Saturday, January 24, 2015

movie review: The Overnighters

The Overnighters 
(USA, 2014) 
directed by Jesse Moss
 The Overnighters is difficult to pin down at first. It's hard to tell if it will be a documentary about the social consequences of companies like Halliburton moving in to states like North Dakota and drawing desperate workers from all over the US. Or perhaps it will be a documentary about how, when faced with actual need, congregations of Christian churches have a difficult time actually following the tenet of "love thy neighbour" rather than "be suspicious of thy neighbour and engage in NIMBYism." Or, perhaps it will be about how a pastor seemingly determined to actually help out those in need may be acting out of egotism and a Messiah complex. It turns out it's not solely about any one of these things, but all these elements combined make it a fascinating and complex account of community and individual lives in the 21st century's version of The Grapes of Wrath.

Pastor Jay Reinke is a compassionate community-minded man in charge of a Lutheran congregation in Williston, North Dakota, near the oil patch. Refreshingly, Pastor Reinke actually seems to take seriously Jesus' message about caring for those in need. He opens up the church building and parking lot to "overnighters," people looking for work in the oil patch who don't have any place to live. Because of the oil boom, there are no accommodations available in town, which is a problem even for people who have secured work and can afford a place of their own. Then there are the hopefuls who turn up but can't get work because they're too old or messed up or there just isn't the work available for them.

The town and part of the congregation are very distrustful of the "overnighters." There are stories in the paper about the rise in crime rates; neighbours complain about the noise and mess. There are revelations that some of the men being housed in the church have criminal records. Some are on the sex offender registry list. How Pastor Reinke deals with all this is interesting to watch. At times, I felt put to shame by the amount of personal sacrifice he was willing to undergo in order to help out people who need a hand. However, at other times, I was uncomfortable at how much he wanted his family to sacrifice, slightly disturbed at the manic zeal he displayed in defending the "overnighters" against the congregants and community, and alarmed at the way he would occasionally berate some of the men in his frustration.

In addition to Pastor Reinke, we meet some of the men who have come to Williston hoping to find work. Some, like Keegan, find work and manage to make a reasonable amount of money, but since there is no accommodation, they can only move on from the church parking lot or floor to an RV that isn't much better. They can't move their families to be near them so they have to Skype with their wives and little babies. Others are too old to be desirable to employers. Yet others have trouble with addiction or with criminal records that have followed them.

Aside from the personal narratives, the movie also throws into sharp relief the fact that fundamentally, something in America is broken. Pastor Reinke speaks to a clearly disturbed man who says he is broken, and the pastor says he is broken too. What is very clear is that the social and economic fabric of the US is also broken. There is something wrong when people have to live in RVs and sleep in their cars and church basements just to work at a job that isn't stable enough for them to move their families there too. What is Halliburton's social responsibility? What is the responsibility of the community to these "overnighters"? How do we deal with people in need? Why does this fall on one pastor and one congregation? What do we do when that isn't enough?

The last part of the movie knocked me for a loop. It's amazing to think this is a documentary and not a piece of fiction. I won't reveal what happens, but suffice it to say it's a strong movie even without the coda, and with the coda it's something else. It's certainly not how I expected the movie to end, but it closes the narrative nicely. I found myself looking back over the rest of the movie with a new perspective--not because I felt duped and betrayed, but because it made so many of the pieces of the film fall into place in a new pattern, and made me feel a renewed empathy for the beleaguered pastor.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

movie review: Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978)
Directed by Alan Parker

This movie (and the book it's based on) did a lot to dissuade Westerners from travelling to Turkey. It's the sort-of true story of Billy Hayes, an American who was caught trying to smuggle 2 kilos of hashish out of Istanbul and was put in prison for it. When Midnight Express was released, Turks were offended at the film's brutish, one-dimensional depiction of their country, and spoke out vehemently against it. Decades later, scriptwriter Oliver Stone admitted he had exaggerated Hayes' original story, and he and Hayes both apologized to the Turks for the overly harsh portrayal of their country.

Upon watching Midnight Express, I definitely thought it was, well, unsubtle. No one would dispute that prison conditions at the time in Turkey had room for improvement, but there is something distinctly unsavoury about the way all the Turks in the movie are portrayed: they're almost all cruel, or stupid, or both. There is a lot of "dark-skinned other" happening here on screen, a lot of caricature and cartoon.

That said, there are still some things that make the film worth watching, chief among them the actors. The late Brad Davis is amazing as Billy. He plays the character as someone who does something unbelievably dumb and then realizes far too late what he has sacrificed in his moment of stupidity. He's capable of acting in anger when pushed over the edge, but for the most part remains surprisingly sweet-natured and open. John Hurt is wonderful as the wry, sensitive Max, a Brit with a drug addiction who seems to spend equal amounts of time nodding off, lavishing affection on his cat, and hating Rifki, the prison's tea-and-all-sundries vendor and chief snitch. A very young Randy Quaid also puts in a good performance as a long-time prisoner who is desperate to escape no matter what.

The movie is definitely sensationalistic and very America-of-the-1970s in its approach, but it's an interesting artifact. If you want to spend a couple of hours getting a feel for what it would be like to be incarcerated in horrific conditions for a seeming eternity, this is the movie for you.

PS: This is totally beside the point, but I was intrigued by how much Brad Davis resembled Brad Pitt when his hair was long, and Channing Tatum when his hair was short.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

movie review: Missing

Missing (1982)
Directed by Costa-Gavras

Missing is based on the true story of Charles Horman, a freelance American journalist living in Chile with his (also American) wife when General Augusto Pinochet bombed the president's palace and carried out a coup d'etat. The country was thrown into violent chaos; curfews were implemented and anyone on the street during curfew could be summarily shot. The military terrorized civilians by patrolling the streets with tanks and machine guns, constantly shooting into crowds. They carried out random arrests, torture, and executions. Many years later, it was officially confirmed that thousands of people had been rounded up and executed in Chile's national stadium.

Six days after the coup, Charles Horman disappeared.

The movie centres around Horman's wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), who is still in Chile trying to get some answers about what has happened to her husband, and Charles' father Ed (Jack Lemmon), who has flown to Chile from the US after getting nowhere with government representatives back home. The real strength of Missing is the relationship between Beth and Ed, which starts out as tense and mildly combative (Ed thinks Beth and Charles are irresponsible, paranoid "anti-establishment" types; Beth thinks Ed is rigid, judgmental, and hopelessly naive about what the US is really up to in Chile). Over the course of the film, as Beth and Ed fight their way through a gauntlet of evasive, prevaricating American officials, they form a bond over their shared love of Charles and their surprisingly similar passion for justice. Ed begins to understand what the US has really been doing in Chile, and starts to suspect that the American officials not only know more than they were letting on but may in fact be partly responsible for Charles' disappearance.

Spacek and Lemmon are powerful, subtle actors who have instantly believable chemistry as father-and-daughter-in-law. Although Spacek was actually in her early 30s when this was filmed, she looks fragile and delicate and more like someone in her early 20s. However, we (and Ed) soon realize that even though the violence she witnesses affects her deeply and terrifies her, she has an iron strength and the power of her unshakeable convictions to help her continue. As for Lemmon, director Costa-Gavras explained in later interviews why he wanted to cast him over other actors better known for dramatic roles: Lemmon is vulnerable and humane, and, despite his reputation as a comedic actor, able to give a subtle performance of a man who has a strong faith in his country and its leaders, but finds out to his horror that his beloved America may have betrayed him most cruelly.

Costa-Gavras does a beautiful job of filming the chaos in the streets--his simple but effective framing and sharply focused soundscape (there is very little non-diegetic music, for example, but the sounds of gunshots echo in the background of nearly every scene) serve the narrative very well and give it the feeling of a stark, sombre documentary film.

If you are looking for an intelligent, engrossing film that is not an easy watch but definitely a satisfying one, I recommend Missing.