A fistful of films for 2016

Suffragette

Directed by Sarah Gavron

The privilege many are still lazy about actualizing – that of voting – was hard fought a bit more than 100 years ago.  The campaigns waged by both British and American suffragists were years long, unaided by their menfolk, and notably bloody.

For those unfamiliar with their battle for the vote in the 1910s until the vote was finally won for the distaff side, this film will be a compelling surprise.

The details are made clear by the focus on one woman, a wife and mother, played by Carey Mulligan.  She keeps her husband, who also works in the laundry she toils in, and her darling son, and works long hours for a pittance.

Though she is too tired to be political, and would not have thought to wage war against the Parliament and the men who considered women too dim and undeveloped and unserious, she is inadvertently present for a suffragist action in London in 1912 and finds herself drawn in at the evident passion of the women, as well as the clear abuses she is forced to face: daily harassment, belittlement, and sexual advances by her boss, even though she is at 24 a manager of the laundry.

She and many of her colleagues, married and unwed, are the souls of propriety, genteel persons who would be welcome in any circumstance – but not when they pledge to the cause.  Meryl Streep stands on a balcony, the “pope” of inspiration to these women, but even she, well-connected to government, cannot stop the abuse, beatings by police, and reiterative jailing.

The period is well evoked with the gorgeous trolley-buses of the time, the period costumes and hats, the male dominions barred to females as a matter of course.  Helena Bonham Carter plays a doctor who helps the effort and is in turn beaten and harassed; Brendan Gleeson, the police commissioner who cannot fathom why the ladies should choose to riot and rally despite his strongest efforts, secret surveillance, and cautions, is, as usual, impeccably hateful.  Ben Whishaw does an uncomprehending and unsympathetic husband as well as he can, given his unpleasant role.

Her privations, including the painful abandonments she suffers on many levels, bring home how holding onto one’s beliefs when others disagree was echoed by hundreds of women both in the United Kingdom and in the U.S.

All that being the case, though these incandescent women seeking what was by right well past time, the suffragists in the United States suffered even worse brutalities and abuses.

A postscript scroll notes the years – last century and this – women got the vote after their signal achievement.

You will be stunned at how recently many so-called civilized nations accorded women the right to pull the lever.

Son of Saul

Directed by Laszlo Nemes

Going farther than Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Son of Saul tracks with relentless, dogged camera intimacy two days in the life of a Sonderkommando in an unnamed concentration camp, likely Auschwitz.

This critically acclaimed debut feature by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, the story of a Jewish Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, was developed in the Sam Spiegel International Film Lab.  It features a sinewy performance by Israeli actor Amitai Kedar.  It has come in for some criticism, too, for getting official Hungarian development monies for this Holocaust-witness “documentation.”

The personalization of focus, on the desperate, brutal, deprived ugliness of the work, with the noise level at a painful din – a roar, scream, rushing vortex of sound consisting of Germans barking at the terrified, clanging iron doors, dogs, screams – Oberkommandos shoving and beating them constantly for the tiniest infraction, or none, brings the situation closer to the viewer.

Saul never looks directly at any German, holding his cap servilely when accused or spoken to.  Like lower orders of animal that will not challenge the stronger animal by direct eye-to-eye gaze.

The picture mercifully, and wisely, blurs all the garish and gruesome elements around the Auslander, so that the bodies piled up, the “pieces” dragged out for incineration (as the Germans refer to dead Jews), and the edges of naked and starving humanity are literally blurred in the film, as they blur, no doubt, in the eyes of the men doing this hellish labor.

We are either directly in front of Saul Auslander (“outsider”) or directly behind him throughout the painful two hours.  We see him corralling Jews of all ages as they emerge from the cattle cars or from the woods.  We see him emptying the ashes of the crematoria, scrubbing the floors, along with his other comrades privileged to live a few months, at the most, longer than those they saw locked into the gas chambers.  He scrubs away the blood, egregious fluids, excrement, bodily wastes, and flesh parts of the dead.  The Sonderkommandos were the only non-Germans who knew what the fate of incoming Jewish hordes would be.  They could not let the newcomers know what awaited them as the newcomers dutifully hung up their clothing on hooks and were told to “remember their numbers.”  And they knew, too, that their days, too, were numbered, despite the infinitesimally better provisions they were given.  Their small efforts at defiance, stolen in moments of snatched whispers, are heroic, if quickly extinguished.  They are kept busy, but they retain their steely hope for escape.

Nemes has won plaudits for this work in film festivals worldwide.  He uses Kedar, who is in conventional life a teacher at a NYC university but who is unknown to the American film-going public.  His physicality is perfect for the dog’s-body menial and redundant tasks of the film.  His face, so immobile during the grotesque acts he must perform, still communicates by his hooded eyes, and his angular postures, his rictus facial expression.  You do feel what he feels.

The title refers to one youngster who lives through the Zyklon B gas-chamber death-cloud and is brought out alive, stunning the Germans (“This is the second child to live through the gas…remember that girl who came out alive?”), and alerting Auslander – he believes that it is his son.  He tries strategems to keep this milky-white youth alive, still coughing and retching.  When that is impossible, his entire being is aimed at finding a rabbi, hiding him, someone to say the prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, over the boy.  To give him a proper burial.

We follow him, a foot from his face, or the back of his head, as he essays to give his “son” the burial he longs to honor him with.  It is not a weepy film, making it all the more devastating, a knife through the chest wall.

Not by any means an easy film.  But it, like Shoah and Schindler, is command viewing.

Carol

Directed by Todd Haynes

This portrait of a lovely, wealthy, privileged married woman in the prudish and constrained 1950s is noteworthy for the remarkable performance of Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird.  She is smitten, mid-Xmas shopping, with the younger shop-girl, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara.  (A strange duck even in real life, no less strange here as Carol’s paramour.)  The plot works around her husband’s anger, her friends’ empathy, Mara’s indeterminacy, and the love-making, nicely oblique, that indicates they were more than just friends.

Blanchett’s remarkable portrait here is limned (for this viewer) against her other major current role, in the irritating and untruthful film called Truth, featuring the liberal usual-suspects crowd and cast that gave way, a decade ago, to the premature retirement of Dan Rather after a series of questionable documents computer geeks exposed as frauds with anachronistic print fonts.  In Truth (better titled Lies), Blanchett plays the dishonored Mary Mapes exquisitely.  Blanchett cannot do a bad role.  The film is too partisan by half, with reporters gleefully high-fiving when they unearth what they think will deep-six Dubya.  The newsroom drama details the 2004 CBS 60 Minutes piece investigating then-President George W. Bush's to-them questionable military service – and the tsunami of criticism that subsequently expelled anchor Dan Rather and cost producer Mapes her career.  A problem was that Mary Mapes wrote the book, and naturally cast herself as heroine and blemish-free.  One-time swoon Robert Redford, not doing a Dan Rather while play-acting Rather, disturbs by his latter-day weird look, and the notable absence of any verisimilitude.  Lots of actors wasted in this injudicious and one-sided clunker.

Aside from the nagging doubt that this story could have occurred in the ’50s, Carol failed for me, as I did not buy into the romance of the protagonists.  Nor did I care.

With so many important films around, this would not be the first choice for entertainment night.  Some will of course disagree.

Lady in the Van

Directed by Nicholas Hytner

A mostly true story (as the screen informs us before we start), Lady is an assured Academy Award for Dame Maggie Smith.  Here, she is a genteel, ever so slightly dotty genteel lady, Mary or Margaret, of vastly reduced circumstances.  She lives, qua title, in a brightly painted yellow van, in the driveway of a known British playwright and performer, Alex Bennett, who wrote of her “stay” in his voluminous journals.

Alan Bennett thought, he says in his voiceover, that she would stay perhaps a few months, but she remained in his driveway for 15 years.  Despite his repeated assertions that he is not her caretaker, he does form a bond of sorts with the transient star of the parked van.

Her pride, erudition, and egotism make the viewing a marvel, though it makes most uncomfortable with the advanced fears of aging that play the lion’s role in the picture.

The British neighbors, in a street that is elegant and middle-class, try to befriend this secretive, imperious, impertinent, exhausting, presumptuous grande dame of no resources.  We respond to their kindly attempts but note their just-under-the-surface hypocrisies.

The film is garlanded with throwaway asides by the van dame that are hilarious, if you can overcome your pity and distaste for the life being led by “Margaret.”  Or “Mary.”  The playwright Bennett, played tautly by Alex Jennings as a species of stiff-upper-lip-with-modifications Brit, does two roles, as himself as a writer,and himself as a remonstrating doer.  If you are not too afflicted with discomfort, it is a superior evocation of an evolved, aloof non-typical “couple.”

The Danish Girl

Directed by Tom Hooper

We were staggered by Eddie Redmayne in his award-winning Theory of Everything, and he, like Blanchett, delivers another amazing, transparent, sublime performance here as a married, highly respected painter who cannot retain his hold on remaining male.  As a male, Redmayne is quite lovely, in fact, so the transformation into behaving and dressing femme is not so great as it would be, say, for Danny Trejo.

The scenery in Vienna, London, and elsewhere is ravishingly elegiac – “a cheap travelogue,” as my companion noted with a smile.  Building exteriors and interiors, too, are paradisaical.

Einar’s wife, who remains faithfully beside him even when it is no longer a prank played on society, is Alicia Vikander, so austerely adept in last year’s Ex Machina, as an android.  Here, she is also a portrait painter, less celebrated than her husband, has a much darker complexion (Redmayne has unnaturally white skin) than her husband/occasional model/changeling, but the film does not engage one’s emotions in the plight of Einar/Lili or his wife.  A fictitious love story, Danish was inspired by Danish artists Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, whose marriage and work lives evolve as they traverse “Lili's” groundbreaking journey as a transgender.

However unmoved one may remain, Danish is a lush pictorial, with wonderful performances.  As a painter in the early 20th century, Gerda smokes, is sexually audacious, and is eventually celebrated for her risqué canvases of indefinably hard to pinpoint gender trills.  Though this story is also, loosely, “true,” it is difficult to process that such marriages, and such free-spirit women, existed without significant societal opprobrium.

NB: There is quite a bit of nudity in the film, of both genders.  Handsome Matthias Schoenaerts as Hans plays the kind of masculine friend backup most lonely and heartbroken female painters would love to have on hand.  In the event.

It would be preferred if the postscript notes did not make it a political platform, and just left it as an exotic historical curio.

[Enough with the political messages already.]