Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Second Mother, Rosenwald, No Escape

The Second Mother

No Escape

From the sublime to the ridiculous:

The pick of the week is Anna Muylaert's Brazilian import "The Second Mother" ("Que Horas Ela Volta?"), a rich and finely observed class-struggle comedy set in São Paulo. Val, a maid and nanny (Regina Casé in a nomination-worthy performance), has worked for high-powered style maven Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles), her wealthy husband Jose Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), and their sweet-natured son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) for thirteen years - since Fabinho was in diapers. She sends money home to Pernambuco in the north, where her relatives are raising her daughter, Jessica (Camila Márdila), with whom she hasn't had a real conservation in years. 

Out of the blue, Jessica telephones Val to announce she'll be coming to São Paulo to prepare for and take her college entrance exams, a program of study to which Fabinho applies himself only sporadically. Val is delighted by the news and carves out a tiny space for Jessica in her already cramped maid's quarters, but upon arrival Jessica makes herself at home, noting that the guest suite is empty and asking Carlos, "So this is where I'll be staying, then?" Later, she helps herself to Fabinho's favorite ice cream and, when Barbara asks whether she'd like a glass of water, replies, "No, thanks, I already have some." Val is floored by her daughter's impudence and disregard for the strictures by which she has defined her existence; Jessica, for her part, is appalled by her mother's prostration.

Muylaert (who also co-wrote with Casé) reaps keen insights into human nature from this fertile scenario, fully developing each of the five primary characters with fairness and empathy. Though Barbara's initial generosity gives way to annoyance and finally petulance, she never becomes a caricature. In Carlos, who feels comfortable making certain advances on Jessica, we see the regret and lack of self-respect of a man who inherited family money and abandoned his artistic aspirations. Fabinho - who barely fails the board exam Jessica aces - lives a life of unexamined privilege, meaning no harm. Jessica properly refuses to let her family's finances dictate her place in society, but also lacks the social graces that denote true class. And then there's Val, brought unforgettably and with great humor to life by Regina Casé, who in the film's final minutes finally experiences the simple joys of self-definition and self-expression.

Aviva Kempner's "Rosenwald" documents the exceptional life of Julius Rosenwald, a brilliant manager who became president of Sears at its height in America. As hard-nosed as he could be in the boardroom, Rosenwald showed his essential goodness by forming a foundation that, in partnership with Booker T. Washington (whose writings opened a new world to him and who became a close friend), funded the construction of Tuskegee University and thousands of mostly black grade schools throughout the South. Rosenwald contributed one-third of the cost of each school, calling on the black community to raise one-third internally and one-third from whites (which generally meant state boards of education).

Community members themselves designed and built the schools, giving them pride of ownership that would sometimes be tested when a school was burned down once or even twice. Rosenwald's cultural foundation also gave grants to a veritable Who's Who of black America, and the second half of the film becomes a less interesting recitation of famous names with tangential anecdotes about only some. (It's a bit of a mess.) Still, it highlights the Jewish ideals of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (altruistic justice), and shows again that Jews, unlike many who surround them, make the world a better place for everyone.

Finally, a candidate for the worst film of the year: the unintentionally hilarious "No Escape," an instant camp classic starring the miscast Owen Wilson as a water company exec who, eager to bring fresh water to people in need, travels with his wife (Lake Bell, oozing embarrassment) and young daughters to an unnamed East Asian country (filming took place in Thailand; the police outfits use upside-down Cambodian characters) where, unbeknownst to him, locals who view the water company as exploiters have begun a bloody coup, taking a hatchet to the head of anyone who looks foreign. The movie becomes a two-hour chase in which absurdities pile upon inanities.

The defining and most cackle-worthy sequence - one I'll never forget - begins with the insurrectionists strafing hotel guests from a helicopter. Wilson mansplains to Bell that the entire family must jump from their rooftop to that of another building 50 yards away. It defies the physical laws of this planet, of course, but Bell, after one false start, does it, and rather than capture the terror of the moment the camera cuts to her landing safely on the second building. Then the real fun begins, as Wilson takes his youngest daughter and shotputs her across the divide. She too lands safely, right on top of mommy, whose legs would now at the very least be broken and severed from her body, but who's actually fine. Then comes the second daughter, who's so frightened Wilson ties her up like a rolled-up carpet and heaves her to safety before he, too, completes the jump. As each lands, someone invariably asks, "Are you OK?", and I pretty much didn't stop laughing for a good ten minutes. 

Pierce Brosnan disappears for an hour at a time only to reappear magically from behind a door or in an alleyway just when death appears imminent. His own death scene is another one for the books. "No Escape" probably won't end up my worst of 2015 - it's gobs more fun than another contender I have in mind - but it's certainly one of the worst studio entertainments ever committed to film. Somebody needed to look at the dailies and say, "This has gone completely pear-shaped. We've got to stop and turn around."

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