Vice

January 3, 2019

Vice is a biographical film about Dick Cheney, written and directed by Adam McKay.

This film came out at a propitious moment. All too many are now looking back at the Bush Administration with rose-tinted glasses. McKay’s film reminds us that it was actually a disaster, the consequences of which we are still living with. And it subtly implies that Trump is one of these consequences.

The film follows the rise of Cheney (Christian Bale) from working as a lineman in Wyoming to becoming Vice President, and, arguably, the most powerful man in the world. However, this film is almost equally about Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who acted as a sort of Mephistopheles to Cheney, when the latter was young. Cheney became a Congressional aide to Rumsfeld when he was in the House of Representatives. When Rumsfeld joined the Nixon White House, he brought Cheney with him. As Nixon and Kissinger are planning the bombing of Cambodia, Cheney says to Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rumsfeld responds by laughing. The answer is left unstated: beliefs are unimportant. Only power is important, obtaining it and wielding it.

The film ends with Cheney truculently defending everything he did. The implication is that we can’t get rid of the Dick Cheneys of this world. The most we can hope to do is to try to minimize the damage that they do. I think this is too grim. It is possible to build a better world. We just have to figure out how.

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The Death of Democracy

October 29, 2018

I recently read The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic by Benjamin Carter Hett. Hett is a professor of history at Hunter College.

Hett’s book gave me some new insights into the rise of Nazism. One thing that surprised me was the role that Lutheranism played. Hett notes that in the 1930 election, in which over a hundred Nazis were elected to the Reichstag, most of the Nazis came from Protestant areas in the north and east of the country. (And they mostly came from rural areas.) Lutherans tended to believe that only an authoritarian state would guarantee public morality. (Hett notes that even anti-Nazi Lutherans such as Moltke and Niemoeller tended to believe this.) What this tells us is that the “decadent Weimar” explanation of the rise of Nazism – as depicted, for example, in the film, Cabaret – actually gets things backwards.

Another thing that struck me is how deeply reactionary the German ruling class was at that time. They hated democracy, and they hated even the appearance of democracy. This was at a time when the ruling classes of Britain and France had come to accept democracy, however grudgingly. They knew what kind of person Hitler was, but they preferred to work with him rather than with the Social Democrats.

Hett clearly intends us to see parallels between that period and our own, particularly the dangers that can occur when a republic is controlled by people who don’t believe in democracy.

American Animals

June 25, 2018

American Animals is a semi-documentary fictional film that tells the true story of the attempted heist of an enormously book from the Transylvania University library.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is an art student at Transylvania University. He feels dissatisfied with his life. He believes that he hasn’t experienced enough of the world to be able to produce good art. He tells his friend, Warren (Evan Peters), about a rare book of Audubon prints in the university’s special collections library, a book that is reputed to be worth millions of dollars. Warren is a restless and disaffected youth who is bored with his suburban existence. He talks Spence into a plan to steal the book. They eventually enlist two other people, Erik (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), to help them with their plan.

Never having carried out a robbery before, they decide to learn by watching heist films. In one scene, we see them watching The Killing. The irony of this moment is telling. The Killing depicts a carefully planned robbery that gradually unravels due to a series of unforeseen circumstances. Although they don’t know it, the film foreshadows what will happen with their own plan. In another scene, Warren assigns fake names to everyone, mimicking a scene in Reservoir Dogs. An example of life imitating Hollywood.

It is perhaps a further irony that their own story is eventually made into a film. American Animals is a thought-provoking and deeply moral film.

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

June 29, 2017

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian writer who was enormously popular in the first half of the twentieth century, although his writings have since fallen out of fashion. A Jew, he fled his native Austria after the Nazis came to power in Germany. He went first to Britain, then to the United States, and finally to Brazil. He was impressed by what he saw as a lack of racism in that country. He believed that Brazil represented the future of humanity. In 1942, depressed over the success of the Axis forces, he killed himself.

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe, directed by Maria Schrader, based upon a screenplay by Schrader and Jan Schomburg, depicts the final years of Zweig’s life. What is refreshing about this film is that, unlike most biopics, it doesn’t try to impose a story arc on the subject’s life. Instead, we are simply shown scenes from Zweig’s life. We learn about Zweig’s relations with his family and about his deeply conflicted feelings about his role as a public intellectual. We get a sense of Zweig’s deep humanity and his consideration for other people. The final scene dealing with his death is understated and profoundly moving. This is one of the best films that I have seen so far this year.

A Quiet Passion

May 24, 2017

A Quiet Passion, written and directed by Terence Davies, tells the story of the life of the poet, Emily Dickinson (played by Cynthia Nixon). It follows her from her early years through to her death from Bright’s disease at the age of 56. It combines scenes from her life with voice-overs of her poetry. It is a subtle and understated film, but ultimately emotionally powerful.

One of the things I found interesting about this film is that it subtly implied that Americans became less religious and more secular after the Civil War. The first half of the film is filled with talk about religion, yet it’s barely mentioned in the second half. When, for example, Emily criticizes her brother for cheating on his wife, she does so in non-religious terms.

A Quiet Passion is a great work of art.

The Lost City of Z

April 30, 2017

The Lost City of Z tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early twentieth century, who believed that there had once been a large civilization in the pre-Colombian Amazon Basin. Fawcett and his son, Jack, disappeared while looking for the ruins of a city that Fawcett called “Z”.

This film is ostensibly based on the book, The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. (I haven’t read Grann’s book, but I did read a lengthy excerpt from it in The New Yorker.) Yet it actually has little to do with the book. Grann’s story is an account of his attempts to find out what happened to Fawcett, as well as to to ascertain whether there is any truth to his notion of Z. The film, however, is basically just a biopic about Fawcett. Which is OK, but it would have been better if the film had followed Grann’s narrative combined with scenes from Fawcett’s life. (Embrace of the Serpent, which also happens to be set in the Amazon, shows how effective a dual narrative can be.) Also, the film departs from Grann’s version of Fawcett’s disappearence.

Aside from that, I mostly enjoyed this film, although it dragged in some places. The scenes of Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) arguing with his wife, Nina (Sienna Miller) and his son, Jack (Tom Holland) are unconvincing, and they should have been left out. (Also, Holland is miscast as Jack. He looks and sounds like a teenager. It’s impossible to believe that he would have been allowed to follow his father into the jungle.)

The Lost City of Z is worth seeing, but it could have been a better film.

Get Out

February 28, 2017

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Get Out is a comedy/horror film that is written and directed by Justin Peele. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who is black, is engaged to Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), who is white. They go to visit Rose’s parents. While they are staying with them, Rose’s parents throw a party. at which many people show up. The behavior of the people at this party strike Chris as increasingly creepy.

Get Out is that rare film that manages to successfully balance comedy and horror. I have been told that some people have claimed that this film is “anti-white”. Seriously? I saw this film with a mostly white audience, and people were laughing, and they applauded at the end. It seems to me that only someone who is actually a racist would think this film is anti-white.

The Founder

January 31, 2017

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The Founder, written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, tells the story of the creation of the McDonald’s fast food chain and how it was eventually taken over by Ray Kroc.

The film begins in 1954. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a middle-aged salesman trying to sell five-spindle milkshake mixers to drive-ins, without much luck. One day he receives an order for six mixers from a restaurant in San Bernadino, California. His curiosity piqued by this, Kroc goes to see what this place is like. It turns out to be a burger stand called McDonald’s, owned and operated by the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch). Frustrated with the hassle of running of a conventional drive-in, the McDonalds have developed a factory-like approach to making hamburgers and fries. Kroc senses a potential gold mine here. He tries to persuade the brothers to let him franchise their business. However, the McDonalds are obsessive perfectionists. They don’t want to franchise because they won’t be able to control the quality of the product.

In the film’s best scene, Kroc manages to win the brothers over by making a patriotic speech. Sounding like a preacher, he says he envisions a day when McDonald’s restaurants will be found from coast to coast, and each place will be an “American church” where families can come together to enjoy good food. This is a striking depiction of the peculiar American tendency to combine hucksterism with idealism. As the film progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Kroc’s idealism is shallow. As the McDonald’s chain takes off, Kroc becomes more and more ruthless. “If one of my competitors was drowning, I would put a hose in his mouth,” he says to a shocked Mac McDonald, not long before he manages to wrest ownership of the company away from the brothers.

The Founder tells a tale that is a subtle variation of the Faust story, with Kroc as an evolving Mephistopheles, but which is nonetheless quintessentially American, with its depiction of the conflict between the desire to be principled and the urge to succeed .

Manchester by the Sea

December 27, 2016

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Having grown up in Massachusetts, I have fond memories of Cape Anne. So I forward to seeing Manchester by the Sea, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, which is set there.

Lee (Casey Affleck) works as a janitor. He is a sullen and withdrawn person, who is not well liked by his building’s tenants. One day, Lee gets a phone call saying that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has had a heart attack. When he arrives at the hospital, he learns that Joe has died. Lee goes to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the town where he grew up, to put Joe’s affairs in order. He learns, to his dismay, that Joe has appointed him as the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). We learn through a series of flashbacks that Lee’s own children were killed in a fire that he accidentally started. Lee doesn’t want to move back to the town because of the bad memories he has associated with it. He also has differences with Patrick, who wants to keep his father’s fishing boat, even though it is badly in need of repair. He also has encounters with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee has to take on the burden of responsibility for Patrick while struggling with his personal demons.

Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally honest film. I like the fact that the main character is never completely redeemed. This is not one of those “feel good” movies in which the crusty outsider is suddenly revealed to be some sort of hero. Lonergan has too much respect for the audience to play that sort of trick. Although Lee ends up helping Patrick to keep his father’s boat, he does so partly out of self-interest.

Manchester by the Sea is the best film I’ve seen this year.

The Stench of Corruption

December 13, 2016

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I think it’s possible to make too big of a deal about the revelation that Putin tried to meddle in the presidential contest. I think it should be clear that Russian interference was not the decisive factor in the election, rather the fact that Clinton didn’t run a very good campaign. A better candidate would have beaten Trump regardless of any Russian interference. However, I disagree with some of my leftist friends that this is no big deal. Trump has just appointed the CEO of Exxon, who has no political experience and who has business ties to Russia. I don’t think this is a coincidence. There is more than a whiff of corruption about this. The Trump administration is already set to become the most corrupt administration since Harding’s. And it looks as though Russia is going to play a big role in this.