The Good Place
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Black comedy that gets darker and darker (and crazier and crazier) as it proposes some "alternate reality" possibilities for late capitalism (with racial inequality simmering under the surface as a key concern). Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) is a telemarketer who is seduced by the perks associated with being a "power seller" (a role he attains by using his "white voice" â" not just a nod to double consciousness but an actual voiceover by David Cross; Patton Oswalt lends his white voice to another black character). His financial success causes tension with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a local artist who also belongs to an activist group protesting against a new company, "Worry Free", who offer lifetime contracts (including food and shelter but no other wage) for their employees. That company is run by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) who denies that he is dealing in slave labour (but Green soon finds that the power seller deals he seals are utilising Worry Free workers to make big profits for morally corrupt companies). His friends, also telemarketers (but not power sellers), are soon striking against the company in order to secure a living wage but Green remains a scab, until he stumbles onto a bizarre secret at one of Lift's parties. To say more is probably criminal â" you should enjoy the surprises this film has to offer on your own. Boots Riley may be new to directing but he has certainly grabbed the opportunity with gusto â" the film is bubbling over with (political) ideas, satire if you will, deep with meaning, but still so very freaky. Thumbs up!
I haven't read Flannery O'Connor's book (her first, from 1952), which must be quite weird, because this (supposedly faithful) adaptation by director John Huston is also very strange. It is hard to get a good grasp of the central character, Hazel Motes, who returns from the war (WWI in the novel, but given the 1970s cars on display here, perhaps Vietnam for the movie) and soon takes up preaching an anti-religion ("the Church of Christ without Christ"). Brad Dourif plays Motes as perpetually antagonized ï¿ 1/2" by almost everyone he meets, but especially by con men posing as preachers (as played by Harry Dean Stanton or Ned Beatty). Perhaps this has something to do with his (now deceased) grandfather, played by Huston himself, who was also a preacher. A distant memory has Hazel filling his shoes with rocks as a child, potentially as a punishment for sinning. Soon, he turns to similar self-punishment as an adult (after a particularly violent act against a false prophet). But this synopsis may make Motes seem more focused than he appears in the movie ï¿ 1/2" he is purposeful but his goals are unclear (perhaps even to himself?). An odd subplot involves another young man, new to the city, who wants to help Motes find a "new Jesus" but ends up running around in a gorilla costume. To be honest, without reading the book, I'm at a loss when trying to discern the deeper themes of the movie (based on O'Connor's Catholicism, they say). In the end, Motes is sacrificed but has his spiritual purging led to salvation? Or is Huston criticizing the sort of lunacy that can lead to such an end? All told, the movie's resistance to easy understanding makes it that much more compelling ï¿ 1/2" and its dead-end ï¿ 1/2~70s' vibe is always a pleasure (see also Fat City, 1972).
This early Ken Loach film (his third â" and the one that immediately followed his first big hit, Kes, 1969) shows him continuing in a social realist vein, detailing the often grim lives of the working class in Britain. In a style that echoes the concurrent documentaries by Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles, we observe interactions between members of a family in a tenement house and sometimes discussing their problems with a psychiatrist. Wiseman may be the better reference point because Loach holds similar concerns about the amount of control placed on individuals by institutions â" in this case, parents/family but also the psychiatric institution and society itself. The screenplay was by David Mercer from his play, In Two Minds. Sandy Ratcliff (who died this year, 2019) plays a 19-year-old-girl, living with her domineering parents. She is clearly a victim of the generation gap and when she falls pregnant to her open-minded boyfriend, her mother forces her to have an abortion. The resulting depression leads to much conflict at home and eventually her parents put her into a mental institution. Fortunately, her ward/group is run by a progressive Laingian who clearly believes that parental and societal control are to blame for Janice's problems; however, soon he is fired by the hospital and she is moved to a new ward and given drugs and shock therapy. And things only get worse from that point on. Some consider this film propaganda but despite the nonstop oppressive things that happen to Janice, this is a story that deserves to be told, even though it is over the top (or perhaps especially because it is over the top). Loach is polemical but still allows us to see the confusion of the parents, themselves the product of a different era and subjected to the same types of control that they now seek to impose. Obviously, it is a vicious cycle that keeps the working class in their place (in a factory or similar). You probably want to choose an appropriate time to expose yourself to this one.
Blues rock isn't really my thing, so I haven't watched Scorsese's film about The Band's last concert in 1976 until now. It does come heralded by many others. So, in watching, I focused on Marty's directorial choices and the cinematography (by Michael Chapman but with assistance from LÃ¡szlÃ³ KovÃ¡cs, Vilmos Zsigmond, and others). The roving cameras are located onstage with the band and a lot of the footage is shot in extreme close-up on the performers (you can see how Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense, 1984, owes a debt to this film). Scorsese himself was part of the editing team for Woodstock (1970) and his choices here enhance the concert experience (even if we don't see the audience â" we ARE the audience). Somehow he manages to keep things interesting as each successive guest musician turns up (Ronnie Hawkins, Dr John, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers, Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison, and of course, Bob Dylan, who often played with The Band). And it wasn't long before the passion and joy of the players started to win me over; guitarist Robbie Robertson genially holds things together onstage and everyone contributes to the family feeling. Interview clips with The Band (featuring Scorsese himself) take us back to a different era, as does the overall conceit of the "Last Waltz" itself, revealing that most of these guys grew up in the 1950s. As punk and disco and new wave broke on the horizon, this must have seemed like a farewell to an era (even if we subsequently discovered that old music and old genres can be renewed by younger bands and also streamed forever).
Joaquin Phoenix plays cartoonist John Callahan (you'll probably recognise his style when you see it) who is paralysed in a car accident while drinking and subsequently joins Alcoholics Anonymous and goes through the twelve steps. If this sounds like "after school special" material, well it probably is â" but director Gus Van Sant and Joaquin Phoenix work hard to provide enough "edge" to keep viewers interested. Callahan seems to have been quite a character, although the twelve steps are suggested to have sanded some of the edges off -- if not in his controversial humour, then at least in his dealings with people (a positive thing). Jonah Hill plays Callahan's AA sponsor and it is probably a testament to the film's acceptance of all of its diverse characters that I didn't realise he was gay until it started to become featured in the dialogue and his AIDS diagnosis is revealed â" the film takes place mostly in the 1980s). Van Sant keeps things interesting with film technique â" lots of split screens (and moving split screens) to indicate the passage of time. He employs a lot of eccentric character actors in small parts who help to liven up the proceedings (Kim Gordon, Udo Kier, Jack Black, Rooney Mara, Carrie Brownstein). And of course, you can't help but confront your own hypothetical "what if" about being a quadriplegic (and your attitudes toward disability) or think about alcohol's negative role/influence/impact on society and our lives (and the excuses we employ to rely on it). Phoenix's acting is stupendous (as usual) and he disappears into the character â" but it is hard not to feel that the film is designed to be "good for you" at some level. But who said that's a bad thing?