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Friday, January 19, 2018

My Top Ten Film Scores of 2017

            Another year has ended, and the retrospectives have now begun!  We begin this year with a look back at the top original film scores of 2017, those movies where original music broke new ground and made good or even great films ever better. 

            Ever since my first viewing of Amadeus awakened a deep, powerful love of great filmmaking and great music within me simultaneously, the use of the audio arts in a movie have consistently been one of the most important factors in whether I love, like, or hate a film.  As many popular musical genres have declined in quality and relevance in recent decades, more and more of the really interesting and groundbreaking music out there resides in the realm of the cinematic score.  As such, I deliberately focused these posts on entirely original scores written specifically for the movies they are in (or that include continued themes from long-running franchises, like Star Wars).  This means that soundtracks filled with various rock and pop classics are not considered here, since even the biggest cinematic hacks can put together a decent party playlist. 

            Props must be given, however, to Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Baby Driver, Call Me By Your Name, and I, Tonya, whose soundtrack selections were particularly excellent parts of what were all particularly excellent films.  Credit must be given where it’s due. 

10. Your Name (Radwimps)

            While it does suffer in consistency a bit due to a few odd transition montages centered around pop songs, Radwimps’ moving work for one of the year’s biggest international breakouts is quiet and moving in a way that enhances the wistful yearning and sadness of the latest, excellent work by Makoto Shinkai.  

9. The Shape of Water (Alexandre Desplat)

            Del Toro’s latest film creates such a singularly unique world that its tale about woman-on-fish romance actually felt most bizarre when it cut to scenes of “typical” 50’s family life.  Desplat’s magnificent score perfectly doubles down on this, balancing perfectly between being just whimsical enough to feel familiar, but also otherworldly enough to feel new without being too alienating.  It’s a perfect mirror to this singularly bizarre cinematic creation. 

8. Wonder Woman (Rupert Gregson-Williams)

            Big, out there, and in-your-face, this film’s music was everything it needed to be to help elevate one of the year’s most essential films.  Above all else, though, it gave us one of the most awesome, fist-pumping, instantly-recognizable superhero themes since Zimmer’s Batman work. 

7. Boys For Sale (Kazaguruma)

            Documentaries are usually not known for having particularly noticeable music, but this unforgettable film about a little-known part of the Japanese sex trade also happens to have some of the most interesting original music scores of the year as well.  Featuring a band playing an assortment of Japanese instruments, the makers of the film made the unusual choice of mixing together the actual written score with the musician’s improvisational warm-up recordings.  While the band was understandably apprehensive about this, they needn’t have worried, because the end result was a remarkably fitting sound unlike anything else I heard all year.    

6. Blade Runner 2049 (Hans Zimmer/Benjamin Wallfisch)

            Much like the film itself, this score goes well beyond being just an artful imitation of its classic counterpart.  It revisits the style and vibe of the original, but then deepens and expands them to create something built on the past, yes, but still very much its own new creation.  This was one of the most ambient experiences I had in the theater all year. 

5. Thor: Ragnarok (Mark Mothersbaugh)

            Slipping back in time to a funky 80’s vibe, the best Marvel movie yet (no, not up for discussion) brought us the most iconic and memorable score of them all, the Avengers main theme excepted.  So far the villains and samey music have been the most consistent bugbears of this particular cinematic empire, so it was nice to finally have one break the mold in a really meaningful way. 

            And plus, it’s never wrong to use “Immigrant Song” in your action scene.  Ever. 

4. Dunkirk (Hans Zimmer)

            There are a lot of people out there who really hate Hans Zimmer, who find his style repetitive an grating, overly loud and bombastic, or just hilariously overdone.  

            Those people are wrong.  But I’ll delve into that another time.  For now, let’s give Dunkirk the its proper due, as it was not only one of the best films of 2017 and Nolan’s career, but also had Zimmer at his finest, providing a score that equaled the movie’s frenetic pacing and the energy of the characters desperately racing against time in a fight to survive. 

3. A Ghost Story (Daniel Hart)

            Haunting.  This is, without any hint of irony, the best possible word that encapsulates both this film and Daniel Hart’s tragic, reverberative score.  It fills out the edges of this meditation on existence and its purpose (or lack thereof).  The air of wistful tragedy within the music enhances the lonely clarity of the film’s sparse imagery, following a lone soul wandering back and forth through time (though not, crucially, space). 

            Damnit, John Williams is, and shall always be, the man.  The classical Star Wars opening theme remains one of the great pinnacles of human endeavor, but part of what’s made the newest trilogy such a treat is seeing how well Williams has turned a third trip to this particular well into something every bit as fresh as the scores he’s given us for the past two trilogies. 

            Easily the most moving parts this time around are where he re-works Leia’s traditional theme into a few key scenes.  They are moments of such fine musical deft that I feel they would have resonated even if Carrie Fisher hadn’t passed away before the film’s release, thus turning The Last Jedi into something of a final testament to the legacy and endurance of our Queen. 

1. A Silent Voice (Kensuke Ushio) 

            No film of 2017, except perhaps Dunkirk, used music and sound design to such remarkable effect as this animated movie about bullying, depression, and suicide.  The film constantly raises, lowers, and distorts the sounds and score to reflect the many different ways one can be both physically and mentally deaf.  This makes the scenes of true clarity, where the score’s searing main theme comes in full-force, all the more majestic in its impact.  It is a beautiful work befitting the beautiful film it accompanies, and is my favorite original film score of 2017. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Review- Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017): Written and directed by Rian Johnson.  Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicia Del Toro, Mark Hamill and our Forever Queen, Carrie Fisher.  Running Time: 152 minutes.  Based on characters created by George Lucas. 

Rating: 3.5/4

**this review contains spoilers for The Last Jedi**

             The more I mull over The Last Jedi in my mind the more I dig it.  It was not what I expected.  It didn’t have any of the fates for its older characters that I’d envisioned since first entering the old EU.  I felt a bit uncomfortable at first over how much the film had challenged my assumptions about its world.  And the more that became clear to me, the more I realized that’s exactly what this franchise and we as fans needed.  Star Wars doesn’t need complacency.  Star Wars was never meant to have easy outs.  Star Wars can’t afford to jog in place, and ultimately won’t, no matter how much many of the fanboys might want it to. 

            And yes, I say this even though The Last Jedi, like its predecessor The Force Awakens, is very much a film built around the cyclical nature of this universe and its fundamental light-vs-dark conflict.  Both films in this new trilogy have been filled to the brim with allusions, both on-the-nose and subtle, to the overarching narrative of the original trilogy, but putting just enough spin on them that we are now in a place far different from where we were at the end of Return of the Jedi all those years ago.  The result is a cinematic world that is the freest and most open for something new it’s been since that glorious opening music first rang out back in 1977. 

            This time around the parallels are a mash-up of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Finn, Po, Leia, a new character named Rose, and the rest of the Resistance spend most of the movie fleeing from the First Order in an extended chase sequence (sound familiar?), ending in a ground battle reminiscent of the fighting on Hoth.  Rey has located the reclusive Luke Skywalker on his hideaway planet (sound familiar?), seeking training and guidance in the ways of the force, but has to overcome his reluctance to train another Jedi after his earlier failure to rebuild the Jedi ended with the rise of Kylo Ren.  And ultimately, she will break away early to seek out a confrontation with Ren and his Sith mentor in a dim throne room, attempting to turn him back to the good and bring him to betray and destroy the Dark Side master driving the First Order in time to save the rest of the Resistance from what seems like sure annihilation (sound familiar?). 

            That a movie with so many clear parallels to what came before can feel so fresh and new is a testament to the talent and creative energy of the people making this movie, from director Rian Johnson, to the camerapeople and editors and production designers, to the remarkable cast that never fails to make their characters far more than what they would be in lesser hands.  There are moments where their respective arcs feel a bit broad and easy to read, but the film commits to having each of its main characters (and even some of the side ones) have certain lessons they need to learn by the end if they are to help keep the light alive in the face of the dark that would snuff it out.  Rey needs to accept that she doesn’t need some special lineage to play a meaningful role in what’s to come.  Finn has to find a reason to fight the First Order beyond his own desire for self-preservation.  Po needs to realize there’s more to being a real hero than simply jumping into an X-Wing and blowing shit up. 

            Even Luke has a lesson to learn in all of this.  He does rightly take Rey (and himself) to task for holding on too dearly to the past in lieu of focusing on the present.  It is, indeed, a meta-narrative running throughout the entire film that both the in-world characters and we the outside fans have spent too long trying to perfectly preserve what came before, rather than trying to build something genuinely new.  And yet, as Luke realizes in two key scenes towards the end of the film, even old symbols and legends have a power of their own to endure and inspire the next generation.  We can’t be bound by the past, but neither should we seek to break off from it entirely. 

            It is a shock to see such a jaded, cynical Luke appear before us after so eagerly anticipating his return to the role that defined his career.  But here again, it makes more and more sense within this new world the more I think about it, where there is a stronger emphasis on accepting and even embracing the failures and shortcomings of the figures of our childhood.  Mark Hamill gives his all in what is one of the best performances of his career.  He and Daisy Ridley dominate the movie all on their own, and are the primary reason this movie will ultimately endure no matter how much irate fanboys might wish to sink it.  After Luke’s final, triumphant return to salvage the Resistance, he gazes on a dual sunset before fading into the Force.  It is a direct and deeply affecting callback to the very beginning of his journey back on Tatooine, a moment signifying that, perhaps, he may even have been meant to fall as far as he did before being able to rise up again, ultimately completing his mission in life in a way he never thought possible. 

            While it is a near-certainty that we will get at least one scene with Force-Ghost Luke in the next movie, it is unfortunate that we can’t say the same for Carrie Fisher.  Lucasfilm, to its credit, has already announced that there will be no effort to CGI Leia into the final movie, which means that this is Fisher’s final testament to us as an actor, and so many of her scenes (particularly her “farewell” with Luke during the final battle) carry an extra emotional heft to them because of this.  She is remarkable, of course, poised and confident and powerful in her bearing.  While it is sad she is gone, I am grateful she was able to shine one last time for us. 

            As much as this is a well-acted movie, it is also a technically stunning and visually beautiful one as well.  Red is a particularly powerful motif, filling the throne room of Snokes and coating the mineral-salt field of the final battle.  By the time Luke steps out to face Kylo Ren, it looks like the Rebel base is bleeding from an open wound.  In another moment of self-sacrifice by a minor character, the color and sound drops out completely as we see an entire fleet break apart and shatter, in what may be the most spectacular visual in any Star Wars movie ever. 

            Given that The Last Jedi is obsessed with breaking chains and casting forth for something new, it makes sense that it took us two movies to work through so much of the series’ meta-baggage being dragged into this new trilogy- there is a LOT of weight and expectations riding on these films, still one of the last truly global cultural phenomenon.  So far, to my immense joy, the people behind them have managed to meet the challenge so far, returning us to that galaxy of magic and wonder that generations of us have fallen in love with.  The Force is with this franchise once more, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review: Aus Dem Nichts (In the Fade)

Aus Dem Nichts (2017): Written and directed by Fatih Akin.  Starring: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Johannes Kirsch, Ulrich Tukur.  Running Time: 106 Minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            And the quiet revival of German cinema continues.  Aus Dem Nichts will, in all likelihood, be merely the first of many German movies in coming years to tackle the various issues surrounding immigration that have gained increasing prominence in public debate since 2015, and what a start it is.  It is a hard look at how the fringe right of society, by giving in to its darkest and most violent impulses, can all too easily corrupt and drag down the rest of us when we try to grapple with it. 

            Diane Kruger stars as Katja, a woman happily married to a Turkish man, whose life is completely shattered when a seemingly random nail-bomb attack kills both her husband and their young son.  The police eventually arrest a young neo-Nazi couple and charge them with the double-murder, and as the trial progresses (and the prospects for true justice being delivered both rise and fall), Katja struggles with how- and if- her life can ever go on, and what the loss of her family means for her future. 

            Central to the film is Diane Kruger’s powerhouse performance in the leading role.  It’s already netted her the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and may well land the film a consecutive nomination for Germany in the Best Foreign Picture category at the upcoming Oscars.  Her tight, drawn facial expressions run the gamut of all the emotions raging through her; her pain at the scale and senselessness of her loss is clear, but so is her incredible inner resolve, as she chooses to subject herself to every aspect of the trial, including even a skin-crawlingly detailed description by the coroner of each nail found in the bodies. 

            Her performance is matched by cinematography that perfectly mirrors the moods and depressions she struggles with before, during, and after the trial.  This is especially apparent during the first two-thirds of the movie (there are three sections total, each separated by a chapter title), where her surroundings are filled with darkness.  In one of my favorite single images of any film I’ve seen this year, the camera holds on her face as she stares out blankly at the night rain, the shadows cast by the water running down the window criss-crossing her face like black tears. 

            Beyond her performance, the matter at hand in the film is an inherently loaded one that will inevitably divide both audiences and casual viewers.  How to properly respond to violence and extremism is such an emotional, fraught, and complex question that we will never have a commonly accepted answer to it, and the movie is filled with this ambiguity.  The act of these neo-Nazis is heinous, but there is plenty of room to argue whether or not the justice system, the extended friends and family members of the victims, and even Katja herself react in healthy or constructive ways.  Katja’s own conclusion, reached at the very end of the movie after a long and tortuous process of self-reflection, is the sort of ending meant to provoke endless, controversial debate afterwards. 

            I imagine it would be a fascinating experience to watch this film with a variety of people across political spectrums of the West and discuss its themes for several hours afterward, and perhaps one day I will have such a chance.  It may take a while for this film to make the rounds, but it is absolutely a work seeing should the chance present itself. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Valley of Saints

Valley of Saints: Written and directed by Musa Syeed.  Starring: Mohammed Afzal, Gulzar Ahmed Bhat, Neelofar Hamid.  Running Time: 82 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Oftentimes, the best films are the ones that eschew grander, more theatrical gestures.  The ones that rely on their own subtle self-confidence to draw us into their world.  The ones that stir us in the quiet moments.  Valley of Saints, the debut film by Musa Syeed, is a masterclass in this sort of film, a series of meditations and small moments framed by grand mountains and a quiet lake.  It lays a sturdy foundation of stones that, collectively, build a profoundly moving cinematic experience, centered on a love story as real as anything. 

            The story is set in the valley of Dal Lake in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a place incessantly plagued by armed civil strife.  Gulzar, a boatman, has spent his whole life here, born, as he puts it, “with a paddle in his hands.”  He and his best friend, Afzal, are technically grown men, but around each other they are little boys, laughing, piggybacking, singing, never needing to take each other too seriously.  Theirs is a profoundly deep love of the sort that transcends the usual notions of family and friendship. 

            They know there’s no future for them in Srinagar other than hawking wares and boat trips to foreigners, so for a long time they’ve been putting together money for bus tickets to Delhi and, so they imagine, a better future.  The day they try to leave, though, hostilities break out again, forcing them to stay put until another ceasefire is reached.  Stuck for the time being, they agree to help out another boatsman by agreeing to take care of the lone remaining guest on his hotel boat, a young woman named Asifa, who’s there to conduct ecological research.   

            Originally from the area herself, she’s returned to study the slow degradation of the river through lax environmental laws and oversight, and there is a bitter sadness in her voice when she notes just how devoid of life so many parts of the lake have become in recent years.  This is a film that is able to comment on our connection to nature and our dependence on it in ways that many films try and fail to.  The plaintive earnestness of the characters and cinematography doesn’t allow any room for cynicism or pandering in this regard.  There are more important things to think about than that. 

            As they take her around the lake, and learn more about each other’s lives, the romance that slowly blossoms between Gulzar and Asifa is quiet, underplayed, and effortless.  It’s one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Of course, this does lead to some jealous bickering between Gulzar and Afzal, and their anger with each other is real, but of course that could never be enough to seriously threaten their friendship- they know each other far too well for that. 

            In the end, of course, choices must be made by each of these characters, but as the movie itself intuitively grasps, having to face such choices in our lives is unavoidable.  As such, they don’t need to be viewed as solely good or bad things.  We will take one path forward over another, and there is always a way to live with that, as long as we don’t forget where we come from and what has, in some way, moved us.  This is a remarkable movie, filled with a grace and sense of self that most movies with bigger names and larger budgets lack. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo (2017): Written by Grit Kienzlen and Ali Soozandeh, directed by Ali Soozandeh.  Starring: Arash Marandi, Morteza Tavakoli, Alireza Bayram, and Zahra Amir Ebrahimi.  Running Time: 90 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            When I watch movies like Tehran Taboo, I can’t help reflecting on how absurd our efforts to regulate and control human sexuality ultimately are.  The harder we seek to dominate our most basic instinct from the top down, the more it all inevitably backfires in ways that completely undermine whatever you were trying to achieve in the first place.  It’s the states with the strongest focus on abstinence-only Sex Ed and the least comprehensive access to contraception that have the worst rates of teen pregnancy.  And the countries, cultures, and social systems that work the hardest to write sex and sexuality out of daily human life are the places where everything you say or do ultimately twists around on itself to, in the end, be ALL about sex and little else. 

            This rotoscope-animated work by Ali Soozandeh follows three women of various ages living in Tehran, whose lives slowly start to intersect more and more intimately.  A prostitute tries to raise her son alone, an already-hard task made harder by the fact that just about EVERYTHING in Iranian life requires a husband’s permission to do.  A young girl from the country, in the city to marry an arranged bride, has a drunken fling with an aspiring musician in an underground club shortly before the wedding, then realizes they have to find a way to medically “reconstruct” her virginity, otherwise her fiancĂ© will kill them both.  An older housewife is finally pregnant after several miscarriages, but despite her joy, this only complicates her desires for more than what her quiet life with a banker and his parents affords her.   

            This is a movie that builds itself on small, quiet moments with the characters, revealing just how much of their thoughts and feelings they feel compelled to hide from society just to survive.  The prostitute is a particularly tough cookie, something she clearly has to be; when a taxi driver insults her, she simply scratches an insult into the back of his seat for the next passenger to see, then gets out at the next corner, and when a school director insults her child, she doesn’t hesitate to throw a few choice insults right back.  This seems to be the core of what draws the housewife to her when they discover that they live in the same apartment complex- the prostitute’s fearlessness is something the housewife has never had, could never have. 

            While the friendship between these older women blossoms, the young girl and musician find themselves forced to jump through one ridiculous hoop after another trying to find some solution, any solution, that will let them extricate themselves from their predicament scot-free, and as the film draws on they both become increasingly afraid that there really might be no way out.  So much of the daily inequities between men and women, and so many of the extreme consequences dished out for even holding hands in a world determined to keep men and women separate, are so laughably absurd, but at the same time so darkly sad.  In the end, stories like these can’t help but end in tragedy.

            The film is not without its flaws- the animation, while it does work for the film, is not of the highest quality, and there are some storytelling inconsistencies regarding the timeline of what is happening and when that struck me as being easily fixed- but this is still a powerful film regardless, an experience that will stick with you afterwards.  Every society in the world still struggles to handle the human sex instinct, and in every society in the world still, in their various ways, tries to keep the female half of the population in subservience, and all that accomplishes is to hold us all back and make life darker than it has to be.  Let’s be appreciative of the films that allow us to remember and refocus on that when they come along. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Moonlight/Winter’s Bone

            Part of my intention when I began Films for the Trump Years was to provide something of a beginner’s guide to films of all ages and stripes that, in some way, dealt with themes that reflect or comment on the many issues we are currently facing at this particular fulcrum of human history (both Trump-related and non).  The easy way to do this would be for me to stick to historical dramas or documentaries that explicitly tackle the direct, real-world causes of this current wave of reactionary conservatism.  And indeed, that is mostly what I spent 2017 doing. 

            This was with good reason- all the films I’ve picked are excellent, must-see works- but going forward I’d like to at least occasionally branch out a bit and think a bit bigger about how we relate to storytelling, and how we can use storytelling as inspiration for real-world change.  With that in mind, for this month’s installment I am suggesting a double-feature that might sound rather odd, at least at first; the 2010 indie drama Winter’s Bone, and last year’s Best Picture Winner, Moonlight (2016). 

            Winter’s Bone is a 2010 indie drama written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (who also directed), and starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role that put her on the cinematic map.  She plays Ree, a teenager living in a dejectedly poor stretch of the Ozark Mountains.  With a no-show father connected to the area’s extensive methamphetamine underworld and a mentally ill mother, she’s had to grow up fast and basically be the lone providing parent for her two younger siblings.  What scraps the family has are suddenly threatened when the local sheriff shows up and informs her that her Dad failed to show for a court date, and had previously signed over the family house as collateral, meaning that if he doesn’t show soon (or if Ree can’t provide proof he’s dead), the state will be forced to collect, and she and her family will essentially be made homeless.  Left trying to navigate (and survive) a world built on family loyalty and absolute silence, she proceeds to fight tooth and nail against the grain of her community so as to find out the truth. 

            Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, came out in 2016, and eventually won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture in possibly the strangest moment in Oscar history.  Divided into three parts, we see different stages of the life of a black man named Chiron, first as a small child, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult.  The film is, at least primarily, about Chiron’s lifelong struggles to understand and accept his homosexuality.  It goes far beyond that, however, in its meditations on racism, toxic masculinity, cultures of drug abuse and prostitution, and the dynamics of broken families, and how each of these things contribute to making his journey of self-acceptance that much harder and more painful. 

            On the face of it, these movies may seem to be complete polar opposites; one is about a white woman in one of the most homogenously white parts of rural America, and the other is about a black man in one of the most ethnically diverse coastal cities in America (Miami).  And yet, the more I’ve thought about these two movies, the more similarities I see between the two main characters.  Both are struggling to achieve some form of material or emotional peace amidst worlds of depravation and violence.  Both are stuck in cycles of deep poverty, which inform the life choices they end up making about how to live.  For Ree, one of the only viable options open to her to make a decent salary is to join the military, where her life would be completely in the hands of higher-ups who literally can’t imagine what she’s gone through.  Chiron comes from a world suffused with drug use, and we eventually learn that, through either choice or circumstance, he ends up in the same boat as an adult, selling the very drugs that wrecked his mother’s health years earlier. 

            Even the respective obstacles they are forced to deal with are remarkably similar.  In addition to the limitations of poverty they face, both push against gender and sexual restrictions latent in society about how they each “should” behave.  Both worlds are filled with men, young and old, who exemplify various forms of toxic masculinity.  Ree is told perfunctorily by the men (and the women!) around her to just drop it, to stop asking awkward questions about her Dad, to just shut up and let things be.  Chiron is tormented by other kids at an early age for being a “faggot,” with even his own mother criticizing the way he walks.  He is provided some fatherly support and advice by Juan, but for all his wisdom, he’s every bit as trapped as Chiron by the environment he’s grown up in.  None of the men in these movies, for all of the swagger they possess, are in places of real security or happiness.    

            And though neither film focuses on racism, at least consciously, it’s worth viewing them a second time deliberately through the lens of this country’s racial history.  Look at the ethnically homogenous world Ree is from and ask yourselves; why, exactly, is this part of the country so white?  How would these characters react if a Trump-like figure came marching through, proclaiming his solidarity with their pain and an end to the dominance of those terrible city elites who scoff at their poverty and laugh at their silly accents? 

            Similarly, what are the racial dynamics in our history that led to Chiron’s community in Miami being so cut off, poorly-served, and plagued by drugs and crime?  How does the film’s treatment of this sort of environment comment on our broader history of explicitly shunting minorities into poor neighbors and promoting drug use there?  What can Chiron’s life tell us about the prison industrial complex?  What would it take to rectify all this pain, all this suffering, all this psychological scarring? 

            Part of the challenge we now collectively face, if we can summon the courage to really deal with it, is to finally own up to difficult, painful questions that need to be asked, again and again, questions that are without simple solutions.  Both of these amazing films allow us to do that, which is why, this month, I recommend watching each of these movies side by side, if you haven’t seen them already, and allowing yourself to ponder the questions they raised, and whether or not we can finally offer some answers to them. 

-Noah Franc 

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Films for the Trump Years- Human Flow

            One of the most fundamental physical truths of the universe is that all things are forever in motion.  Every particle of every star and every rock has been moving for 13 billion years, and will continue moving for untold billions more.  And as it is with the universe we are part and parcel of, so it is with humanity, whose history is nothing more than the story of constant movement, of peoples forming and disbanding, and forever migrating from one corner of the globe to the other.  As long as humans exist, we will need to continue to move and forge ever-newer identities.  This basic truth is as impossible to stop as the gravitational trajectories of the galaxies.  We are human, and to be human is to move.    

            And yet, this primary truth is always shadowed by a second; as we perpetually move, there will perpetually be those who seek to deny this reality and to keep it at bay, no matter the cost.  They will insist that human affairs are something settled and separate from the rules of the larger world around them.  That the identities of the now are forever fixed and must be maintained, no matter what. 

             There’s a funny thing, though, about reality.  It has never and will never need our approval to be what it is.  The stars will move whether or not you accept their existence, and human beings will move when the times demand it, no matter how much the Trumps of the world will seek to prevent it. 

            The spike in numbers of people fleeing to Europe, primarily to escape ISIS, in 2014-2015 was, for most, the first time they woke up to what had already been a growing, global refugee crisis for several years.  We currently have over 65 million people (and counting!) displaced from their homes and countries of origin through violence, famine, oppression, and other calamities, the largest number since World War II. 

            While more and more filmmakers are beginning to tackle this massive issue in their work, Chinese artist and human rights symbol Ai Weiwei is the first to try and take a truly global approach with his new and masterful documentary, Human Flow.  He begins on the coastline of Greece with the arrival of a fresh boat of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.  From there, he hops across the globe to various hotspots of the refugee crisis, examining some of the varied circumstances, both man-made and natural, driving these people from their homes to seek their futures elsewhere. 

            Weiwei himself is often on screen with members of his crew.  We see him interact plenty with many of the people he travels with.  But his presence is minimal; he’s here to, as much as possible, put faces and images to the news stories so many around the world have willfully ignored or misrepresented for cheap political gain.  There are a few talking heads here and there to provide better context for the current refugee situation, as well as scrawls of news articles published during the height of the migration to Europe a few years ago.  But for the most part, we just see people. 

            It is a beautifully shot film.  There is extensive use of drone footage to provide big-picture images of the massive sprawl of many refugee camps around the world, with thin, temporary shelters stretching out for miles across barren landscapes.  Often, the camera hovers over the camps just high enough that the huge numbers of people in them seem as scurrying ants, individually tiny, but collectively conveying a powerful sense of immense momentum of human motion and the futility of trying to hold it all back.  These moments are simultaneously the most stunning and the most terrifying of the entire film. 

            One of the most important moments, however, is a sequence focused on Africa that reminds us that a growing proportion of the world’s refugees are climate refugees, forced to abandon their homes because the various effects of man-made global warming are slowly making more and more of the world genuinely uninhabitable.  This will be one of the most consequential issues we face in the coming decades if global policy towards climate change does not undergo an even more massive shift.  It will rely on ALL nations, not just the US or EU, radically reconsidering their policies towards the climate and towards refugees to prevent future waves of forced migration that will make the current situation appear tame by comparison. 

            This is a staggering, overwhelming film in its scope and ambitions.  It may well be said by some that the film stretches itself too thin, and by trying to include at least a little bit on every major hotspot of the global refugee crisis, it deprives itself of depth that could make it more impactful for some audiences.  However, I found this to be a rather fitting approach, because, in a way, the movie simply couldn’t be any other way and still have the power it does.  The film is vast, sprawling, overwhelming, and a touch unfocused because it’s subject matter is vast, sprawling, and overwhelming, and defies all easy explanations or solutions.  There is no easy way through this hell we have made for ourselves; just a lot of really, really hard work. 

            By often just letting us look at this rainbow collection of peoples fleeing depravation and seeking shelter, Weiwei forces the attentive viewer to do something most of us genuinely hate doing; to look at all these faces and truly struggle with ourselves to see each as human, with unique stories, motivations, and reasons for fleeing, each one with hopes, dreams and desires, all needing food, safety, shelter, and some sense of worth and dignity in their lives.  What if we saw each of them as ourselves?  How boundlessly large, then, would our sorrow and sympathy and compassion for them be? 

            Human Flow is one of the year’s best and most important films, given an added level of importance in a time when the governing party of the United States and major parties across Europe are actively trying to push back against the notion that all humans are worthy of safety, security, and dignity.  Those who would deny the “other” the blessing of common humanity must be fought, tooth and nail, without pause or reprieve.  Let this film be a wake-up call to action for us all. 

-Noah Franc 

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th 

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short