The Breadwinner.

The Breadwinner just earned a nod from the Golden Globes in the Best Animated Film category, and is very likely to get a nomination from the Academy as well in the same field, where it’ll probably be an underdog to Coco but one with more than a puncher’s chance of winning because of the quality and themes of its story and the old-school feel to its animation. It’s not a movie for kids by any means, and the film lacks the feel-good resolution you expect in any animated feature, but none of that should detract from anyone’s appreciation of just how well-made this movie is.

Based very loosely on a 2000 novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner comes from Cartoon Saloon, the same Irish studio that produced The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, and is set in Kabul under the rule of the Taleban. Parvana is the young daughter of a disabled Afghan veteran who lost part of his leg in the war against the Russians. He is sent to prison early in the film for daring to talk back to a hotheaded young Taleban soldier, leaving Parvana, her unwell mother, baby brother, and older sister with no means of support or way to even go out into the market to procure food, since the Taleban forbade any woman to go out in public without her husband or brother to escort her. Parvana cuts off her hair and wears clothes of her late older brother so she can work odd jobs (with her friend Shauzia, who’s doing the same thing) and go buy food, eventually trying to save enough money to bribe her way into the prison and see her father.

The movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the repressive rule of the Taleban, including a scene where Parvana’s mother is beaten, off-screen but audible, for going out in public and possessing a photograph of her imprisoned husband. Those moments are juxtaposed with a story Parvana tells in pieces over the course of the film, first to her baby brother, then to Shauzia, and eventually to herself, about a young boy who goes to challenge the elephant king who has stolen all of the seeds from his village, threatening the villagers with starvation if they can’t plant their spring crops. The tale is fanciful and magical, providing a hopeful metaphor for the Afghan people suffering under the tyranny of a misogynistic theocracy, but also giving us a subtler way to answer the mystery surrounding the death of Parvana’s brother. This last part lies below the surface of the film’s action, but his death and the trauma it inflicted on the family are all explained by the truth of how he died, which tells a greater truth about life under the Taleban while also showing how recovery was never as simple as deposing them – even after their rule ended, there are still widows, orphans, disabled veterans, other grieving relatives, families left without sources of income, and more.

The split narrative does work against The Breadwinner, however, if you’re expecting something linear, the way nearly all animated film stories are. Parvana’s plot itself is bifurcated by the lengthy stretches where she tries to get to her father’s prison, a separate endeavor from what she’s doing to feed her family, and then split further by the tale she’s spinning in bits and pieces over the course of the entire movie, with the two uniting only at the very end. That conclusion is also itself incomplete, which works within the overall structure of the movie (a ‘happy’ ending would be wildly unrealistic, and nothing that’s come before really presages one), and seems to play a little loose with the geography established earlier in the script – although it does provide one sweet moment where the kindness of a stranger helps Parvana avoid disaster. It’s all one more reason this isn’t a movie for kids or even much younger viewers; the lack of a real resolution, especially with children involved, lingered even for me as an adult (and a parent) for days.

The Breadwinner is a beautiful film that makes effective use of perspective, exaggerating the size of many of the adult characters to emphasize how the world might look to Parvana. Some of the animations look incredibly real, while others are more like caricatures, the latter also having the effect of softening some of the more disturbing edges of the story. It’s been a down year for animation in general, with Coco the only other animated release to earn positive reviews; that said, The Breadwinner would likely be an awards nominee even against stronger competition.

Columbus.

Columbus (amazoniTunes) wouldn’t even have come to my attention had I not heard about it from the Grierson & Leitch podcast, where Tim Grierson mentioned it at the start of its theatrical run and gave it a very strong recommendation. It’s an indie film in name and in spirt, driven entirely by dialogue and scenery, and perhaps not everyone’s tastes – but it is very much to mine, with a wonderfully written script by director Kogonada that reminded me of the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro.

John Cho delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen from him in a turn that should answer any question remaining about whether he can lead a film, starring as Jin, an American-born Korean translator who has left his job in Seoul to come to Columbus, Indiana, because his architecture professor father has fallen gravely ill. Once there, he encounters Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent college graduate who is a bit stuck in neutral, still living at home with her recovering addict mother (Michelle Forbes), working a low-paying library job rather than pursuing her passion for architecture. The two forge a quick, intense friendship, unburdened by romantic or sexual tension, as they talk through their respective problems while touring the Indiana town’s major architectural sights.

(I was totally unaware of this town’s existence, but Columbus, Indiana, is actually a bit of a mecca for architecture fans, with a number of modernist buildings and other public art works, many the result of a foundation started by J. Irwin Miller in 1954 to help fund such efforts by paying the fees for noted architects to help design public buildings in the city. Wikipedia tells me that the American Institute of Architects named Columbus the country’s sixth most important city for architecture in 1991.)

Jin has been estranged from his father for years, and never had much connection with his father, who never speaks in the film but appears in Jin’s and his assistant Eleanor’s memories as a cold, demanding academic with a particular genius in his field. Casey has a chance to leave Columbus to study architecture, with help from Eleanor, but doesn’t want to leave her mother for fear she’ll relapse – and, perhaps, from the natural fear we all have of starting our adult lives in earnest. Their fast friendship comes across as very real, with the vicissitudes of any relationship where you suddenly spend a lot of time with someone you don’t know well, and their deep conversations are often set against stunning backdrops of the great buildings of Columbus or of other landscapes in the town, underscoring Casey’s reluctance to leave even as she’s showing Jin her passion for the subject. (She identifies several buildings by where they rank on her list of her favorite buildings in the town.)

Rory Culkin appears a few times as Casey’s friend Gabriel, an amusing sendup of the college student who’s just learned about hermeneutics and tries to introduce the jargon into regular conversation while also probably trying to get into Casey’s pants. (Spoiler alert: He fails.) The sparse script spills over into an equally scarce cast, most of whom deliver even if in limited roles, other than Parker Posey, who overplays Eleanor as a condescending materteral figure in a film defined by its understatement. The minor subplot of Jin having a crush on Eleanor when he was much younger, and possibly still harboring some of those feelings, felt similarly out of place, not least because I expected this older, worldlier Jin to see through Eleanor’s pretense.

I’m an avowed Ishiguro fan, for his stories, his intense understanding of human nature, and his gorgeous yet economical prose, all of which are in evidence here as well in Kogonada’s script. Jin and Casey speak in a slightly stilted style, a half-grade more formal than the rhythm of normal speech, but it matches the setting of buildings that seem similarly unreal, and the dialogue is thoughtful rather than clipped, with each character offering insight into the other’s emotions and the traumas that have come to define them. Columbus is just a beautiful, heartfelt film from start to finish, powered in particular by Cho’s performance, sadly overlooked already in awards voting but worthy of far more consideration than it’s getting.

Good Time.

Good Time is the newest film from the Safdie brothers, whose last project, Heaven Knows What, was based on the memoir by Arielle Holmes, who starred in it and then played the Darth Vader-obsessed character in last year’s American Honey. Good Time is a straight-up heist film, with Robert Pattinson tremendous as the main character, in the vein of a Jim Thompson novel but less successful than Thompson was at tying up the loose ends of an intriguing plot setup. It’s out now on iTunes and amazon.

Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who robs a bank with his developmentally disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie), only to have a dye pack in the bag of cash blow up on them in the getaway car. This leads to an extended chase sequence where the brothers are separated and Nick is arrested, leaving Connie free but desperate to free his brother from Rikers, where he knows Benny isn’t likely to survive. Connie’s attempts to pay his brother’s bail drive the rest of the film, aided by the fact that Connie is about half as smart as he thinks he is – I don’t think the word “contingency” would be in his vocabulary.

Pattinson is absolutely great in this, the second excellent performance I’ve seen from him this year along with The Lost City of Z. He’s a magnetic presence, and he plays Connie in a constant manic state that keeps the tension high and also makes it clear to the audience that he’s liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. His concern for his brother is palpable, maybe the one sign of humanity we see in Connie, who otherwise is somewhere on the sociopath-psychopath spectrum and seems destined to get a lot of people maimed or killed. Several critics, including A.O. Scott, accused Safdie of overdoing his portrayal of someone a little slow and a little hard of hearing, but I didn’t think it was exaggerated or offensive in the limited time he’s on screen.

No one else in the movie even seems real, and there’s no depth at all to any character. Pattinson ends up in the apartment of an older woman he met on a hospital bus and befriends her 16-year-old granddaughter, but those two are largely ciphers in the film – you expect a back story, a connection, even a metaphorical one, but there’s none there. I found nothing at all beneath the grimy surface of Good Time; it’s a heist gone wrong story, with a dark-hearted character at the center, who ends up teaming up with a feckless idiot in a last-ditch attempt to raise the funds he needs. Once those two pair up, the energy of the film sputters out, and doesn’t return at all until the final sequence before the credits when the story gets its resolution.

One aspect to recommend the film, beyond Pattinson’s performance: The score from avant-garde composer Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, is banging, and props up the film in several moments when the engine starts to stall.

The Florida Project.

The Florida Project is the best movie I have seen so far in 2017. Granted, it’s December 3rd, and there are many movies left to be seen, but I will go out on a limb and guess that when I’ve seen all the likelies I will still end up with this bold, empathetic film at or very near the top of my list. The movie takes a look at a small bit of the American underclass, delivering a slice-of-life story that becomes so much more because of the living, breathing characters that populate it and the script’s obvious regard for its denizens.

The title is a play on words of sorts; it takes place in the Magic Castle, one of the welfare motels around Walt Disney World, a place where residents pay by the week and often must vacate the premises for one night, moving to a neighboring flophouse, because the apartment’s management won’t let anyone stay long enough to establish residency. (I presume Florida has a consecutive-days threshold where a transient guest becomes a tenant and acquires additional rights.) The property manager is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who plays an important role in the lives of the two central characters, single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), as they live through a period of a few weeks at the start of Moonee’s summer break from school.

The movie shifts focus frequently, but the bulk of the story is told from the eyes of the kids, Moonee, her friend Scout, and new friend Jancy, with whom the first two get acquainted when they are caught spitting on Jancy’s mother’s car – because that’s the sort of thing you do all day when there’s no school, little money, and lots of time to fill. The three head off on daily adventures in the neighborhood, which is mostly filled with other low-end housing complexes and tacky stores selling Disney paraphernalia, finding trouble when it doesn’t find them first.

The struggles of the adults in their lives play out right in front of them, including the central struggle, paying the rent. Much of what happens in The Florida Project mirrors the problems Matthew Desmond covered in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: paying the rent means working, which means someone has to watch the kids, which either costs money or means leaning on neighbors, friends, even strangers, so some people don’t work. Halley is an unemployed stripper whom we see selling knockoff perfumes to tourists for cash and who eventually (and inevitably) starts turning tricks to pay the rent, which precipitates the crisis that turns this movie into a routine slice-of-life piece into a story with an arc and a conclusion. Her background is never discussed, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume she’s a victim of something traumatic, especially given her disproportionate responses to even minor disappointments. Halley feels like a fictional incarnation of Sen. Orrin Hatch’s “people who won’t help themselves,” but while she’s unsympathetic on the screen, it’s also quite easy to see how she could feel thoroughly trapped by her environment. There’s no path for her out of poverty, and she’s basically one mistake away from losing her home and/or her kid.

Moonee is the real heart of this movie, and Prince, who was six at the time of filming, gives one of the best performances of the year. She’s mischievous, vivacious, and perceptive, adept at manipulating adults and navigating their world, often tumbling out adult words that you don’t expect to hear from a six-year-old’s mouth. She’s the ringleader of the three kids, and is almost totally unflappable, even when crises seem to unfold around her; when they cause real trouble, she’s the one trying to come up with the cover story. You can see glimpses of the impact this life is having on her, but she’s also still at an age where she’s resilient to setbacks, and her bond with Bobby, while seldom directly referenced, is one of the best emotional threads in the story. (Prince, who reminds me a bit of English actress Honeysuckle Weeks, and her two young co-stars did an adorable interview about making the film with Variety.)

Dafoe also delivers the best performance I’ve seen from him, even though Bobby is probably a bit too good to be true – he’s likely poorly paid, constantly dealing with tenants who are late on the rent or causing trouble, and often doesn’t have the money to undertake needed repairs, but he’s still got a heart of gold, especially where Moonee is concerned. The scene where he sees a non-resident adult talking to a group of the project’s kids as they play is one of the film’s most gripping moments, giving insight into Bobby’s character and setting his temperament apart from the more labile personalities living in the building.

Director/co-writer Sean Baker employs some subtle perspective shifts, some just varying the distance to the characters, but getting particular value from dropping the camera to the kids’ level even when the adults are the center of the scene. The Florida Project would be utterly joyless to watch without the kids – even though it would be true to life – and Baker uses the kids’ storyline both to provide some needed relief from the depressing reality of Halley’s life and to show how the wonder of childhood isn’t tied to wealth or possessions, but to time and that sense of adventure. That contrast between Moonee’s view of the world and Halley’s parallels the other, unspoken contrast between the story in this movie and the fantasy world in the shadow of which the film occurs. The Magic Castle may not quite be the Unhappiest Place on Earth, but it feels close when we see it through Halley’s eyes. The movie ends on a perfect note, as well, as the climax itself, which was not just inevitable but which I would say was the only possible outcome of what had come before in the script, gives way to an utterly priceless concluding sequence. Yes, we know it’s temporary, and we all know what will come afterward, but for that one last moment, we see the characters leave the world behind and run for joy.

Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been in the news this week as it set a record on Rotten Tomatoes for the most positive (“fresh”) reviews received without a single negative (“rotten”) one, 184 such reviews and counting. It’s a coming-of-age story, incredibly well-acted throughout, with a number of truly hilarious moments in it, enough that I’d join the chorus (if my review counted) of positive reviews … but the movie has its flaws too, particularly in the way the adult characters are written, as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is Christine McPherson, who has chosen “Lady Bird” as her nickname and repeatedly crosses out or corrects Christine whenever it’s used to refer to her, a high school senior in Sacramento who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a family of four living in a somewhat run-down house and dealing with the economic insecurity of many Americans in the lower and lower middle classes. Her father’s company keeps laying people off; her mother is working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse; her brother and his wife live in the house as well, both working grocery store jobs despite their college degrees. Lady Bird yearns to break free of the social and financial constraints of her life, to go to college in the Northeast, to experience more than her small* town can give her, so she embarks on a number of small misadventures while also secretly applying to prestigious east coast schools. (*Small is her perception; the Sacramento MSA has 2.5 million people, and the scene near the end where a college student from the east coast has never heard of it is rather ridiculous.)

Ronan is marvelous in the title role, and I would be shocked if she weren’t nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and just about every other awards ceremony for this year. The script gives her the best material by a wide margin, including the quick emotional shifts of adolescence, and Ronan manages to inhabit this volatile world completely. Lady Bird chafes under any restraints, whether it’s her Catholic high school, the social boundaries of teenaged life, or her domineering mother. Ronan manages to inform her character with the optimism that is part of Lady Bird’s nature and allows her to succeed in spite of all of these obstacles without turning the part into a saccharine caricature.

Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is really problematic – and not because the character isn’t realistic. She’s controlling, narcissistic, overly critical, manipulative, even vindictive. She also reveals in a line that appears to be a throwaway that her own mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” She herself is clearly a victim of trauma, and tries to control her environment – including her daughter – as an ineffective coping mechanism. She obsesses over clothes being put away, over Lady Bird using a second towel after her shower, over her grammar or spelling in a handwritten note, over anything that threatens the precise calibration of her life. The writing and the performance are strong and consistent enough that it’s then hard to accept moments near the very end of the film where she tries to show her love for her daughter; they seem to come from a totally different character. Metcalf delivers the best performance of all of the actors playing adults in the film, but I found Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, more compelling because his character doesn’t have the improbable personality split of the mother.

The adults, though, are the film’s biggest problem. Lady Bird has the Dawson’s Creek habit of reversing the kids and the grown-ups: The teenagers are the ones who have it all figured out and the adults are the ones still screwing things up or just generally not understanding. It’s truer of the side characters, but it doesn’t do the central character any favors to have her appear more insightful than every adult she encounters. The kids receive the best dialogue and the more accurate worldview – other than Kyle, one of the boys Lady Bird dates, who is busy fighting the battle of who could care less – and in many cases, like Lady Bird, her best friend Juliet, or Danny, another boy she dates, they’re truly three-dimensional and believable, to the point where you could build new stories around any of them (although Juliet does fall into the Fat Best Friend cliché).

The movie soars on the performance and writing of its lead, enough to overcome some of the more hackneyed elements of her environment, and I think that’s why it managed to set that Rotten Tomatoes record – even if you identify the flaws in the script, the core of the movie is so good that it more than mitigates the negatives. Watching this precocious but naïve character navigate her last year of high school and deal with an emotionally abusive mother while stretching for an unlikely escape across the country is more than enough to make Lady Bird worth recommending. I may just be outside the consensus that this is among the year’s very best films.

Icarus.

Icarus, a documentary now available on Netflix, covers the Russian state-sponsored doping program for Olympic athletes from the most direct, personal angle possible: The director was working with the architect of the program on a completely different project when the story broke in a German documentary, The Doping Secret: How Russia Makes its Winners. So instead of merely following the chronology of the program’s execution, the leak to the press, and the subsequent drama around the WADA recommendations to ban all Russian athletes from the 2016 Olympics and the IOC’s decision to give WADA the finger, Icarus gives it to viewers in real time from the perspective of one of the whistleblowers who ends up fearing for his life.

Filmmaker Bryan Fogel decided, on what appears to be a whim, to race in a Haute Route cycling event, a seven-day endurance test across difficult terrain, this time in the Alps of southeastern France. (They also hold similar events in the Pyrénées and in the Rockies.) He finishes in the top 20, but his body just gives out near the end, so he does what any normal person would do in response – he decides to start doping to see how much a little artificial help will improve his performance. (He notes that the event bans performance-enhancing drugs but doesn’t bother testing for them.) He contacts the former head of the main U.S. testing lab, who agrees to help but eventually reneges and refers Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of the Russian Anti-Doping Centre, a World Anti-Doping Agency-accredited laboratory that would test athletes for PED usage. Rodchenkov also knew quite a bit about the benefits of the various PEDs available to Fogel and helped him design a protocol, with the help of an “anti-aging” doctor here in the U.S., to improve his performance in a second shot at the Haute Route.

That second race doesn’t go as well as planned, but it becomes thoroughly secondary to the film’s real story: The German documentary exposes the Russians’ state-run doping program, claiming many of the country’s medals in recent Olympics, including Sochi, were achieved by athletes who should have failed PED tests but didn’t. Rodchenkov was actually running the doping program on the side, even while he was running the anti-doping facility, and during the filming of Icarus, he begins to fear that the government is watching him and possibly preparing to arrest him, so he flees to the U.S. and tells his everything to the New York Times for a piece that ran on May 12, 2016. That article blew the doors off the scandal and led to a longer WADA investigation, which the IOC chose to ignore because of reasons we can only imagine – as Rodchenko makes it clear that he believes Vladimir Putin, who approved the doping program, will stop at nothing to silence his enemies. We learn that one of Rodchenkov’s associates died, allegedly of a heart attack, in February 2016, shortly after the German film aired; another died the same month, with both men former directors of Russia’s anti-doping agency.

There is so much to unpack in Icarus, which is thoroughly gripping even though you invest the first 40 minutes or so in a story that doesn’t matter. (It’s never really clear why Fogel is willing to subject his body to the doping regimen, whether it’s a desire to win, a desire to show what doping can do, a Morgan Spurlock-style attitude to filmmaking, or something else). What was a weird but intriguing documentary that looked at the history of doping and the cat-and-mouse game between the athletes who use such drugs and the labs that try to catch them turns into a darker, real-life spy thriller. The film doesn’t bother with bothsidesism; Rodchenkov’s credibility isn’t questioned, nor are we given any reason to question it, and he provides Fogel with detailed notes on specific athletes’ regimens that seem to immediately convince a group of appalled members of WADA who walked into a conference room believing that this kind of program was physically impossible. (The KGB manages to tamper with WADA’s tamper-proof caps, among other tricks.) And a subsequent special investigation, led by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, found that over 1000 Russian athletes had doped in events over the time period covered.

Two angles in particular stand out from this. One, relevant to those of us here with an interest in baseball, is that a sufficiently determined and organized group can defeat even a sophisticated testing program. This isn’t about masking agents, or super-secret new drugs that haven’t hit testing protocols yet, but about physical exchange of dirty samples for clean ones that won’t test positive. It shows how difficult such a scheme would be to pull off … but also that it was pulled off, successfully, for years, and therefore is at least feasible.

But I don’t know how you can watch Icarus now without drawing the obvious parallel: Vladimir Putin approved a program to interfere with a competition that went beyond his own borders to try to engineer the results he desired – and even when given irrefutable proof of what he did, he just dismisses it as, in essense, fake news. He even gets away with it, despite those meddling kids, because I’ve seen jellyfish with stronger spines than the IOC, which just gave carte blanche to any major power to dope the hell out of its athletes. There’s even a scene where we see a Russian TV show airing emails between Fogel and Rodchenkov – emails obtained via hacking. We’re fighting someone who appears willing to do anything, perhaps even kill, to achieve his goals, and who thus far has proved immune to any penalty or retribution. It’s a grim projection for the future of international sport … and our elections, too.

Last Men in Aleppo.

The Syrian Civil Defense, better known now as the White Helmets after a documentary short by that name won the Oscar in that category this past February, is a volunteer organization that has operated in Syria since 2014, providing rescue and medical services in the wake of airstrikes in the failed state, including in the major city of Aleppo before and during the siege of the town in 2016. Last Men in Aleppo follows the group, focusing on two of the volunteers, Khaled and Mahmoud, as they race around the city, trying to rescue victims buried under rubble, while also trying to live their lives, like Khaled worrying about medicine for his daughter, or Mahmoud trying to coax his brother to flee. The film is available via iTunes or to rent/buy directly from the distributor.

Filmed in cinéma vérité style, Last Men in Aleppo has no narration or overarching structure, and simply follows the two men and some of their colleagues from airstrike to airstrike, mixing in scenes of almost mundane daily life, including an outing with their families to a playground – which, of course, is cut short by the sighting of government warplanes. (All of the airstrikes shown or discussed in the film are either from Syrian government jets or Russian jets.) The rescue scenes are gripping and horrifying, since they find more dead bodies than survivors, and are often pulling children from the wrecks. The survivors are often shown wracked by grief as they realize most of their family members are dead – and there’s no editing here to soften the impact on the viewer. The camera observes, nothing more.

That editorial decision makes the movie somewhat hard to follow, as there’s no story to track, and the pacing is as uneven as the pacing of real life. We see the men in their regular lives, or the facsimile thereof in a city under siege, interrupted by a bombing and a phone call, and they race to the scene with their comrades and the construction equipment they use to excavate the wreckage of bombed-out buildings. There’s a ton of disturbing footage in here, including corpses of babies, body parts, head injuries, and even a badly wounded cat. It is utterly draining, and simultaneously honors the bravery and altruism of these men while reminding the viewer of the enormous suffering of the people of Aleppo and Syria in general, suffering that the United States has done very little to stop.

That last bit was the biggest takeaway from Last Men in Aleppo for me – the lives of ordinary people have been discarded by a dictator’s brutal efforts to retain power over his country, even if there are very few people left in it, supported by another dictator whose warplanes are helping bomb innocent civilians, sometimes appearing to even target the White Helmets while they work. The west at least intervened to stop a government-led massacre in Libya during that country’s version of the Arab Spring, although the end result has been a failed state there as well. In fact, it’s unclear that western intervention can do much of anything except to avoid the direct killings of airstrikes and ground invasions, as the one true success story of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, succeeded without any involvement from the west. Libya is close to a failed state, as is Syria. Yemen is suffering from famine and a cholera outbreak with nearly a million victims. Egypt overthrew its dictator only to end up with a military autocracy. So maybe we couldn’t have done anything to help any of these countries transition to democracy or peace. It’s just hard to watch Last Men in Aleppo without thinking that anything we do would have been better than the nothing we’ve done.

The Square.

I imagine Sweden’s national tourism board is rather unhappy with the country’s portrayal in The Square, as writer-director Ruben Östlund has crafted a dense, multilayered, nonlinear, unfocused narrative that depicts Stockholm’s art community as a bunch of loonies. It’s fascinating, even gripping, frequently cringeworthy, twice offensive, too long by about ten minutes, and incisively satirical. Östlund doesn’t land all his punches, but the ones he lands hit hard. The film is mostly in Swedish, with subtitles; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and is Sweden’s submission for the 90th Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film honor.

Claes Bang plays Christian, the director of a modern art museum in Stockholm that tries to present edgy, post-modern installations, but often falls short of its own pretensions, a fact established and skewered in an early scene where American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) asks him to explain a description from the museum’s official site. Christian is also dealing with an outside marketing agency to develop advertising for an upcoming installation, called The Square, that is just a lit square on the ground and a plaque explaining what the square is in vague philosophical terms – not exactly the most media-friendly piece of art. Christian is also robbed of his wallet and phone in an early scene, leading to a comically disastrous plan to recover the goods when his tech guy, Michael (Christopher Læssø), helps him locate the phone via GPS tracking.

Other plot threads and details appear late in the film, enough that mentioning them would spoil the effect even though they’re not plot twists – they’re just stuff the script forgot to mention earlier on in the proceedings. That gives the entire film a sense of unreality, which I’d compare favorably to the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith or Paul Beatty, and unfavorably to the failed experimental novel The Unconsoled, which also concerned an artist, by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s narrative makes sharp, jarring turns that lack narrative or thematic connections, and subplots are dropped without resolution, never to return. It’s unclear if the main character is even awake for some scenes, or dreaming, or hallucinating. The Square walks a similarly tortuous path, with more clarity that it’s all (probably) real, instead simply bouncing Christian from bad decision to bad decision, and introducing details – like the end of the performance art piece at the banquet, or the whole thing with Anne’s roommate – that are just never explained. This is hysterical realism bordering on the transgressive, with mixed results, but still earning high points for ambition.

Christian himself is part narcissist – to the extent that someone can be only partly narcissistic – and part idiot, calling to mind Sherman McCoy of The Bonfire of the Vanities, another antihero who does something incredibly stupid, only to have it come back around and ruin his life. McCoy had it coming, while Christian isn’t quite so loathsome, just governed too much by his instinct for self-preservation and a little too in love with the power of his position. He gets small chances for redemption near the end of the film, and largely takes them, although it can’t thoroughly rehabilitate his character or atone for the wrongs he’s done some other people (a la Ian McEwan’s Atonement).

The targets of this film’s satirical side are numerous, from the art world, especially modern art, to consumer culture to our willful ignorance of others’ suffering to the anachronisms of the upper class to sex, the last rather thoroughly demonstrated by one of the most joyless sex scenes I can remember seeing. The movie’s pièce de résistance, the aforementioned performance art scene at a banquet for the museum’s chief benefactors, manages to tear down multiple targets, including the fatuous nature of such self-congratulatory dinners, the idea of the artist being ‘totally’ committed to his work to the point of madness, the animal nature of man, and the bystander effect, the last two coming in the scene’s culmination of a physical and attempted sexual assault. Again, after the scene ends, there isn’t so much as another reference to any of it – it’s yet another disaster for the museum, but everyone proceeds the next day as if it never happened.

The Square is bursting with ideas, and many of them fail to hit their marks or are pushed via metaphors that are just too strong or on the nose. The modern art mockery is fish in a barrel stuff – really, that could have been one of the museum’s installations. The simian allusions are similarly too easy. But then there are scenes like the overhead shot of Christian rifling through garbage where the camera is high enough that his white shirt and brown hair just look like two more bags in the sea of trash, or the spiraling shot of a staircase (also top-down) as Christian climbs multiple floors but appears to make no progress.

No idea comes across more consistently in the film, however, than our numbness to the suffering of strangers, even when it’s right in front of us. Banquet goers put their heads down even as there’s a physical attack happening in front of them. Commuters ignore beggars in the street, the mall, the train station, and ignore the charity worker asking people if they’d stop for a minute “to save a life.” The video produced by the marketing agency, which is an obvious disaster along the lines of the SB Nation puff piece on rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, turns the idea inside out by preying on people’s sympathy for a fictional character crafted to maximize the viewers’ emotional reactions. It’s the one truly pervasive theme in the movie, and the closest thing the script has to a unifying element.

For all of that weightiness, The Square is also very funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes more “I can’t believe this is happening” funny, but even with its bleak view of humanity, the movie does go for some big laughs. There’s a fight over a condom, an argument interrupted by an art installation that keeps making noise at inopportune moments, another installation damaged in comical fashion by a night cleaner, and the sheer idiocy of the marketing agency bros. At nearly two and a half hours, it needs some levity to keep it moving – and many scenes in the first half go on a few beats too long – but the film will likely keep everyone who sees it thinking about all of its ideas for days.

But seriously, what is the deal with Anne’s roommate?

City of Ghosts.

City of Ghosts, now available on amazon Prime, follows the citizen-journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which began disseminating information online about the atrocities committed by the Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, during their three-plus year occupation of the once-prosperous Syrian city. RBSS won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2015, even as some of its leaders were being hunted down and executed by Daesh supporters in Syria and in Turkey. The group continues to operate, with its leadership in exile, relying on anonymous contributors still in the city, which was just liberated from Daesh control by Kurdish-led anti-government forces three weeks ago.

(The group that occupied Raqqa goes by many names, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but the RBSS members interviewed in this documentary appear to favor the term Daesh, which ISIL leaders themselves dislike. As that is what the RBSS members use, I’ll follow that convention here.)

Raqqa was the sixth-largest city in Syria, with a population of 220,000 in the 2004 census (per Wikipedia), and hosted many anti-government protests during the Syrian portion of the Arab Spring, with the toppling of a statue of the late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad coming when a mixed coalition of opposing forces took the city from the Syrian army. In less than a year, however, Daesh forces took control of Raqqa, setting up a sharia court and executing opponents in the middle of the day in the town square. The journalists and activists who formed RBSS began almost immediately to document the conditions in the town under the Daesh, including the executions and the extreme privation, by posting videos, photos, and written content to social media and Youtube. With no foreign journalists on the ground in the city, RBSS quickly gained credibility as one of the few reliable (non-Daesh) information sources there, and a film directed by RBSS co-founder Naji Jerf helped them win the aforementioned award from CPJ. RBSS were quickly targeted by the occupying forces, who threatened to kill every member they could find – and the family members of those they couldn’t. They executed several members still in Raqqa, and assassinated several others outside of the country, including Jerf, killed in broad daylight in Turkey in 2015.

City of Ghosts follows the remaining leaders of RBSS, walking back to the group’s origins and carrying the story forward about two years, through the losses of several group leaders, the flights of many others into exile, and their continuing work to tell the world of the conditions in Raqqa – and to try to contradict the Daesh’s recruiting videos, which, shocking as it is, don’t exactly depict real life as a member of the jihadist group. Director Matthew Heineman manages to give the viewer the information s/he needs on the actual progress of the civil war and the occupation of Raqqa as foundation, while still centering the documentary itself on the individuals, all men, who are risking their lives and even those of family members to fight the Daesh with information. Each has his own story, whether it’s specific reasons for joining the effort or the very personal cost paid for his involvement. Watching them flee to exile in Germany, only to be confronted by neo-Nazis and anti-immigrant protesters, only serves to underscore how incredibly lonely this existence must be.

The film did leave me with one question, although it may have been too dangerous to answer. Someone has to be funding the group; we never see these courageous men discussing money, but they have laptops, smart phones, video cameras, and obviously are eating and buying the essentials. The effort may have started organically, but somewhere there must be a source of funds that allows them to continue to live, and thus to work on informing the world that Raqqa is burning. Of course, identifying any funding sources could have put them in jeopardy, and thus jeopardizing the group’s work. At the time of the film’s release, Raqqa was still under Daesh control, and their efforts remained as important as ever.

Documentaries about the ongoing catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war are everywhere now; The White Helmets won the Oscar for short-subject documentary last year, and Last Men in Aleppo is a full-length feature on the same topic (and in my queue to watch). Sebastian Junger’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS is supposed to take a more direct look at the state of the war and the failed state of Syria. HBO’s Cries from Syria focuses on the human cost and humanitarian crisis. As obsessed as much of our polity here is with the Daesh and the occasional terrorist attack abroad by adherents, there’s still so little happening to stop the crisis; even if the Daesh, who control a fraction of the territory they did at their peak, are totally removed from power, there will still be a civil war in Syria, with Kurds at odds with the central government, and numerous other rebel groups vying for control of the country. By putting a few young heroes at the heart of its story, City of Ghosts provides a new lens on the disaster while testifying to the relentless human desire to be free.

The Lost City of Z.

The Lost City of Z is based on David Grann’s bestselling 2009 book about Percy Fawcett, a renowned British explorer who disappeared in central South America sometime after 1925 during an expedition to find the remnants of a long-gone advanced civilization there. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett, the movie hews relatively closely to Fawcett’s true story and offers many compelling scenes from his first two expeditions to the Amazon basin, but doesn’t give us enough understanding of its protagonist to create real interest in the character’s fate. The movie is available free on amazon prime.

Hunnam plays the dashing hero, complete with a Poirot-esque mustache, whom we first meet as the Royal Geographical Society asks him to journey to the center of the continent to help map the disputed border between Brazil and Bolivia. (If you don’t know much South American history, here’s a good summary: Bolivia kept picking border fights with its neighbors and lost every one of them, including one fight that cost the country its narrow coastline on the Pacific.) He’s reluctant to take on a non-military mission, but does so in the hopes of restoring his family name – the film has his father as a degenerate gambler and drunk, although that may be fictional – and sets off with the help of Coatson (Robert Pattinson) to chart the border and eventually find the source of a major river. The journey is perilous, many redshirts don’t survive it, and even the men who do are in sad shape when they reach the river’s source, but they do and return home to a heroes’ welcome. That spurs another expedition that doesn’t go quite so well, but the two combine to convince Fawcett of the existence of the city of Z, and he yearns for one more chance to go discover it.

Hunnam himself is a charmless man in the lead role – he probably knows his claret from his Beaujolais – and the movie truly suffers for it. Benedict Cumberbatch was originally attached to the project, and his charisma is sorely missed here. Pattinson steals every scene he’s in with Hunnam, thoroughly inhabiting his character’s rakishness and loyalty right to the very end of his arc. Sienna Miller is similarly blank in her role as Fawcett’s wife, looking pretty but feeling one-dimensional – she’s the suffering wife, no, she’s the loyal little lady, no, she’s the proud wife and mother, as if we see three different women at different points in the film.

The scenery, however, is stunning – it is an expertly made film, with gorgeous, expansive shots of the jungle and the rivers. There’s real action and suspense when they’re on expeditions, and the scenes in London feel more like interstitials. There’s a short subplot, based on actual events, around another explorer who comes on their second mission and is badly injured, giving Fawcett a real antagonist but also ending abruptly (as it did in real life). When Fawcett came home, as a father and husband I couldn’t understand his willingness to leave his wife and children, but as a viewer I wanted him to get back to the jungle and do stuff.

Of course, the movie suffers from the unknown: Theories abound as to what happened to Fawcett and his son on their final mission, and Grann used a legend he heard from one of the native tribes in the region to craft a new hypothesis, but we just don’t know. The script doesn’t deal well with the uncertainty, giving us an ambiguous egress for the two men and a sentimental ending for Fawcett’s wife. Perhaps fabricating a specific outcome would have gone too far, but charting their progress and disappearance from London may have served the film better.

This is a very solid, competently made film that just lacks the extra level of emotion that would connect viewers to the story or the main character. We learn so little of Fawcett’s background that his wanderlust is a bit hard to grasp, and Hunnam plays him so clinically that, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he was an American actor trying too hard to nail the upper class British accent. (Hunnam is English.) More prologue might have helped – or less, if perhaps we’d started in the Amazon and skipped some of the home scenes. It feels very much like a movie that could have been great, but isn’t.