Today's inadvertent theme: Capitalism!
The Measure of a Man (dir. Stéphane Brizé)
The Measure of a Man begins with a classic "who cares?" premise. It's about Thierry (Vincent London), a married man, father of a teenager with cerebral palsy, who's been unfairly out of work for two years. But although they might not be financially stable they are middle class, even affording dance lessons and owning a mobile holiday home. Plot elements are introduced that vaguely threaten to raise the stakes - his former co-workers are trying to legally challenge their redundancies, he might have to pay to send his son to a special school - and then aren't mentioned again. In fact the external story, of Thierry's unemployment, just fizzles away. But what replaces it is a more fundamental internal struggle that takes a profound turn.
Potential spoilers - I'll be talking about a plot development that happens about halfway through the film.
Thierry takes a job at a supermarket, watching security cameras and stopping shoplifters. It becomes more and more apparent what a Faustian bargain capitalism is, how soul-consuming and dehumanising it is, and a supermarket, where human beings are just another margin to be squeezed as low as possible, is the perfect setting. It's not even exaggerated enough to be satire or black comedy exactly, although there are elements of the latter. While we've seen his extensive struggles with job applications and interviews, the process by which he actually got this job is entirely off-screen - maybe the first half was actually about something else? The endless petty humiliations and emasculations are cast in a new light, showing how capitalism makes us all competitors, pushing us to crush the weak so we in turn can survive (for example, a scene where other people are ostensibly giving Thierry feedback about his interview technique turns into a general barrage of insults).
While Vincent London won the Cannes Best Actor Award, perhaps more impressive are the rest of the cast, all non-professional actors. Even though Thierry has most of the screen time, their characters all feel well-rounded, essential parts of a real world milieu. It's a shame Brizé has chosen to shoot everything in one style - long takes staying behind characters' backs, constantly edging around corners of doorways, panning between faces in a conversation - which few can pull off without it coming across as lazy (the Dardennes, somehow, still manage it). It's unfortunately derivative for a film with plenty of important and interesting themes.
Brand: A Second Coming (dir. Ondi Timoner)
Talking about Russell Brand is kind of impossible. As a character in a film he'd be unbelievable. As a public figure he's virtually unassailable, every criticism of him somehow reinforcing his iconoclast status or tying into his own self-deprecation. While Brand has distanced himself from A Second Coming - not criticising it exactly, but calling it too personal for him to watch - Ondi Timoner's documentary suffers from being far too close to its subject. She wants to show us all of his flaws, and does show us a good deal of them, but ultimately this is as much of a hagiography and self-conscious brand extension (pun intended) as anything else.
Whether he's credited as such, Brand is both subject and co-director. You can feel him on screen eagerly re-shaping his narrative, and it's not surprising that he asked for changes in the edit. Timoner is complicit in this of course, and that she turned down further requests to remove personal material (leading to the rift between them) doesn't change the fact that her integrity - journalistic or as a filmmaker - has been called into question. (Whether documentary filmmakers are journalists is a big and complex issue, but even as entertainment, as drama, the film has been weakened.)
Brand has even infected her logic in talking about the film. One interviewee in the film mentions how Brand always accuses his critics of having ulterior motives rather than responding to them; lo and behold, in a recent interview, Timoner says, "I think he's a threat, and it's why I've gotten a couple of bad reviews, the first in my life." The critics in this film are cherry-picked as the only people seen as more divisive, smug and obnoxious than Brand - Jeremy Paxman, Fox News' Sean Hannity, and Bill Maher.
Having said all that, the film does force you to re-evaluate Brand as someone who won't be easily dismissed. He is unquestionably a skilled comedian and makes a compelling case that political messages have to be communicated with humour and be entertaining to be seen and understood, especially to young audiences today. People who would never be invested in politics engage with his YouTube videos and are thinking and talking and questioning what the media shows us, which is an achievement. Those people are not going to start questioning capitalism because of The Measure of a Man, however many prizes it wins at film festivals. And with his café he's even started putting his money where his mouth is. But in this film it's all a little too flimsy, a little too much 'image'. Brand is always performing.
There are some genuine, albeit all too brief, insights into his background. His father might have abandoned his mother around the time he was born. His father took him to a brothel. His father interrupts Brand explaining his personal spiritual beliefs to ask their taxi driver if they've arrived yet. These are the best scenes in the film and suggest an important relationship that, if explored more fully, could go towards explaining why Brand is the way he is.
Seeing a photograph of Brand with Amy Winehouse, given how strongly addiction factors into both of their stories, raises the question of what Amy would have been like had she survived to collaborate on the film with Asif Kapadia, or had he allowed the family to suggest edits to the film to make themselves look better. Of course, as the situation around A Second Coming demonstrates, there's no guarantee they wouldn't have withdrawn their support after the fact anyway. Timoner though ends up with the worst of both worlds - no star support and a compromised film.