It feels like fall, cold and crisp, the season when grownup movies are back in the multiplex, new plays are opening on and off Broadway, and lots of bad — and some good — TV shows are trying to find an audience. I saw two of those grownup movies over the weekend, “The Martian” and “Bridge of Spies,” both of which prove that Hollywood is still capable of producing deeply satisfying mass entertainment when it wants to.
Directed by Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg respectively, the movies are big, emotionally uplifting, and leave the viewer feeling proud to be an American. That’s what the best Hollywood movies always did and still do.They aren’t artsy or avant garde. Neither movie makes us question our society or ourselves. On the contrary, in both films, the protagonists exhibit a core of ethical individualism, the essence of what we like to believe makes us exceptional. It isn’t a stretch to see Jimmy Stewart in both roles. Scott and Spielberg are superb craftsmen, and these movies look fabulous and provide enjoyment in numerous ways, including wisecracking humor in desperate situations.
Is “Homeland” Racist?
There is rarely any humor in “Homeland,” the spy thriller on Showtime based on an Israeli series, but this season, Carrie Mathison, everyone’s favorite bipolar spy, is out of the CIA and living happily in Berlin. We’ll see how long that lasts. As of the last episode, she was off her medication and haunted by her murderous past. There was a kerfuffle in the news about Arabic graffiti in one of the scenes that said, “Homeland is racist.” That misses the point; “Homeland” is the most cynical show on TV. The Muslim characters are indeed almost all homicidal fanatics, but so are the Westerners. Carrie is a cold-blooded careerist, with a tendency to exploit her mental illness and abuse her family; Quinn is an emotionally dead assassin; even Saul has shown himself to be a manipulative fabricator whose primary goal is to keep his job. There is no one on this show who is not culpable, and the world view it presents is totally amoral. It’s scary that we all love it so much.
Netflix Makes Movie about Child Soldiers
Another grim, albeit powerful, viewing experience is Netflix’s first venture into feature films. Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre” and “True Detective”), “Beasts of No Nation” is set in an unidentified African country riven by civil war. When his family is killed and scattered, a young boy escapes into the bush and is captured by a guerilla group under the control of the Commandant. The boy, Agu, is trained to become a fighter and necessarily, a killer. The band of boys and teenagers smoke a lot of weed and practice a strange mixture of Christian and pagan rituals. After being cut and buried, Agu believes he has been cleansed and blessed by the spirits and that he is invisible to the enemy.
The military training Agu undergoes, while savage, is not that different from such training everywhere. Soldiers are broken down to be rebuilt as members of a fighting troupe. Their loyalty and obedience has to be automatic, and their allegiance always to their commanding officer. Idris Elba (“The Wire,” “Luther”) plays Commandant as a powerful physical and psychological force. He alternately terrorizes and seduces Agu, convincing the boy that he will always love and protect him. It doesn’t take much convincing; Agu is helpless on his own and cannot resist. Abraham Attah gives an extraordinary performance as Agu, never letting us forget that he is just a child, no matter what horrific things he does. The cinematography is stunning, and though the film runs a little long, it’s definitely worthwhile. Streaming on Netflix now, it is also available in a few theaters.
Time for Teaneck Film Festival
The Teaneck International Film Festival runs from November 5-8. I’ve been going to this for about five years, and they always have a solid selection of independent and foreign films. The festival skews left politically, but there are films for every sensibility. “Felix and Meira” is a touching Canadian movie about an ultra-Orthodox wife in Montreal who longs for the world outside her community. It stars Hadas Yaron, the wonderful actress from “Fill the Void.” Another film of Jewish interest is “AKA Doc Pomus” about a Brooklyn blues singer who became a hugely successful songwriter in the early rock ‘n roll era. The English comedy “Dough” tells the story of a kosher baker in London’s East End whose challah suddenly becomes very popular when he unwittingly hires a young drug dealer as an apprentice. Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald” is about the Jewish philanthropist who spent millions on African-American schools in the South. There is always a Holocaust movie, and this year it is the Dutch “Secrets of War.” It’s fun to be able to go from movie to movie in the neighborhood, an experience that we usually have to go to New York to enjoy.