Milwaukee Film Festival | Last Days in Vietnam, Workers
Can't Stop the Movies
13Oct/140

Milwaukee Film Festival (#6) – Last Days in Vietnam, Young & Beautiful, and Workers

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Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy)Kyle Commentary Banner

Last Days in Vietnam – Dir. Rory Kennedy (4/5)

Last Days in Vietnam was the Super Secret Members-Only Screening at this year's festival, and it's a documentary that's likely to see wider release once Oscar season ramps up later in the year. Rory Kennedy assembles testimonies and news footage from American military and embassy personnel—as well as a trio of South Vietnamese officers—who were involved in the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Following U.S. troop withdrawal, the North Vietnamese Army marched on South Vietnam, and by April had surrounded and were ready to take Saigon. The U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, had delayed evacuation planning, convinced that a North-South peace accord would still be reached, which resulted in a need for emergency evacuations within an extremely short time period. A number of those efforts, both official and otherwise, are chronicled in the film.

What Kennedy has done really well here is craft a chronological overview of the major elements of these evacuation efforts during the final days of the war that manages to feel like a well-told story instead of a history lesson. Last Days in Vietnam is a very cinematic documentary in that it follows a classic three-act structure and strives to offer an ultimate resolution to an impossibly complex time and place in history. Use of testimonies laid over news footage from the time adequately capture the panic in Saigon and within the embassy—one sequence recounts how the relatively small officially planned evacuation soon ballooned to including thousands of South Vietnamese citizens who, facing fear of death or labor camps at the hands of the North Vietnamese due to their involvement with American troops, were pulled into the embassy by those they had worked for and become friends with.

The narrative here is undoubtedly laced with a manufactured, Hollywood-ized hope that borders on Americana—while those interviewed condemn U.S. involvement in and handling of Vietnam, Kennedy is still overwhelmingly concerned with salvaging something for the history books by showcasing the good work of some of the individuals involved. The material would also be better served by a longer-form project that offered the time necessary to dig into more of the specifics of the evacuation—Kennedy's primarily concerned with the Americans working in the embassy at the time, but it would be interesting to see her turn this attention outward to the rest of Saigon as well. As the particular story the filmmakers have decided to tell, though, Last Days in Vietnam is plenty interesting and effective.

Young & Beautiful

Young & Beautiful – Dir. François Ozon (3/5)

François Ozon's Young & Beautiful is alternately mesmerizing and confounding, the kind of movie that will either burrow into my mind over the next few months or be totally forgotten. For a film so seemingly bold from the start, it has a surprisingly flat effect. Marine Vacth is Isabelle, a seemingly average 17-year old girl who loses her virginity on a family vacation at the beginning of the film and then makes a sudden, unexplained jump into prostitution. Disappointed and underwhelmed with her initial experience, we get the sense that prostitution is for Isabelle a way to further explore what sex has to offer, and judging by her usually reserved and placid demeanor, the answer is not much.

There is a bit more to the plot, developing especially in the second half of the film, but generally Young & Beautiful moves at its own pace unconcerned with any traditional narrative structure. This would be more effective if we had something concrete to grab ahold of—it's tough to unravel what the story's events should mean to us, because Isabelle is such an opaque character that we often can't know what they mean to her. The final scenes are unexpected and offer, I think, a suggestion of what Ozon wants us to take away from the film, but Isabelle remains impenetrable most of the time, even as Vacth works to create a compellingly independent character from all too little that she's given.

Ozon is still a fascinating director, and this one fits into his catalogue. He has an established interest in voyeurism—Swimming Pool, last year's festival entry In the House—but here the camera and audience are the ones secretly observing the life of another, and we're left to make of it what we will.

Workers

Workers – Dir. Jose Luis Valle (3/5)

For as minimal as it often is aesthetically, Workers is a movie that could stand to be about 30% less if it really wanted to make its full impact. Following a few low-paid workers through their unglamorous jobs serving the wealthy and successful in Tijuana—one as a janitor at a Phillips factory and a few house servants of a rich heiress—director Jose Luis Valle focuses his camera on the menial and small details of their daily lives. He has an almost Tarkovsky-like patience in shooting many of his scenes, which are often filmed from a static position and extend far past where we'd expect them to begin or end.

This has the effect of driving home the mind-numbing, soul-eroding boredom of their positions—the meaningless feeling of each and every moment—but as Workers progresses it also gets in the way of what is often a sharply, darkly funny story. What plot there is could be summed up in a few sentences, but that would ruin some of the surprises (let's just say a strange and probably not legally-binding inheritance and a few long-protracted plans of revenge are involved). The joys that do come in watching the movie lie in discovering how the titular workers' long lives of menial labor and patience have prepared them to enact many moments of small (though not always subtle) revolution against the systems that have always controlled them.

As Workers moves into its final act, a kind of hilariously restrained triumph emerges that, I suppose, needs to be in contrast with the plodding pace of events up until that point. It's a noteworthy accomplishment after the fact, but an effect that Valle could have made even stronger with some careful cutting and editing. Still worth a look if you run across it and have some extra time and patience.

*That's it for the Milwaukee Film Festival this year. Andrew and I will be picking back up with our weekly look at the films of Spike Lee this coming Sunday, October 19!

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Posted by Kyle Miner

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