Surrender Ruthie

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore provides us with a protagonist whom the world has surrounded with assholes. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is a depressed nurse’s assistant; she has to put up with vulgar hospital patients, people who cut in line at the grocery store, and people who let their dog poop on her lawn. Then her home is burglarized. Her laptop and silverware are gone. The world is telling her to give up.

But then the world goes an asshole too far. The police detective assigned to her case blames her for the burglary (she may have left her back door unlocked), and he makes it clear he will be expending little effort on her case. So when the tracker on her laptop goes off and police help is unavailable, Ruth goes after the computer herself. She takes along a new friend–the dog-poop guy, Tony (Elijah Wood), who turns out to have been absent-minded rather than hostile while walking his dog. The rest of the film has the duo reclaiming Ruth’s belongings and tracking down the burglars, who prove to be both dangerous and inept.

The movie has its antecedents. Writer/director Macon Blair previously starred in Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, another film about someone avenging a wrong. This film is considerably lighter in tone. At one point Ruth steals a random lawn sculpture from one of her antagonists, and one is reminded of The Dude appropriating a rug from the home of millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. Homespun justice.

Humor and suspense are not easy to get right, and combining them adds a challenge. Blair’s film is up to it.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (reviews)
Directed and written by Macon Blair
Running time: 96 minutes
Awarded the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Streaming on Netflix

The Image and the Idea

In 1943, an elderly sculptor lives with his wife outside a village in the south of France. One day the wife spots a young woman sleeping in a doorway, and she invites her to model for her husband, in return for lodging and pay. Thus begins a subdued tale, told on crisp black-and-white film in The Artist and the Model. Sculptor, wife, and model are played by Jean Rochefort, Claudia Cardinale, and Aida Folch, respectively.

The young woman poses, and the sculptor sketches, and he shapes some perfectly fine figures, but he awaits the flash of inspiration that produces exceptional art. In a memorable scene, he shows his model an example of what he is looking for: a Rembrandt drawing of a group of people gathered around a small child. The sketch has captured an idea–the child’s first step–which animates the whole scene brilliantly. The model’s poses have been all right as poses, but so far there has been no idea, no deeper reality, behind them. And that reality cannot be imposed by the artist; it has to arise organically.

Other characters enliven the film and eventually provide that artistic spark: a housekeeper, village boys curious to see a naked woman, an admirer of the artist, and a Resistance fighter.

Good film.

The Artist and the Model (reviews)
Directed by Fernando Trueba
Written by Jean-Claude Carrière and Fernando Trueba
Running time: 105 minutes
Languages: French, Spanish, and Castilian
DVD release date: February 11, 2014

Free-Range, um, Learning

Approaching the Elephant takes us through a year of a newly-opened free school in New Jersey. It’s … a rough time. Elementary-age kids decide on what classes they want to take and participate democratically in the governance of the school. They do not always act wisely, and the adults at the school show amazing commitment and restraint. It’s a delicate experiment, likely to fall apart if subjected to any students with serious behavioral problems. And guess what….

The film is black-and-white and strictly observational. Audience members must draw their own conclusions, possibly after several drinks.

Approaching the Elephant (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Amanda Wilder
Running time: 90 minutes

The Animators’ Studio

Fans of Studio Ghibli should enjoy The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, which shadows Hayao Miyazaki and his co-workers during the development of The Wind Rises. A highlight is the search for an actor to voice the main character, which starts off with an “absurd” suggestion and ends surprisingly well.

Besides the contemporary eavesdropping, the film reviews Miyazaki’s career from its start, including his relationship with the other giant of Japanese animation, Isao Takahata. A nice bit of history packed into a two-hour film.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (reviews)
Directed and written by Mami Sunada
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
DVD release date: January 27, 2015

S-City

Detropia, which looks at the woes of current-day Detroit, does not take the traditional approach of rounding up statistics and talking heads and finishing with “and here is how all the problems will be solved.” Stats are cited, but mostly we get individual (non-professional) observations about the state of the city–video bloggers, performing artists, auto workers, and people in declining neighborhoods have their say. It works (the film, but not the city, unfortunately).

Detropia (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Running time: 86 minutes
DVD release date: January 15, 2013

Native Son

Much has been written about the superb documentary O.J.: Made in America–how it takes its time getting to the double-murder and trial, showing Simpson’s early life and football career and detailing the history of the LAPD and its relationship with the black community; then depicting the trial; and finally laying out Simpson’s decline into seediness and tragedy, as the Establishment finally gets its revenge. I’ll just add two thoughts.

The gut-level loathing that many people had for Marcia Clark reminds me of the deep-seated hatred expressed toward Hillary Clinton in this century. Certainly there are reasons to dislike each woman: Prosecutors in general can come across as soulless devourers of their prey, and Clinton has had plenty of stumbles as a politician. Still, something in these women triggers an intense, irrational response, and I’m sorry and grateful that I can’t begin to understand it.

Much of the Simpson trial is a reverse-image of the recent documentary series, Making a Murderer. In both cases, there are disputes about blood evidence and suggestions of a police frame-up. Of course there are big differences in the cases, but perhaps the most critical is the disposition of the juries. In the context of the police’s historic misconduct, the Los Angeles jury was disinclined to give the prosecution an inch. But in Wisconsin, the jury ignored questionable behavior by police investigators in reaching its verdict.

O.J.: Made in America (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Ezra Edelman
Running time: 478 minutes
DVD release date: July 19, 2016

Because Humanity

Terraferma is set in current times on a small Italian island, where fishing is a fading industry but tourism is growing. A fisherman and his adult grandson are returning to port with their catch when they encounter a boat loaded with refugees, a few of whom jump into the water. In defiance of official instructions, they save the jumpers from drowning–the fisherman lives by a code of never leaving anyone in the sea. This gets them in trouble with the carabinieri, intensified by the family’s decision to secretly shelter a pregnant Ethiopian. There’s another subplot involving tourists staying at the family’s home, but primarily this film is about private compassion in conflict with governmental harshness.

The actors are all camera-pleasingly handsome, and some critics find the morality play too simplistic, but I thought the story was compelling enough.

Terraferma (reviews)
Directed by Emanuele Crialese
Written by Emanuele Crialese and Vittorio Moroni
Languages: Italian, Amharic, and Sicilian
Running time: 93 minutes
DVD release date: January 14, 2014

* * *

Don Verdean has a good cast performing (mostly) below their game and an indifferent script that falls apart like a century-old one-hoss shay. Sam Rockwell plays a religious archaeologist, Amy Ryan plays his assistant, and Danny McBride plays his financial backer in an expedition to recover the Biblical Goliath’s skull and nothing is funny–oh! how it hurts to remember–except for a few mildly zany moments from Will Forte as a rival religious leader.

Remembering Mohammad Rasoulof’s Iron Island isn’t painful, but it is like looking back on a junior-high social studies class, where everything was dull and obvious. A variety of people have taken up a squalid residence in an abandoned oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Their lives are minutely controlled by a “captain,” who shields them from contact with the rest of the world, regulates interactions between men and women, and so on. My own cut of this film would be identical to the one in circulation, except that every frame would be watermarked with the word ALLEGORY in big block letters.