours.

 

Brian De Palma’s bizarre ‘Passion’ (2012)

In spite of striking aesthetics and a terrific performance by Rachel McAdams, Brian De Palma’s Passion becomes irrevocably silly and confusing. This remake of the French film Love Crime features Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), a young advertiser, who shows promise and grows closer to her beautiful boss Christine (McAdams). Christine is cutthroat and manipulative but also inviting to anyone she takes a shine to or needs. Though perhaps we are supposed to see her through Isabelle’s eyes, the “heroine” does not seem much nicer. Neither of them is satisfyingly developed as they vie for power in the advertising world and struggle over a mutual lover. While the first half of the movie is intriguing and elegant, the second half devolves into a melodramatic thriller which is more head-scratching than mind-bending. I have not seen the original film, but I recommend it in hopes that it surpasses the remake.

A tale of survival: The Way Back (2010)

A guard in a gulag announces, “It’s not our guns, or dogs, or wire that form your prison. Siberia is your prison… Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.” It is 1940, and a young Polish man Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who has been sent to a gulag meets the friendly Khabarov (Mark Strong), the hardened “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), and the violent Valka (Colin Farrell). Eventually, a group of prisoners escape, only to face their true captor, the harsh landscape.

Based on a dubious memoir by Sławomir Rawicz, The Way Back features stunning scenery and remarkable displays of human resilience. Thanks to Janusz’s survival skills, he leads the men through the forbidding tundra to Mongolia. From there, the prisoners must cross the Gobi Desert and venture into the Himalayas.

Director Peter Weir has an original touch, even with more straightforward works. The gulag is as stark and detailed as the nature scenes are gorgeous and haunting. Harris, as a tough old American, gives a particularly good performance, as do Strong and Sturgess, but the appearance of Saorsie Ronan as a young woman who joins them feels forced, perhaps to add sentiment.

Most of the actors speak with false accents, the potentially intriguing characters are not wholly rounded, and the movie is too long. Ultimately, the conclusion does not measure up to its powerful premise. The film remains believable because of its ostensible status as a true story, but the story might not be true at all. Still, for those who can stomach both tension and slowness, The Way Back, with its lovely soundtrack and striking setting, is not a bad film.

 

The 15-minute ‘World of Tomorrow’ (2015)

If you’re in the mood for an animated sci-fi short, you should watch Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, available on Netflix streaming and Vimeo. A little girl (Winona Mae., Hertzfeldt’s niece), referred to as Emily “Prime,” receives a message from her future clone (Julia Pott). The future Emily takes tiny Emily through her personal memories and explains how humans attempt to prolong their lives through cloning and digitally uploading their consciousnesses.

Future Emily describes her eerie world in a manner more akin to a robot than to a human, but she still feels and falls in love. Granted, it is mostly with the non-human–she loves a rock, a fuel-pump, and a strange alien–but her emotions are real. Because Hertzfeldt created the story around Winona Mae’s adorable, nonsensical ramblings, Emily Prime comes across as sweetly oblivious to and amazed by Future Emily’s divulgements. Animated with stick figures and rich colors, the Academy Award nominated World of Tomorrow is worth a look.

 

The truly beautiful ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2010)


Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an ode to the Chauvet Cave in France, a cavern that harbors prehistoric art. Herzog narrates the film in his raspy voice, nearly whispering with reverence. The interviews, the light on the walls, and Ernst Reijseger’s gorgeous, sacred score all attempt to convey the significance of this discovery. The devout tone might strike some as too serious, but, as the movie unfolds, one understands why the filmmakers are struck with such awe.

The movie is not without its mischievous moments. Herzog concludes the film with crocodiles and interviews a wide range of experts, from paleontologists to a perfumer. The interview subjects reflect on the the remarkable preservation of the art, the meaning of this finding, and the scientific challenges involved in studying it. Herzog also makes clear how difficult and unusual it is to film in the Chauvet Cave, a delicate site that has been preserved for thousands of years.

The cave itself is a work of art, a glittering cavern that resembles an alien world. Animal bones and archaic footprints litter the floor, and marvelous illustrations line the walls. These artists painted about thirty thousand years ago, a time when mammoths, horses, lions, and rhinoceros lived in frozen France. They incorporated the contours of the walls into their drawings, which strike archaeologists as spiritual representations with mythological implications. Herzog takes time to film these stunning images with and without commentary.*

Those who created these pictures lived in a very different world, yet their compositions remain so vivid. They were initially thought to be fake. Those who study the cave describe its profound effect on their psyches and suggest it’s as though these ancient ghosts are reaching out to us through the paintings. They have left a metaphysical indent. Prehistorian Jean Clottes says that the term homo sapiens, the man who knows–we don’t really know much, Clottes smiles–is a less appropriate name for humans than homo spiritualis.

Cave celebrates this cathedral of creativity and invention, as mysterious as it is moving. It is a communication with ancient culture, a connection to ancient being. The film urges the audience to feel wonder. Faced with such a magnificent demonstration of human development and expression, how could we feel anything else?

*The pacing reminded me of the similarly slow but beautiful Russian Ark, a movie that takes viewers through a dream of human history in a single, uninterrupted shot. That movie is also available on Netflix streaming.

 

The Imposter (2012): A spooky tale of impersonation

The Imposter is a chilling documentary about a young man who claims to be the missing child Nicholas Barclay. A few years after the thirteen-year-old Nicholas disappeared from San Antonio, Frédéric Bourdin showed up in Spain, claiming to be Nicholas and telling a horrific tale of kidnapping and torture. His hair and eyes were the wrong color, he was years older than Nicholas, and he spoke with a French accent. Bourdin came up with explanations for everything and successfully hoodwinked the Barclay family and a number of officials.

The filmmakers employ somewhat gimmicky but still effective reenactments and interview Bourdin, members of the grieving family, and several officials involved in the case. A compulsive con artist and identity thief, Bourdin comes across as open and engaging, though he claims to feel isolated enough and to dislike being touched. He thinks tactically rather than morally, considering what others will think of him rather than how they feel. He claims that he created countless personas (the numbers range between the dozens and hundreds) by the time he was twenty-three because he craved acceptance and felt uncomfortable with his own identity, one that lacked love from the beginning.

The gripping film falters in lending credence to Bourdin’s allegation that the Barclays killed Nicholas themselves. There is no evidence against them, and their accuser is a pathological liar. However, an investigator and an FBI agent become suspicious due to the shocking fact that the family welcomed someone who was clearly an imposter into their home. When first informed that Bourdin is not Nicholas, the sympathetic but possibly dysfunctional Barclays actively refuse to face the truth.

We never know what happened to Nicholas. The soundtrack, which includes 16 Horsepower’s cover of “Wayfaring Stranger,” is appropriately haunting. It is terrifying that master manipulators like Bourdin exist, calculating how their behavior can influence others at every turn. Just as baffling is what grief and denial can do. As Bourdin did not have a specific motive for what he did (he was not a spy or a terrorist, as one investigator thought–why else would he assume an American identity?), the Barclays likely didn’t accept Bourdin as Nicholas to cover up foul play. Their response to Bourdin was bizarre, but hardly a sign of guilt or of being anything more than the irrational beings we pretend we are not.