Home Video Round-Up: 2/18/2017

Zero Days(2/8/2017)

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Much has been made about Alex Gibney’s insane workload and the sheer quantity of documentaries he seems to put out every given year.  His workload has been a bit lighter in 2016 than it has been in other years but the one major documentary he put out is a doozy.  What’s held back some of Gibney’s recent output is that he’s been focusing on subjects like Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, and the Church of Scientology which have already been getting a ton of press elsewhere, but that isn’t really the case with Zero Days which looks at an event that has been somewhat under-reported in part because it’s been over-classified.  Specifically the movie is about the Stuxnet computer virus, which was created by American and Israeli intelligence to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  I’d heard a little bit about this operation before this and it was mostly framed at the time as a clean, successful and relatively peaceful operation that got one over on the Iranians, but the film suggests that the operation actually wasn’t all that successful and that it posed a lot of dangerous side-effects in that it spread to some innocent computers and some of the code in it could be copied by nefarious actors.  The movie itself is certainly a talking heads kind of thing, but it makes its argument well and seems to have been researched pretty deeply and presented about as well as it could be.

**** out of Five

Under the Shadow (2/9/2017)

Under the Shadow is a film set in Iran and filmed in Persian but was made outside of the Iranian film industry and is technically a British film, and this allows it to tell a kind of story you wouldn’t normally see made in Iran proper.  This is not a wildly political film however and makes the points it wants to make within a genre context.  It takes the form of a psychological thriller with a supernatural element and can be pretty readily compared with The Babadook… and I mean really readily compared to it.  Both films feature supernatural threats that may or may not be manifestations of a mother’s frustrations more so than an actual demon, or Djinn in this case.   The difference is that this particular woman’s psychological hang-ups are rooted more directly in the ways that the society she lives in wants to oppress her and keep her cooped up in her home despite her bigger ambitions.  Where the film falters in comparison to The Babadook is in its horror imagery.  Nothing in Under the Shadow is as memorable or as chilling as the popup book in The Babadook or various other horror moments to be found in that film.  That’s not to say that the horror imagery in Under the Shadow is weak exactly, it just isn’t the best the genre has to offer.  Overall this is certainly an interesting movie but I do think director Babak Anvari might need another movie or two before he reaches his full potential.

***1/2 out of Five

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Tower (2/14/2017)

2-14-2017Tower Tower is a documentary of sorts which focuses on the 1966 tragedy in which a deranged person went to the top of the University of Texas tower and started indiscriminately murdering people with a sniper rifle.  It was essentially a school shooting before school shootings were a sadly normalized part of the American landscape.  The film spends no time discussing the shooter or his motivations and instead focuses entirely on the victims and the occasional heroism of some of the police and bystanders.  There was limited footage of the actual incident so the film uses a mixture of the footage that exists as well as animation reenactments of the incident as well as interview audio from eye-witnesses.  I’m not always the biggest fan of animation being used in documentaries and I don’t think the art style here was ideal, but I do think the decision to recreate things in this way does ultimately work for the film.  The incident was often cited as an example of how things were going to hell in a handbasket in the post-Kennedy malaise of the 60s, but the documentary suggests there was some hope to be found in the way the non-crazy majority of people that day managed to react to the situation and how it would continue to affect those people as the years went on.

***1/2 out of Five

Deepwater Horizon (2/12/2017)

Peter Berg has had a weird career in general and his latest string of “ripped from the headlines movies starring Mark Whalberg” movies is particularly strange.  Deepwater Horizon, which dramatizes the offshore oil rig disaster which resulted in that huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico about eight years ago.  Like Sully it’s in the difficult position of making a feature film out of an incident that was kind of brief in real life.  They try to pull this off by dramatizing the mistakes that led to the disaster, but it feels like the problem is diagnosed almost immediately when we see the cement testers leaving the rig as our heroes enter and we’re left kind of waiting for the inevitable as we’re given various heavy handed metaphors about simple checks paying off in the long run.  Also John Malkovich is horrendous in these early scenes and feels like he comes from a different movie with his over the top accent.  The movie does become a fairly well crafted disaster movies once things on the rig start blowing up but frankly it had kind of lost me by that point.  Peter Berg, I don’t know what movie you plan to do next but for the love of god can it please be something that isn’t going to end with a maudlin montage of photographs of the real life victims of whatever?

**1/2 out of Five

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I Am Not Your Negro (2/18/2017)

2-18-2017IAmNotYourNegro When I first heard about the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro I was kind of expecting it to be a standard PBSish biographical documentary but it actually seems to be something more ambitious than that.  The film doesn’t use any talking heads or narration and basically consists only of Baldwin’s own words and appearances.  Ostensibly the film is an adaptation of Baldwin’s final manuscript “Remember This House” which is read through voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson, but that manuscript (which was a retrospective comparison between Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X) is really only about a third of the movie and it goes off in other directions like talking about the depiction of African Americans in popular culture and other various musings about race in America.  This is where the movie starts to lose me a little as I found it to be kind of disorganized.  James Baldwin was clearly an awesome figure and any movie that collects some of his thoughts and writings is going to be interesting of course but some of his statements probably work better when written than spoken; you really need to stop and think about some of his statements, which can make them imperfect for a movie that has to move on rather than rest with an idea.  The movie also incorporates a lot of modern images of racial strife to suggest that the struggle that Baldwin is discussing is not safely in the past which, I mean point taken but there’s still something kind of jarring about the movie putting a historical figures words to images he was not alive to see (and don’t get me started on the decision to end the movie with an aggressive Kendrick Lamar song).  The movie is probably worth seeing for anyone who wants a Baldwin 101 primer but it was a little bit disappointing to me in the end, you frankly might be better off searching for old videos of Baldwin speaking on Youtube.

*** out of five

Lights Out (2/13/2017)

I’ve been pretty outspoken in my belief that the current crop of “haunted house/things jumping out and yelling boo” horror movies are a kind of lame trend that got old a while ago.  Lights Out is neither the best nor the worst of this silly little trend but it does come on (what I hope is) the tail end of the trend and that makes it seem all the more superfluous because of it.  The story itself isn’t quite as formulaic as some entries of the haunting subgenre but its scares certainly are.  Now to be fair, like a lot of these movies there are moments that are effective, I mean jump scares usually do work even if they’re cheap.  The bigger problem I guess is that this one seems pretty thin.  The thing is only a little over eighty minutes and you can tell they were kind of struggling to fill that run time and it all leads up to an ending that’s really anti-climactic and not terribly well earned.

*** out of Five

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Toni Erdmann(2/4/2017)

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One of the first major rifts that tend to form between parents and children tends to occur when the children become teenagers and stop wanting to be seen with the parents everywhere they go.  Parents often take this personally and don’t get it but the teenagers in question do usually have reasonable reasons to do this in their minds.  For one thing they’re trying to become independent and want to feel less like little children and secondly because parents have a nasty habit of not taking said teenager’s various social anxieties as seriously as the teenager does and they tend to be very bad wingmen because of it.  This usually causes a bit of family discord for something like four or five years but once the kids move out tensions usually smooth over; the parents learn to give the kids space and the kids start to find the parents to be perfectly fine to visit when appropriate.  But this eventual understanding probably doesn’t come to ever family and I’m sure there are plenty of people who come to dread being around their parents well into adulthood.  That’s the subject of the new German comedy Toni Erdmann, which peaks in on a daughter who is still sort of embarrassed to be seen with her father and a father who gives her a lot of good reasons to feel that way.

The film begins in contemporary Germany, where we’re introduced to a man named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who seems to have been living a somewhat aimless life after divorcing his wife and finding he misses his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) as she jet-sets around the world in her role as a consultant for oil companies.  Her most recent assignment has brought her to Bucharest where she’s on the verge of a very important presentation when suddenly Winfried decides to drop by and visit.  Needless to say, she’s in no mood to deal with her goofball father that weekend and as such she proves to be a less than complimentary host.  The two seemingly part ways but Winfreid decides to remain in Bucharest to find some way for the two of them to reconnect, seemingly whether his daughter wants to or not.

At first the film seems to be a sort of darkly comedic take on Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film in which two parents try to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to be treated like an annoyance by their ungrateful kids.  That’s a movie that has a rightful place in the cannon and I’m not going to argue with Ozu’s unique visual language, but I’ve always found the story to that movie to be a bit of a crotchety guilt trip.  It’s a movie made by a middle aged man that whines about those “damn ungrateful kids” for having the gall to not drop everything and kiss their parents asses.  There’s something similar going on in the first half of Toni Erdmann in that Ines does not have a lot of time to deal with Winfried to his disappointment, but the film does not make Winfreid into some kind of paragon of elderly wisdom either and the film does realize that he’s putting her into quite a bind by showing up unannounced and occasionally butting into her business dealings.  In the second half though the film changes directions and leans more towards a strange sort of reconciliation brought along in a way that I could almost see a Hollywood comedy going, albeit in a much different way stylistically.

Toni Erdmann was directed by Maren Ade and after the film earned raves at Cannes I checked out here previous (and also well regarded) film Everyone Else and was kind of disappointed by it.  That movie was certainly pretty well made but I never really connected to the film’s characters at all and was never really able to go along with their journey.  I connected with the characters here a little better to a point, or at least I connected to them initially, but as the film depicts them reconciling their differences later in the film it started to lose me.  So as a character study it doesn’t quite work for me.  The film also seems to be trying to say something about modern globalism given the nature of Ines’ job, but this also never quite gets pressed hard enough and doesn’t quite work for me.  Then of course it also wants to be something of a farce at certain points but again never really commits to this enough for it to fully work.  In general it just seems like a movie that tries to do a number of things and never really pulls the trigger on any of them.  I can see a pretty interesting movie somewhere in this thing, and there are certainly scenes in it that are great, but in its attempt to be all things I think it loses something.

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Home Video Round-Up: 2/7/2017

The BFG (1/26/2017)

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Roald Dahl was the author of a number of strange children’s books that not too many kids actually care that much about, however a disproportionate number of his fans seem to grow up to become film directors and as such we seem to get a whole lot of Roald Dahl adaptations that no one asked for.  The latest Dahl adaptation to bomb at the box office was made by none other than Steven Spielberg, which truly baffles me because this movie both seems unlike anything Spielberg has ever made both in style and quality.  Very early on while watching The BFG I quickly found myself saying “what the fuck is this shit?”  To call this movie an oddity would be an understatement, it exists on a whimsical level that is impenetrable and operates on a bizarre fairy tale logic that is hard to get a grasp of and its plot goes in a direction about half way through that is frankly insane.  Its protagonist is a kid with minimal distinguishing traits and her giant friend is a weird simpleton whose relationship with said protagonist is frankly creepy.  On top of all that the movie is just a big fail on a technical level.  The little girl seems completely detached from all the CGI around her and the giant is this freakish creature from the uncanny valley with weird gravity defying hair.  Steven Spielberg feels completely out of his element here as even his most childish of family films tend to be more grounded than this and if anything this gives me a newfound respect for the works of Tim Burton as this kind of thing is clearly harder than it looks.

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Little Men(1/28/2017)

I skipped this movie in theaters because it looked like another “small” movie about life in New York and movies about life in New York are something of a plague in the world of independent cinema.  This one is better than most however, mainly because it’s not about twenty-somethings with first world problems.  Instead it’s about thirty-something’s and teenagers with first world problems… but I’ll take what I can get.  The movie is about a landlord who inherits a store from his father and has to decide whether or not to raise the rent to market value, thus pricing the shopkeeper out, which is complicated by the fact that his son has befriended the shopkeeper’s son.  Not exactly the most relatable predicament in the world, but I can’t say I’ve seen a movie about that recently.  I don’t get the impression that this shopkeeper is going to be completely destitute if she’s forced to re-locate and I don’t know that the landlord is going to be to broken up about the decision a year later so… not the highest stake either.  Having made these dismissive smartass observations, I will say that the movie is pretty well executed and the fact that it’s told about 50/50 from both the parents and the kids perspective does give it a certain extra bit of interest.  The movie is pretty easy to label a “trifle” and… yeah I don’t think that’s unfair, but if you’re in the mood for a sort of low stakes drama about the dynamics of privilege it’s worth a look.

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Jim: The James Foley Story(1/29/2017)

1-29-2017JimTheJamesFoleyStory As the title would suggest, Jim: The James Foley Story looks at the life of James Foley, the photo journalist who was beheaded by ISIS militants in 2014, an incident that probably would have sparked a war if Trump had been president at the time.  Brian Oakes’ documentary is a difficult one to talk about as it basically just follows the usual talking head documentary format and while it’s pretty good at what it’s trying to do you can’t help but think there isn’t a lot of “there” there.  There’s little about Foley’s life that would surprise you as it seems pretty similar to that of most war correspondents: he as a bright young man who became dedicated to getting the truth out and then ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s all very tasteful and whatnot but is it a cinematic accomplishment?  Ehh, maybe not, but at the same time not every documentary needs to have some innovative gimmick so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Captain Fantastic (1/31/2017)

Captain Fantastic was about the closest thing to an indie hit that we had this summer until Hell or High Water came along.  The film concerns a strange situation in which a man has chosen to raise his family out in the woods, homeschooling them and having them “rough it” out in the wild because he’s disgusted by modern American society.  That seems farfetched but the whole situation reminded me a lot of the family depicted in the 2007 documentary Surfwise, like, reminded me of it to the point that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit.  The film does a pretty good job of giving you an idea of why such an arrangement could be tantalizing and sort of romanticizing it while also taking the cons of such an arrangement seriously.  Viggo Mortenson is solid here but I don’t know that I would have nominated him for an Academy Award.  I do like the assortment of kids they found to fill out the family though and I think the film is generally written with a degree of wit that made the movie roll along pretty effectively.  At the end of the day I don’t think the movie is terribly special but it’s certainly a very watchable little movie that mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do.

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Under the Sun (2/2/2017)

2-2-2017UndertheSun North Korea is a country/tragedy that I seem to find endlessly fascinating and will watch pretty much any movie or documentary about.  Because of that country’s secrecy and image consciousness it’s extremely hard to film much of anything there that the government doesn’t want you to film, which is something a lot of documentarians take as a challenge.  Case in point: Vitaly Mansky Under the Sun, a documentary about a young girl entering the countries Children’s Union which Mansky agreed to make under all the government’s meticulous requirements only to then sneak all the outtakes out of the country and include in the version of the film shown abroad along with title cards annotating everything that was manipulated by the government.  As I said before, pretty much any footage taken in North Korea is of value but I’m not sure we learn much of anything about the country from this other than that they’re regressive and controlling of its image.  Honestly I’m not sure why North Korea bothered letting these guys in to film, if they wanted to make a propaganda film for internal consumption they should have just done it themselves and if they thought anyone outside of the country was going to be fooled by the film they wanted to make they were delusional.  This movie is an interesting project, but perhaps more for the story behind it than for the film itself.  If you do decide to watch it I strongly recommend doing some of the research into the backstory first because it doesn’t always explain itself well.  It kind of seems like a movie that was made to be shown at film festivals with Q&As.

A Man Called Ove (2/7/2017)

A strange thing happened this fall: a movie Swedish movie called A Man Called Ove opened up at my local arthouse and for months on end seemed to just keep playing there.  There aren’t that many arthouse screens in the city so normally the turnover at these places is really fast, especially if the movie isn’t a super buzzed about awards contender and Ove certainly didn’t seem all that buzzed about.  Critics didn’t seem to care about the movie and bloggers didn’t seem to care about it but clearly it was finding an audience.  Eventually I discovered that the movie was based on a fairly popular novel, which explained its apparent success to some extent, but beyond that the movie was apparently just a very warm and accessible movie: what Harvey Weinstein used to call a “friendly foreign movie.”  It concerns an old guy who’s extremely grumpy and angry at the world for a variety of reasons but mainly because his beloved wife recently passed but who gains a new lease on life when a new neighbor moves in next and starts to reach him through some simple empathy.  The movie is fairly well made and certainly watchable, I was about ready to give it a soft pass until I thought about it a little more and came to the conclusion that it was utter bullshit.  Ove’s dead wife is basically a manic pixie dreamwife in the film’s flashbacks (an endlessly chipper woman with no interior life who exists to bring light into the life of a male protagonist) and the neighbor is basically a manic pixie dreamfriend.  In the real world behaving like a misanthropic recluse does not attract saintly women to come into your life to bring you out of your shell, trust me I know.

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Neruda(1/28/2017)

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It used to be, back in the days of Hollywood factory filmmaking, that film directors would routinely make at least a movie a year but more than likely more than one.  I think this was partly because directors came into the process later and left it earlier than they do now but it’s still impressive how fast they could crank out movies.  Today there are still directors capable of putting out two movies in a year, Clint Eastwood has been known to do it and so has Spielberg, but it’s a pretty rare occurrence.  Even rarer though is the act of putting out three essentially unrelated movies in a single year, which is what the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain has managed to do by releasing his films The Club, Jackie, and Neruda all in the year of 2016.  Granted, this was largely the result of the vagaries of how foreign films get released in America.  IMDB would consider The Club a 2015 film because of its earlier Chilean release and Neruda only barely got in by getting a New York/L.A. release in late December, but from where I sit he did manage to get all of these movies in during a single year.  What’s more, every one of these movies is at the very least interesting.  The Club didn’t quite work for me but it had some interesting things to say about the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and I’m certainly on record as thinking Jackie (which was his English language debut) is one of the year’s best.  For Neruda he returns to Chile to tell the story about a very famous Chilean.

The film is set in 1948 and at this point Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a larger than life figure in Chile and a world famous poet and political activist in the country’s communist party.  It’s a tumultuous time in Chile as the recently elected Gabriel González Videla (Alfredo Castro) has proven to not be the leftist figure that everyone had hoped when he was elected and it has become clear that everyone in the communist party would soon be in danger.  Neruda goes underground but continues making appearances among the Chilean counter-culture as he seeks a means of exiting the country.  Meanwhile, an police investigator named Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal) has been brought in by Videla and tasked with finding Neruda, a task that Peluchonneau has every intention to complete.  This will however prove difficult as Neruda is slippery and willing to taunt Peluchonneau at every turn.

I’d be lying if I said I was familiar with the life and work of Pablo Neruda before seeing this movie.  I’m not proud of that, the man was a Nobel laureate and was once called “the greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” by Gabriel García Márquez, so he certainly seems like someone an educated person should know about.  The film focuses less on his literary achievements than on his status as a political figure in Chile but either way it’s a pretty decent crash course in what he was like and what his stature was.  In playing the character Luis Gnecco certainly seems to have captured the look of Neruda, or at least what he seemed to look like in the photos I was able to google, then again I’m not wildly familiar with Gnecco as an actor so it’s hard to gauge how much of a transformation this is.  Either way the movie does a good job of showing the poet’s free spirited defiance and it’s fun to see him elude the authorities at every turn.  Audiences seeing the movie are likely meant to be well aware of the fact that Neruda does not get captured and the movie never tries to give the illusion that Peluchonneau is ever going to be a match for Neruda even when he occasionally seems to have the drop on him.

Where the movie started to lose me was in its second half where the movie introduces a meta element with the Gael García Bernal character which I don’t think is really as fascinating as it possibly could have been.  I’m not going to discuss it in much detail here but I’m still not exactly sure what was supposed to be real and unreal in it and I’m not sure what the ultimate point of that was supposed to be.  I do wonder if that business was a reference to something in Neruda’s literature or an actual documented element in his life that more familiar audiences would be better able to pick up on but for me it just felt a bit odd.  If it hasn’t been made clear so far, I think the fact that I’m not Chilean has me at a bit of a disadvantage with this movie, or perhaps more accurately my ignorance of early 20th Century Chilean history and the works of Pablo Neruda have me at a bit of a disadvantage.  That said, I don’t begrudge Larrain for having chosen not to dumb down his movie for people who don’t go into it with a whole lot of outside knowledge.  The fact that he made his one of his other films this year, Jackie, in a similarly uncompromising way is one of its strengths and I wonder if part of the chilly reception that it’s gotten is that audiences less educated in that story have left it a touch baffled.  However, I’m not going to entirely blame myself for the fact that this movie didn’t entirely impress me.  There are other issues in it like it’s rather bland and washed out photography and regardless of if I’m missing anything that ending still could have been handled better.   Either way I do think this is a worthy, if slightly disappointing entry in Larrain’s filmography and I look forward to his future work.

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts(2/10/2017)

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The Academy Awards are such the perfect capper to a year of cinema that I’ve long enjoyed following them and the rest of award season even though I know it’s all silly at the end of the day.  Some years I get pretty deep into the horserace of it all and spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with predictions and to follow the narratives around each category.  One line I had not crossed up to now was seeking out the short films nominated each year just so I can have a better idea of how to predict those categories, but there’s a first time for everything.  Kidding aside, I didn’t really check these out just to win an Oscar pool.  Really I was just kind of curious what kinds of movies tend to show up in these categories and see if there were any gems in the bunch.  After all, the Best Short film category has at times featured early works by filmmakers who would go on to greater fame.  Previous winners and nominees in this category have included Martin McDonagh, Sean Ellis, Taika Waititi, Andrea Arnold, Peter Capaldi, and Taylor Hackford.

Now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here because I don’t really watch a lot of short films, at least not a lot of short films from this century.  I’m not really sure how or why short films get made really.  There’s almost no commercial market for them to my knowledge and I don’t really know where they get their budgets from.  This is probably a big part of why every single one of the short films nominated this year are from Europe, where I’m guessing there are grants and public funding for this sort of thing.  In general I tend to view short films as either being a place to test out filmic experiments or to make what are sort of video resumes for young filmmakers trying to show their skill.  Most if not all of the shorts this year fall into the latter category, or at least feel like they do.  Most of them use fairly conventional narrative techniques and basically feel like miniature feature stories. Four of them run about a half hour with one exception which runs about fifteen minutes.  Two of the shorts are fairly serious and deal with topical subject matter, two tell quirky little stories, and one of them serves more as a sort of visual joke.  They’re being released theatrically by a company called ShortsHD, which I believe is also a niche cable network.  They’ve programed them into a no frills package and have ordered them so as to space out the different tones involved.  I’ll be discussing the films in the order presented by this theatrical exhibition.

Also, 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.

 

Mindenki (Sing)

The first film presented is “Sing,” which is a Hungarian short made by a guy named Kristóf Deák, who appears to have been making shorts at least since 2008.  The film follows a elementary aged girl named Zsofi (Dorka Gáspárfalvi) who is the new kid at a school and is interested in joining the school’s award winning choir, but when she gets there she’s told by the dominating choir director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) that she didn’t have quite the chops to live up to the choir’s reputation and that she should mime singing instead of actually vocalizing so she doesn’t bring the rest of the choir down with her.  So, basically we have the ambition of a young aspiring musician clashing with a dictatorial instructor who puts being number one above the needs of their students… in other words it’s Whiplash with children and less shouting.  Of the five nominees this is probably the cleanest and most concise.  It’s exactly the kind of story that feels at home in this thirty minute format and it feels neither rushed nor stretched out and while the story feels a little simple there are some layers there.  The dictatorial choir teacher does make a few legit points in defense of what she’s doing and it is interesting seeing her try to manipulate these children into following her lead because they don’t really have the sophistication to debate her.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this one is a bit of a dark horse.  It lacks the weight and political heft of a couple of the other nominees and might not stand out as much and it isn’t comedic like two of the other choices, but voters looking for a nice Goldilocks balance might go for it.

 

Silent Nights

The second film presented gets a lot more serious as it, like a number of the films in the various specialized categories this year, focuses on matters of immigration in Europe.  It’s called “Silent Nights” and hails from Denmark and was directed by the (awesomely named) Aske Bang.  The film follows a Ghanaian man named Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) who has been living on the streets of Copenhagen and meets a young and slightly naïve homeless shelter worker named Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen).   Of the five films this one is probably the most densely packed and feels most like a condensed feature film, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Where it falters is that it does not really examine these issues of immigration with a whole lot of subtlety and feels more like the work of someone who’s learned about the struggles facing immigrants from reading the newspaper than from someone who really knows what that life is like.  Every time that Kwame faces racism it comes in the form of either nationalist thugs on the verge of committing full on hate crimes or old people willing to drop full on racial slurs and the film never really examines the less obvious and more institutional forms of prejudice that are likely the more pressing threats that he’s likely to face.  Beyond that there’s kind of just a feeling to it of a young director who’s working a little too hard to try to make certain things feel “gritty.”  On the bright side I found the acting here to be quite good and the relationship between Kwame and Inger felt a lot more natural than it could have.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say it has a legit shot.  Its density could work to its benefit as it plays more like a complete film than some of the other nominees and the fact that it deals with serious issues will help it, especially considering that it does so with more uplift and hope than the other “serious” nominee this year. Also, if you look behind the curtain you learn that the film’s producer/co-nominee Kim Magnusson actually has a pretty long history in this category having been nominated five times in the past and won twice.

 

Timecode

It’s not hard to see why “Timecode” was programed as the middle movie in this block.  It effectively provides a respite between the two “heavy” shorts and it also wouldn’t exactly be the appropriate short to either get the ball rolling on things or send people out of the theater.  At fifteen minutes it’s about half the length of the other four shorts and it’s also the least dialogue driven and most overtly comedic even if it isn’t necessarily going for laughs per se.  Made in Spain by a guy named Juanjo Giménez, the film is about a pair of bored security guards in commercial parking ramp who find a way to pass the time by passing security cam time codes to one another where they’re dancing on camera.  Of the five films here this is the one I had pegged more than the others of being a film by a hotshot out of film school trying to show off his skills behind the camera.  Researching after the fact this proved to not be true.  Juanjo Giménez appears to actually be quite a bit older than his competitors being a man in his fifties who appears to have been working as a producer going back to the 90s. Timecode is very much a light hearted formal exercise that almost could have been made as a silent film if the people involved had been so inclined.  I’m not sure the payoff lands quite as well as the filmmakers thought it would but it it’s a fun little film just the same.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: While a number of these films have won various festival awards Timecode is the only one that can say that it won the Short Film Palme d’Or and much like the films that win the feature Palm d’Or it brags about this in a title card in front of the film.  The film’s other big asset is that it stands out from the other four in its brevity and its entertainment value.  If the people inclined to vote longer and more serious fare split their votes between the other four nominees this one could benefit.

 

Ennemis intérieurs (Enemies Within)

The fourth film here and the second to deal with issues of immigration is “Enemies Within” from the French filmmaker Sélim Azzazi takes the form of a man with Algerian roots doing an interview in order to gain official French citizenship after having lived in France for most of his life.  However, the interview takes a bit of a turn at a certain point and suddenly becomes a lot more hostile than you expect it to.  The whole process does a pretty good job of illustrating how much immigrants are sort of at the mercy of bureaucracies that are not always working in their best interests.  Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri do a very good job of portraying the interviewee and interviewer respectively and the tension in the scenes between them is quite good.  The positioning of the film as a series of conversations does work well for the short film format and we do come to learn a lot about the guy over the course of the short.  Oddly, the film is actually set in the 90s, possibly to allow for the protagonist to have been born prior to the Algerian revolution, but it certainly looks and feels like a film that’s set today.  I think the movie sort of loses steam a bit as it goes and leads up to an ending that doesn’t have quite the impact it’s supposed to, but it does certainly have a lot going for it just the same.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one might be where the smart money is.  It’s got the best odds on Goldderby.com and people looking for weightier and more topical material would probably gravitate towards it, although it along with “Sing” probably have the least showy visual aesthetic and that could hurt it a little.

 

La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

First thing’s first: TGV stands for “Train à Grande Vitesse” which means “High Speed Train” and refers to the bullet trains which go between France and its border countries.  This Swiss short looks in on the life of an eccentric woman who owns a boutique bakery and whose main hobby seems to be timing her day to wave a Swiss flag at TGVs as they pass by her home and depicts what she goes through when she becomes pen pals with the engineer of one of the trains.  It’s apparently based on a real story and they show some documentary footage of the real lady at the end, but it certainly feels pretty fanciful during the film.  The film was directed by a guy named Timo von Gunten, who at twenty seven years old is (I think) the youngest of the directors here but has already been tapped to direct a feature film called “Eifel” about the life of a famous Czech conman named Victor Lustig.  The film also sports the one famous actor of the bunch in the form of Jane Birkin, who plays the titular woman and plays her pretty well.  All that having been said this feels like the lease distinguished of the five films here to me.  Gunten never quite humanizes his protagonist and late in the film where it’s suggested that this experience improves her life it doesn’t quite seem earned.  Beyond that the movie just kind of tries to coast on its own quirkiness but really just kind of collapses under it.

My Grade: C

Its Oscar Chances: This one seems like a bit of a longshot, but maybe that’s my own bias talking.  The presence of Jane Birkin could turn some eybrows and it may also appeal to some of the… young at heart… Academy members that tend to disproportionately vote in these specialty categories.  This isn’t the Documentary Short category and the movies that win are not necessarily the heaviest or the most artistic.  If this gives some voters “feels” that could propel it.

 

Final Thoughts

All in all I found this roster of shorts to be solid but a little underwhelming.  The movies are all pretty solidly in the B- to B+ range and none of them every really jumped out at me as being particularly inspired.  I think my favorite out of the lot might actually be “Sing” simply because it seemed most able to get its story across within the time limitations and with the fewest missteps.  That said, if you’re not obsessing over the Oscars and aren’t that interested in winning an Oscar pool I don’t know that I’d recommend going out of your way to see these really.  Of course the irony to all this is that I’ve kind of come away from this with legitimate arguments for any one of the five winning this thing but as of now (and I reserve the right to change my mind before Oscar night) I’m predicting Silent Nights.

For the record, I’m probably not going to be doing the same for the Animated category.  I’ve already seen two of them and I don’t feel like paying to just see three others, especially given that two of them are only ten minutes each.  As for the documentary short category, if you know where to look four of the five are available for streaming.

20th Century Women(1/21/2017)

1-21-2017TwentiethCenturyWomen

It’s amazing how useful a high concept can be, at least when it comes to spreading the word about a movie.  For instance, Arrival can easily be described as “a woman must learn an alien language in order to save the world” and while that is a gross oversimplification it certainly gets the attention of the person you’re talking to and gives them an idea what they’re into and makes them want to hear more.  It works for movies that are basically grounded character studies as well, for instance the fact that Moonlight has that tryptic structure gives it a distinctive little hook that makes it easier to convey something that’s special about it real quick.  When a movie doesn’t have a catchy little hook things can get a little harder explain.  Take the new film 20th Century Women for example: when someone asks what that’s about you stuck fumbling though this long explanation about how it’s this movie set in the late 70s with this unconventional family with a single mother and a tenant and this teenage son who feels things and… etc etc.  That’s a mouthful and I suspect it will limit the movie’s audience, but it is a movie that’s worth considering so give me a minute to explain all of this.

The film is set in Santa Barbra in 1979 and focuses in on a mother and son.  The mother is named Dorothea (Annette Benning), who had her son relatively late in life and divorced her ex-husband not long after.  She has something of a free spirited attitude and raises her son in a somewhat unconventional way.  That son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), is now fifteen and entering into that age when teenagers generally withdraw from their parents and she begins to worry about his well-being after an incident where he’s hurt taking part in a dangerous choking game.  In response she approaches his childhood friend, who is emphatically not a girlfriend, Julie (Elle Fanning) as well as a tenant living in the house whom Jamie admires named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and asks that they sort of help out in his upbringing in certain ways.  This is a rather vague and unusual request and the two react to it a bit differently.  Also in the mix is a guy named William (Billy Crudup) who has been helping with some construction on the house, and he sort of interacts with the characters in various ways as well.

20th Century Women was written and directed by Mike Mills who is probably best known for helming the 2010 film Beginners.  That movie is probably most notable for a performance in it by Christopher Plummer, which earned the veteran actor a long overdue Oscar.  Otherwise though, I found that movie to be fairly forgettable and I can’t say I was expecting a whole lot more from Mills’ follow-up.  However, 20th Century Women seems to be something of a refinement of the style that Mills explored in that previous movie.  Both employ vaguely wistful voice-overs and both also use cutaways both to fill in past events and also to give the film a vaguely collage feel at times.  All of that is handled a lot better this time around and the film adds to that an interest in rich period detail.  The movie makes a very big point of the fact that it’s set in 1979, which seems to be a year that was very carefully chosen.  This was after all the year Kramer Vs. Kramer came out, divorce was slowly becoming a fact of American life but it wasn’t quite the norm yet and a family like this was still certainly a bit outside of the absolute mainstream.  What’s more that hippie spirit was still sort of alive, certainly in Santa Barbara at least, and the punk scene (which was decidedly post-punk at this point) was still providing something of a counter-cultural voice albeit a lot more faintly than it used to.

The film thrives in its ability to create unique characters and give them interesting dynamics between one another.  Central to the movie of course is the relationship between the mother and the son.  Dorothea is introduced as a child of the depression who is in her 50s as the movie opens.  She’s way less judgmental and more permissive than you’d expect from someone of that generation and has a bit of the hippie to her.  There are limits to this open mindedness however and she can be a bit smothering at times and Annette Benning does a solid job of hitting this balancing act.  Under her guidance her son has grown to be a fairly open minded if somewhat passive teenager, albeit one with the usual angst for someone of his age.  Then there’s the Abbie character who is involved in the punk scene but also has a bit of a depressive side to her as she’s recovering from cervical cancer as the film begins.  Her attempts to help “raise” Jamie are interesting if a touch comical at times like her decision that he needs to read her copy of “Our Bodies Our Selves.” Gretta Gerwig, an actress who has somehow managed to avoid playing a girlfriend in a superhero movie thus far, gives one of her best performances here and breaks with the borderline typecasting she was starting to fall into.  Finally there’s Elle Fanning’s Julie, who has an interesting relationship with Jamie in that she insists on being “just friends” with him despite the fact that he clearly has a crush on her and she interacts with him in semi-intimate ways that a “just friend” normally would not.

At times 20th Century Women started to feel like it was going to just be a collection of really well drawn characters with no real movie to actually fit them all, but I do think it ultimately comes together at the end and justifies itself.  In many ways the movie seems to be presenting a vision of a world where everyone sort of behaves exactly the way third wave feminism wants them to: the women talk openly about their inner womanly thoughts (often to the point of oversharing), the men listen intently and spend a lot of time thinking about the women’s feelings, no one is slut shamed, and single motherhood is only a moderate challenge.  It seems like a pretty pleasant world, but it also kind of rings a little false at times; like a vision of an imagined utopia rather than the real world where people don’t share all their feelings like this and people aren’t as receptive of advice.  In this sense the film is almost like a vigorous defense for building a pleasant bubble around yourself and your family (whatever form that may take) even if it can only last so long.  The film is breezy but impactful and it was ultimately a pleasure to spend a couple of hours with these people.

4