Fort Tilden (2014)

It would be easy to watch this film and take it as a condemnation of spoiled/entitled Millennials, that trusty crutch of the elders that has a nearly unrivaled capacity to get my dander up. After all, Harper (Bridey Elliot) and Allie (Clare McNulty) are seemingly living an unfocused post-collegiate life in Brooklyn, clearly subsidized, and they can’t seem to actually do anything, except text each other snide comments about those around them and post things to instagram. Thus a seemingly simple trip to meet up with some boys at the beach turns into an epic adventure of fail.

Harper and Allie aren’t particularly likable, and it should be noted are neither realistic nor representative of their generation (which is mostly poor and non-white, though stereotypes about the generation always seem to be about well-to-do white people). But over the course of the film, as they are metaphorically sacrificed for their generation’s alleged sins, one does start to feel empathy. Harper will have a good idea to direct her artistic energies, but just as quickly shoot herself down, saying it is a stupid idea. For all the talk of participation ribbons leading to undue confidence, here is someone who has a completely broken sense of self-worth. And Allie is keen to do something meaningful to help others, being set to join the Peace Corps. As someone who previously crashed out during the application process of the Peace Corps, realizing that for as much as I’d like to be helping, it wasn’t the right venue for me, I definitely related to her uncertainty. Seeing her friends struggling in a Teach For America-type situation similarly speaks to a societal failure to harness this charitable energy.

The thing that makes Fort Tilden work so well is how it balances the dramatic weight (if often amplified by their inability to cope) with a wickedly dry humor. I laughed a number of times, including passing gags like when Harper says she’s preparing their apartment for the possibility the guys come home with them, including taking the exact identical copy of Infinite Jest I just started last month and placing it out prominently. Because nothing would appeal more to a young bro than a work of young bro genius. Considering how much I’m not enjoying the book, this subtle poke (and another at the expense of Phillip Roth) delighted me. And the ending really works as the culmination and payoff, so many wonderfully defeated realizations, these two women stripped bare of their illusions, perhaps ready to actually enter the world as it exists.

B+

The Hunting Ground (2015)

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

One of the worst feelings is powerlessness. On any number of major issues, including the shockingly high incidence of rape, or in light of yesterday and pretty much every day before it, gun violence, I as a student of public policy believe we could make substantial and beneficial changes to make society better and safer. My sense of powerlessness doesn’t come from feeling we can’t do something but that we won’t do something. The power of gun culture or rape culture will force us to simply accept horror as our reality. My decision to become a paralegal in part is an attempt to find a role that allows me to feel like I have the power to make some difference, and through that to give a measure of power to those who lack it. Generally, I’ve seen the powerless as the victims of state power or injustice, and thus been drawn to the defense in criminal cases.

Watching The Hunting Ground, and recently reading Missoula, I’m starting to think I’ve been giving short shrift to the power for good that might be able to come from working for the prosecution. Seeing cases of rape go unprosecuted because of a priori determinations of it being difficult to win (similar to cases of police violence against black men) shows the need for good people on the prosecution as well, not to mention a good prosecution can similarly avoid causing the injustices to defendants in the first place.

Now, I’m not sure it was entirely fair to The Hunting Ground that I come to it fresh off Missoula because the depth allowed in a written volume is so much greater, and it uses it amazingly well to really situate you in the day-to-day experience of rape culture within a small enough setting to be comprehended. The Hunting Ground tries to be much more global, with a whirlwind of factors and stories that covers all the bases, and is effective in its own way, but doesn’t quite sink in as deeply. I should note that while both focus on college campuses, Missoula does at least open with an author’s note that reflects the fact that as dangerous as college campuses are for young women, the “real world” is even more dangerous for the generally lower-income women who don’t go to college. Fraternities and college sports are focal points of the campus issue, but there are equivalent structures outside of college.

Aside from the actual incidence of rape, aside from the process of reporting rape on campus or through the police departments, that can often feel like a violation of its own, one thing that both documentary and book touch on is how cyber-assault has become a new and additional violation of the victim, especially in high profile cases. Much like all the threats that arose in Gamer Gate or that female critics routinely get if they give a bad review to a superhero movie, this cyber-assault joins so many of the other problems, of sexual and domestic violence, of gun violence as the result of two things: capitalism and toxic masculinity. Let’s be honest, the perpetrators of all this harm are overwhelmingly male, and aside from general patriarchy, the reason so much of this harm seems unfixable is money. For colleges it is the money that comes in primarily from alumni that care about sports and fraternities. For politicians it is from the funding of the NRA and countless others who profit from the status quo.

Both film and book do offer green shoots. Rape culture has probably never been more in the public consciousness and under President Obama’s administration, the Office of Civil Rights has pushed colleges, police departments and prosecutors to revamp how they approach the cases, not to limit the due process of defendants but to make things humane for victims. Activists like those featured in this documentary have turned to basically “coming out” as the dominant strategy. It is a bad bit of human nature that many cannot fully appreciate an issue until it comes home, but if the LGBT rights movement has shown anything, visibility is everything, and sadly the population of women who have been sexually assaulted is probably even larger than the LGBT population. So hopefully we can take the progress made by LGBT-rights groups as a sign that progress can be made in all these other areas too. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

B

Quartet (2012)

Sports stars careers wind down in their 30s, Elton John and Bono can no longer hit the high notes of their early hits, even in academia, most great innovations come by age 40. What to make of the second half of our lives if it is just the same, but less successfully, and with the attendant aches and hassles of a declining body and mind?

This is all on the minds of the residents of Beecham House, a retirement home for standout musicians. While Wilf (Billy Connolly) keeps things lively with the old, unfiltered rogue act, the film sneaks in some real emotion as Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Jean (Maggie Smith) are forced to face up their strained romantic past while Jean in particular is haunted by her faded talents.

Taking these strong emotional points and putting them in the hands of some of the very best is a pretty firm guarantee of quality and it doesn’t disappoint. This sort of film may be finding footing due to the baby boomers, with their numbers and money, hitting retirement, but it holds plenty of lessons for those of us still in our younger years.

B+

9 to 5 (1980)

So there’s no good reason I hadn’t watched this before now, but given that, I figured what a better time to watch this film than on Labor Day. The film quickly establishes its central trio of women put upon by the patriarchal work environment: Violet (Lily Tomlin) who has put in years of hard work but keeps getting passed over for promotion in favor of men; Judy (Jane Fonda) who is just getting into the workforce after being a housewife for years, upon her husband leaving her for his secretary; and Doralee (Dolly Parton), a secretary who their boss Frank Hart (Dabney Coleman) is hot to trot for. Aside from these three, we get a glimpse of others who are hurt by the system. One lady is fired for discussing pay, which would generally be a violation of labor law, no matter how much companies discourage doing it, though proving it in court (and affording the lawsuit) would be another thing. Others have work-life balance concerns relating to family. Anyway, it cuts right to the meat of the issue about how businesses were (and mostly still are) hostile to workers, especially women.

The film is a witty satire from the start, but when the three bond over their frustrations, the film takes a turn for the outright zany. When this takes the shape of their respective genre-styled revenge fantasies, it is rather fun. When events lead to real-life hijinks, it strains ones patience a little. This is my feminist empowerment film, I don’t necessarily want a Mr. Magoo act. Still, this serves an essential plot point, which I’ll discuss in the paragraph below WITH SPOILERS.

So the trio ends up kidnapping him to avoid him turning them over to the police and right at the end we find out that during the weeks that they hold him in captivity, Violet and Doralee have conspired to revolutionize the office in Hart’s name, instituting all manner of liberal policies like flexible scheduling or part-time hours and child care to make things easier for the mostly female workforce. That this productive work is hidden so as to get a surprise at the end, while showing all the borderline incompetent criminal actions kind of diminishes the film’s power. It might be slightly more in keeping with the comedic nature/tone of the film, and I’m probably asserting my desires for the film in lieu of what it was going for, but I just would have loved to watch them make the changes we later find out pay off.

So yeah, a few reservations, though none about Lily Tomlin, who is an absolute treasure. As much as I feel there is a film here that I would have loved a lot more, accepting what they are going for, I really appreciated it.

B+

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

The weird thing is that this film’s most hyped stunt is both right at the start of the movie, and doesn’t deliver much beyond what you get in the trailer. Compare this to Ghost Protocol’s Dubai Tower scene which was certainly shown in the trailer but had so much else going to build it out. Thus we can say that as impressive a feat as hanging onto the side of a plane is, this film does not match the prior film’s middle sequence (or the first film’s climactic train sequence). And while making comparisons, the major heist sequence doesn’t live up to its counterpart from the first film. And yet, in many ways Rogue Nation feels the most successful since that first film.

The concept of the shadowy international organization isn’t new (I mean, the trailer for SPECTRE played in front of this), but they do hint at an interesting framing here, which basically notes that the intelligence operations of recognized powers are legitimated in many acts that would look malicious if not engaged by groups we ultimately trust. And yet, should we trust them, is the status quo they defend actually in our interest. If this offering is more interesting than the plot of any of the others, it isn’t actually capitalized on as any hint that the Syndicate might be using dubious tactics to some greater good is mostly abandoned so that we don’t question the film’s heroes TOO much.

Accepting that the film did go on a bit long and probably could have lost a twist and a set-piece along the way to tighten things up, what Rogue Nation does right is captured in the Morocco sequence at its center, complete with the heist plotting/execution, stunning car/motorcycle chases, Simon Pegg leading the way with greatly scripted/timed comedic relief and generally feeling comfort with our central foursome of characters. While I appreciate Rebecca Ferguson playing a woman who is equal to the men in combat and to some degree in playing the game, it isn’t exactly a rounded character and this film doesn’t even consider passing the Bechdel Test. Oh, and the editing gets a bit chaotic at times with the action. Warts and all though, this is still a better than average blockbuster.

B

To Sir, With Love (1967)

Everyone loves a bit of coincidence spotting. I’d put in this hold request earlier this week and then on Thursday it gets mentioned in Pop Culture Happy Hour’s discussion of music in movies as an example of movie theme songs. Sharing the same title, it makes sense that the song To Sir, With Love is from this movie, but having heard that song many times before, I hadn’t really conceived of it as such. It’s a pretty great song that stands on its own, and good it is great because you hear at least parts of it no less than four times during the film, only one with thematic relevance/potency.

At this point, the teacher trying to handle a troubled class is a well worn genre, with my favorite being The Class. There was one scene in To Sir, With Love that recalls one of the more substantial moments of The Class, where Mr. Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) loses his temper and uses certain terms in relation to his female students. In The Class, this leads to a professional crisis, facing external rebuke, but here it is only a personal crisis, with internal critique as the only punishment. I guess it truly is a different era. This being so tolerated sat at odds with me a bit more than other dates aspects like the overwhelming heteronormativity of his wide-ranging class discussions. The assumption of heterosexuality, along with more rigid gender typing is something that I forgave as accurate of its time.

If the genre has become well worn, Poitier never feels trite. He has the gravitas to make you believe his effectiveness. The moments with various members of the class where he manages to work over their initial resistance to make them see deeper messages about adulthood and responsibility are generally excellent and applicable not just to those coming of age. I expect, as some of the students point out, plenty of adults have a lot to learn from him as well. Perhaps most valuable though is what he learns from them, the need to see past their behaviors to their own very adult challenges and inner conflicts. Just a very rich film.

B+

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

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