The American Dream in a “Shitty-Ass Place”

When the fracking boom hit North Dakota a few years ago, a flood of hopeful oilfield workers converged on the remote, dreary town of Williston, which had precious little available housing. Some of those applicants found jobs, unpleasant-looking work that paid well. Successful or not, many of the outsiders lived in their cars, and many of those without cars found refuge in a local Lutheran church. Thus the setting of the documentary, The Overnighters.

Pastor Jay Reinke is the main character here, host and shepherd to an adopted flock of last-hopers. He takes the mission of Christian charity very much to heart; plus, his own sense of brokenness bonds him with the out-of-towners, many of whom are fighting their own demons. But the townspeople, prompted by an inflammatory local newspaper, work up a lather of fear over the strangers in their midst.

The film is an emotional ride, playing out much like a narrative film (although there is a final-reel twist that is too sudden and ill-timed to fit into a fictional story). It examines the desperation of the marginal and the nervous xenophobia of the shaky middle class, with a strain of America’s fixation on sex thrown in for good measure. It asks worthwhile questions, and honors their complexity by not answering them.

The Overnighters (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Jesse Moss
Running time: 101 minutes
DVD release date: February 3, 2015

* * *

I had every expectation of loving The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary on Aaron Swartz, the Silicon Valley enterpreneur who took his own life at age 26. A computer prodigy, he made his fortune as one of the founders of Reddit. This allowed him to devote himself to improving the world through technology. One of his ideas was a free encyclopedia, edited by lay people (an inspiration remarkably close to Wikipedia); another of his causes was to make public information more readily available. In particular, he wanted to free up court records and academic articles, which he found to be locked up by monopolies behind expensive paywalls. His hacking into the academic system brought him to the attention of a federal prosecutor, who appears to have concluded that a brutal public hanging might be just the thing to discourage other hackers. The assault by this zealot may have driven Swartz to kill himself.

It’s a gripping story, but two aspects of the film’s tone turned me off. First, the movie is bathed in sentiment, with an extensive segment devoted to home movies of Swartz as a precious, precocious widdle boy, and a reliance on the narrative voice of his two brothers throughout. Second, and even more off-putting, is the overbearing score. Much of the story is fascinating, but even if you’re not paying attention, the score will tell you exactly what you should be feeling at all times. Ugh.

“I Whistle a Happy Tune”

Happy, Happy starts with a family–Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen), and their adopted son Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy)–driving through a Norwegian snowscape to a country home they will be renting. The owners live next door: Kaja (Agnes Kittelsen) and Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen); they also have a son, Theodor (Oskar Hernæs Brandsø). Kaja greets the couple with so much warmth and such a broad smile that you wonder if she is (a) deceitful, (b) simple, or (c) in denial of something. For a few moments it appears the answer is (b), but with further exposure you realize she is massively insecure, and she is bullied by her husband and son.

But Kaja isn’t the only one in hiding. Elisabeth and Sigve haven’t quite dealt with an infidelity that prompted them to move away from the city in the first place, and Eirik has his own painful secret. As the two couples get to know one another, the happy masks slip off.

All of this denial and deceit is corrosive, but honesty doesn’t necessarily win the prize either. One character’s “honest” confession can only be seen as an act of cruel indifference. And the two boys, lacking adult social filters, play an ongoing innocent game of slave and master (Noe is from Ethiopia) that makes one queasy.

In fact there are lots of cringes in the watching of this film, as characters do bad things or have bad things done to them; but they show that the characters are drawn well enough that we identify with them. Eventually all this shattering of facades leads to an ending that is reasonable and satisfying.

Happy, Happy (reviews)
Directed by Anne Sewitsky
Written by Ragnhild Tronvoll, Mette M. Bølstad, and Anne Sewitsky
Language: Norwegian, with bits of Danish, German, and English
Running time: 88 minutes
Award: Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema–Dramatic, 2011 Sundance Film Festival
DVD release date: January 24, 2012

In the Bleak Larraín

Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem is a progression from gloom to despair; anyone looking for rainbows and happy smiles had better keep hunting. Mario (Alfredo Castro) is a funcionario (as he repeatedly describes himself) at a city morgue in Chile; he takes down the coroner’s dictated examination notes and enters them onto the proper form. Morose and awkward, he lives near a burlesque dancer, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), in whom he takes a romantic interest. But there is a greater drama underway: The democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, is being overthrown by the military, who are also rounding up and killing Communists and socialists. Members of Nancy’s family are among the potential targets, and Nancy goes missing. Corpses are brought into the morgue by the cartful, and examinations are simplified into the counting of bullet wounds.

The film’s colors are muted throughout, and the camera is generally still (using a very wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio), with long–almost overlong–takes. As the coup progresses, the buildup of horror is strongly conveyed, with almost the entire story seen as witnessed by Mario. This film gets under your skin and keeps digging.

Post Mortem (reviews)
Directed by Pablo Larraín
Written by Pablo Larraín and Matteo Iribarren
Language: Spanish
Running time: 97 minutes
DVD release date: August 24, 2012

Bantu Bizet

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, an adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen set in a South African township, is a joy. The film starts with a tribute to the “strange wild beauty” of the face of Carmen (Pauline Malefane), seated in a photographic studio; then the camera tracks rapidly backward through primitive, teeming alleyways and up above the corrugated-tin roofs of Khayelitsha. And we’re off.

The story requires strong acting by the cast and a charismatic Carmen. I remember swooning for Julia Migenes-Johnson a few decades ago, and Malefane is equally mesmerizing. Andile Tshoni is less showy but perfectly satisfying as Jongikhaya (a.k.a. Don José).

The two-hour running time requires significant cuts to the opera, which is a shame; the course of the affair between Carmen and Jongikhaya feels a bit rushed. But the African setting provides a few striking images, such as cattle crossing a bridge over a highway as the Act 3 entr’acte (moved to the start of Act 2) plays.

U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (reviews)
Directed by Mark Dornford-May
Written by Mark Dornford-May, Andiswa Kedama, and Pauline Malefane, based on the Bizet opera
Language: Xhosa
Running time: 122 minutes
Award: Golden Bear, 2005 Berlin International Film Festival
DVD release date: August 14, 2007

Oh, Bill

Anyone who loves animation should check out It’s Such a Beautiful Day, in which Don Hertzfeldt has knitted together his three “Bill” shorts (Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You, and It’s Such a Beautiful Day) into a feature film. Hertzfeldt uses a deceptively simple drawing style–some reviewers refer to the characters as stick figures, but they’re a bit more complex than that–that allows for quite a lot of expressiveness. Bill is a sort of everyman, usually wearing a porkpie hat, who often struggles with moderate to severe neurological problems. Generally comic or absurdist, the film shows Bill’s everyday life, also looking back to his (imagined?) ancestry and childhood and forward to his (possible) demise. The presentation is philosophical without being self-important, imaginative, and almost always fascinating.

(If you’re unfamiliar with Hertzfeldt’s out-there sensibility, check out the bizarro couch gag he drew for The Simpsons last year.)

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (reviews)
Directed and written by Don Hertzfeldt
Running time: 62 minutes
DVD is available via the animator’s website

In a Funk

Memphis, a portrait of an artist going nowhere, goes nowhere. This is okay, though it will not please those who can’t abide meditativeness. A singer (Willis Earl Beal) owes his label an album, but he can’t summon his muse, so he wanders around Memphis, wondering if his career is over. The camera follows him about, or sometimes it goes to his church, or follows friends of his, such as the guy telling about a fight he got into. This isn’t a story but a reverie, with trees–lots of big, sheltering trees. This movie could have been called Trees of Memphis.

Memphis (reviews)
Directed and written by Tim Sutton
Running time: 78 minutes
DVD release date: January 13, 2015

Ultraviolent

Bronson is Nicolas Winding Refn’s biopic of the “most violent prisoner in Britain,” a man who called himself Charles Bronson. Born Michael Peterson to middle-class parents, he was a bright student and got on well with other children. But by his teenage years, he developed a taste for fighting and other bad behavior, resulting in several run-ins with the police. At 22, he was imprisoned for armed robbery. He spent much of his time in solitary confinement because of his tendency to attack other prisoners. His violent behavior eventually landed him in a mental facility, where he spent several years. He showed talent as a writer and artist and was returned to the general prison population. He continued to be violent and disruptive, but he was eventually released. At liberty, he was recruited by a street-fighting promoter, who suggested he change his name to Charles Bronson. But soon he was returned to prison after robbing a jewelry store.

In the film, Tom Hardy plays Bronson, and he plays him big, as a jolly warrior; leading up to every brawl, he is as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. Winding Refn puts this outsized character in a garish package, with stylized action choreographed to Wagner and Puccini. (The sequence accompanied by Siegfried’s Funeral March is particularly well-matched.) And knitting the whole story together are segments of a fantasized narration by Bronson to a music-hall audience. It’s the sort of directorial excess that can elevate or destroy a film; here, it works.

Bronson (reviews)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by Brock Norman Brock and Nicolas Winding Refn
Running time: 92 minutes
DVD release date: February 9, 2010

* * *

Essential Killing might have been all right as an ordeal film, but it aspired to loftier things and face-planted. It’s a bit mean to stand on the sidelines and criticize someone for being ambitious, but here I go anyway.

Mohammed (Vincent Gallo) is an Afghan fighter who is captured by Coalition forces, briefly tortured, and taken prisoner to central Europe. By accident he gets free, but he finds himself, midwinter, in snowy mountains. The main part of the film is his attempt to avoid recapture and stay alive.

Mohammed is a good fellow; he doesn’t speak, and he only kills when forced to do so by circumstances. An early scene shows him in captivity with a good bit of snot hanging from his nose; by this sign we know he suffers. Later, in the woods, he suffers other tribulations. Hungry, he eats berries that induce hallucinations. Symbolism breaks out: He sleeps in a manger; he puts on white camouflage; ravenous, he spies a woman who stops her bicycle just in front of him to nurse an infant. And then there’s the white horse.