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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Critics on Metacritic got it right when they gave The Accountant a
mediocre rating of "51." It's a story that wants it both ways. On one
hand, Ben Affleck's Chris Wolff, a high functioning autistic math
savant, is the victim of his army psychological warfare father, who has
his son trained in martial arts and turns him into a virtual killing
machine. On the other hand, Director Gavin O'Connor, writer Bill
Dubuque and star Affleck, are all complicit in serving up a protagonist
who really is nothing more than a one-dimensional vigilante with a
heart of gold.
The Accountant has trouble building suspense in the beginning by flipping back and forth between a series of expositional scenes. Not only are there flashbacks to Wolff's childhood but there is also a subplot involving Ray King, the director of FinCEN in the Treasury Department played by the ubiquitous J.K. Simmons who conscripts Marybeth Medina, a young data analyst, by blackmailing her over her juvenile record on a Federal Employment application. In addition, there's a secondary subplot involving Wolff's brother Braxton, a murderous hit-man, as well as a flashback to King's encounter with Wolff who easily exacts revenge on a bunch of Mafia cronies at a New York social club.
The love interest here is Dana Cummings, the in-house accountant of "Living Robotics" played by girl-next-door Anna Kendrick. It's Cummings who discovers financial irregularities in the books and Wolff is called in to figure out what's going on. In perhaps the film's best scene, Affleck does his Clark Kent impersonation as the mild-mannered accountant utilizing a prodigious memory to uncover the $61 million embezzlement during an all-night bender replete with calculations plastered on the walls and windows of the office he's working in.
Meanwhile brother Braxton forces the diabetic Chief Financial Officer of Living Robotics to commit suicide by taking an overdose of insulin. Behind this is the two-faced CEO Lamar Blackburn, played by a highly effective John Lithgow. The action ramps up when Blackburn's goons (including Braxton) go after Cummings and of course she is saved by Wolff, who throws off his Clark Kent mantle and now operates in full Jason Bourne mode.
Wolff never rises above a typical comic book action figure as the film's scenarists soft pedal his past associations with a host of murderous thugs. Wolff's past bad interactions are only alluded to when Medina shows her boss surveillance images of Wolff with the bad guys in various exotic locations throughout the world. It seems that Wolff accepts payment for his services on a non-cash basiscomic books and rare paintings are payments he accepts.
It's soon revealed that Wolff landed in a Federal penitentiary not for his dealings with thugs but for an argument that erupts at his (divorced) mother's funeral resulting in shots fired and his father's death. Wolff befriends a federal informant while in prison who ends up being tortured to death by Gambino crime family associates. The massacre at the social club is Wolff's payback for the torture of federal informant friend. Not only does Wolff easily escape federal custody (off screen) but also easily gains entry into the social club where he dispatches the Mafioso. Good guy Wolff also fails to kill (then) agent King and starts funneling tips on criminal activity to King, who is promoted to director at the Treasury Department.
If this isn't ludicrous enough, Wolff (now in full comic book mode), guns down a slew of bad guys back at Living Robotics and bonds with brother Braxton after a convenient fistfight. Both Wolff and Braxton are seemingly forgiven for their past indiscretions and walk off into the sunset practically hand in hand. The cavalier manner in which Wolff dispatches Blackburn is the final straw in elevating vigilantism to time-honored practice as extrajudicial action is justified in the name of the protection of the community.
The Accountant's ultimate attraction is the variation on the Superman themea Clark Kent nebbish turning into a man of steel. Due to its dubious morality and comic book underpinnings, it never rises to the realm of a serious character study.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you want to learn about the greatest oil spill ever as well as the
greatest environmental disaster in US history, Deepwater Horizon is the
film to watch. The most incredible thing about this film is the seta
reproduction of the semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit
(MODU) which blew upit's as if you're watching the real thing!
Deepwater is basically a great technical achievement. As far as the storya good part of it has a documentary feel. Our protagonist is the real-life Chief Electronics Techician Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg. Early on we meet his wife and young daughter and unfortunately the beginning of the film is quite lugubrious as there isn't much drama involving William's family life.
Only after Williams ships out to the oil rig do things become moderately interesting. Director Peter Berg, utilizing inter-titles, informs us that the rig is run by a private contractor, Transocean, and led by the stalwart safety engineer, "Mr. Jimmy" (played by a convincing Kurt Russell). Ironically the day the rig blew up, Mr. Jimmy was receiving an award for his excellent safety record on the rig.
A conflict erupts between Mr. Jimmy and the BP (British Petroleum) Manager Donald Vidrine (played by a not so recognizable John Malkovich). Mr. Jimmy wants Vidrine to conduct a "pressure test" which will ensure the stability of the entire platform. Vidrine really wants to cut corners and gives a not so plausible explanation as to why he feels the test isn't necessary.
I've read that Vidrine actually didn't give the orders not to conduct the test that was attributed to some other manager; ultimately, it was BP execs offshore who had the final word on that. But Vidrine makes a nice foil to Kurt Russell's character so there is a bit of dramatic license taken here.
No need to go into great detail as far as the depiction of the explosion and its aftermath. Suffice it to say that Wahlberg does an excellent job highlighting William's heroic actions saving crew members as well as himself by jumping from the rig into water laced with burning oil.
If disaster movies are your thing, then Deepwater Horizon should be for you. As a fitting memorial to those who perished (11 in total), director Berg makes good on depicting the sacrifice involved. A good half of the movie is exposition but there's enough heroic derring-do to keep you glued to your seat in the second half.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Get Out is the directorial debut of comedy writer Jordan Peele who has
taken a page out of the Quentin Tarantino wish fulfillment fantasy
playbook. Unlike Tarantino, Peele operates in the much more lucrative
horror genre, his film grossing $184 million worldwide against a mere
$4.5 million budget.
Peele's protagonist is black photographer, Chris Washington, who agrees to visit his white girlfriend Rose's family (the Armitages) in an upstate suburb. While driving up to the house, there is a bit of foreshadowing of even stranger things to come, when Chris and Rose unexpectedly hit a deer and then have an unpleasant encounter with a state trooper where Rose can't conceal her contempt for law enforcement in general.
Before even meeting the parents, Chris is unnerved by the almost zombie-like behavior of the black groundskeeper and housekeeper, Walter and Georgina. Rose's parents, Dean, a neurosurgeon and Missy, a psychiatrist/hypnotist are depicted as white liberals, with Dean proudly telling Chris that he voted for Obama twice. Rose's brother Jeremy is unable to control an ingrained hostility and has little to do except attack Chris later on when it becomes clear the entire family suffers from a malevolence usually associated with typical horror film tropes.
As for the plot, somehow Chris (due to losing his mother in a car accident when he was a kid) is susceptible to Missy's hypnotic commands, sending him to "the sunken place" where he appears to not only lose consciousness but finds himself at the mercy of the creepy Missy. Soon a coterie of Armitage family friends show up at an annual get-together and it becomes clear that all these white folks are part of a conspiracy to subjugate black people through a series of actions that defy all logic.
For example, when Chris takes a picture of Logan, a recently kidnapped black man from NYC, the camera flash causes him to become hysterical and yell at Chris to "get out." Quite conveniently, the flash isn't enough to break Logan completely out of his fugue state nor is Chris able to simply walk away and call the police, as the mere tapping of a spoon on a tea cup, causes Chris to fall back under Missy's spell.
Peele's universe proves even more ridiculous when Rose is exposed as part of the family conspiracy to grab Chris and plant the brain of Jim Hudson, their older blind art dealer friend, into Chris' head. Somehow, this time, Chris breaks free of the hypnotic command and is able to contact his TSA agent friend, Rod, in NYC, who all along suspected that there was something very sinister afoot with these "crazy" white people.
The wish fulfillment is on display when the stereotyped white liberals get their comeuppance at the hands of the noble Chris. Peele does a great disservice to true victims of racism by reducing the tormentors to a group of straw men and women who are easily set aside. In real life, of course, racism is a far more complicated affair and sometimes the victims turn out to be as bad as their oppressors.
Get Out marks a new low in race relations with Peele setting a poor example for impressionable youth. Instead of trying to mend fences, Peele is content to present African-Americans as perennial victims at the hands of stereotyped white tormentors. No race or ethnic group has a monopoly on benevolence despite Peele's lame and misguided outlook to the contrary.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After ten long years, Mel Gibson is back in the director's seat.
Certainly he needed some kind of self-reclamation project given the
debacle a decade ago involving some drunk driving and words overheard
by an arresting officer that were deemed anti-Semitic. Gibson might be
a little like German director Leni Riefenstahl, who for years asked
when the statute of limitations would run out on her collaboration as a
documentary filmmaker with the Nazis.
Gibson somehow needed a project that would ameliorate the notion of his past narratives infused with hyper-violent tendencies. He perhaps found it in his choice of Desmond Doss, the Army medic awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during World War II, despite also refusing to pick up a rifle during combat. Ben Croll writing in IndieWire grasps the paradoxhe finds that Hacksaw Ridge is "a movie venerating pacifism, made by a man pathologically beguiled by violence."
Gibson however provides a rather chaste back story for his pacifist protagonist, chronicling a childhood replete with an abusive father and an incident which leads to his embrace of non-violence when he almost kills his brother during a fistfight (encouraged by the father). After saving a man hit by a truck, Doss (Andrew Garfield) meets nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) at the hospital in his home town of Lynchburg, Virginia (Gibson filmed most of this on location in Australia). There's a series of rather perfunctory courtship scenes finally leading to Doss' decision to join the Army.
The action picks up as Doss must endure basic training where he is harassed by his fellow soldiers who don't respect his Seventh Day Adventist pacifist beliefs. He also is singled out by the company drill sergeant who makes an example of him in front of the troops. When he is finally court-martialed for insubordination (failing to obey orders to pick up a rifle), there's a rather unconvincing scene where his father obtains a letter from a brigadier general with whom he fought in World War I, and presents it to the commanding officer at the court martial which leads to all charges being dropped.
Gibson's talents, however, are on display in the combat scenes at the battle for Okinawa. The soldiers are forced to climb up the Maeda Escarpment (also known as Hacksaw Ridge), where they come up against scores of Japanese troops, mostly hidden in caves. Gibson proves to be a master at choreographing the battle, which depicts massive losses of life on both sides.
Doss' heroic achievement is highlighted as he climbs back up to the main battlefield and drags wounded soldiers to the edge of the cliff and lowers them down using cleverly knotted ropes. All the while, the Japanese are a short distance away about to pounce. Doss eventually is wounded himself and just makes it back down to join his already decimated unit.
Despite being highly entertaining, the film exhibits what Christopher Gray writing in Slant Magazine, perceives as an overly pious stance here: "The eponymous 350-foot high ridge itself is a resonant image of Desmond's ascension, and Gibson finds more opportunities to place him in baptismal and Christ-like poses. It's all deeply silly and occasionally risible, but it's also undeniably canny, a throwback entertainment that somehow successfully integrates a lofty sense of piety with an unyielding taste for bloodlust."
Jessica Kiang writing in The Playlist is even more critical of Gibson whom she perceives as a tad bit self-righteous: "But this tale of real-life heroism seems less a celebration of humanist convictions than a glorification of religious intransigence and a declaration of the moral superiority of the faithful over the faithless."
Has Gibson redeemed himself for his own past personal sins? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The piousness is still there as well as the aforementioned "taste for bloodlust." Nonetheless this is a director who is still quite talented and can draw the viewer in by depicting war as spectacle with a calculated verisimilitude.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Having recently seen Pixar's entertaining computer animated
comedy-drama Finding Dory, I was expecting something comparable from
Disney with Zootopia. Unlike "Dory," which features a mixture of
anthropomorphized fish characters playing off against humans, Zootopia
features a world completely populated by non-human mammals (as well as
some rodents thrown in to boot).
The world of Zootopia posits the cessation of hostilities between the 10% of "predators" versus 90% prey in the animal kingdom. However, that doesn't prevent the existence of prejudice among the creatures of Zootopia. The protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from rural Bunnyburrow seeks to become the first bunny police officer. After ending up #1 in her class at the Police Academy, she becomes the first bunny officer in urban Zootropolis, a sprawling metropolis which features various ethnic neighborhoods such as Rodentia (a miniature city populated strictly by rodents), reflecting the ethnic diversity in human metropolitan centers.
When Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a surly, by- the-book ram with a British accent, assigns Judy to humiliating duty as a meter maid, we realize that the discriminatory treatment she endures is a metaphor for misogyny and prejudice against women in the workplace.
The appearance of the con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman)--as well as an earlier duplicitous fox character with a southern accent, Gideon Grey, back in Bunnyburrow--suggests that foxes appear to live up to their stereotyped reputations as manipulators and swindlers. Later on, Nick saves Judy and gives up a life of crime to become the first fox officer in Zootropolis. We learn that he initially went bad because of the prejudice he endured as a kid (the idea of an oppressed fox adopting the personality of his oppressor- -i.e. a criminal--doesn't seem like a far-fetched conceit at all).
While the Zootopia scenarists keep us guessing (and occasionally laughing a little bit) as to how the various denizens of Zootopia mimic human behavior, the bulk of the plot is more reminiscent of a film noir. Take away all the animals and replace them with real human characters and all that remains is a rather standard detective noir. In this case, Judy and Nick are the "detectives" who have 48 hours to find a Mr. Otterton--one of 10 predator mammals who have mysteriously disappeared from Zootropolisor else Judy will be forced to hand in her resignation to boss Bogo.
Judy and Nick's travails occasionally land them in some occasionally amusing worlds including a DMV office populated by extremely lugubrious sloths (the joke however, goes on for a little too long). Then there's "Mr. Big," who appears to be a takeoff on Marlon Brando as the Godfather. The twist is that he's a rodent and sits on the tiniest of thrones.
Rather than humor, Zootopia is more interested in social commentary as Judy and Nick finally find the missing predators who have been imprisoned at an asylum by the city's mayor, a lion bent on protecting the public from the predators who have reverted to a "savage" state.
Nick splits with Judy after she suggests at a news conference that there might be a "biological cause" for the predators' extreme aggressive behavior. Somehow her suggestion is interpreted the wrong waybiology becomes heredity in the eyes of animals like Nick, who represent the 10% of predators subject to discrimination. Zootopia takes on an even more heavy-handed turn when we learn that the predators have been injected with darts containing a serum made from toxic flowers. This turns out to be the "biological" cause Judy alluded to earlier which accounts for the crazed behavior of the "predators." Behind all this is a "Prey Supremacist" movementled by the newly minted mayor, Bellwhether, a sheep who was only recently the Assistant Mayor.
Could it be the 10%-- the "predators"--are a metaphor for minority populations, subject to racism and discrimination? And the prey supremacists is just another code word for "white supremacy"? All well and good but there's still one little problem herethose who engage in criminal activities (such as Nick the Fox), blame their immoral behavior on being victims of prejudice in childhood. Is that a valid excuse for immoral conduct? It seems that "personal responsibility" is a value that the film's scenarists are ignoring here.
Again the idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressors is a valid one, but Zootopia doesn't exactly deal with it in a completely honest way. Here the foxes are simply wily con men, with their chief (Nick), becoming completely reformed and willing to work within the system (Nick again is the first fox policeman). But what of those who choose to seek a life of violent crime? Where are these characters in the Zootopia universe? Only the "Prey Supremacists" are guilty of extreme, nefarious conduct. The Predators (foxes), however, are practically benignwith the idea that most will go straight like Nick and Judy's reformed childhood bully (the fox, Gideon Grey).
Zootopia unfortunately is an exercise in political correctness. While pointing out that prejudice is a bad thing (which of course is a very good idea)--the suggestion that the victims of such prejudice won't usually end up prejudiced themselves, is an example of wishful thinking. No one ethnic group should be held up as a paragon of moral superiority simply because they were victims of discrimination in the past.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Seven and a half hours in length and in five parts, OJ: Made in America
can best be described as "Everything you wanted to know about OJ (and
race in America) but were afraid to ask." OJ: Made in America is like a
giant jig-saw puzzle, and it's up to you to figure out the lessons
learned (if any) among the participants in the sordid spectacle known
as "The Trial of the Century."
Ezra Edelman produced and directed OJ: Made in America ("OJ:MIA") and was determined from the outset to show the connection between the OJ Trial and the history of resentment built up in the African-American community as a result of years (if not centuries) of discrimination, racism and outright violence perpetrated against it. Hence at the very time OJ came onto the scene as a star football player for the University of Southern California (USC), the Watts riots were happening right next door to the campus, depicted as a bastion of white privilege.
Ironically, the most popular man on campus at that time was OJ himself, who was determined to ingratiate himself with an all-white student body, oblivious to what was going on in the larger community right outside his doorstep. OJ was so determined to shed any connection to his black roots that you can hear him saying on the archival footage, "I'm not black, I'm OJ!"
It was no accident years later that OJ's defense team changed all the pictures in his house featuring his associations with a myriad of white friends and replaced them with pictures of his black relatives in order to give the majority black jury the impression that maybe he wasn't an Uncle Tom, as some militants had accused him of being during his years as a professional NFL player and Hertz rent-a-car pitchman.
By the time his playing days were over, OJ had basically given up most of his connections to the lower middle- class black community where he grew up, married Nicole Brown, a white woman, and moved to the gated "white" Brentwood suburb of Los Angeles. As he later admitted, he didn't pay much attention to the concerns of his fellow blacks as he was more determined to make it as a man of wealth and privilege in a white world.
Edelman spends a good deal of time chronicling the Rodney King beating incident and its aftermath in order to remind us of the injustice of the first trial and the resentment it caused in the black community not only in the Los Angeles area but across the entire country. It is within this atmosphere that the OJ jury was seated. Interviews with various community "activists" make it clear that most people in the black community saw OJ as a symbol (or cause célèbre if you will), with the verdict already pre-determined, as payback for the Rodney King trial.
This is borne out by one of two interviews with two actual jurors from the trial. Juror #9, a feisty older black woman, who asserted that 90% of the people on the jury had made up their minds from the beginning, not only as payback for Rodney King but as s he put it, "to protect our own." Juror #9 comes off in OJ:MIA as one of the most fascinating characters in the documentary. On one hand, she had little sympathy for Nicole Brown, unable to understand why domestic violence victims are unable to leave their husbands despite enduring horrendous physical abuse and constant psychological humiliation. On the other hand, Juror #9 is one of the few African Americans initially sympathetic to OJ who was willing to concede later on that he was probably guilty!
In contrast, Juror #2, a middle-aged black woman, is much more circumspect. She maintained that, because of their mistakes, the prosecution team failed to make their case. Unlike Juror #9, Juror #2 isn't willing to concede that the prosecution team was dealing with an inherently biased jury. But even barring that, the defense team still had to get around the problem of all of the victims' blood mixed in with OJ's DNA found at the scene.
Juror #2's solution is to dismiss all police testimony by basically blaming Mark Fuhrman as unreliable since she was personally offended by his use of N-word and lying about it on the stand. But the defense team argued that ALL the police (including Vanatter, the chief detective) were involved in a grand conspiracy to mix OJ's blood with the victims.
By that logic, any future defense attorney could argue that police testimony is tainted since you can't trust any of them due to inherent racism. The argument of a grand police conspiracy sounds even more ludicrous considering the victim involved. OJ was a friend of the police and even though a few had knowledge of OJ's abuse of Nicole, the police never stopped coming over to his house in friendship before the murders.
Juror #2 was probably right about the prosecution bungling the case but not for the "mistakes" she cites. Instead, it appears more obvious that the prosecution failed to challenge the ludicrousness of the defense's notion of a vast police conspiracy, accepted uncritically by an already biased jury.
OJ:MIA documents the shock many in the white community felt at what they regarded was an unjust verdict. Somehow they expected many in the African-American community to take the "high road" and look at the case objectivelyinstead, it was purely an "emotional" verdict based on years of resentmentthe "taste of victory" was more important than really analyzing the defense's flimsy case which was principally based on massive generalizations and crude innuendo.
In the end OJ did get his just desserts. He thought he was going to return to his regular routine only to discover that he was now a pariah and eventually an inmate to boot. For O.J.: what goes around, comes around!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director Mike Mills is back after six years with another sensitive
exploration of family life, following the 2010 release of Beginners, a
fictionalized story of his father who came out of the closet past the
age of seventy. Here Mills tackles a coming of age tale set in Santa
Barbara, California, circa 1979.
Mills' strong suit is his characters, all of whom exude a heady verisimilitude. The main focus is on the relationship between a divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning) and her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea has two boarders in her home: the 20ish photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and aging hippie carpenter William (Billy Crudup). Also in the mix is teenager Julie (Elle Fanning) who develops a platonic friendship with Jamie, and often sleeps over in Jamie's bedroom without his mother's knowledge.
Throughout the film, Mills provides a back story for each of the protagonists in a series of flashbacks, narrated in voice-overs by one of their principal counterparts (Dorothea's back story is narrated by Jamie, for example). He intersperses documentary footage and still images that correspond to the era in which each character grew up in. Titles of prominent books from the 70s also manage to find their way into the narrative as bookmarks of sorts, coupled with a soundtrack that features a combination of an ethereal-sounding theme along with late 70s punk music.
Each character has a distinctive history--whether it's the chain-smoking Dorothea, troubled by her lack of a relationship with a man; the equally troubled Jamie, pining away for Julie, who won't reciprocate his desire to become intimate, and fears that she's been impregnated by a teenager who's simply used her for sex; Abbie, dealing with a diagnosis of cervical cancer; and William, once a member of a hippie commune and unable to break his habit of desiring casual sex with women.
For a while, Mills' plot keeps one's interest. There's Jamie's rebellion against his mother which leads to reckless behaviorat one point, the rebellious teenager almost is asphyxiated while playing a deadly choking game with a group of other reckless teenagers. Abbie finds out that her cancer isn't fatal and also gets what turns out to be a false diagnosis that she won't be able to have children anymore. She also propositions William and they sleep together.
At a certain point (perhaps 90 minutes into the film), Dorothea reveals in a voice-over that she'll die of cancer in 1999. We're expecting Mills to wrap things up at this point but no, he drags his story out to almost an unnecessary two hours in length.
The problem is that there's little variation or suspense in resolving the problem in Dorothea and Jamie's relationship. Early on Dorothea tells Jamie, "we've got to talk," and Jamie replies, "whatever." It seems we hear the same thing at the end of the film which suggests there's little new to learn about the ongoing mother-son conflict.
Mills introduces a long-winded dinner table scene in which Abbie castigates those in attendance for being embarrassed talking about "menstruation." Later, Dorothea tells Abbie she's been a bad influence on Jamie, pointing him in the wrong direction with her new-found feminist interests.
Finally, the big "resolve" is hardly a bang and much more of a whimper. Jamie and Julie drive up the coast and settle in a cabin where Jamie's "nice guy" routine fails for the last time to entice Julie into bed. When he disappears, Julie frantically calls Dorothea, who drives up with Abbie and William, to find the errant son. But when they get there, Jamie has suddenly returned and the air feels like it's totally dissipated from the proverbial balloon.
The fate of the principals, so emotionally descriptive, is perhaps the best part of the film. The narration informs what happens to all the protagonists, with Dorothea finding happiness with a new man in her life and Jamie eventually reaching adulthood and fathering a child.
20th Century Women features good acting all-around, with Annette Benning aptly conveying the confusion of a mother whose teenage son displays stirrings of desire to leave the nest. Mills' characters are endearing but his episodic description of what happens to them eventually wears out its welcome. This is a film that could have been almost half an hour shorter and somehow Mills needed to think harder about how to build suspense and bring his 20th Century Women to a more satisfying conclusion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Those indie filmmakers contemplating a directorial debut should beware
of a dreaded contagion which I have dubbed "The Citizen Kane syndrome."
You don't exactly have to be a boy wonder such as Orson Welles to churn
out a well-received debut featureall you have to do is be a technical
virtuoso with a brilliant set design, highly original cinematography
and an experimental, gripping score that diverts your audiences'
attention from a screenplay that is so generic that virtually all
psychological complexity is lost. Of course Welles managed to avoid all
that until he substituted the stock melodramatic figure of his
protagonist Charles Foster Kane for the real-life William Randolph
Hearst, in the second half of what has come to be regarded as the most
technically innovative film of the 20th century.
Debut Director Brad Corbett also seems to have fallen victim to the "syndrome" in his rather specious take on the childhood of a wholly generic "Fascist leader." But before we examine the generic quality of his narrative, Corbett's talents still must be acknowledged. He has put together a story involving a period in history that is rarely covered these daysa behind-the-scenes look at the Versailles Treaty negotiations from the Allied point of view; what's more he's impressively employed Kane-like cinematography and music, creating a Gothic noir palette reminiscent of the German Expressionists.
That being said, Corbett's story that seeks to explore the roots of fascism, manages to hold few surprises. His anti-hero (played by the young Tom Sweet) is named Prescott (aka "The boy")--he's the son of a married couple, a German woman and a US diplomat, who has arrived in France as part of the team to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, along with the other defeated countries in World War I.
Corbett's narrative chronicles a series of tantrums the boy throws beginning with some rocks he hurls at parishioners leaving a church. The head priest tries to reason with the boy but his anti-social behavior continues. The mother's main crime, according to the film's scenarists, is that she overly-feminizes her son by failing to cut his hair short; at a certain point, the father's fellow diplomat mistakes the boy for a girl. On another occasion, the boy gropes the breasts of his French teacher--which I suppose is intended to suggest that he's acting out his Oedipal attachment on a more attractive substitute.
Eventually the boy parades naked in front of the father's assembled associates and then locks himself in his room and won't come out, despite entreaties from his mother and a sympathetic maid who is eventually fired by the mother for encouraging him in his rebellious proclivities.
Corbett takes a stab at blaming an authoritarian patriarchal culture for the boy's eventual descent into what appears more like Stalinism than Fascism at film's endit's the boy's father who gives him a nice little whipping after refusing to comply with his demands to come out of his room. Thus, the boy's childhood traumas at the hands of his parents, serve mainly as the director's explanation for his embrace of evil as an adult.
At the denouement, Corbett only offers a glimpse of his authoritarian martinet. And as argued before, it's a wholly generic portrait since we learn nothing about the future monster to be except that he's propped up by an adoring crowd of sycophants.
Corbett also indulges in generalizing about the average man's apathy in the face of evil. Echoing Satayana's famous quote ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"), he has one of his characters, Charles, a widowed British diplomat, quote the Sartre- influenced novelist John Fowles: "That is the tragedy: Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good."
Corbett's greatest failure here is to develop some of the ideas from his source materiala short story by Sartre (from which he takes the title of this film)in it, Sartre follows his protagonist who has a one-time affair with a pederast poet and then joins a group of youths, who assassinate a Jewish man on the street. This idea is also found in Rossellini's filmGermany Year Zerowhere a prepubescent boy murders his father after coming under the influence of a Nazi-sympathizer, a pederast, in post-war Berlin.
Encounters that prepubescent boys and young teenagers had with pederasts and certain kinds of homosexuals (not of the liberal persuasion)--as chronicled in such books as "The Hidden Hitler" and "The Pink Swastika"suggest that there may be more of a direct connection to adults joining fascist movements later on than what Corbett lets on here. Again, his rather tame speculation finds its roots in his simplistic, generic understanding of "evil"not based on true, real-life experience.
Still, Corbett is not without talent on a technical levela script with more psychological depth the next time around should afford him an opportunity to join the ranks of talented directors churning out compelling art-house offerings.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Working in cinema verité style, experimental filmmaker Jake Mahaffy has
fashioned his part social critique and documentary-like narrative based
on a true story about a faith healing gone bad. He employs only two
professional actors, Edwina Findley and David Harewood, and the rest
are culled mainly from the ranks of a Memphis Pentecostal church, where
most of the action takes place.
Findlay does well in the main part as Melva, the harried mother of an autistic child, Benny, very convincingly played by newcomer, RaJay Chandler. Melva doesn't know what to do with Benny, who is the prototypical infant terrible, constantly screaming and banging his head against the wall.
Mahaffy does well in what turns out to be a welcome social critique for the first half of his narrative. It's the psychiatric profession that mainly comes under fire here along with an indifferent social services bureaucracy that forces people like Melva, as a last resort, to seek help from a cult-like religious institution such as the Pentecostal church depicted here.
The bottom line is that the modern day healers, with their psychotropic drugs that do more harm than good, provide few answers for harried mothers such as Melva, pretending that they offer solutions to parents of autistic children, when they clearly do not.
Mahaffy is on less solid ground in his depiction of the faith healers. The place is run by the main healer, Mother (played by the real-life Prophetess Libra who runs the Pentecostal church), along with Bishop (blues guitarist Preston Shannon), Harewood's Abe is the one they rely on to do the actual faith healings as he's already supposedly cured someone of cancer and has a reputation of someone always volunteering to be saved at the onset of each service.
Mother's panacea consists mainly of clearing Melva's apartment of evil influences including Halloween decorations and that's about the extent we learn about the church-goers' mindset. Abe, far less communicative, is all fire and brimstone, and gets a little too physical with Benny during the exorcism, which leads to the tragedy of the boy's death.
Mahaffy doesn't really know how to build suspense so he's content to depict real services in the church one after another, imparting to the entire piece a rather lugubrious and repetitious feel. His characters too do not really appear to be fleshed out (i.e. developed) except for the aforementioned Melva, as her story turns out to be the most compelling.
Despite winning the Horizons section at the Venice film Festival, Free in Deed, is a minor work, which might have worked better as a documentary than a low-budget feature.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Christine is the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a 29 year old
television reporter working for a local TV station in Sarasota,
Florida. After watching the film, I wondered why I had never heard of
this story before because I'm usually up on news stories that make the
national news. The story however occurred in the summer of 1974, right
before I was entering my senior year of college and I believe I was
working as a camp counselor and didn't have access to any news during
that time. Before I go any further, I would like to insert a SUPER
SPOILERS warning here. If you haven't heard of this story before and
prefer to watch the film without knowing the big plot twist, then stop
reading HERE, go see the film and continue reading later on.
Before the shocking event at the end of the film, I kept wondering what was the point in chronicling the life of this news reporter. As the narrative unfolds, the story appears to be a real downbeat tale of a woman suffering from severe depressiona sad sack if you will who is hard to care for at all. As I say in all my reviews of films involving characters with weak egos-these are the "sad sacks" who simply do not make for good drama.
In the case of Christine, her internal character arc is headed in the wrong direction from the beginning. Physically she is facing the removal of an ovary which may seriously impact her ability to have children. Worse is the pressure she receives from her boss Michael at the stationhe insists that her human interest pieces do not garner good ratings and she should focus more on salacious crime stories. After she comes up with an idea for a documentary, Michael shoots it down and chooses another piece by Jean, her friend and camera operator at the station. This causes her to have a meltdown in front of all her co-workers, screaming at the boss, attempting to humiliate him by claiming his wife is an alcoholic.
Christine develops an interest in her co-worker George, an anchor at the station. When he brings her to a self-help group, she confesses that she's a virgin but would like to get married and have children. Perhaps the straw that breaks the camel's back is when George reveals that he's been chosen to be transferred to a more desirable market in Baltimore. This propels Christine to drive over to the home of Bob Anderson, the station owner, in the mistaken belief that he's also chosen her to move to Baltimore. However, he reveals that he's chosen Andrea, the sports anchor, to go with George. It's obvious that Christine regards this as a betrayal, due to the exaggerated image she has of herself.
After Christine convinces Michael to let her do a live report on the air, footage of a crime scene stalls and the shocking incident which I alluded to earlier, occurs. Christine announces that the station will air a live suicide attempt and then promptly shoots herself in the head with a gun resulting in her death.
So what exactly is the point in writing this screenplay in the first place? If someone decides to commit suicide as a heroic act (during wartime, for example), maybe there's a story in that. But here? I just don't see what's so compelling about this particular person's story. A character such as this really has nowhere to go.
Now think of successful filmsit's always about a person who has a belief in themselves. That person can be a good person or someone thoroughly evilbut it's always the ego-driven individual who makes for compelling drama. Just imagine George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," killing himself after Uncle Billy absentmindedly loses the bank's money. Do you really believe that such a film would be a TV staple broadcast every Christmas? I hardly think so.
Rebecca Hall stars as the hapless Christine. She does a fine job as do all the other actors in this true-life drama. If "Christine" has a saving grace, it's the recreation of the early 70s, an era that most of us baby boomers recall fondly, especially due to the heady days of Watergate, which figures prominently in the early segments of this film. Unfortunately all the nostalgic detail and good acting are wasted, as this meditation on suicide finds itself in an inevitable cul-de-sac.
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