I didn’t post any reviews last week because I didn’t have any time to watch movies. I did have some time this week. Here are the results.
Uncle John (2015)
Director: Steven Piet
I’m glad John Ashton is still making movies. He’s one of those great character actors of the 1980s whose roles were not exactly huge, yet made an impression on the viewer. You’ve seen him in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Midnight Run (1988). He seemed to drop off the radar screen in the 1990s and 2000s, and I had thought he was retired from the grind. To me, he’ll always be the rogue bounty hunter Marvin Dorffler from Midnight Run. It’s one of my favorite films; I heard recently that he and Robert DeNiro were making a sequel. If this is true, it will be a reunion that I’ll be first in line to see.
Despite my warmth towards Ashton, I can’t overlook the flaws in this mixed-bag of a film. The plot: an elderly farmer (John) in a small town kills a guy (named Dutch) everyone hates, then disposes of the body. The dead man’s brother has his suspicions, and these only grow stronger with time. In a separate sub-plot, John’s young nephew Ben romances a new co-worker. He then pays his uncle a visit with his new girlfriend.
On the good side, Uncle John has a calm, reflective atmosphere that makes it watchable and moderately entertaining. But the problem is that the film is just too bifurcated: the director never really manages to tie the two unrelated plotlines together. Worse still, the motivations behind John’s homicidal behavior are never explained, even indirectly. Maybe director Steven Piet gave himself too much of a task in trying to mix two stories that just don’t go together. Uncle John is decent enough, and I suppose worth watching, but it simply tries to explore philosophical territory that it has no business trespassing on.
The Measure Of A Man (2016) (Original Title: La Loi Du Marché)
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Better things are found in this understated little gem of French social commentary. I love finding these types of films: understated, serious, compelling, and containing a serious comment about human relations.
The plot: an unemployed, older factory worker goes through the paces of trying to find new employment. Everywhere he turns, he finds hypocrisy, double-talk, and mind-games. When he does find employment, it is as a security guard catching shoplifters in one of those faceless megastores that dot the modern landscape. The place is a soulless wasteland, seething under the surface with crushed dreams and broken lives. As he talks to the shoplifters he apprehends, he begins to doubt the moral rectitude of some of the things he is asked to do.
This brilliant success of a film owes much to the superb acting of Vincent Lindon, who won an award at Cannes for his performance. We see right away that, even though Lindon’s character is down on his luck, he is not a broken man. This is a man of substance, a man of character. His face is proud, his countenance quietly dignified, and his outlook on life redeeming.
Unlike what we would find in an American film, the director does not beat us over the head to prove his points. He establishes the protagonist’s moral rectitude with little scenes. In one, Lindon refuses to take part in a class-action lawsuit against a former employer, mindful of the toll that such a course would take on his mental health. “At some point you need to draw a line in the sand, and move on,” he says.
Even the prospect of money, he tells his friends, is not worth it. So right away we know that we are dealing with a grounded, morally-centered man. This is further reinforced when we find that his son is handicapped, and that he faithfully supports him and his wife. The marriage is a happy, well-adjusted one, and the couple still retain their marital intimacies. When Lindon takes the security guard job, we know he means to do well. But sometimes, life can test us in ways that we do not expect.
There is no bombast here, no overly dramatic episodes to make the director’s point. Why? Because life is like that. We define ourselves and our value system by all the little decisions we make over time. The final scene of the film is arresting and unforgettable because it shows how an average man, caught up in the moral ambiguity of life, can still chart his own course and display greatness of soul. We know that Lindon will survive, despite all the setbacks he suffers, because he is a good man. And the man of virtue, as Cicero tells us in Stoic Paradoxes, will never want for anything.
This movie, more than any other I have seen recently, embodies the Stoic ethic. This is a Stoic film.
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