National Gallery (2014)

Normally, there are not many comparison points for Wiseman films except other Wiseman films as he is kind of a genre unto himself. National Gallery certainly fits firmly within his style, in this case featuring a variety of conversations about the artwork, both thematic and technical, and of the function of the gallery, the logic of restoration, of presentation, and the simple business conversations, all broken up with montage of the paintings of the gallery. But in 2014, Tim’s Vermeer presents a particularly interesting contrast point, and indeed, there is a discussion of a Vermeer in National Gallery.

One thing that appealed in Tim’s Vermeer is that it ultimately was less about art then about science or engineering. The most engaging aspects of National Gallery for me were also more toward the technical, both in the science of restoration (and simply analysis of paintings) and in some discussions about how lighting concerns (the conditions the painting was originally created to be displayed in compared to modern display conditions) would shape the artist’s tactics. This all spoke to me more than thoughts about metaphors or stories in paintings. This is curious because in film I tend to be very much the opposite, generally dismissive of craft except as service to the story and themes. Neither documentary thawed my remove from painting as an expressive medium really, but they have opened up far more interest in it as a technical craft. Now I just need more resources to do the same for film.

As much as I appreciate the Wiseman aesthetic, putting it in close contrast with Tim’s Vermeer reveals some of its weak points. Ultimately there is something rewarding about an 80 minute film that has a narrative arc of hurdles, breakthroughs, etc. compared to a 180 minute film that remains rather flat. I liked the film, but I’d definitely be more keen to rewatch Tim’s Vermeer than this.

B

Two Days, One Night (2014)

I’m going to start by saying two things I almost never say: this film could be longer, and I’d like to see an American remake. Okay, so I don’t think this particular film should be longer, one focused squarely on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) as she tries to convince enough of her co-workers to forego an offered bonus so that she won’t have to be laid off. But I imagine the American remake being set on the eve of such a vote and use interwoven narratives to establish how each of them approaches their decision. Thus I see a more epic version that would demand more time, even as this smaller runtime suits its narrower focus.

Even if it is narrow in character, it is still expansive in theme. Central is the notion of the divide and conquer mentality that modern, global capitalism has instilled. We might take the manager at his word that competitive pressure demands he cut costs either by reducing staff or by holding down wages. Still, putting this particular option to a vote pits the workers, all seemingly on the economic cusp*, against each other. Management uses both the stick and the carrot to create this effect, preventing the workers from exerting any collective force that might actually challenge their position. The stick creates fear for their own jobs while the carrot offers a small bonus and the potential for overtime. As Sandra says repeatedly, you can’t really blame those that would, under these conditions, cast her aside. She probably doesn’t help herself by continually buying into the framing that they would be losing their bonus instead of not getting it. The fact is they don’t have a bonus yet but she does have a job.

In a larger-scale film, we might see the economic concerns of each voter that would make the marginal increase vital. Make us really feel what they have on the line, since ethically there seems to be a clear argument to suffer a little to keep someone else from suffering a lot. Instead we generally get vague references to a child’s education. When we hear from one woman that she needs the bonus because she’s just moved out from her husband, we don’t get a satisfying comment on the way that economic constraints are something that often keep women in abusive relationships.

One of the great things about this personalized take on the situation is that it does a great job exploring how it interacts with Sandra’s depression, and how that is used against her and creates a Catch-22. They threaten to isolate her in part because of her illness, but her illness would be compounded by that isolation (not to mention the stress of this particular situation). It is a compelling example of how society can exacerbate rather than help those in need.

The main thing that makes me think this story needs to be told in America is that this is a European context of stronger unions and a stronger social safety net. Sandra makes her argument that she wants to be working, not on the dole, perhaps move into subsidized housing. It is captivating, but at least she has a dole as a fall back. In America, that fall-back is likely much more brutal.

***SPOILERS***Based on how things developed, I thought this was going to go toward a 12 Angry Men or 1776 conclusion, where ultimately she is able to isolate one individual and make them the swing vote. It is a lot harder to be the one person who fires her than part of a group that makes a decision to help themselves. Ultimately, the ending is kind of perfect in that it flips things around and singles Sandra out with a similar choice. Everything about how her character is built at that part makes her decision and reaction very believable.***END SPOILERS***

Even if I have visions of a grander film with higher stakes, I really liked this. A clear step up, in my mind, for the Dardenne’s whose films have always developed characters but not necessarily felt as controlled in building a plot arc.

A-

The Ballad of Little Jo (1993)

The Western genre, while not being entirely lacking in interesting female characters, is definitely a male-dominated genre. Rarely is a female character the lead of such stories, and even more rarely have we seen women telling those stories on film. Some of this can be explained in the real gender imbalance that tends to exist in frontier, especially as the genre has tended toward cowboys and lawmen. But certainly the literary tradition, with Little House on the Prairie and the works of Willa Cather show that plenty of stories of frontierswomen exist. In the case of The Ballad of Little Jo, writer/director Maggie Greenwald draws upon a newspaper story to relate a real life tale that manages to touch on broader truths.

Early in her life, Josephine (Suzy Amis) learns that being a feminine woman has its risks in the attractions and sexual aggressions of men and the moral hypocrisies. There is a moment early where Josephine reads to a man from his Hawthorne book, and I can only imagine it was The Scarlet Letter as it would suit the story as her own ostracizing is what has her traveling West. In response to the risk her femininity puts her in, she decides to transform into Jo, though this brings its own risks of discovery. For women, it can often be a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Showing the behavior of men, not atypical of the genre (and of the time and place), through the perspective of a female character does a lot to highlight the misogyny of the society in a way that a similar scene from a male perspective might not.

The film is also critical of attitudes toward xenophobic attitudes held by many of the men, in particular with the character of Tinman (David Chung). Apparently this portrayal of a Chinese immigrant playing a slightly more feminine role vis a vis Jo (doing cooking and similar domestic tasks) has been criticized as part of a tendency for American pop culture to feminize Asian men generally, though I feel like it is actually commenting on that stereotype because it acknowledges that he is playing a role much as Jo does.

Another wrinkle that the film gets at is the contrast of the wild patriarchy of the frontier and the cultured patriarchy of the East, which chased Jo out initially but by the end we see encroaching in the form of corporate ranchers. We may be able to readily recognize the savagery of the former, but this cautions that fancy clothes and polite manners shouldn’t blind us from equally toxic behaviors. All these facets combine into one of the more rewarding experiences I’ve had in the genre.

B+

At Berkeley (2013)

This being my 15th Wiseman film and 5th that exceeds three hours in duration (in this case the four hour runtime leaves it two shy of Near Death) it becomes clearer to me why I don’t have a problem with the length; he is a master of pacing. His main trick, using examples from At Berkeley, is to move from extended scenes of administrative discussion to dialogue-free sequences of extracurriculars like an a capella group performance or the marching band playing half-time at a football game. This, along with the fact that the scenes don’t necessarily essentially tie together allows for periods of decompression or varied degrees of focus. If the film demanded that you remain totally locked in for four hours it would be overwhelming, but as it lets you get into a rhythm of the environment, paying more or less attention as something grabs your attention, it is far less taxing. No one scene is essential, rather the sum becomes greater than the parts by providing a broad perspective of its focus, in this case arguably the premiere public university in the country.

Having been a student, instructor and student government representative dealing with administrative and budgeting aspects, I have a pretty broad view of the environment and Wiseman’s film is capable at capturing these varying components. In particular focus is the question of public funding. The state of California, like most, has declined its contribution putting increasing pressures on students, to which they responded, in the case of Berkeley, with protests. It is enough of a primer, though I didn’t feel just energized about the topic from watching this. It isn’t the type of documentary that really gets at some of the most hard hitting questions about the nature and purpose of higher education and how that relates to funding concerns. More captivating for me ultimately were some of the seminars. I have to admit a bit of educational jealousy as I just don’t think I got that good of an education from my various public universities, and it wasn’t like I was offering that to my students either.

The thing with Wiseman and his style is it leaves less room for variation. I don’t anticipate a Wiseman film ever cracking my top-100, though I admire a few quite a bit. Similarly, I don’t anticipate outright hating a Wiseman (excepting Titicut Follies, to which I had a moral qualm more than an actual issue of quality). His technique is a durable one that makes any topic captivating and informative and At Berkeley is no exception.

B

It Follows (2014)

There are two things I think I can safely reveal about It Follows that are central to its premise: “Sexually Transmitted Curse” and that this film manages to make slowly walking in a straight line the most terrifying thing in the world. I kind of love how horror films can be made or broken on premise. You hear something like “aliens attack forcing a population to stay drunk all the time” or “haunted house, but she’s got a house arrest ankle bracelet on” and you just go, “yep, that could work.” The premise of It Follows, a curse that gets passed on to people through sex (though importantly tracing back through the chain if someone falls victim of the curse) holds the potential to comment on sexuality, as well as playing off the historical notion of horror films as conservative vehicles to punish youths for engaging in casual sex.

On this particular thematic point, I’m not sure the film delivers. Arguably the solution to this particular problem is either to abstain (the typical conservative answer) or to have all the sex so that the curse can never fixate and ultimately ends up far removed. Woe is to the person who is unable to get laid (again). Though there’s also the moral question of whether it is right to pass it on and what notification is necessary. This taps more specifically into debate over STIs. We see instances of passing the curse on via deception and via consensual sacrifice. A slightly more intentioned work might do a better job hitting home some sort of idea of facing these threats together, working to dispel prejudices of people who have STIs. The film is somewhat silent on the idea of safe sex. We are given no indication of condom use in the depicted sexual encounters and whether that would matter. Diving deeper into the logic of the world, and the question I asked at the festival Q&A where I saw the film (draw a straight line from Cannes to Toronto to Sundance to Fargo), was about whether this curse was heteronormative. The film never contemplates homosexual attachments, whether those forms of sex would satisfy the requirement to pass things on. This isn’t a weakness per se (the producers on hand deflected it capably hinting at the possibility of a sequel) but was something that stood out to me as underexamined.

If the thematic component that might have made the film great were lacking, the technical construction necessary to make it a solid horror film was spot on. The menace, constructed as a shape-shifting entity that pursues unceasingly, slow and constant, is set up and then played with to maximum effect (the large audience was amped up, which only added to the effect). There are a couple quiet-quiet-bang moments but they feel more deliberate and compliment many others that build tension without relying on sensory shock but rather an intellectual terror. The ability to put yourself in that position with the main characters is a rare and precious thing in the horror genre and for that alone the film is worth experiencing.

B

Laggies (2014)

The experience of watching Laggies kind of brought to term an idea that had been gestating for a while, and that is that I’ve been systemically underappreciating small cinema. Just last year you had films like All The Light In The Sky, It Felt Like Love and Happy Christmas that all resonated with me but felt too small to catapult beyond the B/B+ range. Meanwhile the top of my list is dominated by films with heavy visual flair (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Birdman) or fairly forceful senses of importance (Belle and Selma) or maybe just being extremely writerly (Calvary). It’s easy to argue for their greatness because they wear it clearly, it is much harder to pick out why a film like Laggies is great.

Megan (Keira Knightley) is a well-educated woman in her late-20s who can’t find her footing in the adult world. Presented by the wedding of one high school friend, the pregnancy of another, and her own high school sweetheart proposing, she is paradoxically stuck in her high school life and being pushed into adulthood. In trying to get space from this situation she falls in with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her high school friends. I’m a couple years older than Megan (and for that matter, Knightley) and I don’t hang around with any friends from high school, but I still very much relate to being a laggie, and certainly I feel like Megan here represents me better than the perpetual adolescence of Seth Rogan et al. This isn’t laziness or immaturity but rather a more existential angst.

The real selling point here is the cast. I’ve always been a Knightley person and I think bit by bit she’s making her own case as one of the best of her generation. It is actually meaningful that she works here across from Sam Rockwell. Both are actors who don’t really get lost in the part, you never forget you are watching Knightley and Rockwell, and yet no matter the parts they take I always believe it because they are fundamentally honest actors. Moretz too has been a favorite pretty much since she started in the business and is quite capable here. Still, I have to give particular mention to Kaitlyn Dever who basically steals all the scenes. Working with this cast and a strong screenplay from Andrea Seigel, Lynn Shelton really takes a big step up.

A-

Citizenfour (2014)

I can’t admit to having paid close attention to the string of stories sparked by Edward Snowden’s decision to leak classified information. I got the broad gist of what was revealed, simultaneously horrifying and unsurprising, but certainly wouldn’t know what had previously been revealed enough to compare to what this documentary reveals. Does it reveal new and distinctly potent classified information as one man suing the filmmakers claims? Does that even matter, as documentary film should receive every bit of the protection that the newspapers that certainly published classified information in the initial release do.

Viewed as a piece of filmic art, the content is actually a bit secondary. What Citizenfour is artistically most interesting as is as a procedural of sorts on how to blow a whistle. Apparently it takes more than putting your lips together. Instead there is a carefully planned series of relationship building, secrecy tactics, PR planning and the lot. Following the process as it happens, with this level of detail is fascinating apart from the weight of the content. Superficial matters like the real charisma of Snowden, who easily lends himself to speculation of the casting of someone like Alexander Skarsgard to play him in a fictionalized film.

Of course, it is impossible to avoid talking about the content of his revelation. To some degree, the idea that this revelation was damaging to national security is kind of laughable mostly because the surveillance state it reveals seems too encompassing to escape. Knowledge of it provides little recourse, and those who do find the capabilities to avoid detection probably already were pursuing those strategies even without specific knowledge of the programs. I still think the Oscars joke about Snowden missing the show “for some treason” was funny, but obviously this is not that. It is information that provoked an important debate, though it is hard to say if it actually reveals illegal actions (if only because the legal barriers are so soft) and thus by the letter of the law, Snowden might not be legally justified to violate the confidentiality.

Obviously, the ramifications for this all-knowing government, if it were used out of malice, would be catastrophic. Though the idea of a government that turns a blind eye to these channels of communication is kind of horrifying in its own right. At this point most of the concern is speculation. There is a lot of fear about those reporting this story, or similar stories, being at risk of target, but there’s little actual ramification to suggest this is more than paranoia. It seems better suited to less hyperbolic conversations about liberal principle. We don’t need to label the government Big Brother to recognize that we are shading into ill advised territory.

Certainly my fear of the government collecting my data to use against me is small enough that it loses out in the cost benefit analysis of actually taking steps to evade it. Dropping off the grid might be a strategy, but it seems like a terrible life. Truth be told, I’m vastly more worried about private actors. I’m worried about hackers, in some respects emboldened by the NSA when they opted to exploit the Heartbleed bug instead of work to get it closed. I’m worried about internet hate mobs that violate people’s privacy to intimidate and terrorize with tactics like doxxing. In the realm of perceived threats, these seem like much more likely digital threats than the government collecting all my data and using it to hurt me. This tends to be where Snowden and the main journalist here, Glenn Greenwald, lose me, but especially enabled by the film’s craft, I feel grateful for their work here.

A

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