Oslo August 31: Well-Made but Dull


OSLO AUGUST 31 (2011)

Directed by Joachim Trier

Strand Releasing, 95 minutes, Not rated.

In Norwegian with English subtitles.



"Genius" is not a word I'd use


 Can a film about an important subject be made well, captured perfectly, and still be as dull as dishwater? Oslo August 31 that can be the case, even though that some critics hailed it an overlooked gem.


Anders (Anders Danielson Lie) is an addict trying to make the pain stop. He has tried suicide and rehab, failed at first, and is hollowed out by the second. At some point, even rehab must end. Anders has two weeks left in his rural residential treatment program, and is sent back to Oslo for a job interview and an overnight to test his ability to cope.


An opening voiceover gives a snippet of Anders’ pre-treatment life. We gather that he was the one-time golden boy of a well-to-do family. As we time travel through the Oslo of his boyhood, then cut to the present, we see the city hasn't changed that much.


At 34, Anders is older, but is he wiser? Before his job interview, he visits an old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a researcher and scholar, and his family. Thomas is more comfortable quoting philosophers than dealing with damaged psyches, especially since he and Rebekka (Ingrid Olava) have their own crosses to bear. Few people do angst as well as Scandinavians, and that's true of others in Anders’ orbit–an old friend Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden), who is depressed by her birthday and childless state, people he meets at her party, and even a guy at the bar who dated his ex-girlfriend Iselin that Anders seeks to forgive. Instead, Anders suffers through a blistering lecture about a louse he is. Just what he doesn't need. Nor does it help that Iselin won't answer his calls, or that his own sister declines to see him. You might wonder what a junkie is doing at a bar. Or a rave, or an all-night party. You might also wonder why he can't find solace in Renate, an attractive young woman who is willing to be a sexual conquest. She's there for the taking, but Anders can't muster interest in her or anything else.


Danielson Lie is in control of his craft. It's tempting for actors to go over the top when portraying damaged individuals. Lies’ Anders is as it should be, a man who has hit rock bottom and sees no ladder out of the hole he has dug. Unlike many movies about addiction and depression, Oslo August 31 avoids sentimentalism and cheap triumphalism. Director Joachim Trier gets high marks for verisimilitude. More than half of all addicts wash out of rehab. It's even worse for opioid and alcohol abusers, who have failure rates in the 80-90% range. One can only applaud Trier’s disinclination to cue orchestral strings to score a weepy overcomes-all-obstacles miracle.


Another good thing is the cinematography of Jacob Ihre. He bathes Oslo in everything except sunshine, which he parses out like a dealer weighing heroin. Ihre depicts Oslo in grainy stock for flashbacks, and uses grays and blacks for the present. The streets are so empty we wonder where the city’s 634,000 people are hiding. Ihre does this to highlight Anders’ lack of connection to his past, present, or future. Is Oslo really this bland? I've never been there, but the film doesn’t encourage one to book a visit.


Mostly, though, the film hits off-key notes. Oslo August 31 gets ennui and depression right, but there isn't anything inherently cinematic about them. When coupled with a main character who lacks the will to act and surrounds him with others who seem similarly disinclined, we are left with a film in which nothing really happens. We feel bad for Anders.  End of story. Roll the credits. It’s a mercy when that happens. The film is just 95 minutes in length but feels much longer. Apparently, the Academy thought so too. This film was submitted for consideration for a Best International Film Oscar but failed to get a nomination.


If you want an honest look at the ravages of addiction, Oslo August 31 will do the trick. But I’d not blame you for switching it off once you know the score.


Rob Weir


Soul: I Actually Liked a Disney Film!



SOUL (2020)

Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

Disney/Pixar, PG, 100 minutes

★★★ ½ 




I usually avoid Pixar Disney animation like it’s the Republican National Convention. Even as a child, I eschewed Disney cartoons in favor of edgier and funnier offerings from Looney Tunes. In like fashion, I’m seldom impressed by Pixar, which strikes me as technology in search of a narrative. Imagine my surprise, when I liked Soul.


It's all the things that usually set my teeth on edge: mawkish sentimentality, a predictable story arc, gag-me animation, and no real tension. It's even a PG movie, a rating I generally take to mean can be viewed safely by mouth-breathing evangelicals. It's hard to explain why I liked Soul, but here goes.


First of all, nearly all the characters are voiced by people of color and that's pretty rare. Second, it has a jazz soundtrack written by Jon Batiste for non-jazz aficionados, with consultation from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails and some oversight from Herbie Hancock.  Third, it deals with a middle school teacher, an occupation I label heroic. (Try teaching a group of sixth or seventh graders if you don't believe me.)


Soul is essentially A Christmas Carol tamped down and expunged of its creepier elements. Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is a skilled pianist trapped in a burnt-out Queens middle school teacher’s body. You don't know the meaning of the word “sour” until you’ve heard a pre-adolescent orchestra rehearsing. If only Joe could catch a break and leave all those atonal sounds behind him. It comes his way via an offer to audition for a place in the band of Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). And so Joe would have had it – had he not stepped into an open manhole cover and fallen into a mortal coma.


Who knew that shuffling off this mortal coil involved a waystation? Joe can’t reconcile himself to dying, so instead of heading to the Great Beyond, he is sent to the Great Before for counseling. For unexplained reasons, all the counselors are named Jerry and all of the souls look like drops of water. (The drops are probably just another Pixar attempt at cutesy animation.) Joe needs to earn a special badge to return to Earth, an excuse to have adventures in the waystation. His guide is 22 (Tina Fey), a cynical soul who is down to her last option. To earn a badge, one must discover one’s “spark” and 22 is so non-sparky that she’s about to be cast into the “zone” for all eternity. That’s not explained either, but it’s not-heaven and not-hell –more like a perplexing place full of weirdos, dangers, and a lot of wallowing.


It’s probably best not to think too hard about the inevitable connection between Joe and 22, how they help each other, and how each discovers their respective spark. It’s Disney, where the proverbial Happy Ending is practically hardwired into the corporate structure. On several occasions I found myself wondering what Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton would have done with this material, but when I found myself thinking too much like 22, I snapped back to attention.


It has become such a big thing for Hollywood actors to voice animated characters that Soul also surprised me on that score. To make an audio book analogy, if you’ve ever listened to one, you know that great readers can bring mediocre writing to life and lousy ones can make a fabulous book sound dull. Soul had a cast of actors-as-cartoons who really threw themselves into their disembodied roles. Foxx brings to Joe Gardner a world-weariness tinged with crustiness that one might expect from a much older actor. I doubt you need me to tell you that Tina Fey is better at snark than spark, or that Angela Bassett can puff herself into a haughty, commanding presence. Some of the others who impressed me were Alice Braga and Wes Studi as soul counselors, Donnell Rawlings as Des the barber, Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s keep-your-job mother, and Questlove as a drummer.


Yes, Soul is treacly. Perhaps it just hit me a moment in which my brain needed to take a holiday, but it’s also charming in a PG way from which I normally flee. To get back to my natural 22 proclivities, though, a note of discord surrounds Soul. It made about $150 million at the box office to offset its expense of $119 million. I don’t know why on Earth or the Great Beyond a cartoon should cost that much, but I note that Soul did not do as well in U.S. markets as most Disney/Pixar movies do. Fifty-seven percent of the take came from just three countries: China, Russia, and South Korea. Do you see what I’m driving at?


Rob Weir    


American Made: What Happens when Work Goes Away



By Farah Stockman

Random House, 432 pages.





The subtitle of American Made, Farah Stockman’s look at blue-collar work, is What Happens to People When Work Disappears. Labor historians speak of “deindustrialization” to describe exporting factory work out of the United States. Alas, it’s an antiquated label given that far more than factory labor is outsourced.


Capital flight is a more accurate term. It has long been linked to negative social indicators: drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, divorce, suicide, medical woes, early death, homelessness, psychiatric problems, imprisonment…. In today’s service industry-driven economy, displaced workers seldom replace income lost to capital flight. Not many non-white-collar jobs pay $26/hour, the starting wage at Rexnord in Indianapolis, a shaft bearings manufacturer. Do the math. At $26/hour, a Rexnord worker made $54,000 per year—without overtime. If laid-off workers are lucky enough to find another job paying half of that, their annual income is $27,000—25 percent below the nation’s median individual income.


Few who have studied worker displacement will be surprised by the data in Stockman’s book. Stockman instead puts human faces to capital flight. Many workers are given voice in American Made, but she spotlights three: Wally Hall, an African American who dreams of operating his own barbeque business; Shannon Mulcahy, a white single mother and skilled machinist; and John Feltner, a white family man and union activist. By focusing on a factory in Indianapolis, Stockman highlights how the American Dream was battered in the American heartland. Blue-collar work has declined in such places to the point that those who punch time clocks have become out-of-sight/out-of-mind forgotten Americans. In 1972, sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb published The Hidden Injuries of Class. It was meant as a warning, but is now an unintended harbinger of what continues to happen to those falling behind in income and social clout.


Because professional classes no longer “see” the working class, they are baffled by the 2016 election and the propensity of working-class voters to support politicians whose policies are antithetical to their best interests. Stockman provides uncomfortable explanations for the rise of Donald Trump: free trade and elitism. She traces how the Democratic Party shifted from the ideals of New Deal and Great Society to modified Reaganomics coupled with support for the social concerns and stock portfolios of educated bourgeois elites. In this sense, blue-collar anger toward the Clintons makes sense. Stockman writes, “The Democrats had gotten into bed with corporations when no one was looking.” Tim, a Rexnord worker, put it more graphically: “The dirty bastards sold us out. They allowed millions of jobs to leave the country … good jobs with benefits. They sat on their asses and did absolutely nothing.” Many of those whose jobs fled to Mexico—like Rexnord workers—turned their backs to a party tone deaf to job loss.  


Stockman observes, “The Republicans were no better about free trade. They were worse. But at least the Republicans had never pretended to be faithful to the working class.” Parse that and you get a vast segment of American workers that indeed feels sold out. Trump at least acknowledged that blue-collar labor exists, though his vow to stop outsourcing was unfulfilled. (For the record, 58 percent of American workers are non-salaried.) Thus, many Rexnord workers liked the fact that Trump, “didn’t talk like a college boy. He cursed. He bragged. He threatened…. Trump was a hillbilly in a suit. Trump had a chip on his shoulder, like the steelworkers did.” Such perspectives also explain why many wage earners express contradictory admiration for both Trump and Bernie Sanders.


A unique twist in American Made lies with Stockman’s admission of her class privilege. This grabs our attention because Stockman identifies as African American. She has much to say about white privilege, but also incisively compares herself to Shannon. Stockman grew up in bourgeois comfort, graduated from Harvard, lives in tony Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has worked at the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Shannon overcame sexual abuse, an abusive husband, raised kids on her own, suffered workplace discrimination, and was ordered to train a Mexican to perform complex tasks on a machine that was about to be disassembled and shipped out of ther country. Is it any wonder Shannon hasn’t been an avid supporter of NAFTA, middle-class feminism, #MeToo, or Hillary Clinton? The kicker is that Shannon is not racist. She did not lash out at the Mexican man about to take her job. Shannon blames Wall Street for her dilemma, not Mexicans hoping to build a better life.


American Made is filled with such insights. Another eye-opening observation is that people of color often cope better with job loss than whites. To put it starkly, they have fewer reasons to believe in the American Dream and aren’t shocked when its promise is betrayed. By contrast, Feltner was staggered when union solidarity disintegrated among workers given a choice between refusing to cooperate with plant relocation or collecting a few more paychecks from a company hell-bent on squeezing greater profits from lower-paid brown workers south of the border.


Stockman is a lucid writer who knows how to personalize capital flight and make stories live. A review such as mine is by necessity formal and academic in tone. Stockman also culls labor history and sociological studies, but because she got close to her subjects, she writes from the heart. Read her words to see what happens to Rexnord workers, especially Wally, Shannon, and John. Warning: no fairy tales. Stockman references Sherry Lee Linkon, who compared economic “right-sizing,” restructuring,” and other such euphemisms to what really happens when a plant closes. It’s akin to a nuclear detonation that leaves misery and destruction in its wake.


Robert E. Weir, Ph.D.