Amy (2015)

In many ways the existence of this film is a tragedy. Obviously the portrait it paints of mental illness and substance abuse getting the better of an otherwise upbeat and talented young woman is tragic, but that this film could be made, entirely out of existing footage is a tragedy of its own. While certain home video and clips from appearances at awards shows and on talk shows are generally innocent enough, a certain amount of what we see comes from tabloid or other media sources content to exploit her for both good or bad, whatever would get ratings. Even before watching this film, I might be inclined to paraphrase the classic joke “what do you call 100 tabloid photographers at the bottom of the sea? A good start,” but in a few places here they capture the chaos and claustrophobia of the tabloid culture. Combined with other things like a reality TV show her dad gets involved with display the media behaving in a way that would border on criminal negligence. Surely there are individual freedoms that stand against a free press and free speech.

And yet the bulk of our interaction with any of these figures is through this media and few of us can really plead innocent of demanding more from our stars (though I don’t know if I’d be willing, out of respect or maybe just anxiety, to go up to a famous person randomly to ask for a photo or something), or maybe having a laugh at the latest erratic behavior from a fallen star. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was a post taking the media to task for body shaming famous people for getting old, but the reason it got the hits was because it had a tag/picture of Amy Winehouse and the thought that it might be more tolerable to highlight her appearance as an anti-drug message, certainly than pointing to a 40 year old actress for having cellulite. In the context of watching this film, even that relatively minor statement feels wildly inappropriate.

The film’s success is it kind of condemns society for the way it exploits people, but does safely manage to avoid feeling like it is trying to capitalize on her life. Aside from this aspect, the film does do a good job building context from Amy’s life to show how she converted things into song. As much as I respect her voice, I only really like two, maybe three of her songs, so to some degree the film felt drawn out in part because of an excess of songs, though it rarely repeats a song. Still, Asif Kapadia has now firmly established himself as a master of the archival documentary, though I’d probably still give Senna the edge. I just kind of hope he can find a project that doesn’t revolve around tragedy.

B

A Summer’s Tale (1996)

That mubi trial is already paying off. My first three Rohmer films a baseline interest in his style, without actually feeling distinctly drawn to any of the actual films. What caught me early in A Summer’s Tale was how the conversation between Gaspard and Margot recalled Before Sunset. While this film comes a year after that film, it’s probably fair to say that Linklater would be more inspired by Rohmer’s small-moment humanism than vice versa. In this case the two talk about their respective lovers that are out of the country and leaving them somewhat in doubt, and watching their easy chemistry one expects they might develop a romance, but quickly Margot deflects his interest to a friend of hers.

The key strength of this film is the familiarity of the situation. He has a current girlfriend who claims to be interested but seems to agonize him by remaining rather distant, he has Margot’s friend, who is rather keen but not necessarily sparking his interest, and then you have Margot who seems ideal, but isn’t letting him in. Because none hits that zone of mutual interest, he finds it hard to commit to any one and it leads to a bit of drama. This all is familiar to why attempts at dating usually end with me curled in the fetal position, there’s just so much social nuance.

Even though it is effectively hitting a point home, it is a bit of a problem for the film that Margot (Amanda Langlet) is so much more appealing than the others. I didn’t immediately recognize Langlet from playing the lead in Pauline at the Beach, though I’m sure I was crushing on her there, but here she encourages full-blown adoration (helped in that she’s more my age at this point). The contrast is such that scenes with the other women are a bit dull and start making the film feel stretched. Usually Rohmer shows good timing to not have her out of the picture for too long and ultimately delivers a masterful relationship drama.

A-

Pompeii (2014)

I’m not sure how Jon Snow got to the fighting pits of Meereen, but this was one damn good episode of Game of Thrones. The film’s opening scene shows Milo (Kit Harrington) watch as his family and really his whole society is slaughtered at the command of General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and a classic revenge story is born. As fate would have it, Milo, known as a gladiator as The Celt is shipped off to fight in Pompeii just as Corvus, now a Roman Senator, is headed there to exert power and generally scheme. While on the path to Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the most influential man of Pompeii is taken with Milo’s gentleness with a struggling horse and a classic star-crossed lovers story.

I’ve already mentioned two classic stories, and no, this isn’t an original story and unlike Game of Thrones it doesn’t have those moments of shock or of violence that will leave you buzzing…it is a decidedly PG-13 venture. Yet classic stories are classic for a reason. We want to cheer for Milo and fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) show gladiatorial honor and fight against the powerful and deceptive Romans with all their petty political games. We want to see a consensual, loving relationship bloom in the face of attempts to force matches of political convenience.

If Game of Thrones has succeeded in part because it so often cuts against the conventional storytelling that rewards virtue and honor above all else, Pompeii offers the perfect response in the looming presence of Mt. Vesuvius. Reality may not care about virtue, but mother nature doesn’t care about any human concerns. Game of Thrones contrives intrigue asking how and when and why various people will die, mother nature knows that ultimately everyone will. And in that knowledge, how one lives or how one faces death becomes paramount, and that makes for a rewarding exploration. While solidly enough acted, Pompeii may lack the polish of Game of Thrones, but it also lacks the nasty aftertaste.

B

Foxfire (2012)

Admittedly it has been a long time since I watched the 90s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates novel from that same decade, but while there are a few shared elements, this new version, which apparently runs closer to the novel, surprised me a bit in where it went. First off, though this is from French director Laurent Cantet and seems to have been largely produced by the French, it is in English, set in rural New York in the 1950s. Going back to a period setting allows it to capture some themes that the modernized 90s version cut out.

Both films largely start with the same galvanizing event, the decision to shame an abusive teacher. This brings them together as an activist/vigilante feminist group seeking out those men that harm women. At this point it lives a bit in the shadow of Lisbeth Salander, though as things develop it gets a bit SCUM Manifesto. Even as the film gets your sympathy for the girls, led by Legs (Raven Adamson), pushing back against the forces that subjugate women: men, capitalism, religion, the rigidly structured utopic community is subject to human weakness and we see the Foxfire gang spin out of control. Of course, if one wants to make Soviet comparisons, keep in mind that these are teenager girls who remain on the margin of society, not a ruling body that became a global superpower.

Overall, it just feels a lot more biting politically than the 90s version’s more Lifetime movies level narrative. In this case, bringing in a French director, from a country that often enough elects Socialists, might give him the boldness not to cut out those aspects that still remain taboo in American culture. Perhaps curiously, this is perhaps the chaster film, at least it doesn’t contrive an excuse for “teenage” girls to get topless. Ultimately the film is carried by Adamson, in the role played by Angelina Jolie in the earlier adaptation. She conveys the force of personality and political fire to make you believe how far people come to follow in that path.

B

The Dead (1987)

The power of a short story is that it can capture just a moment, without feeling compelled to speak of all the moments that surround it as larger works often feel compelled to do. Adapted from James Joyce’s novella-length work, The Dead assembles a group of family and associates for a holiday party. While it only encompasses a few hours of story time, in less than 90 minutes of film time, in a way it still speaks to all of the moments that surround it.

There is a stark contrast between the setting of a party and the largely melancholic mood. There is a lot of talk about the music that once was, the country that was, the traditions that were and love that was. The way a modern party might involve a host of people distracted by social media on their phones, so the attention of those in attendance is distracted by their past. As filmmaking goes, this thematic element leads toward a film full of understated acting, which is to my preference. Only the alcoholic Freddy can be described as a truly big character, and even he is tame compared to how most films treat that kind of character.

That it is both elegant and literary is both boon and burden as while I appreciated the art of it, I didn’t feel overwhelmingly drawn in. At least on first viewing I felt more of an invisible observer than an invitee with an emotional bond to the characters. That is what keeps it from greatness for me but I can easily see how it would reach that place for others.

B

Merchants of Doubt (2014)

Pretty snazzy construction and dissection of the machinery and tactics behind corporate movements to contradict scientific claims of health dangers tied to their businesses. Starting with the long battle over the dangers of cigarettes, with a few other stops along the way, the real emphasis here is on climate change denialism. I do like the metaphor of magic tricks (sorry Gob, illusions), especially the notion that once the manner of the trick is revealed that you will spot it from then on is a hopeful notion. It certainly makes the film seem important as it is claiming to be the revelation of the trick. If we could get everyone to watch it, would they become immune to this sales job? No, probably not.

Perhaps the most interesting section for me was the interview with a writer for Skeptic Magazine, who draws a line from environmental scares of the 70s (Ehrlich’s population bomb) that were busts, and how that led him to be skeptical of climate change claims…until the reality was simply undeniable for him. To some degree there doesn’t seem to be enough of this talk about the counterpoint myths. Things like cigarettes and climate change fit a comfortable narrative of science versus industry. But what of current issues like GMOs or vaccine refusal where science largely lines up with industry and the merchants of doubt in that case tend to be more liberal, though I suppose less influential. Bill Maher or Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are names and have platforms, but they don’t have the concerted power of the Koch Brothers’ billions. The other important difference is in one case the science stands against the status quo while on the other it stands with the status quo. In a system where it is hard to change, having the status quo on your side is a great benefit to the merchants of doubt this film covers.

Even if it doesn’t cover everything to the degree I’d like, it ultimately is a very useful film to understand how things work. It importantly doesn’t lay the blame directly at the feet of lobbyists and campaign contributions, instead being much more focused on media coverage and public outreach. It is by playing the voters that they ultimately are able to then go in and influence the politicians.

B

Next Goal Wins (2014)

The thing about relative ratings is that someone or something always has to be worst. So it was for American Samoa, holding the distinction as the lowest ranked soccer team in the world, and also being part of the worst official international defeat, 31-0 against Australia. The film opens with this defeat, and some of the burden it placed on the team and its goalkeeper Nicky Salapu. Reading up on the game after, the doc actually doesn’t cover a lot of the particular circumstances of that game, namely that the goalkeeper aside, they basically were unable to field any thing close to an A-team. Hard enough competing with a highly competitive international team like Australia at full strength, much less in a weakened state.

What follows is an inspiring look at how one finds the spirit to keep pushing. Moral victories can feel hollow, but ultimately the only way to improve is bit by bit. One of their steps is to bring in a coach through US Soccer (Dutchman Thomas Rongen), whose story offers a bit of a parallel. He lost his 18-year old daughter in a car crash, and this is sort of placed across from the 31-0 as a low from which he seeks recovery. Aside from Salapu and Rongen, the other main star of the doc is Jaiyah Saelua, who became the first transgender player to start a FIFA-sanctioned game (though Samoan culture allows for a “two spirit” third gender, so transgender is not an entirely precise label). She briefly discusses the contrast between playing for the American Samoa team compared to trying for the men’s team at a university in Hawaii, and how the latter was much less welcoming. I feel like there is a whole documentary to be made on that topic (the 30 For 30 doc Renee gets a bit more into it, but still isn’t really the doc I’m looking for).

As a fan of soccer, the main weakness for me was how it portrayed the game footage. Granted, they could hardly just put the full 90 minutes of each game in, but even in showing the highlights they chop things up to an extreme level, often with lots of cuts to reaction shots right in the middle of a particular move, that made it hard to really appreciate the soccer itself. This may be less of an issue for those who aren’t into the sport itself (Mark Kermode loved the film and is notably sport-averse), and it is commendable that interest in the sport isn’t a prerequisite, but I do wish it had treated it a bit better. Still, there is no denying the broader emotional effectiveness.

B

P.S. At the end there is a voiced desire for a rematch against Australia. Sadly, this seems unlikely as the 31-0 game in part led to Australia having a particular desire to avoid such games in the future and they actually switched regions, so it is fairly unlikely that they’d ever meet up unless American Samoa gets really far in the qualifying process, which even under the most optimistic projections would seem unlikely.

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