Spling reviews Captain Fantastic, Wonder Boy for President and Where to Invade Next as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.
(*We pick up where we stopped last time and go deeper into the country of horror – for adults only.)
The “other film” mentioned at the end of our last column was of course Apocalypse Now. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and released four years after Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, it also deals with horror, lots of horror. And it prompted us to ask why one should voluntarily expose one’s senses to depictions of horror, even when they happen to be presented in the form of art.
“It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”
The lines belong to Colonel Kurz. How this renegade U.S. officer in the Vietnam War is tracked down and killed constitutes the story of Apocalypse Now. It is noteworthy that despite his being the main character he only appears in the last act. The greater part of the film focuses on Captain Willard, the young officer who receives the order to find Kurz and remove from his command, as his superiors put it, “with extreme prejudice.” He leaves army head-quarters – a barricaded vestige of civilisation where premeditated murder is spoken of as “extreme prejudice” – and enters the inferno of war, watches civilisation gradually disintegrate as he follows the course of an unnamed river in search of his objective, and simultaneously sheds his own civilised attributes. When Kurz, who hovers over the events like an evil spirit, finally materialises it is deep in the jungle, in a camp where there are severed heads on pointed sticks at every turn. He asks Willard if he considers his methods to be unsound. The response: “I see no method.” But Willard is mistaken.
An observer can easily make the same error of judgment when confronted with the scenes from Salò, dismissing them as depictions of gratuitous violence, senseless depravity and the irrational behaviour of people who have way too much time on their hands. This overlooks the simple fact everything that happens in Salò, regardless of how abhorrent it may be, is ritualised and regulated by ceremony – bizarre ceremony, to be sure, but regulatory nonetheless. There’s musical accompaniment by a virtuoso classical pianist and timely interludes for philosophical reflection. It is worlds away from the primeval setting of Apocalypse Now. But this discrepancy only emphasises the constant in both films: horror is created by humans.
“Here is a jungle. Now let there be shrapnel hail, fire storm and napalm cloud… Here is a palace in the middle of the country of the Renaissance, beautifully proportioned, exquisitely decorated. Let it echo with screams of pain and fear… So it was. So it shall be…”
Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom could just as well have been called Apocalypse Now. Horror has indeed a face. Since the dawn of civilisation that face has been human.
In pointing out Captain Willard’s mistake we also answer the question that started the present discussion. We watch films like Apocalypse Now and Salò because we need to know what horror looks like in order to overcome it. One must know, or be reminded, that horror neither occurs by chance nor is caused by third forces and sundry evil spirits. Only then does one understand “what is necessary.” Willard looks at the face of horror and corrects his initial observation. In this way he is able to overcome his awe of Kurz and subsequently to kill him. Just as importantly, he understands that Kurz’s killing is all that is necessary. Once that is done, he drops his weapon, thereby avoiding being cut to pieces by Kurz’s followers or the equally horrifying prospect of being adopted by them as their fallen leader’s heir.
We hope we’re not being misunderstood. Looking at horror does not always necessitate a killing. Captain Willard is a soldier at war. It is to be expected that at some point he will have to kill. But each to his own. We, as citizens of country at peace (though not exempt of horror by any stretch of the imagination), might try to be better citizens or make a concerted effort to force our leaders to govern better. Or, as individuals, we might try to excel at whatever activity helps us lead fuller lives, the corollary of which is showing solidarity with others who excel in their particular field of human activity, for example, with film-makers who take on the theme of horror…
We think it could even be as simple as revelling occasionally in the necessity of gathering for drinks and pleasant discussion with one’s friends, in other words, with people who may well have a capacity for horror in some dark recess of their heart, but who are, after all, people like oneself.
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Captain Fantastic is a bizarre clash of cultures. Raised in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, a father educates, imbues his values and trains his six kids to fend for themselves. Without a television and having to hunt for food, their cloistered Swiss Family Robinson style upbringing presents a number of challenges from societal integration to coping in a capitalist me-orientated America. Having extensive book knowledge makes them more than capable to think for themselves and much more adept than their peers, however, their inexperience renders them alien to their own country.
When their unstable mother is committed to a healthcare facility, they stay on in the forest, as their wise yet stubborn father tries to keep his children pure. Yet, they find themselves on a road trip using the family bus, Steve, which tests their abilities, their mission readiness for the real world and their own patience for folks deemed "normal".
Captain Fantastic is an eye-opening comedy drama, which essentially gives us an alien perspective on Western culture, contrasting the affects of a rural lifestyle and book smart education with those of our fast-paced, urban and dumbed-down societies. The results are deeply comical, compelling, thought-provoking and wildly entertaining as we venture forth with a family whose mother could've been Jodie Foster in Nell.
It's like the perfect blend of Into the Wild and Little Miss Sunshine. The good times wanderlust, spirit of adventure, political aspirations and return to nature from Into the Wild are present in Captain Fantastic. Both films even share elements such as the hippie roadies, the bus in the wild and the rebellious stick-it-to-the-man sentiment of Christopher McCandless. You even imagine scenes playing out quite perfectly against a similar soundtrack from Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Little Miss Sunshine presents itself in the offbeat dark comedy, road trip dilemnas, family politics and spontaneous devil-may-care nature of their escapades.
"I let my kids decide what I meant by 'Sunday Best'."
Writer-director, Matt Ross, is obviously concerned with the environment and the state of disrepair the world finds itself in. His commentary is enjoyable, if sometimes biting, and makes some comical observations by simply contrasting a righteously harmonious and self-aware existence against the boxed in constraints of a life lived on auto pilot. There's a definite slant, which is tempered by flaws in both systems, yet able enough to get its point across without turning into a full-blown sermon on "what the world needs now".
Beyond it's quirky appeal and timely exploration, it's underwritten by a talented cast headlined by Viggo Mortensen as Ben, George Mackay as Bo and Frank Langella as Jack. Mortensen is in his element as the self-made Captain Fantastic, who seems to have an answer for everything and the final word on everything else. He's in great shape and delivers a spirited and whole-hearted performance full of fire. His second-in-command is Mackay, whose role as a budding squire to his father echoes the family values coming face-to-face with the tangible alienation of their choices. Then, Frank Langella brings his considerable presence to represent good old-fashioned American values as the long arm of the father-in-law.
This is a red-blooded jaunt that continues to surprise with its smart writing, sharp performances and timely storytelling. It's infotainment in full swing, delivering experiential education through well-crafted drama and poignant comedy. The concept is refreshing, giving Captain Fantastic a bold and original flavour, even though it comes together as if fashioned by great ideas and themes from other contemporary films.
Michael Moore's latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, has a very similar format and slant to Sicko. Instead of contrasting medical aid schemes and healthcare policy with other first world countries, he's decided to rather stake a claim over other countries great ideas.
Using an American flag, he travels Europe and Northern Africa planting it once he's established that the idea could be feasible for America. France, Germany, Finland, Norway, Italy, Portugal, Iceland and Tunisia are his hunting grounds, where he investigates law, prison, gender politics, education and healthcare systems. Each investigation first explores what the big idea is through charts and interviews with insiders and then contrasts with United States, using a critical yet humorous tone, typical of Michael Moore.
Moore's documentaries usually are quite one-sided and Where to Invade Next is no different, delivering a perspective that he refers to as "picking the flowers, not the weeds". Being quite open about his method makes it easier to roll with his "worldwide" scramble for great ideas. While it has a similar format to Sicko, the tone is much more constructive, funny and optimistic. Instead of berating the United States and criticising it to the point of being labelled anti-American, he has chosen a much more relatable stance. The attitude behind Where to Invade Next feels more like a brainstorming session on a whiteboard than a direct attack.
"Friends, Romans, countrymen... lend America your ideas."
Just like Donald Trump's "let's make America great again" campaign slogan, Moore is concerned with proffering hope rather than simply poking fun. The collection of ideas demonstrate that these systems are currently in operation and seem to be working effectively based on the evidence. These are fairly broad brush strokes, not really taking into account any of the sub factors, but providing enough thought-provoking sentiment to spark the right conversations. His documentary does get quite provocative that times, touching on the Norwegian prison system in the wake of the 2011 massacre and unfurling his conspiracy behind the "War on Drugs' in the United States under Nixon.
Moore adopts a fairly casual approach to his interviews and has a good-natured sense of humour, not afraid to self-deprecate or applaud/tease his interviewees. He's not quite as funny as Ali G, but manages to keep things fairly grounded and easy-going. The incredulous tone, the eye-opening ideas in action and the express tour keep things upbeat and fairly brisk, however as a documentary it runs a bit long at two hours. The format's trademark Michael Moore style makes it more of the same for his fans and even while he has to use a makeshift pole for each flag planting to keep the concept alive, it works.
While not quite as shocking or accusatory as Sicko, Where to Invade Next makes a delightful follow-up, which picks up on the healthcare niche and broadens it to explore other key governmental departments. It's more accessible, simply because he's not just pointing (or flipping) the finger, but asking the right questions. It's a much more positive angle, and while it doesn't have the same snarky vibe as his previous films, it's hugely entertaining and will have audiences from just about every country wondering why their government doesn't take a page too.