Quick Movie Reviews (American Factory, 6 Underground, & Atlantics)

American Factory

Veteran documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s Oscar-nominated short documentary The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant tracked the final days of an Ohio factory that left some three-thousand people without jobs. American Factory serves as a kind of sequel to that drama, revealing the strange odyssey of the company that moved in. The saga of Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-run company that overtook the old GM plant, rehired thousands of locals and put them side by side with Chinese workers familiar with Fuyao’s processes, unfolds covering the disillusionment that set over the course of the first few years of business. The Chinese are initially excited to embrace the unique qualities and opportunities of the United States. They’re told this is “a place to let your personality run free,” and enjoy having freedoms like being openly critical of authority. The Americans like learning new skills, being part of team, and drawing a steady paycheck. But it doesn’t take long for Fuyao bosses to realize that the Ohio workers will never be as unquestionably committed to meeting quotas as the Chinese workers. Meanwhile, the Americans are alarmed to find out that the Fuyao executives don’t want to be bothered with reminders about the local environmental and safety regulations.

Bognar and Reichert don’t frame this story in terms of heroes and villains. They don’t take cheap shots at blue collar Americans who vote against their own interests, nor do they paint the Chinese as faceless drones. American Factory is a detailed, sometimes darkly funny portrait of how things are in a manufacturing sector that, two decades into the 21st century, has less and less use for human capital. It primarily excels in the way it takes all the people involved in this conflict seriously. Bognar and Reichert’s approach is mostly observational: often hanging back and watching the action in boardrooms and on the factory floor — and, eventually on the picket lines. They were granted extraordinary access, thanks to public relations representatives who undoubtedly envisioned this having a happy ending. And they earned the trust of their subjects, who frequently turn and address the camera, giving honest assessments to the no-win situations they find themselves in.

Image via Netflix

What emerges through it all is a study of a possibly unbridgeable cultural divide, where social expectations and the forces of history have shaped very different ideas of what “work” is. There are eerie similarities between the two factions: the Chinese, who have refashioned their old communist party anthems and marches into cheery big business propaganda; and the Americans, who protest outside the plant with union signs and songs that are much like relics of a once-thriving institution, long since weakened. But while the Chinese miss their families and cherish their days off as much as their American counterparts do, they’re also conditioned to working twelve-hour days, seven days a week. At one point, one of the supervisors from the U.S. side commiserates with a Chinese counterpart, complaining that most of his Ohioans are there to make money, not glass. But as American Factory makes clear, the same is really true for the Chinese as well. It’s just that the Chinese will sleep six to an apartment in Dayton, sending most of their earnings back to their spouses and kids they’re only going to see for maybe two weeks a year. The native Ohio crew, meanwhile, will make just enough to live on their own (provided that they don’t have any medical mishaps). Everyone — regardless of their background or values — is working hard. And by telling their stories, both entertainingly and persuasively, Bognar and Reichert make the case that they all deserve better. Absorbing with its complex timeliness, American Factory is a stirring tragicomedy that tackles the incompatibility of American and Chinese industries through telling each and everyone’s stories.

Grade: B+

6 Underground

Netflix has spent the last year or two establishing itself as a destination for big-name filmmakers with ambitious projects. If Martin Scorsese needs extra millions to invest in de-aging effects for a two-hundred-and-ten-minute crime epic or the Coen brothers want to make a Western anthology, Netflix is there, cash in hand (for now at least). Despite the company’s reach, it’s still surprising that Michael Bay apparently counts himself among these filmmakers, yearning to shed those traditional big-studio shackles. Bay is one of the most commercially successful directors in the world, capable of commanding massive budgets and downright stupid levels of spectacle. Yet his new Netflix action movie, 6 Underground, has an opening car chase so long, loud, brightly colored, and context-free that it feels like Bay is blowing off a lot of steam by doing hundreds of donuts on Netflix’s front lawn. To be fair, the majority of Bay’s past decade has been spent on Transformers movies. Though that series doesn’t lack explosions or flaming wrecks, there’s something back-to-basics about the opening sequence (or at least the first five-ten minutes) of Bay’s latest (throughout there is some occasional solid staging to the action set pieces of 6 Underground). Soon enough, though, Bay gets impatient with the basics and needs to start indulging his fondness for slasher-movie kills, splattering bad guys’ guts across windshields before it’s even clear who the bad guys actually are. As the movie’s abysmal editing cuts within the car contains team members Ryan Reynolds, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent and Adria Arjona — it’s so cut to pieces they might as well be spread out among two or three different vehicles.

Image via Netflix

To start off, I’m not even going to get into the plot, because it’s so vapid and uninteresting, and besides most people don’t got into Bay movies for intriguing plot anyway. You go for action and explosions… I guess? But perhaps the biggest problem with Michael Bay as a director is that he only has one level. You can see this problem in movies like The Island, Pain & Gain, and 13 Hours where Bay tries to venture outside his typical blockbuster comfort zone only to render any story back into a blockbuster. Bay is wedded to his style of explosions, slo-mo, constantly panning cameras, speed and a lot of noise. He’s not much a storyteller as he’s more of a formula. Through all of his filmography what’s most striking in his favor is his technical proficiency in staging some of his action. The thing is he’s made a movie that looks like it belongs in 2004. The realm of action filmmaking has moved far beyond anything Bay is doing here. He doesn’t have the stuntwork of franchise like Mission: Impossible. He doesn’t have the choreography of franchise like John Wick. He’s essentially a MTV music video director in a world where MTV no long has any cultural cache. Between the movie’s subtext and its new-digital-world distributor, Bay seems to be communicating the frustration of constraint, but why? What has he been barred from doing? It’s not as if Netflix actually affords him new freedoms. Most of his blatantly antisocial tendencies here are recycled from previous movies. What he seems to be chasing is the feeling of freedom, the windswept open-skies exhilaration of a man who has everything. But he’s still just doing donuts, hoping all those whiplash turns from nihilism to macho sentiment awaken something inside him. 6 Underground becomes so repetitive and nonsensical that your mind can’t help but wander, becoming so mind-numbing, messily edited, and containing such flat characters that all your really left to do is go boom.

Grade: C-


Winner of this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes, Atlantics holds the distinction of being the first film by a Black woman to ever compete for the Palme d’Or. This is no small achievement, especially since Diop, who’s still best known for her role in Claire Denis’ 35 Shot of Rum, is making her directorial debut, with a film that’s a culmination of the actor-turned-director’s shorter work over the last decade. Diop made a short documentary about Senegalese migrants embarking on a dangerous voyage across the sea in search of work. And here, that’s mostly a plot catalyst, as the young, brash Souleiman (Traore) leaves behind his girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s engaged to man she doesn’t love, the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla).

Image via Netflix

The story spun from this setup can be a little uneven, burdened with maybe one too many subplots and a few cliché flirting elements, like a thorn-in-the-side detective, that exists mainly for expositional purposes. And while the atmospheric nocturnal imagery recalls that of Claire Denis (cinematographer Claire Mathon’s work is one the film’s strongest elements), Diop hasn’t fully yet internalized her old collaborator’s elegant sense of rhythm or talent of constructing great performances out of gestures and mannerisms. The Dakar-set Atlantics is at its most successful with its occasionally captivating moments and as a look at a particular environment. Sometimes even making you wonder why Diop didn’t make a longer nonfiction film on the subject instead. You learn why as in the film’s backstretch, Atlantics tilts out of naturalism into something more idiosyncratic. Something more ghostly, and that’s all I’ll say. Nonetheless Atlantics does have its weaker parts, but through melding a naturalistic economic tale with folkloric fantasy Mati Diop finds an occasionally spellbinding path to a work of deep romance and announces herself as a filmmaker to watch.

Grade: B-

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