Movies of the Week #13 #14 (2020)

American Factory (2019): The Academy Award winner for best documentary feature, Steven Bognar’s and Julia Reichert’s movie is at times exactly what you would expect, while proving surprisingly surreal in key moments. More than that, it finds the complexity at the intersection of social, cultural and economic priorities showcased by both the Chinese owners of their new US factory and the people working there. By the end, it becomes a commentary on the exploitation of the working class, a tale of yet another bad employer (by Western standards, anyway), but it also foreshadows the greater challenges people now working in the Ohios of this world will face with the increase in automation. American Factory is a mix of treats, that finds good objectivity, as well as good cinematography, recreating an age-old-tale of free market capitalism and modern industry. 8/10

Vivarium (2019): This is so typically me, I am really harsh on Underwater (see below) and here you’ll read me praising a mess of a movie that you can’t make heads or tails of. In Vivarium, a couple is trying to find a new home and their path leads them to a strange estate agent, who in turn leads them to an even stranger neighborhood of identically looking houses. When they realize they are stuck there, their relationship is quickly tested by the appearance of a baby in a box. There’s a lot of commentary on family life to be picked out from Tom and Gemma’s struggles, which makes for good contemplation during times of isolation. It’s funny that I read an article a couple of days ago about how men don’t want to do the lion’s share of household chores, be they physical or emotional, and here was this movie about a guy obsessing (over digging a big hole in the front yard), while the girlfriend needs to keep a handle on the bizarre baby-child creature that’s popped up in their lives. Vivarium probably sounds better on paper, but what made the movie stand out to me, was how it just got under my skin by the end, in an existentially uncomfortable way. Which says a lot about it. 7/10

Clemency (2019): This exploration of the (in)humanity of carrying out death sentences in a US prison is more personal, than dogmatic, which is a good thing. Alfre Woodard’s exceptional performance as warden Bernadine Williams goes a long way to making Clemency memorable, because other than that, the movie doesn’t throw narrative loops around you. It’s also not quite as focused as it could have been, with bits and bops of social commentary that add little to the viscerally harrowing experience the movie conjures up in its best moments. 7/10

Buffaloed (2020): A critic called this “The She-Wolf of Wall Street” and he wasn’t far off. Zoey Deutch brings a lot of energy to this uneven movie about a financially struggling young woman, who keeps searching for the easy bucks. And for me that was really enough, because while Buffaloed tries to offer some deeper criticism of the social and regulatory structures within the US of A, there’s no pretense about its desire to entertain. You won’t find the best characters here, nor the best plot, with a wrap-up so absurd it will take some acquired tolerance to push through. However, there’s fun to be had, high-octane fun, an endearing guilty pleasure. 7/10

Underwater (2020): The Kristen Stewart deep-sea creature feature is an underwhelming piece of work. With a generic Alien-esque crew set-up and no patience at all in building suspense, or any interest in character development, there’s little to grab and keep your attention. An even more generic final boss with lots of sharp teeth and plenty of tentacles, aided by its sperm-like offspring, won’t blow your mind either. However, in spite of its shortcomings, Stewart’s energetic performance saves the movie from the cold place in hell where unimaginative sci-fi horrors go, but it doesn’t keep it out of purgatory. 5/10