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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Foreigner

Jackie Chan’s Quan is the “foreigner” not just because he’s “the chinaman” (as it happens: the politically incorrect title of the source novel)  but because he is the only main character of principle and honour. All the other figures — whether in politics or in terrorism —eagerly betray each other. Ethics and loyalty are foreign to them all. 
In the initial contrast, Quan dedicates himself to avenging the bomb killing of his last daughter (his other two having been killed by Thai pirates). Meanwhile, the ex-IRA Hennessy, now the Deputy Minister for Ireland, betrays his wife and marriage with an affair. His mistress betrays him on behalf of the new Irish terrorists. As tit for tat, Hennessy’s wife betrays him both maritally and politically. When she seduces Hennessy’s nephew, blood runs thinner than betrayal. Unfaithful in love, Hennessy is unsurprisingly exposed as a political turncoat as well. On all sides. 
The film presents modern civilization as a snake pit. For Quan, the one person of integrity, “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake.” Hennessy’s difference:  One end bites and the other doesn’t.” As Hennessy ultimately learns, the politicians can be as destructive and dishonourable as the terrorists.
Here’s the interesting point. At a time when the West is hung up on radical Islamic terrorism, abandoning their principles in fear of coloured attackers, this film establishes an Asian as its hero and moral centre, while resurrecting the all-white terrorism the Irish inflicted upon the British. This film refutes with history and drama the hypocrisy of white supremacy.
     This excellent thriller smartly addresses our times. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Churchill

Churchill’s anxieties about the looming D-Day invasion of France provides an insightful analysis of the elements of leadership, especially in war.
One key theme lies in his wavering between “valour” and “pride” as he plans to correct allies Eisenhower and Montgomery. He settles on “valour,” appending “pride” then dropping it. In the central thrust of this film Churchill needs sufficient pride to remain active but not so much as to imperil his wisdom and strategy. 
This Churchill is understandably roiled by his loss of stature over the years of the war, especially his eclipse by the late-comer Americans. His vanity threatens to undermine the mission, as he militates against the Allies’ invasion plans. The old soldier resents the loss of military authority in his political position. He’d rather wear the general’s uniform than the PM’s britches. 
Only the king’s change of mind prevents Churchill’s insistence on personally leading the invasion — with the king aboard as well— regardless of the dangers. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. 
  And yet there is virtue even in that mad proposal. The old soldier wants to lead his young charges not send them, especially into such mortal danger. “Follow me” is a more virtuous and effective call than “Get out there!”  
  Churchill is also paralyzed by his personal depression. History tells us he had that under control by that time, but director Teplitzky finds a deeper truth in having his Churchill paralyzed by the prospect of sacrificing thousands of his young troops in the mission. Churchill remains haunted by the slaughter he witnessed at Gallipoli, which helps account for his fear of the Allies’ all-in plans for the invasion. His stubbornness is a matter of responsibility as much as vanity. 
The film is framed by two scenes of Churchill walking the beach. In the first the tide evokes the blood shed at Gallipoli and he envisions the mass of dead young soldiers left ashore. His bowler blowing off and away even suggests he’s flipped his lid. Not without cause. At the end his walk is cleared of that haunting guilt. He doffs his derby and hoists it high in salute of the Allied invaders. It still blows away on the tide, as all leaders — as we all — do in time.  
In one scene Churchill kneels and prays to God for a horrendous rain that would force the Allies to suspend the invasion Churchill fears will colossally fail. Under the gathering storm of his anger, the old man’s prayer evokes Lear’s rage in his own storm, another powerful leader reduced to the margins and hence to madness. The rain comes, as if to reward Churchill’s prayer, but tauntingly breaks to allow the invasion.
Two women significantly affect Churchill here. Wife Clemmie is a constant moderation and support, pulling him out of debilitating anger and egotism. But the new secretary rises from his scorn to rouse him out of his pessimism, in order to hearten his people. This scene is the most sentimental in a sentimental story but it’s a necessary reminder that the strong individualism that prompts one into leadership runs the risk of becoming a reductive vanity. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It takes a Greek director — Yorgos Lanthimos — to revive the elemental power of Greek tragedy in a modern setting. 
Because this is such a primal story it could be the most powerful and disturbing film of the year. The characters speak in a kind of affectless tone, usually on banal matters (like how waterproof a watch is). The music alternates eerie silences with harsh nerve-wracking strings and drums. Shots of surgery and blood churn the stomach. The widescreen settings have an amphitheatrical stretch. Alone among recent films, it sends you out in catharsis — “calm of mind, all passion spent.” It finally releases you, drained. 
A man’s misdeed brings down a curse upon his entire house that only his own immense sacrifice can expiate. That’s the essence of Greek tragedy, beside which our mundane stories of simple guilt, rationalization, mercy, forgiveness, and even human justice — the business of cops and courts — dwindle into insignificance. This is man powerless against the gods. 
This primitive drama involves a heart surgeon Steven Murphy and his ophthalmologist wife Anna. That is, the elemental force erupts in the seat of modern science, rationalism, humanity. Specifically, it's the sciences of feeling and vision. When the dpctor fails in his basic mission “to do no harm,” the professional curers are themselves profoundly afflicted. Their reason is helpless, irrelevant, once the old pagan gods have been stirred to ire. Hence, too, the absence of police here and the human justice system.
Dr Murphy was at least tipsy when his bungled surgery cost a man’s life. Murphy has not openly accepted responsibility or expressed his guilt. But he did attend the man’s funeral and stop drinking altogether. He also befriended the man’s orphaned son Martin, for whom he buys gifts and offers friendship as a sop to confronting his own guilt on any deeper level. 
Now Martin swells from orphaned son into preternatural agent of justice. For his father’s death has proved a curse on his house too. He and his mother — in different ways — crave Dr Murphy as a replacement for the dead man in their lives: “My mom's attracted to you. She's got a great body.” As an emblem of a repeated life pattern, the "favourite film" they're watching on TV is Groundhog Day.
This apparently thuggish kid reveals an other-worldly understanding. He has become the seer, the oracle who alone fathoms the root cause of the Murphy curse and its resolution. If Murphy doesn’t kill one of his children, his entire family will die. First they are paralyzed, deprived of appetite and will, then their eyes erupt in Oedipusian bleed, then they die. 
Of course these modern sophisticates deny this savage myth. Murphy in particular blames Martin for the curse he has only reported. Daughter Kim understands, because she wrote a paper on Iphygenia, Agamemnon’s daughter whom he has to sacrifice to atone for having killed a sacred deer. 
Kim is attracted to Martin and offers herself to him. In him she senses a worldliness — whether sexual or Classical Greek — apart from the others. Having initially assumed kid brother Bob would go (“Can I have your MP3 when you die?) she then volunteers to be Dr Murphy’s sacrifice. She knows the story.
The Murphys’ life is characterized by a kind of torpor. No-one has any zest for anything. The conversations are banal and wary. They worry about motorcycle helmets not their profound human fate.  Murphy and then Kim report her first period as if it were a head cold. All sense of the primeval has been lost. Anna feigns total anesthesia for her sex with her husband. He needs his delusion of a doctor's power, even there. His friend and anesthesiologist charges Anna a hand job for info. 
Facing the curse Steven tries coaxing, coercion, threats, even physical violence and the threat of murder, to shake the seer off his vision. Clinically, Steven turns to a school counsellor for advice on which child to pick. Anna sees his refusal to understand their predicament: “Our children are dying, but yes. I can make you mashed potatoes.” She marshals the will to free Martin from her husband’s futile abuse. 
In this moral vacuum both the doctor and the anesthesiologist blame the other for any failures in the operating room. This is the modern world with advanced science and culture but with stupefied emotions and a shallow sense of responsibility. Dr Murphy forbids smoking in the house, but his wife and daughter smoke outside. Martin accepts his recent addiction with the same resignation he seems to have accepted his role of messenger from the gods, to bring Murphy to their harsh justice.  
     This elemental tragedy is the prophet director’s harsh judgment on a world that evades its guilt and responsibility by suspending all conscience, all sense of a higher purpose than the mundane and worldly. The modern news cycle allows no time for the eternal. 

Virginia City (1940)

The title gives no hint, but Virginia City (1940)  is an interesting attempt to impose a national unity upon the America fractured by the Civil War. The current public dispute over the Civil War — its causes, its observances, its simmering schisms — gives the film particular pertinence.
The title seems a nod to the 1939 Dodge City, in which Michael Curtis first directed Errol Flynn in his western debut. There Flynn played a Wyatt Earpy sheriff bringing lawn order to an anarchic cattle town. 
Here Flynn plays Union Captain Kerry Bradford. He and two buddies tunnel out of a notoriously cruel Confederate prison, run by the courtly Vance Irby (Randolph Scott). The two antagonists meet again in … Virginia City, which assumes a symbolic significance. 
To the Confederates, Virginia City is a Southern city now under unwelcome Union control. To the Northerners. the city teems with dangerous Rebels. It feels a threat to both sides. That is, the same reality has contradictory perspectives upon it — as did the Civil War and America itself. And not just then.
The city is also home to three major mining companies, including the Comstock lode, making it the South’s financial centre even under Union hold. As the South is losing the war, three Virginia City mining moguls offer $5,000,000 in gold to the Confederate cause. Captain Irby undertakes the challenge of leading the wagon train to deliver it through Union lines and uncompromising desert. Captain Bradford has intuited this danger and undertakes to thwart it.  
This being an American film, the political clash between the Union’s Bradford and the South’s Irby has to be made significant by adding a romantic tension. Both love Julia Hayne (Miriam Hopkins), a Southern belle whom the war has reduced to saloon singer. She arranges for that big donation, draws Irby into his mission and — after meeting and falling in love with Bradford — expedites it even at the cost of betraying her beloved. As both men place their political commitment ahead of their romantic interest the film anticipates the triangle in Curtiz’s more famous Casablanca (1942). In both films, too, the Hungarian immigrant Curtiz unites conflictied Americans against a foreign enemy. 
In the film’s spirit of reconciliation, there is no villain on either side of this version of the war. As the dying Irby passes command onto his rival, they agree that in different circumstances they might have been — friends. 
The function of evil is instead vested in the Mexican marauder John Murrell (a risible casting of Humphrey Bogart). The fight between North and South, between Bradford and Irby, dissolves before the outside threat from the (i)outlaw and (ii) Mexican Murrell. Bradford leads his small troop to help the overwhelmed Southern train fight off the outlaws. The timely arrival of the Union soldiers wipes them out.   
Similarly, the film sanitizes the South’s cause by ignoring the issue of slavery. Indeed, the only negro in the film is a black wagon-driver who has a genial exchange of jokes with a Southern officer. With both sides led by respectful good guys and slavery forgotten, the film allows no reason why the war was ever fought. 
      Could this film be the source of the current president’s chief of staff General John Kelly’s understanding that the war was caused by a failure to compromise? I digress.
To secure the gold from Murrell, Bradford buries it in an induced avalanche. To leave it for the South to use in its reconstruction, he refuses to turn it over to the Union. For this he is charged with treason, court-martialled and sentenced to death. 
This gives his betraying chantoosie the chance to save his life by appealing directly to President Lincoln. Lincoln tells her the war is just now over — but mentions nothing like a “surrender.” Both sides are just agreeing to terms. As the killing must cease, he pardons Bradford. His romantic union with Miss Hayne emblematizes the reunion of America, the burial of past differences. 
Done.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

LBJ

There are three time schemes in this historical study of Lyndon Johnson, from his campaign against John Kennedy for the Democrat nomination, through Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s adoption and realization of Kennedy’s civil rights platform. 
Two are explicit. Director Rob Reiner intercuts (i) Johnson’s and Kennedy’s path from rivals to partners with (ii) Kennedy’s fatal 1963 visit to Dallas and Johnson’s succession not just to the office but to Kennedy’s civil rights cause. The effect is to keep us reading each earlier moment, action, speech, in the context of the larger tragic arc of the assassination. 
On this level the film dramatizes both presidents’ remarkable intelligence, skills, and savvy. At first Kennedy seems to be the more idealistic, but Bobby’s treatment of Johnson reduces the Kennedy family to the Lyndon level of political guile and manipulation. With Kennedy’s death Johnson reveals a surprising sensitivity, generosity and understanding of his larger responsibilities. 
In Johnson’s own terms, the film celebrates the effective superiority of the humble work-horse over the show-horse. Kennedy may have initiated the civil rights act but only Johnson could have realized it.
Reiner clearly intends to valorize Johnson, warts and all. We get a full taste of his vulgarity, profanity, slickness of machination, macho vanity, pragmatism and egotism. Nothing about Johnson is as pretty as the Kennedys. But he matures into the champion of democracy that the times required. 
He is also surprisingly knowledgeable, continually citing historic record — as well as personal anecdotes — to advance his position. However rough hewn Johnson’s manner, he is neither foolish nor ignorant. 
      Most of all Johnson personifies the political necessity of compromise. He realizes one has to let one's opponent save face if he is to concede anything. Politics for all doesn't allow a single side to win everything. Politics is negotiation not bullying.
Reiner frames out Johnson’s own racist record, his compromised relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (especially as they undermined Martin Luther King Jr) and his misjudgments on Viet Nam, which ultimately led to his departure. In short, Reiner prefers to emphasize the civil rights champion Johnson became rather than define him by his earlier folly. 
It’s the third time scheme that makes this film much more powerful and important than its value as a record of history. This film is implicitly but clearly about America and the presidency today. Kennedy and Johnson both stand as a reminder of what American presidents have been and must be, in implicit contrast to the present occupant of the White House.
In every virtue Johnson reminds us of what Trump lacks: his knowledge, his self-discipline, his submission to the nation’s highest ideals and needs, his compassion, his sensitivity to others, his political engagement and his effectiveness. Reiner’s Johnson is a rallying cry for the Democrats to unite to restore the nation’s honour and the office’s character.
The film takes place only 60 years ago, but it reminds us of the huge progress the political scene has made since then. As the film tacitly reminds us, there were neither women nor African Americans in the government of Kennedy’s and Johnson’s day. Johnson had to fight even to get recognition due a woman judge. This, of course, represents the historic progress that Trump is determined to reverse throughout his government to make America what he perversely considers “great again.
      In possibly the most resonant scene Johnson passes the Lincoln memorial and profanely acknowledges their common mission. That's a tacit reminder of the Republican tradition from Lincoln to the anti-Lincoln Trump. As a swaggering macho vulgarian who blossoms into a heroic president, Johnson is a model for what Trump might become. What the nation, indeed the world, world needs him to become. The odds are not good. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Suburbicon

This operatic black comedy sets two neighbouring stories in an idyllic 1959 American suburb. 
The opening real estate commercial sells the new neighbourhood as a secure, safe, self-contained American Eden. It’s the kind of neighbourhood where the mailman knows everyone by name. 
When an African-American family move in, the white bigotry is at first played as comedy. Here it’s the whites who ardently beg for the right to live there and who avow: “We shall overcome.” Director George Clooney assumes we assume that modern America has left ‘50s prejudice and complacency long behind. 
But maybe not. The black family’s neighbours demand the community build a fence to hide them from their view, a fence the families won’t have to pay for. Sound familiar? Clooney’s 1959 fable of racism and white corruption is a projection of Trump’s America, fence and all.  America then is America now. This twinning repeats in Julianne Moore playing both sisters, the victim and the killer.
The neighbours’ outrage swells, from refusing to serve the woman in the supermarket, through an assault by noise and rage, and finally mob violence. 
  In the second story a young white family man and executive Gardner Lodge initially seems the victim of a home invasion, which kills his wife (whom he had crippled in a car accident).  Turns out he and his sister-in-law have contracted the two thugs to murder his wife. They plan to cash in on her insurance and escape to Aruba. This neat scheme balloons into a grand guignol orgy of murders. Indeed even the All-American milk and PBJ on sliced white prove poisonous. 
The two stories connect through the two families’ young sons. They become friends, playing baseball. The African American Andy gives the white Nicky a garter snake. They talk through the old tin-cans-on-a-string phone. In the last scene the two boys play catch across their backyard fence, while the pallid infestation of bungalows spreads out to the horizon. 
The boys playing could be an image from the ad. But the innocence is gone. The Gardners, the wife’s siblings, the thugs, the corrupt insurance investigator, all are dead. The snake survives, an innocent reminder of the fall from the original Garden of Eden. Here it’s the people not the snake that are the threat to innocence. Even the shrewd insurance investigator — who should be the film’s agent of justice — proves a greedy self-serving fraud, whose falsehood deserves his death by a lye.
Can we grab hope from the two boys’ friendship? Not really. One is an orphan; the other is still in that threatened family. Anyway, we know that sixty years later the film’s dynamic continues to play out. The corrupt, violent white society blames the innocent blacks for all their issues, failures, moral compromises. In the film, while the neighbourhood whites assail the black family, the murderous fraud in their own midst unspools unchecked.   
     Clooney directs films with a political bite: The Monuments Men, The Ides of March, Leatherheads, Good Night and Good Luck, going back to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. This new work undermines Trump’s nostalgia for the lost “great” America by exposing the fraud, corruption and racism that remain powerful enough to have elected him. Like Trump, this idyllic suburbia is a con.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Florida Project

The title “Florida Project” refers to (i) the projects type of crammed, seedy community these working and unemployed denizens are crammed into, and (ii) writer/director Sean Baker’s undertaking to record the life children and their single moms live in the American underbelly. 
This Florida digs beyond the fantasy of Disneyworld to the seediness of the cheap motel where the transient can afford to take temporary root. This is the world that the liberals disdain, Hillary’s “deplorables,” the people who see no other hope than voting for Trump. 
In an early scene a honeymooning couple find they’ve mistakenly booked into the cheap motel Magic Castle, not the nearby Disney luxurious fantasy. At the end little Moonee and Jansey run toward that Disney dreamworld, in futile attempt to escape their unaccommodating reality. Their mistake is the reverse of the first.
Tom Sawyer meets Thelma and Louise
The bulk of the film is the moving spectacle of Moonee and her friends bouncing through a life of simple adventures. Fueled on sugar, the kids are constantly running, dancing, jumping, doing everything especially the forbidden. “We’re not supposed to go into that room. Let’s go in anyway.” The blackout they cause the whole motel brightens their day, their unharnessed mustang spirit. 
When they burn down the vacated condo complex the blaze excites the kids and adults alike. But it forces a rift between the two kids’ mothers, Moonee’s Halley and the girlfriend who has been giving them free food from her diner. 
The motel moms provide a spectrum of responsibility. At one end is the African American grandmother raising her daughter’s child. She knows discipline should not be fun. Then there’s Scooty’s hard-working waitress mom who is close and generous towards Halley until she feels her son endangered by Halley’s negligence, then violence. These women don't want everything handed to them -- just the chance to make it on their own.  
At the other end, Halley is more immature than her six-year-old daughter. To earn money Halley lives on the fly, hawking cheap perfume, feeding off friends and fraud, finally turning to prostitution, which loses her first her best friend then Moonee. 
Apparently Moonee has not been going to school. She has to be told what “recess” is, because her life has been one long recess. So has Halley’s, which makes her eventual loss of her daughter inevitable. Tragic, but inevitable. 
The film’s themes and emotions are propelled by the children’s amazing performances, especially Brooklynn Prince as Moonee. In the concluding wallop Moonee runs to Jansey not to seek refuge from the social agency — which we first expect — but to say goodbye. She knows she has lost her freedom, her mother, her particular childhood. Despite her rebellion she's resigned to her change.
When the once goodie-goodie Jansey takes her hand and runs away with her, the kids make one last grab at the life they want to live. Like their mothers, they’ll have to lapse into the life to which their social and economic status restricts them. 
In the opening shot, the motel wall provides an abstract composition of pink and grey. The two squirming kids seated in front of it inject life into that abstraction, as the characters do to terms like “the projects” or “the deplorables.” 
Indeed the range of settings frustrates any attempt at generalization. The motel embodies the life Florida tourists ignore. The commercial landscapes are a surreal eruption of crazy buildings and garishness. 
Against those two forms of denaturedness, two scenes find Moonee freeing her imagination in escapes to nature. In one she sits in what she declares her “favourite tree”: it fell over but still carries on. That prefigures her own prelapsarian conclusion. Then she takes Jansey on “safari” — to a field of cows. The games and adventures Moonee keeps inventing are her spontaneous attempt to imagine a richer life than her situation provides. It’s a livelier alternative to her mother’s armour of tattoos.  
Presiding over this world is motel manager Bobby. Willem Dafoe is more familiar as an edgy, crazy character, which lends weight to the moral and character centre he plays here. His responsibility continually pitches him against Moonie’s mischief and Halley’s truancy. But he cares for them both. He achieves a modest heroism when he spots and assails a child molester, then when he drives off Halley’s threatening john. But when the social agency and police get involved, Bobby can only stand aside, sympathetic but helpless. 
Bobby tries to keep up the motel’s image. He repaints the walls and plans to fix the washers. He tries to enforce the laws. The owner instructs Bobby to have the tenants move their bikes off the front balcony. Clearly he wants to upscale the place — like the other motel Bobby tries to get Halley into. The wheels of the economy grind on. Soon even this Magic Castle will go upscale, casting out its desperate tenants and challenging them even more. 
     These are the characters America has left behind. To save America the Democrats have to understand and address them.