Sunday, June 18, 2017

New(ish) Releases: Captain Fantastic (2016); Elle (2016)

Ben, leading his kids into a misguided adventure. As admirable
as much of Ben's philosophies and teachings are, the flaws
become more apparent as the movie progresses.
Captain Fantastic (2016)

Director: Matt Ross

Highly interesting and rather unique tale which allows the extremely versatile Viggo Mortensen to shine brightly.

Mortensen plays Ben, an ideologue of such extreme dedication that he has been raising his five children completely off the grid for nearly two decades. In the woods of the American Northwest, he leads his children go through regular training in order to sharpen their physical, mental, and spiritual health. They exercise vigorously, read classical and modern literature, engage in thoughtful and highly intellectual debates, and they exhibit the kind of empathy and concern that Ben sees ignored far too often by commercial America. At a glance, the family seems in many ways like a miniature example of the perfect commune. Much of this is thrown in disarray, however, when they learn that Ben's wife, the mother of the five children, has died. The circumstances around the death are not immediately clear, but it forces Ben and the kids to leave the forest and make a road trip back into the "real" world of modern conveniences and excess. As they re-enter this world, we start to see certain cracks in what at first seemed like a perfect little universe of Ben's and his wife's creation. This becomes especially apparent when Ben and the kids come into contact with Ben's in-laws, who have always found Ben to be a deranged and even abusive influence on their daughter and grandchildren.

Ben leads his kids during their rigorous, daily physical
training. In addition to working their bodies, he also works
their minds by having them read tons of high-end literature
and play instruments of their choosing.
This movie was surprisingly thoughtful and balanced, which is impressive given that it deals with a subject that can very easily get romanticized and be presented in extremely biased ways. The idea of raising one's children free of the avaricious nature of consumerism and any perceived problems of organized religion is noble, and one that more than a few people have attempted or fantasized over for decades. Could someone actually do such a thing, with the right attitude, work ethic, and genuine care for the children they are raising? Captain Fantastic initially paints an attractive portrait of someone's success in this arena. Simply seeing how it might be done is fairly compelling on its own, and the skills Ben's children exhibit are impressive, often because they raise very relevant questions about the current education system in the U.S. and people's attitudes towards what constitutes life's necessary lessons. How does one raise not just a knowledgeable person, but one who can think critically about how to be a "good" person?

While the educative themes explored in the movie are certainly thought-provoking, the dramatic element is also what provides us with the complexity that enhances the film. Once Ben and his children have to interact with mainstream society, we eventually see that his utopian vision for his children is in some ways unrealistic and in other ways downright negligent. Fortunately, by the end of the movie, we are not left with easy answers as to whether Ben's ways are completely correct or incorrect. Rather, we are left with a portrait of an extremely unique man and his children - one which can inspire in many ways but is clearly not meant as a manifesto for those tempted to run off and raise their kids away from the rest of humanity.

It's also worth mentioning just how excellent the acting is. There are many familiar faces in the film, but the primary actors - Viggo Mortensen and the five younger actors who play the children - are exceptional. Mortensen even got an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which was completely deserved. He and the other performers did a great job in bringing this provocative, funny, and touching story to life. I highly recommend it.

Michele arms herself against future attacks. While she is clearly
a victim in several ways in this story, hers is a very complex
and often disturbing psychology. This despite her often calm
veneer as a successful, professional woman.
Elle (2016)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Think of this as one of Pedro Almodovar's uncomfortable, controversial movies, but without the vibrant colors. Or much of the dark humor.

The story begins with a most awful act - a brutal rape of Michele LeBlanc (Isabelle Huppert) in the victim's home. Her assailant briskly leaves after this heinous violation, leaving Michele to pick up the pieces. Strangely, she does not call the police, but rather simply cleans up the broken glasses in the house, takes a shower, and goes to bed. She then continues the morning, going through her typical routine. Over the succeeding days, Michele's initial veneer of indifference shows signs of wearing down: she starts doing some simple detective work in order to try and learn the identity of her assailant. Along the way, we learn that Michele's father was a mass murderer who killed over 20 people when Michele was only 10 years old. He is also due for a parole hearing soon. All the while, lines between sex and violence become more and more blurred, especially once Michele discovers the true identity of her rapist.

Elle is a very well-done, calculating, and bold film very unlike any other movies I'd seen from director Paul Verhoeven, which include Robocop and Starship Troopers (he also directed Showgirls and few other glossy, campy good times). This film, though, is more akin to something I would expect from the aforementioned Almodovar, Stanley Kubrick, or perhaps even Lars Von Trier. Michele is, quite simply, not a terribly likable protagonist. For reasons that are not completely her fault, it is often painful to see her interact with her son, employees, mother, and even her lovers and closest friends. She is obviously smart and sophisticated, but she is also often distant, aloof, and calculating. While she is clearly the victim of the rape, her reaction to it is at first baffling. As the story progresses and we learn more about the horrors in Michele's background, her responses become a bit more understandable, but no less upsetting and disturbing. In short, she is complicated, which makes for an engaging tale.

The acting is incredible. Isabelle Huppert was rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, as she displays the nuance that the character demands. She is clearly the show, and worth the price of admission. All of the other technical aspects of the movie are spot-on, with intense, almost crime-procedural segments broken up by slower, more thoughtful and sometimes more sinister scenes during which a viewer can find themselves getting pulled into the dark labyrinth of the mind of Elle and some of those around her.

As well-made as the film is, it is hardly one that I need to watch again. While it clearly tells the story it sets out to tell with excellence, it is a very disturbing one that I am not altogether comfortable subjecting myself to more than once. People who prefer more straightforward, black-and-white stories, where it is clear who the heroes and villains are will most likely not appreciate Elle. However, people who enjoy narrative and emotional complexity, and are not put off by highly uncomfortable situations, would do well to give this movie a shot.