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Late August Movies

All four of the films reviewed in this post premiered at the 2019 Sundance film festival.  That includes After the Wedding which opened the festival.  But I’ll start with two documentaries currently streaming on Netflix.
Co-directors/producers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert won a Sundance festival directing award for this remarkable documentary released on Netflix August 21. The opening scene in December 2008 shows a GM factory closing in Dayton, Ohio, throwing 10,000 out of work.  Let me note that the film also won the D.A. Pennebaker award at the 15th Traverse City Film Festival, founded by Michael Moore who 30 years ago made the groundbreaking Roger & Me, centred on a former GM CEO.  However American Factory eschews Moore’s trademark agitprop self-narration; it’s more in the direct cinema mode pioneered by Pennebaker (who died on August 1), trusting the subjects to tell their own stories.   
            The Dayton plant was subsequently acquired by Fuyao, a Chinese conglomerate owned by unilingual Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang, with the subsidiary Fuyao Glass America opening in 2016.  There’s an indication of its operating philosophy when, at the opening ceremony, a pro-union reference by Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is very badly received by management.  This is to be a non-union shop with much lower wages than GM paid. A number of docile Chinese workers are also imported and given cultural orientation.  What becomes abundantly clear is that the Chinese are in charge. Part of the drive to improve profitable efficiency sees a group of American supervisors brought over to the model factory in China in which regimentation and loyalty are the rule.  There the “workers union”, headed by the boss’s brother-in-law, also works hand in glove with the local Communist Party establishment. The consciously upbeat atmosphere portrayed has a whiff of totalitarian propaganda about it.  Indoctrination of the Americans isn’t enough.  A push to get better bottom-line results sees the American subsidiary’s top management also replaced by a Chinese CEO.  When problems at the plant encourage an effort to unionize, the UAW-backed campaign is defeated as the company spends heavily on anti-union tactics which include mandatory sessions and the firing of pro-union workers. Late in the film managers discuss automation as a way to reduce the workforce—a trend that will be a huge issue globally in the years ahead.
            The filmmakers are admirably fair in presenting all points of view.  Indeed Chairman Cao is shown in a reflective moment wondering about his legacy. He’s not made out to be a villain although the Chinese obviously feel their tightly-controlled top-down way is superior. (The irony of “Communist” China having more billionaires than the U.S. is left unstated.)  I did have to wince when the Chinese CEO of this “American” factory spouts a modified Trumpism about “making America good again”. (And wince again hearing Trump’s Aug. 21 boasting about being “the chosen one” to “take on China”.)
This is the best doc I’ve seen this year, and, as it’s the first under the umbrella of Barack and Michelle Obama’s “Higher Ground” initiative with Netflix, do watch the 10-minute postscript conversation between the filmmakers and the former president and first lady, even if it doesn’t go beyond the rather anodyne promotion of the power of good storytelling. A     
 The Great Hack (U.S. 2019
This documentary helmed by Karim Amer and Jehan Noujaim also premiered at Sundance (where Noujaim’s The Square about the Egyptian “Arab spring” won an audience award in 2013), and began streaming on Netflix in late July.  It delves into the weaponization of social media, especially via Facebook, that came to light in the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal exposing the UK-based firm’s non-consensual use of huge amounts of personal data, most notoriously to support the “Leave” side in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2016 Trump campaign.  Treating such data as a valuable asset to be mined, CA bragged about being “a behavior change agency” through targeting identified “persuadables” with contrived messaging.
The exposure of CA’s methods, including by a UK parliamentary inquiry, led to its demise. Under the mantra that “data rights are human rights”, the film’s heroes are an American academic David Carroll who sued to obtain CA’s “data report” on him, and British journalist Carole Cadwalladr of The Independent who has pursued the story in the face of legal threats. A more conflicted profile emerges of a key whistleblower, Brittany Kaiser, who became CA’s head of “business development”, ironically after having been an intern on the Obama campaign and a human rights campaigner. The film probably spends too much time following her—could this seemingly regretful young woman really have played such an outsized role in political results on two continents? That said, along with digitally-delivered disinformation, the harvesting, manipulation and misuse of personal data from online sources is an important issue with which Western democracies must contend in the interests of accuracy and fairness. B+
Blinded By the Light (UK/US 2019
This spirited film from director and co-writer Gurinder Chada is loosely adapted from a real-life memoir Greetings from Bury Park by her friend Sarfraz Mansoor, a huge Bruce Springsteen fan who has seen “the Boss” perform over 150 times.  Read an interview with Chada here:
            The dramatized version stars Viviek Kalra as Javed Khan, a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in Luton in southeast England during the Thatcherite 1980s.  Javed confronts both a strict traditionalist Pakistani father at home, who struggles after losing his factory job, and racist discrimination on the street (several scenes involve the white supremacist “National Front”).  But when introduced to Springsteen’s music by Roops (Aaron Fagura) a turban-wearing Sikh friend, the lyrics of the working-class anthems speak to him in a way that quite literally lights up the screen. Javed’s inspiration also gets encouragement from a girl Eliza (Nell William) he is sweet on, and from his English teacher.  Indeed his writing efforts are rewarded with winning a contest that allows him and Roops to make a pilgrimage to the Springsteen heartland of Ashbury Park, New Jersey. Even Javed’s dad will get won over in this uplifting story that rocks to some classic Springsteen songs, including the one from which the title is taken. If a young English man of Indian descent can channel The Beatles in Dany Boyle’s fantasy Yesterday, why not Bruce’s turn? And here’s a tribute that actually happened. A-     
After the Wedding (U.S. 2019
I’m generally skeptical of American remakes of European art films, and Susanne Bier’s eponymous Oscar-nominated 2006 Danish original much impressed, so would be hard to equal.  That said, Bier collaborated with director/co-writer Bart Freundlich on adapting the original screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen. I’ve also actually met Freundlich, in New York in April 2016 after the Tribeca festival premiere of his previous feature Wolves, which I liked a lot.  He has cast his wife Julianne Moore in a central role—that of Theresa, a successful New York-based entrepreneur and philanthropist with young twin boys and an adopted daughter Grace (Abby Quinn) about to be married to Frank (Will Chase) who’s one of her employees.
            The other key role is that of Isabel (Michelle Williams), devoted to an orphanage in India (and one little boy in particular), scenes from which bookend the narrative.  (In a gender change, the 2006 movie had this character played by Mad Mikkelsen.) Theresa brings Isabel to New York to discuss a large donation on the eve of Grace’s wedding, which is an opulent outdoor affair complete with fireworks, and to which Isabel’s been invited by Theresa.  Isabel, arriving late, is stunned to see Theresa’s artist husband Oscar (Billy Crudup). They have a history that’s just the first in a series of shocks and revelations which will test everyone involved. After selling her company for a ton of money, Theresa proposes a greatly increased contribution to the orphanage, but with specific conditions that are understandable in the circumstances. Serial emotional catharses could easily fall into melodrama.  Fortunately, Moore and Williams show why they are among the best actors of their generation, handling the highly charged situations not with histrionics but with a raw poignancy that rings true.  B+ 


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