The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2017(2/18/2018)

Last year, for the first time, I went to see a screening of the five live action films nominated for the Academy Award that year.  A company called ShortsTV (formerly known as ShortsHD) has been putting these shorts into theaters every year for a while but that was the first time I went and I thought it was a moderately rewarding experience.  I don’t know that I want to make it an annual tradition but clearly I found it worthwhile enough to come again this year.  This roster of shorts was in many ways different from last year’s.  For one thing these shorts are a bit shorter, with all but one being around twenty minutes long where last year most were pushing the thirty minute mark.  These films also hued closer to the Anglosphere with four of the five nominated films being in English compared to last year’s set where all five of the films were from continental Europe.  Those films also often tended to be made by older filmmakers whereas three of the nominees this year appear to have started out as student films which rose above what is normally expected from such films.

Please note that when talking about movies with running times like this even talking about small plot points can be bigger spoilers than they would be when talking about longer works, so if you’re interested in actually watching these maybe be careful about reading.

 

DeKalb Elementary

The first documentary in ShortsTV’s presentation is something of a topical standout as it deals with the issue of school shootings.  Inspired by an actual incident which happened in Atlanta (at a school called McNair Discovery Academy) the film shows a man with clear mental health issues walk into a school office and pull out an assault rifle.  From there we get a tense standoff as the man doesn’t simply proceed to open fire and the secretary begins to try talking him down.  Actress Tarra Riggs does a great job of bringing this secretary to life and making her sensitive courage believable and Bo Mitchell is also decent as the disturbed young man causing all the trouble.  The film was directed by a guy named Reed Van Dyke as his final thesis film while getting his MFA in film directing from UCLA and it does a good job of showing his skill at building tension and in painting portraits of characters with minimal exposition.  I’m not sure the film really has all that much to say about the topic of school shootings as this incident was not terribly representative of most active shooters (most of whom are not going to be made to stop with any amount of love and understanding) but it does remain a pretty solid portrait of a small act of heroism and is also notably the only of the four non-comedic shorts here that doesn’t bog itself down in title cards at the end.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: It’s most likely the frontrunner.  The film’s humanism combined with its tense nature will jump out to most voters immediately.  If it has any weakness it’s that it basically takes place in real time and doesn’t need to contend with the challenges of its short format the way some of the other films do.  That said, the fact that the Parkland shooting in Florida is in the news leading up to the voting period can only help this

 

The Silent Child

The second film on this docket is a film from the UK called The Silent Child focuses on issues of deafness and disability.  The film was not directed by a film student but buy a guy named Chris Overton, who appears to primarily be an actor rather than a director and has worked primarily in British television, and it was written by a woman named Rachel Shenton who was inspired to write it by the life of her deaf father.  The film looks at a teacher for the deaf who is hired to tutor a young deaf child before she goes to school, but it quickly becomes clear that her parents are not going to be overly amenable to some of these lessons.  This is the only of the five shorts here that is set over the course of months rather than days or minutes, and probably tells the most complete story of all of them.  In terms of pure storytelling I’d say that it’s the best one here but it does suffer a bit from being a bit didactic.  The family holding their deaf daughter back here can’t simply be slow to understand what’s best for their daughter, they also need to be yuppie assholes who cheat on each other and actively neglect their child and the teacher can’t simply be someone who understands these issues but must also be a saint-like tutor who seems to straight-up love this kid more than her parents.  Twenty minutes isn’t a long time but it is enough time to draw lines a little more realistically than that and the PSA like text that fills the screen at the end doesn’t help matters.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: Were it not for DeKalb Elementary I’d probably say this had the best shot.  There’s kind of a history of movies about kids doing well in this category and the way it builds empathy is clearly impressive.  Voters looking for something a little bit lighter but not too light would probably go for this one.

 

My Nephew Emmett

The one short this year that I’d really call a big of a misfire is this one, which recreates the last day in the life of Emmett Till from the perspective of his uncle Mose Wright.  This short, directed by NYU grad Kevin Wilson Jr, in some ways falls into the same trap as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it seems content to simply show an unfortunate incident in America’s racial history, more or less without comment beyond trying to put you in the middle of the victim’s terror.  Bigelow’s movie, however, was at least bringing attention to a moment that has been rather under-reported while this one is simply recounting a story that pretty much any remotely well educated person should be fairly familiar with.  The decision to tell the story from the uncle’s perspective, while useful in some ways, doesn’t exactly shine a particularly new light on the story either and we don’t get to know much about him outside of a surface level overview.  That said the kidnapping scene is really tense and disturbing and in some ways that does give the exercise some value.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: Probably low.  The film did win a Student Academy Award, which would seem to be a good sign, but DeKalb Elementary pretty clearly beats it as its own game of “suspenseful recreation of real events” and there are also plenty of other choices for those looking to reward movies about marginalized people.

 

The Eleven O’Clock

The fourth film here is in some ways the odd one out, firstly because it’s the only comedy here and secondly because it’s the shortest of the shorts, coming in at just 13 minutes.  The film was made by an Australian named Derin Seale, who is the son of the legendary cinematographer Jon Seale (of Mad Max: Fury Road fame).  This connection led him to get second unit work on Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain but he hardly has any other credits at all on IMDB so I’m guessing a lot of his work has been in the field of commercials or music videos.  This short looks at a two guys who are both claiming to be a psychiatrist who believes the other is a patient has a delusional belief that he’s the psychiatrist (this confusion is aided by the normal receptionist being gone that day) and a lot of “who’s on first” style confusion entails.   The big weakness of this is that, at the end of the day, it feels less like a film and more like a segment from a sketch comedy show.  In fact the basic concept appears to have been lifted from a 90s British sketch show called “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” but this version is sped up a lot and generally done with a bigger budget and has more going on.  It’s hard to dislike this short but it’s also hard to really get excited about it after its done.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances:  Low.  The film did win at the Australian Academy Awards (AACTA), but I’m not sure how much competition it had there.  It’s always possible that the simple fact that this is an orange in a basket of apples will appear to a certain voter block but otherwise I’m not seeing a whole lot of reasons to vote for it.  The people dedicated enough to look into the short categories on their Oscar ballots seem like they’d be the types to take themselves a little more seriously than this.

 

Watu Wote (All of Us)

The final film in this program is the only of the five not in English and while it was made by German film students from the Hamburg Media School it set on the Kenya/Somali border and is in the Swahili and Somalian languages.  This border is apparently a very tense location with a great deal of conflict because of terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab on Christian Kenyans and resulting animosity directed back on innocent Muslims by Christians as a result.  Specifically the film focuses on a Christian woman as she takes a bus trip through dangerous territory and clearly has a lot of hostility towards the Muslims on the bus.  It doesn’t take a lot of predictive powers to guess what happens to this bus, especially after the buses police escort fails to show up, and it also isn’t hard to guess what lesson this Christian woman will learn over the course of this experience.  The film’s rather banal moral that we all bleed when pricked is what holds the film back, but on the positive side it probably best production values of the five films here and an attack set-piece late in the film is one of the best moments of pure cinema across the five films.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Not great.  I guess this could be seen as a dark horse of sorts given its clear production value and relevance to modern times, but this just isn’t the most memorable short here and it’s also likely that the voters are going to be more interested in supporting home grown talent.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I think this roster of shorts is probably a little weaker than last year’s although it’s not a dramatic drop-off.  DeKalb Elementary is clearly the standout although it didn’t necessarily overwhelm me with greatness, although it might have stood out to me more if it had played last instead of first.  I’m still pretty inexperienced when it comes to modern short films in general so I’m really not sure how representative these are of short films in general or if there’s better work out there but so far after two years of watching Oscar nominated live action shorts I’m getting the impression that they tend to sit in this kind of B/B- range.

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Home Video Round-Up: 2/20/2018

Faces Places (2/10/2018)

Agnès Varda and the increasingly reclusive Jean-Luc Godard are among the last leaders of the legendary French New Wave still standing and it’s admirable that both still seem to be making movies.  Varda’s latest is a documentary of sorts, albeit not a traditional verite one, in which she is more or less the subject.  In the film Varda and a modern artist who goes by the name JR(who shares co-director credit) travel into the French countryside meeting people and taking pictures that are pasted onto surfaces as posters in interesting ways, which seems to be JR’s medium of choice.  These poster projects are neat and have a certain element of Banksy style street art but if the movie only existed to depict this little art project it would be a rather slight work. Instead I think this is primarily a movie about Varda herself and what light is shed by her friendship and collaboration with this younger artist who in many ways seems to have styled himself after the mannerisms of the generation of artists she came from.  All of this was almost certainly intentional and I suspect that a lot of the framing here was staged, which is part of why I hesitate to even call it a documentary really, but hanging out with these people is quite pleasant and the film ends up being a very fascinating watch.

**** out of Five

Nocturama (2/10/2018)

This controversial French thriller begins with a group of young people carrying out a series of terrorist attacks and then meeting up in a department store after hours to regroup and wait out the law.  The terrorists in question are young, multi-racial, and do not appear to be driven by Islamic extremism. They appear to be some sort of anarchist collective or environmentalists or something but the film goes out of its way to make unclear what their motives are for these actions or what they thought they would accomplish by carrying them out.  This was clearly a deliberate choice but I’m not sure what it was supposed to accomplish as it becomes incredibly difficult to understand any of these people without some insight into their motivations and without that this stops being any kind of useful character study and resigns itself to being a slick procedural.  Director Bertrand Bonello shoots the film with clear efficiency and there is excitement to seeing these people carry out their plans, in part because it isn’t exactly clear what they’re up to at first and there’s also a certain interest in seeing them hang out afterward though the absence of motivation does start to hurt the film in those segments as well.  The film walks the walk of a great movie and it is worth watching but its script’s decision to avoid explanation ultimately lets it down.

***1/2 out of Five

Loving Vincent (2/15/2018)

Loving Vincent is a Polish/English co-production about the life of Vincent Van Gogh told through a unique animation style.  The film was constructed by filming actors in front of green screens and then animating over them, but rather than using traditional cartoon style animation the film animates using oil painting in Van Gogh’s signature style by hand.  I repeat, this is an animated movie done in oil paint.  That technical/visual accomplishment is amazing and makes the movie worth seeing, unfortunately the movie itself doesn’t really live up to its style.   The film takes something of a Citizen Kane approach of investigating a life through flashbacks as someone investigates him after his death which isn’t a terrible idea but the movie doesn’t do much to really invest the audience in the investigator or any of the side characters being interviewed.  The actors her also feel a bit “central casting” and I feel like the movie would have been elevated if it had the budget to bring in a couple of more noteworthy actors.  Were it not for the animation style this would be little more than the type of movie they show to tour groups at museums, but again, that animation style is really interesting so I can’t mind too much.

***1/2 out of Five

Unrest (2/19/2018)

When you watch a lot of documentaries you come to learn about a lot of issues and movements you otherwise would have been oblivious to.  One such issue was the way the medical establishment treats sufferers of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  This disease is controversial within the medical establishment, with many suggesting that it is likely psychosomatic.  The film is clearly opposed to such skepticism in no small part because it was directed by someone who suffers from the ailment.  That director, Jennifer Brea, was struck down and bedridden by what is believed to be ME/CFS and actually made most of the movie via interviews over skype and with footage taken as she begins reacting to the ailment.  The film looks a bit at the history of ME/CFS in medicine and profiles a handful of other sufferers around the world as well as the run-up to a large scale day of protest that apparently happened (I don’t think it got much press).  Part of the argument here is that the affliction is simply so neglected by the scientific establishment that there’s really not enough research to know one way or another what is at the root of the disease and that a lot more funding needs to go into the field.  That having been said, Brea has obvious reason to be biased in this and I did get the feeling throughout that we were only getting one side of this debate and that there must be more to the scientific consensus than what we’re being shown.

*** out of Five

Last Man in Aleppo (2/20/2018)

I’ve seen a decent number of documentaries set in war zones, and I’ve got to say they aren’t always as exciting as you might expect.  The people in them tend to be too busy trying to survive to really take on much of a character arc and when the action pops off it’s rarely as compelling as you’d thing, in part because for some reason the camera people tend not to be very careful with their framings while explosions are going off around them and bullets are whizzing past.  This documentary has some of those same problems as it looks at what life is like in Aleppo during the ongoing civil war (spoiler: it’s not a very nice place).  The film is, more specifically about a group called “The White Helmets” who are civilians who have volunteered to act as first responders saving civilians caught in bombing runs.  Last year’s Oscar winning Documentary short subject The White Helmets gave a pretty good overview of this group for those interested, this documentary (which is not affiliated with the other one) was made by locals and gives an expanded look at this group and paints more of a picture of their day to day lives.  It’s hard to fault the movie too much, it is being made by people who are risking their lives after all and it is certainly of some worth but I didn’t personally connect with it too much.

**1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 2 – The Last Starfighter (1984)

“I was born in 2025, but I wish I’d grown up in the 1980s, like all my heroes” is the first line of the first teaser trailer for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming movie Ready Player One, a movie (and book) which in many ways seems like the apotheosis of the kind of questionable 80s nostalgia I’m examining in this series.  The 2045 that that movie is set in does seem vaguely dystopic, but I can say with reasonable confidence that the 1980s are not something he should be aspiring to.  It was a decade of constant Cold War paranoia, widespread intolerance, an AIDS epidemic, and most pertinently it was a time when American culture was incredibly dumbed down.  Of course you won’t find too many traces of those social ills in the popular cinema of the 80s, which is a big part of why this character presumably thinks it would be fun to live in an era when unions were quashed and wearing Members Only Jackets was considered a good idea.  On top of that, this guy would also come to learn that not all of the movies from that decade were as fun as he seems to think because for every Star Wars there were several shoddily made Star Wars ripoffs and today I’ll be looking at one of the more famous of these, a goofy piece of childhood wish-fulfilment called The Last Starfighter.

Of course the phrase “Ready Player One” comes from the world of arcade machines, a form of entertainment that was booming in the 80s after Pac Man Fever sweapt the nation and Hollywood seemed to be particularly interested in tapping into the trend through gaming adjacent science fiction.  The most notable of these attempts was almost certainly the 1982 film Tron but a close second was probably The Last Starfighter, about a young man who is asked to take part in an intergalactic war because he got the high score in a video game placed on earth by an alien recruiter looking for people with a knack for the kind of aerial dogfighting that the game mimics.  That such video game skill would prove to have actual value in real life like that and bring the reward of an adventure would seem to be a kid’s greatest fantasy and the movie is pretty shameless in the way it presents this.  In fact the movie isn’t content to make this dude a mere soldier in this war, it goes so far to have him face down the entire enemy fleet alone at the end and save the day almost single-handedly.  I’m not exactly sure when it’s appropriate to invoke the phrase “Mary Sue” but I think it’s pretty safe to do it here.

The one thing keeping this from being a total power fantasy is the extent to which its protagonist is reluctant at every step of becoming this “chosen one” hero figure.   I was actually pretty surprised that the film’s protagonist was as old as he was given that the film is pretty clearly trying to indulge a dream that only children had in the early 80s.  The protagonist is in fact in his late teens and is played by a nobody named Lance Guest who is pretty annoying here and spends most of the film whining about getting looped into this adventure.  Guest also has something of a double role in the film and is actually better in the second role.  The film has a b-plot of sorts where Guest plays a robot who takes the protagonist’s place on Earth while he’s up in space having an adventure.  It’s a detail that doesn’t really add a whole lot to the A-plot and seems like it was mostly added to pad out the run time, but in some ways this material does work better than the space opera stuff in the film which really hasn’t stood the test of time.

Rather than using the special effects techniques that looked great in Star Wars this movie, made the year before that Dire Straits “Money For Nothing” video, decided that extensive use of CGI technology was the way to go and it looks about as laughable as you’d expect.  The more practically constructed scene on the interior of the ship hold up a little better, at least on a technical level, but the universe of the film doesn’t seem to have been terribly well thought through or interesting and the movie doesn’t really do enough to get the audience invested in this galactic civil war. Director Nick Castle was a friend of John Carpenter who was actually cast as Michael Myers in the original Halloween, a job he was given basically so he’d have an excuse to hang around the set and watch Carpenter while he worked.  He also co-wrote Escape from New York and has a “story by” credit on Hook but as a director this was probably his most notable work.  He spent most of the 90s making bad commercial comedies like Dennis the Menace and Major Payne and direct to video crap in the 2000s before basically retiring, though there are some reports that despite being 70 years old he will be reprising his role as Michael Myers in the upcoming Halloween reboot… don’t know how that’s going to work.  Anyway, Castle does have a degree of professionalism and seems to have a moderately decent budget to work with, which elevates things a little.  This is a movie that easily could have descended into MST3K levels of B-movie schlock and it does avoid that fate and provides some moderate entertainment value

To the Scorecard:

This movie is pretty bad.  I don’t want to completely trash it because I do think some elements of it probably did work better back in the 80s but its general second-rate nature was probably apparent from the beginning.  Truth be told this movie was probably destined to be a bit outclassed here as, more so than a some of the movies here, I think this movie’s fans are a bit more aware of its shortcomings.  Still, it is a much referenced movie of the era that did not put up much of a fight so another round goes to the skeptic.

Home Video Round-Up: 2/9/2018

Columbus (1/2/2018)

When Columbus came out in theaters I was pretty skeptical.  A film directed by a video essayist in which two people talk about architecture in Columbus, Indiana? Snore.  As it turns out the movie isn’t really all that much about architecture, which is really almost a McGuffin and more just a character study of a young woman who is a bit aimless despite clearly being quite smart and a guy in his thirties who’s in Columbus because his father is dying.  With the “man and woman have intellectual discussions” set up I was perhaps expecting something along the lines of a Before Sunrise but as I watched I realized that Lost in Translation was the much closer reference given that the relationship is platonic-ish and shared between people of different ages who are both kind of isolated in different ways. The film has a sort of quiet dignity to it but it also kind of never really “goes anywhere” ultimately.  The film’s first time director, who goes by the name “Kogonada,” clearly has a style he’s working on and I’d like to see how it develops but his debut never really rocked my world.

*** out of Five

Brigsby Bear (2/2/2018)

Brigsby Bear is a movie with an unusual title and an unusual concept.  In essence it’s kind of like “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” in that it’s about someone being re-integrated into society after spending a long time isolated with a cult of sorts but it’s not as much of a comedy or at least not as broadly comedic.  Instead the movie has a certain upbeatness in the way everyone seems to rally around this weird guy to try and make him feel welcomed.  To me the film’s “up with people” worldview kind of seemed like bullshit.  This guy just shows up and acts like a total weirdo and yet people just flock to help him out even though he does little to earn their affection and the notion that large crowds would show up to watch his recreation of his terrible looking fake TV show really seems like pure fantasy.

** out of Five

One of Us (2/3/2018)

This Netflix documentary takes a look at three apostates from the world of ultra-orthodox Hassidic Judaism and how they struggle between two worlds after leaving.  The first of these three is a guy who abandoned his wife and two kids (he was pressured into marriage at 18) to go to California, the second is a guy who struggles with addiction, and the third and most compelling is a woman whose husband was abusive and is forced to fight her former community in order to maintain some custody and get away from her abuser.  While that third story is obviously the best one it’s also the one the filmmakers had the least access to because the woman in question (understandably) wanted to maintain some anonymity.  The other two stories are more interesting but in some ways feel like they could be have been just as easily showcased as NPR stories or something.  The whole film is ultimately somewhat interesting but not exactly essential.

**1/2 out of Five

After the Storm (2/8/2018)

Hirokazu Kore-eda finally won me over last year with his slice of life drama “Our Little Sister” and I had wanted to catch his follow-up when it was in theaters, but it only really played for about a week and I was traveling at the time so I missed it.  Having finally caught up with it I do wish I had seen it in a theater but also think it was a slight step down from his last film if only because the material at its center seems a bit more familiar.  The film is about a divorced dad with a gambling problem who wants to see his son more but can never really seem to get his act together enough to really make it work.  The film never really tries to downplay the guy’s shortcomings but also makes it hard to really be against him either.  Kore-eda’s usual touch is present here and manages to make these characters feel real as usual, but this divorce scenario feels a bit more mundane than the “swapped at birth” scenario from Like Father, Like Son and the scenario with the sisters from his last movie.  Still, it’s a very well made little movie and a worthwhile entrant into this director’s body of work.

**** out of Five

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2/9/2018)

This horror film set at a catholic boarding school actually premiered in genre festivals way back in 2015 and was picked up by A24, but then its release got pushed back and pushed back until it finally got dumped in a day-and-date release in spite of having some clear defenders.  I’d thought that this was a case of a studio not knowing what they had on their hands but now that I’ve seen it I kind of get why they didn’t have much confidence in it.  The film is kind of hard to follow in the way it shifts around between characters and sometimes fails to introduce new protagonists before getting into their stories.  On top of that the film is made in a somewhat shoddy manner with many scenes being rather dark, and not in a cool moody way so much as a way that just looks poorly lit.  The film clearly wants to be something along the lines of The House of the Devil or The Innkeepers in its indie-horror slow burn kind of way but it mostly just seems lacking in payoff more than anything.

** out of Five

The Post(1/15/2018)

It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty.  For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters.  But then something seemed to change about ten years ago.  He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones.  In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds.  That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it.  Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office.  Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire.  His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.

The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom.  After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture.  That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them.  Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.

The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is.  The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks.  As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical.  Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people.  These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance.  The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film.  Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.

Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller.  Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them.  Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance.  And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together.  Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem.  Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work.  Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy.  I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.

Home Video Round-Up: 1/14/2018

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (1/1/2018)

Rumble was a surprisingly high profile documentary which sought to examine the contributions of Native Americans in the development of rock and roll.  If the film’s aim was to prove that the Indian influence was central to the genre I can’t say it was overly convincing.  It’s best argument comes fairly early on when it looks at the Indian populations that were in the south which intermixed with the African American population and may have helped influence early roots music and blues.  There’s something to that argument, but most of the rest of the documentary consists of highlighting the careers of a couple of important artists like Link Wray who were indeed important rock artists but whose heritage doesn’t strike me as being overly central to their music and the mere fact that just about every major Native American in rock can seemingly be chronicled in one movie kind of works against the movie’s thesis.  In theory you could probably make a compelling argument that just about any ethnic group has a claim to rock and roll if you cherry pick people from the history of the form and the fact that a certain percentage of its most famous participants have happened to be Indians shouldn’t be that much of a shocker.  That having been said, if you view this less as an argumentative essay and more as simply a collection of interesting little Behind the Musics it works a lot better.  It’s got a very strong collection of talking heads and some of these stories are pretty genuinely interesting in and of themselves.

*** out of Five

Logan Lucky(1/6/2018)

I’ve never really been the world’s biggest Steven Soderbergh fan.  The dude has made some great movies but I don’t really get why he still manages to draw as much praise as he does when he makes mediocrities like Side Effects and Haywire.  Similarly I was pretty surprised that the movie that caused him to come out of his (admittedly probably doomed) retirement was this rather fluffy riff on his “Oceans” movies.  Those Oceans movies were successful firstly because they were well staged elaborate heist movies and secondly because they reveled in this extreme Rat Pack style Hollywood glitz.  Logan Lucky promised to be the opposite of that: an elaborate heist movie about poor West Virginia “rednecks” and it does more or less deliver on what it promises… but why would you want that?  Let’s face it, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are no George Clooney and Brad Pitt as far as star power and given that that Oceans formula was already running out of steam I don’t know that this was enough to jump start it.  There’s enough entertainment here to make this worth streaming or something on a lazy Saturday but let’s hold Soderbergh to a slightly stronger standard than this.

*** out of Five

LA 92 (1/7/2018)

This is the second L.A. riots documentary I’ve seen this year, although I think it actually came out first and I think most people would have seen it before Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992, which is the more straightforward of the two and the one more interested in providing standard context.  This documentary has no talking heads, no narration, and minimal title cards; it’s instead edited together entirely out of news reports and home video footage from the era.  Together this footage does put together a pretty clear narrative and gives a pretty good portrait of how the riot occurred and how it affected various people.  There really isn’t a whole lot to say about it, if that description sounds interesting to you you’ll mostly get what you’re promised.  I’m not sure I would have been as interested in it if I had been old enough to have watched all this stuff on the news back in 1992 but with a lot of it being relatively new to me it certainly felt like a unique look at what was actually a pretty extreme moment in recent American history.  Certainly a more daring and visceral movie than Let it Fall, but maybe brings a little less new information to the table, both will work depending on what you’re looking for.

***1/2 out of Five

Lady Macbeth (1/13/2018)

Despite its title the new film Lady Macbeth is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s play so much as it’s a new story with the “Lady Macbeth” archetype at its center and with a similar fatalism to the famous play. Set in 19th Century England the film depicts a woman who’s forced into a pretty bad situation at the hand of her psycho husband and his doubly psychotic father and responds with a touch of psychopathy of her own.  It’s a pretty dark little piece of work, like if Neil LaBute trying to make Downton Abbey.  The film is also notable for placing a number of black actors into its period England setting.  This isn’t race blind casting, these are characters of color and I’m not sure how anachronistic this is or isn’t but it does bring something to the table that we don’t normally see in movies like this.  I’m not sure if all of this ultimately amounts to a whole lot more than a sort of “Black Mirror” style nihilism minus the technology but the performances are quite good and it’s an interesting exercise just the same

***1/2 out of Five

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (1/14/2018)

The title “Small Enough to Jail” is a reference to the phrase “Too Big to Fail,” which is invoked because the documentary covers the prosecution of the one and only baking institution which faced charges in relation to the 2008 financial crisis: a tiny consumer bank operating out of New York’s Chinatown called the Abacus Federal Savings Bank.  The film is clearly on this bank’s side and views them as a folksy “American Dream” operation beset by a government investigation that is unfair at best and a discriminatory witch-hunt at worst. To its credit the film does feature interviews with the people from the District Attorney’s office, which is kind of rare in these kind of documentaries, though I do have my suspicions as to how much of those interviews are lost in the edit.  By the end of the film I’m not entirely convinced of the bank’s innocence, in part because I know that in the mortgage industry it’s very easy to do some bad stuff without really thinking about it that way, but I do have reason to believe that they weren’t trying to run some kind of mass scam.  Of course technical guilt and innocence probably isn’t what director Steve James is most interested in here so much as the question of whether it’s fair that this is the institution that’s being gone after.

***1/2 out of Five