Saturday, August 15, 2015

NY Film Festival 2015: Mortal Transience Issues Upstage Mass Movements In Mia Madre

    Dazed And Confused Direction Of The Italian Working Class

Midlife crisis and mortality fixations meet mass movement impulses to the unfortunate disadvantage of the latter, in Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre [My Mother]. A far too heaping thematic plate overflowing with existential fixations and middle class alienation from the masses, the emotionally insular family drama with its blurred inside looking out, melancholy perspective positions the notion of art struggling not politically, but to rise above subjugation to the implicit domination of fleeting existence on this planet.

Margherita Buy is Margherita, a sullen, rigid movie director concurrently facing the terminal illness of her mother (Giulia Lazzarini). A character reportedly based on Moretti himself as he faced the loss of his own mother, Margherita is in the process of filming a drama about a factory worker uprising and plant occupation to protest layoffs along with job and salary cuts.

But Margherita's distraction related to her mother's imminent demise, along with a somewhat baffled, alienated cast as to what it really means to be workingclass - and more in tune with mounting a more familiar conventional action thriller of sorts - nearly brings the production to intermittent standstill. And further exacerbated by the import of flamboyant American actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro) to the proceedings, to play the new domineering factory owner. An introduction to the disorderly situation at hand which fumbles both comically and thematically, as Huggins struggles with both the language barrier and repeatedly forgotten lines, along with an annoyingly itchy fake mustache.

With this uneasy balance of too many plot points shoe horned into too little time as the elderly invalid's condition progressively worsens, pressing themes are given too little space to breathe. Including regrettably the mass movement film production reflecting the pressing issue of Italy's current socio-economic chaotic reality. And how and why artists are compelled to continue to create in the face of their inevitable mortality, in particular mirrored with alarm when loved ones are passing away. While Moretti's insertion of his own thinly fleshed out role as the filmmaker's slightly less dazed and confused sibling Giovanni, doesn't help matters either.

All of which results in an ethereal, lyrically textured group portrait of family loss and disintegration, with a fragile, tentative future hope focused on a vague 'tomorrow' to continue to somehow creatively carry on. But too many less is in no way more, narrative strands abandoned by the wayside, of both the film within a film and Moretti's Mia Madre.

More information about the NY Film Festival 2015 is online at:

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations


Monday, August 10, 2015

NY Film Festival 2015: Experimenter, An Exploration In Negative Preconceived Notions?

Central to the Michael Almereyda biopic Experimenter, delving into the controversial early 1960s 'obedience experiments' of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and in which he set out to demonstrate passive human compliance with the oppression and torture of others historically, is Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's quote uttered by Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and emphasized in the course of the narrative. Namely,  'Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.'

If only this overly reverential, strangely decontextualized cinematic exploration of human behavior, whether on the part of Milgram or the filmmaker himself possibly setting out to prove questions he had decided upon beforehand did so. But that appears to present a different sort of irony. That is, the reactive rather than proactive psychological notion, whether that of a scientist or movie director, of faith versus factual inquiry.

And I say this - disclaimer alert - as a film critic rather than a Milgram scholar, and as such may have missed some of his many assertions and deductions along the way. So any issues that I challenge here, are primarily addressing the movie itself. And what may appear to be present or absent in its rather uncritical embrace of Milgram, despite those colleagues and opponents challenging his assertions through the years.

Milgram's unconventional psychological experiments involved hiring subjects to submit electric shocks to an unseen 'learner' they initially meet, and who in another room reacts loudly in pain when 'punished' for giving wrong answers or none at all, to a series of questions. The subjects themselves are determined to yield to authority and continue administering increasing shock voltage, because they're intimidated into obeying authority over empathizing with the victims in pain (actually a tape recording of a hired actor played in the other room).

And Milgram, an American Jew driven emotionally in his experiments by the horrors of the Holocaust, repeatedly concluded on this basis that humans are primarily a loathsome lot, insensitive to human atrocities out of fear of questioning authority. And the somewhat more fan than filmmaker Almereyda would seem to wholeheartedly agree. So would this by any chance be yet another case of deference to the authority, of a prominent scientific public figure as well?

Crafting the film and the personality of Milgram in a more playful than probing light in which magical realism oddly and repeatedly upstages sobering reflections regarding the dark subject matter on hand, Almereyda would seem to be disregarding a whole menu of presenting issues. Including for starters, the fact that two thirds of the subjects responded to the experiments  in a manner satisfactory to Milgram.

But what about the other third - a rather large figure that might entail a different sort of conclusion. For instance, the fact that rebels and revolutionaries who fearlessly push human progress forward historically, along with the heroic masses who join up with them, are never in the majority. But without whose instincts and qualities we'd still all be living prehistoric lives. Why no study as well of those who do question authority and why? Perhaps another unintended irony as to where authority is challenged, but where Milgram may have feared to tread.

And at this point, I offer some intriguing speculation, that such a subsidiary inquiry may have made for some murky waters beyond simplistic pronouncements. Such as the rather conformist looking human subjects presented in the film. If Milgram's studies extended into the subversive '60s, where were all those masses of anti-war, civil rights anti-racist and feminist activists to choose from? Or say study, as a major mass movement historical moment?

And what about an exploration of the herd instinct itself, without which no species, human or otherwise, would survive on the planet. And while conformity and that tribal instinct can and has been misguided and reprehensible throughout history, it's an instinct nevertheless, and primarily one of the most basic survival instincts of all life on earth.

Then there's the question left hanging of the Holocaust victims who first inspired Milgram. Why no explanation of how those victims then became aggressive victimizers of the Palestinians in Israel. And ruthlessly engaging in genocidal behavior of their own, with no lessons learned from history.

And finally, what about these actors in Experimenter along with the filmmaker, all willing 'participants' in that dubious enterprise known as Hollywood. And in some sense, obedient to that standard of moviemaking there enforcing repeatedly ad nauseum, violence on screen as entertainment. Case closed.

Though one Vietnam War era observation by Sarsgaard's Milgram in Experimenter, does hold chilling, conclusive weight. With his devastating insight at one point that 'the results are disturbing that one can't be protected in US society from a malevolent authority.'

More information about the NY Film Festival 2015 is online at:

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Keeping Room Movie Review: Gone With The Wallflower Feminist Western

A bold and ballsy retro-futuristic fantasy feminist western with tall tale truth telling at its core, The Keeping Room provocatively and subversively sets in motion 19th century gender reinvention at the climactic moment of a defeated Dixie during the Civil War. Reimagined through the irreverent outsider Brit perspective of director Daniel Barber (Harry Brown), the film likewise sexually tests the limits of traditional storytelling conventions via female screenwriter Julia Hart.

It's 1865 in rural South Carolina, and young matriarch by default Augusta (Brit Marling)- no Scarlett O'Hara shrinking violet -  is anxiously presiding over the modest family plantation along with her teenage sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). The three females barely survive collectively on what meager sustenance they can grow themselves, which tends to stir in Mad a growing, rebellious sense of her own worth and independence. And that does not sit well with the condescending spoiled and sullen Louise.

And with little sense of what's going on with the war and why in their isolation, the women bide their time awaiting the return of the men. And in the case of Mad, her sweetheart who may have fled to freedom in the north or joined up with the Union Army, or perhaps both.

But when Union soldiers turn up with malice on their minds that has nothing to do with battle, including a brutal crime spree of pillaging, rape and slaughter, the lines between war and murder are pointedly blurred, along with any typical notions of  'good guys' in that war. As an unrelenting and terrifying home invasion thriller kicks in for the duration, and occasional more awkward 'can't we all just get along' moments that present themselves as well.

The Keeping Room sustains a cinematically mystical atmospheric glow in stark contrast to its horror. And with an ultimate, strangely triumphant gender challenging vicarious reinvention, as the reborn warrior women shed their own socially connected sexual identities in a wild, vicarious fashion statement reassignment bid. Fed by fury, however reckless, and an impulse for feminist freedom enlightened by the notion that women are always consigned to fighting a different war - characterized by sexual brutality against them - no matter which side of whatever conflict.

And facilitated no doubt at the time, by the fluid post-war 'manifest destiny' frontier ripe for identity reincarnation. Which would be populated as well by that historically hidden Southern post-traumatic stress disorder human wreckage known instead ever since then, as those mythologized wild west outlaws.

Prairie Miller

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Boy: Memory Lane Greed Decade Noir Channels The Present Moment In Time

In no way Boyhood, The Bad Seed/Bates Motel coincidental spinoff with figurative morbidity rates, meets Greed Decade Noir in The Boy. Rather a 20th century memory lane melancholy lapse into economic crisis period doom not unlike today, as the bad boy in question (Jared Breeze) veers in this slowly simmering, psychologically dense portrait, between victim and villain. And mischievously confounding audience senses, as much as the festering young psychopath Ted sadistically toys with his selected human targets.

Ted is a sullen, bored nine year old consigned to seemingly living against his will with his single dad at their remote, isolated and barely visited mountain top family motel. Ted's mother apparently bolted from the financially struggling establishment for Florida long ago, with a trucker checking in one night. And since then, Ted has been abnormally self-entertaining somewhat during the long, lonely days, by setting primitive road kill traps out of discarded food scraps, for unfortunate wild animals crossing the adjoining highway. And bizarre trophies which his too distracted for quality time dad (David Morse) inexplicably rewards with spare change, eagerly detailed by the boy in the motel ledger.

But this pathological pastime takes a progressively darker turn, as occasional guests arrive inspiring Ted to experimental fantasies with human subjects instead. And in part on a more sympathetic note for the psychopathic, scarred kid - if possible - to emotionally ensure he's never traumatically abandoned again as his mother did. And even if that means a kind of terminal roach motel scenario, with those transients never checking out again. A notion Ted picks up in part from a mysterious nomadic guest (Rainn Wilson) likewise into inconsolable grief manifested by carting around the bagged cremated remains of a loved one.

The Boy (directed by Craig William Macneill and adapted from the Clay McLeod Chapman novel), would likewise seem to be part of a trend in movies (Dark Places, Chloe And Theo, The Boy Next Door, Sinister 2) with children lashing out against the older generation during this period of profound economic crisis. And not unlike the Greed Decade and its primary obsession with money during which the story is set - for depriving them of any sense of future - financial, emotional or otherwise, in the process.

On a side note, Elijah Wood is a producer of The Boy. An interesting twist to the proceedings, as Wood segued in his own boyhood reveries on screen from Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, into the more sinister fare lately of Grand Piano, Cooties, Wilfred, Open Windows, and The Last Witch Hunter.

Prairie Miller

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Arts Express: Hiroshima Poetry, Stopped Clocks, Nicolas Cage No Jimmy Stewart, And Televisions On Fire

**Hiroshima Remembrance Day Poetry: On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Japanese civilians, a gathering of poets speaking out. And why the US government said it had to happen, but why it really did.

**Book Corner: Dr. Seuss and the legacy of Hiroshima. Referencing hidden socio-political metaphors in his books for children, along with a rediscovered manuscript hidden away in a box. Dustin Hoffman reads from one relevant allegorical tale, and the late political cartoonist turned author's former art director Cathy Goldsmith disagrees when phoning in.


**The Runner: An ecological thriller starring Nicolas Cage and Peter Fonda, opening this week. And taking on the hot topics of multinational corporate abuse of power, the BP Gulf oil spill disaster, and DC lobbyists destroying remaining remnants of democracy. Along with a distraught youth perspective today on screen that is the opposite of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. A conversation with writer/director Austin Stark.

**Art Corner: Mixed media muralist and neighborhood outsider artist Don Porcella is on the line to Arts Express to discuss his latest wordscape fusion of language and images. And some surprising connections he creates related to folk themes, crayons, science fiction, cartoons, shape shifting, a chocolate mountain, cactuses, eyeballs, a naked beekeeper, televisions on fire, a podiatry appointment and happy accidents.

Arts Express, Airing On The WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network and Affiliate Stations