Home Video Round-Up 2/8/2023

Riotsville, USA (1/28/2023)

Riotsville, USA is a documentary that can probably be best classified as a video essay as it overtly makes its own point rather than bringing in talking heads to make them.  It consists almost entirely of archive footage and focuses in on the societal reaction to the rioting and uprests that occurred during the 1960s like the Watts Riots, the 1967 Detroit Riots, and the unrest at the 1968 Chicago DNC as well as a less known uprest that happened at the 1968 RNC in Miami.  It’s not too hard to guess why there would be a particular interest in this subject matter today and the film’s basic thesis is that the establishment basically reacted to these unrests the wrong way by focusing more on riot control policing than on addressing the underlying concerns of the rioters and this is perhaps most dramatically symbolized by footage of a military training facility that was built to look like regular city streets in which the army and police would practice riot control techniques.  That’s perhaps the most striking element of the documentary but it’s not the entire focus as the title would imply and is more about the broader discourse of the era.  In fact we see in a title card at the beginning that almost all the footage used in the film was either shot by the government or by the news media, which establishes that these were all conversations that happened very much in public and that this isn’t obscure stuff being dug up and the film further emphasizes how normalized all this discourse was from time to time by including commercial breaks and other bits of broadcast ephemera in the movie.  Those are some interesting techniques but the film is never quite sure whether it wants its message driven home by title cards or by voice-over and at times it does feel like some talking head type stuff might have made it a touch more watchable.
***1/2 out of Five

Causeway (1/30/2023)

The Best Actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough for the movie To Leslie was a gigantic shocker when the Academy Awards nominations were announced, to the point where it rather overshadowed the similarly surprising Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Tyree Henry in the movie Causeway.  This was less of a surprise in part because the movie had the promotional might of Apple behind it but Causeway is a not entirely dissimilar movie from To Leslie: both are these Sundancey indies about working class women struggling to overcome adversity (in the case of To Leslie that’s alcoholism and here it’s the physical and psychological toll of having nearly been injured in Afghanistan) by taking a menial job where they meet a friend that helps them (Tyree Henry here, Marc Maron in To Leslie).  Causeway is a better film however, mostly for small reasons that are a little hard to summarize.  Jennifer Lawrence is giving a more understated performance than Riseborough for one thing, and I also sense that this movie handles its New Orleans setting more authentically than To Leslie handles it’s Texas milieu.  That said I don’t think Causeway is a terribly notable movie in the long run either.  There have been a lot of movies about veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan which are trying to exist in that lineage with The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home, but none of them have really come close and I’m not sure many of them ever will at this point.  I think it’s because the kind of people who go to those wars live outside the experience of the type of people who write movies to a much greater extent than used to be the case and any attempt to tell their stories involves bridging a bigger divide than in generations past and I think that’s the case here as well.  As for Brian Tyree Henry’s performance… it’s good, but I wouldn’t say it’s too far off from his usual range nor is it a career best.  I feel like the nomination is more out of respect for Tyree Henry’s recent run of solid work as an actor’s actor than for this movie, but that’s okay.
*** out of Five

“Sr.” (1/31/2023)

About a year and a half ago the cult underground film director Robert Downey passed away, and I distinctly remember going into the trend on Twitter and seeing person after person expressing the relief they felt when they realized the person who died was Robert Downey Sr. rather than is significantly more famous son.  More than likely a lot of these people didn’t even know that the elder Downey was a person of note.  Hell, I’m a dedicated film buff and even I’ve only seen two of the guy’s movies, and it would appear this documentary was made in order to educate the public about this guy and also clarify what his relationship to Downey Jr. was.  The film makes some kind of unconventional choices along the way; for one, all the new footage in the film was shot in black and white (with movie clips and archival footage in color where applicable) for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  The film has a decent amount of fly-on-the-wall footage of the whole Downey family interacting which does continue into the period in which the elder Downey’s health started to rapidly deteriorate.  There’s a conceit the film uses in which the elder Downey is cutting together his own version of the documentary separately, though not much ultimately becomes of this.  The film ultimately focuses more on this new material and with stories of the family’s personal dynamics than it does on really analyzing Downey Sr.’s actual movies, which sometimes take a bit of a back seat.  I feel like an interview with a film historian or critic may have helped a little here as some outside perspectives may well have gone a long way in making it clear to audiences that these movies actually did matter and weren’t just weird vanity projects by an eccentric guy.  I suppose the philosophy behind this is that a documentary about an iconoclastic filmmaker shouldn’t be too conventional and should have some experimental elements itself, but I’m not sure that Downey Jr. and director Chris Smith were really the right people to try an experimental format like that because it mostly comes across as kind of messy rather than truly experimental.
*** out of Five

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2/2/2023)

So, every year I do the best that I can to watch all the films nominated for the Academy Award in every category.  This year it looks like I’ll be able to see everything except the latest beneficiary of a Diane Warren song Tell it Like a Woman (which is not on streaming or anywhere else, and I’m not 100% convinced exists) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish because even I have some standards.  However, this Best Costume Design nominee Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris thing was readily available on Peacock so, I figured “what the hell?”  Ugh.  To be fair I think the nomination in that category basically makes sense.  It’s a movie largely set in the Christian Dior fashion house in the 50s and obviously has a whole bunch of meticulously designed outfits that needed to be meticulously recreated, but man everything else about this movie was just pandering nonsense made for very undiscerning AARP members.  The titular Mrs. Harris is like a senior citizen Mary Sue who marches through the film just sort of magically getting her way through force of personality while managing to match-make the respectful young people and putting the snobby people who don’t believe her in their place.  Beyond that it’s just a boring bit of wish-fulfillment hooey that will more than likely be forgotten even by its fans less than a week after seeing it.
*1/2 out of Five

All That Breathes (2/8/2023)

All that Breathes is one of the most awarded documentaries of the year and also the one I’ve waited the longest to finally get to see since HBO has seemingly been holding onto it in anticipation of an Oscar nomination.  It’s funny really to experience that much fomo and anticipation for what turns out to be this really quiet and contemplative little documentary about a pair of brothers in India who take care of birds and nurse them back to health.  Specifically they have a little operation taking in kites (a species of birds of prey not unlike hawks) who have broken wings and the like.  The film is essentially a work of cinéma vérité shot “fly on the wall” style without the use of any interviews to the camera or the like, but it’s done with more carefully composed shots than you usually associate with that style.  In fact it’s kind of impressive how much the film is able to maintain a certain visual style and aesthetic despite being unscripted content and if you watch a lot of docs it is noticeable, but not in any kind of show off way.  As it goes on the film touches on the fact that the rise in Hindu Nationalism in Modi’s India is starting to seem threatening to these two brothers as they go about their bird nursing duties, but more as a kind of background anxiety.  Ultimately the movie’s arc never quite comes full circle for me but I can see why this has become something of a festival darling.
***1/2 out of Five

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2022 (2/17/2023)

I’m not really sure why I started at this point for seven years running I’ve gone to the theatrical releases of the Oscar Nominated live action shorts when ShortsTV tours them in the days leading up Oscars. Well, I had to stream them leading into the 2021 ceremony for obvious reasons, but still.  Honestly I must say I was a bit less excited for it this year as it’s really extended out the 2022 movie year for me a bit longer than I’d like right as I’m finally starting to be ready to just move on to 2023, but I wasn’t about to cut the tradition of just yet.

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.  So, without further ado…


Our first movie is Ivalu which is officially labeled as a film from Denmark, but more specifically it’s a film set in the Danish constituent country of Greenland and is in the Kalaallisut language spoken by the Greenlandic Inuit population.  The film follows a young Inuit girl named Pipaluk, and “Ivalu” is the name of her older sister, who has gone missing without a trace.  The film is about Pipaluk looking through the Greenland landscapes while reading what is essentially a letter to this sister via voiceover.  Not to be too much of a spoiler but there isn’t a happy ending here for Ivalu, so this is meant to be something of an elegy for this missing person both in terms of the voice over while also having the wide openness of the natural landscapes sort of acting as an expression of just how much a person missing in this place can really be lost.  These landscapes make this one of the more visually stimulating of the five films here but the subject matter probably makes it the darkest of the offerings here.  I’d also say that of the five this one is probably the least comfortable with its running time as it kind of feels like we should have more information about this family and this situation in general but we’re only seeing the “tip of the iceberg” so to speak.

My Grade: B-

Its Oscar Chances: Slim to nil.  The movie is a downer, and not necessarily a downer in a sentimental way.  It also doesn’t really have a filmmaking gimmick at its center or really much of a novelty to its story that will really make it stand out.  The film does have one thing in its corner however and that’s that it’s director, Anders Walter, actually won in this category in 2013 for the short film Helium so maybe he’s got more going for him in the industry than I’m giving him credit for but still I would be very surprised if this walked away with the award.

Night Ride

For our next short we move on to another Nordic country, Norway in this case, for Night Ride.  This short begins with a woman with dwarfism trying to get on a light rail train at nigh only to be told that it won’t be leaving for half an hour and since the driver is going on break she can’t wait on the rain and must stay out in the cold.  Rather than do this she waits until the driver has left, gets on board the (apparently unlocked) train and starts pressing buttons to try to close the door behind her but to her surprise the train starts moving.  Realizing that the driver is about to chase after her she ops to just keep the train rolling rather than try to move it back, and this will lead her on a bit of a wild adventure.  The short starts off rather comedically but in its second half a tense situation rooted in social issues arises that does take this in a bit of a more serious direction before circling back to a certain degree of lightness at the end.  That’s an interesting mix of tones and director Eirik Tveiten’s handling of that is probably the film’s biggest asset.  It’s biggest drawback is probably its handling of the social issue in the twist, which is something I could see people taking in a couple different ways, though I think most would agree that the film’s heart is in the right place with regard to it.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Low.  These kinds of low key quirky “two disparate people meet in the night” shorts are not uncommon in this category but they don’t tend to win.  That combined with the fact that this isn’t in English (which I’ve come to learn is a huge disadvantage here) probably don’t bode very well for this one winning.

Le Pupille

Over in the Animated Short category we have, for the second year in a row, managed to have a year in which none of the nominees were made by Disney or their sibling studio Pixar.  However, the mouse did surprisingly show up in the live action short category this year, and in surprising fashion with this forty minute Italian film from the world famous director Alice Rohrwacher which premiered at Cannes.  The film also boasts a star producer in Alfonso Cuarón of all people, whose nomination here ties him with Kenneth Branagh for having gotten Oscar nominations in the most different categories.  So, what’s Disney doing funding this?  Well, the short is indeed ostensibly light hearted and family friendly, so it’s not completely out of place on Disney+ (where it’s currently streaming) and it is a film about children, specifically little orphan girls living at a boarding school in Northern Italy during World War II where they have to deal with this really overbearing and strict nun who’s overseeing them.  One could imagine a more serious take on the lives of orphans living under a fascist dictatorship, and there probably is some sort of allegory intended between this dictatorial nun and Mussolini, but the short aggressively avoids being heavy handed about this and instead plays out as an A Christmas Story style “funny memoir of youth” kind of way (and yes, the movie actually is set during Christmas).  I’m not sure there’s a particularly deep or specific message behind it all, in fact it basically ends with a “What did we learn here?  Probably nothing” type of line, but it’s a pretty fun ride along the way.

My Grade: A-

Its Oscar Chances: It’s not a total lock but it’s obviously the frontrunner.  Having high profile filmmakers involved in your short certainly doesn’t hurt (just ask Riz Ahmed) but it’s not a guarantee either (just ask Oscar Isaac), and I’m not sure how big of a name Alice Rohrwacher is among voters.  But even without that this has a lot of advantages like the Disney brand, the fact that it’s quite a bit longer than its competitors, and the fact that it’s populated by cute kids.  The only thing really working against this is that it’s not in English, which has proven to a bigger barrier than I would have thought over the years in this category.

The Red Suitcase

Our next film takes us to everyone’s favorite European microstate: Luxembourg.  In fact the entire film is set at the Luxembourg International Airport and follows a sixteen year old girl who arrives there from Iran with a red suitcase.  Shortly after arrival she has an uncomfortable encounter with airport security and you’re not sure what’s going on with her as she’s behaving kind of erratically.  It all becomes a bit more clear once you realize what’s going on: she’s been sent to Europe by a controlling father, who’s made an arrangement for her to marry a much older rich man there, something the girl with the red suitcase has no desire to do.  From there this becomes a suspense driven short film in which the girl tries to evade her “fiancé.”  I’m not really sure how authentic this is as a depiction of arranged marriage and sex trafficking but it has a number of nice touches like how the contents of the suitcase tells a story about this girl and her ambitions, and the movie is willing to end on a bit of a question mark rather than a tidy ending.  I wouldn’t call this the most innovative or formally inventive of short films but it does do an efficient job of telling the story it wants to tell.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Very small. Whatever the film’s merits, it has “also ran” written all over it.  Winning shorts need to have something of a novelty to them which makes them stand out and this doesn’t really have that.  I’ve also found in general that suspense driven shorts are usually at a disadvantage here with similar films like “Mother” and “A Sister” having fallen short in the past.

An Irish Goodbye

As the title would imply, our last short this year brings us to Ireland for the one English language short of the bunch.  This one is something of a dark-ish comedy about two brothers meeting after their mother’s funeral.  One of the brothers has been living in England while the other appears to have some sort of mental disability and it’s unclear who he’s going to live with now that their mother is gone.  These two brothers are not particularly meek people, they fight and bicker with each other as brothers do even though one of them has a mental disability, and generally have that irascible Irish demeanor.  That demeanor between the two of them is where much of the film’s humor comes from, that and a set of gags in its second half where they set out to complete a list of things their mother wanted to do before she died by doing those things with her urn of ashes.  Whatever dark edge the film had because of the grief theme is largely dissipated by the end and it’s ultimately a story about the bonds of familial love and all that bullshit.  I wouldn’t say it’s a short that’s entirely to my tastes but it does do a good job of fitting a lot of storytelling into twenty three minutes.  I think a lot of people are going to like this one.

My Grade: C+

Its Oscar Chances: I’d say this is clearly the dark horse, and a strong one at that.  I cannot understate how much of an advantage being in English is here.  When given an English language option the Oscar voters have gone for it every time since 2013, which is a pretty strong trend.  This is also an appealing short that will likely charm people and it’s setting will likely appeal to people looking for more Irish shenanigans after The Banshees of Inisherin.

Final Thoughts: I would say that this assortment of shorts, with the exception of Le Pupille, are very much in line with what I’ve come to expect from this category year in and year out.  Le Pupille stands out for being the work of a noted stylist who’s done work in live action, which is something that the voters in this branch tend to gate keep out of the nominations for various reasons (just ask Pedro Almodóvar).  I will probably be predicting that film to win as it has too many advantages (including the support of the mouse) to ignore, but on some level I feel like a fool for doing it because there have been one too many times when the voters just reflexively pick the one that’s in English and it’s a trend I think I ignore at my peril, so don’t underestimate An Irish Goodbye.

Home Video Round-Up 1/27/2023

Till (1/21/2023)

I’m going to be honest, at this point I tend to view studio made films about well-known black history events with a certain suspicion.  I’ve seen a lot of them and they often tend to be rather safe and sanitized version of events made more to inspire children than to really probe the events in question.  There are exceptions of course, but for every Selma there are two Marshalls or 42s.  Till a film about the death of Emmett Till and the events that followed it, sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum because on some level it is still definitely a straightforward movie made with mainstream sensibilities in mind on some level, there was definitely some more thought put into it.  The film was directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the director behind the indie film Clemency, who seems to have a knack for making films about women in psychologically taxing situations and for directing internally wounded performances.  She’s cast Danielle Deadwyler in the central role of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett, and it proved to be a pretty smart choice.  Deadwyler is not a particularly famous name and that may well have limited the film’s box office somewhat but she was clearly the right person for the role and managed to really nail the interior anguish required and the film also does a good job of showing Emmet Till while he was alive as well.  The film isn’t quite able to find the perfect structure for its third act, starting out as a kind of courtroom drama that maybe lacks suspence because the audience knows where it’s going and never quite manages to make her activist arc compelling either, but when it needs to work it works quite well.
***1/2 out of Five

Retrograde (1/22/2023)

Retrograde is a documentary about the last years of American occupation in Afghanistan before the pullout and mostly follows one squad of American soldiers there as well as one Afghan general on the ground.  They say that journalism is the first draft of history and this feels like a bit of a “first draft of history” kind of documentary as it’s sort of close to the ground and tends to shy away from making overt statements about the overall pullout.  The characters it follows certainly seem to be against it, but they don’t exactly seem to be impartial observers and the film isn’t exactly laying out any kind of detailed argument for why we should have stayed longer or how the pullout could have been done more effectively.  That said, anyone doing reporting on the ground in a warzone has got to have some guts and there is definitely something to be said for getting an on the ground eye on initial reactions to this situation and there is interest there.  I don’t know, if you just want some raw footage of this whole situation this documentary does offer that but I feel like something as controversial as this needs a bit more of a statement to be made if you’re going to turn it into a movie and I’m not entirely sure this movie knows what it wants to say.
*** out of Five

To Leslie (1/24/2023)

One of the biggest shockers at the Oscar nominations announcement this year was Andrea Riseborough’s “shocking” nomination for the largely unseen film To Leslie, but if you’d been following Oscar prognostication circles in the weeks leading up to nominations you knew it was at least a possibility as she’d earned some pretty high profile supporters in Hollywood who were advocating for her heavily on social media.  I will say, there’s a reason this movie hasn’t been more widely seen, it’s quite boring.  It’s not incompetently made or offensive or anything but it does feel like a Sundance also-ran from 2004 or something.  The movie follows an alcoholic woman whose driven away her grown son and most of the rest of the family with her addict antics and gets sort of a last chance at getting her shit together by getting a job at a motel.  Marc Maronco-stars as her boss at the motel and it otherwise doesn’t do a whole lot that we haven’t seen in other better addiction dramas.  I don’t know that I’d go to bat for Riseborough’s performance either though I do see why it would have its fans.  This is engaging in the ever-popular Oscar bait tactic of taking an attractive movie star and having her “bravely” pretend to be an ugly lower class crone, and she doesn’t exactly do that poorly here but I can definitely think of other female lead performances this year that deserved that spot more including Danielle Deadwyler in Till, which seems like the one that was most likely pushed out.  Anyway, this isn’t some lost gem and I don’t recommend it.
** out of Five

A House Made of Splinters (1/25/2023)

Hot tip, this newly Oscar-nominated documentary is up for free on the BBC iPlayer, so if you have a VPN and are willing to tell some lies about having paid a “license fee” you can watch this there and get ahead on your Oscar viewing.  This is one of two documentaries nominated this year that touch on conflict between Russia and the Ukraine but only obliquely.  It was shot at a short term group home in Eastern Ukraine for children who need to be separated from their parents.  Some of the advertising suggests that they’re separated because of the conflict but that’s not really the case, most of them seem to have been separated for more mundane CPS reasons (abuse, neglect, drug/alcohol abuse, etc) and I’m not sure conditions at the home would be that wildly different if this were filmed at a comparable home anywhere else.  I suppose what makes this one different is that the filmmakers really seem to have been given a lot of access to these kids, in a way that occasionally borders on seeming a touch invasive, but it mostly stays on the right side of that.  The film ends up focusing on a kid named Kolya who’s really been acting out a lot and seems to be heading toward juvenile delinquency and even allows the filmmakers to follow him on some hellraising outside the home.  Ultimately the movie does come together pretty well and paints a picture of this home and it’s most dedicated worker pretty well, though I can’t say it’s doing anything too radical in its style.
***1/2 out of Five

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (1/27/2023)

When A24 released this movie in the early summer I considered going to it largely out of loyalty to that studio but man, that trailer just made it look really twee and annoying.  So I skipped it and patiently waited for it to show up on some sort of streaming service, and waited, and waited, and at some point it became clear that my cheapskatedness would backfire this time and if I wanted to see it I’d have to give in and pay the $5.99 to stream the damn thing.  Well played A24, I guess, and the thing that finally made me break down is that the movie got its anticipated nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the 95th Annual Academy Awards.  I must say I find that nomination curious, firstly because of the film’s quality but even moreso because, well, by my estimation this is not an animated movie at all so much as it’s a live action movie with an animated central character.  I might even go so far as to suggest that Avatar: The Way of Water is closer to being an animated film than this is.  But regardless, is the movie any good?  Well, let’s just say that this is intensely not for me and pretty much everything that I found unappealing about the trailer I also don’t really care for in the movie.  There are some clever moments here and there in the movie and I found some of the moments where its protagonist, a sentient walking and talking seashell, comes up with clever ways to live inside of the movie’s semi-empty house but the movie never quite seems to know how smart this character is supposed to be.  He’s supposed to be clueless enough about things like the internet to need them explained and yet he’s also supposed to be smart enough to make sense of a news magazine show like “60 Minutes” so I don’t really get what this is going for.  My understanding is that this is all based on a series of Youtube shorts and I think that feels like a better medium for this because there are individual sections of this that are clever but sitting with it for ninety minutes was kind of tiring.
** out of Five

January Round-Up 2023 – Part 2


It’s become kind of difficult to keep up with the output of the filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who was seemingly putting out a movie every year before the pandemic slowed things down a bit.  These days he seems to be on a bit of a run making movies outside of his native Japan as his last movie The Truth was made in France with an international cast and for his newest movie he has traveled across the Sea of Japan to work in South Korea, a decision I’m assuming was made because of that country’s history of overseas adoptions and seeming excess of orphaned children.  The movie follows a pair of “brokers” in abandoned children who acquire children who’ve been left in “baby boxes” and try to find domestic adopted parents for them under the table.  They are doing this for profit but also do view this as a calling and that they’re saving these children from being sent to overcrowded orphanages or foreign adopters.  The most recent baby they’ve acquired proves more problematic for them as the baby’s mother re-emerges after having left her child in one of those boxes and finds her way to the brokers, at which point the three of them decide to go on something of a road trip to find adoptive parents for the baby, but unbeknownst to all of them, the police are on to their operation and are surveilling their actions this time around.

If there’s a major complaint to be made about Broker is that it sort of sees Kore-eda treading familiar ground.  The film’s focus on marginalized people forming a chosen family of sorts around a low stakes criminal enterprise is very similar to Kore-eda’s Palme D’or winning Shoplifters and even has structural similarities with that film.  Additionally the film’s focus on questions of what constitutes a family and how important genetic bonds really are is classic Kore-eda almost to the point of repetition.  That having been said, Kore-eda remains a strong dramatist and has once again assembled a pretty interesting cast of characters to build his latest humanist slice of life around.  Song Kang-ho remains a pretty strong actor and other characters like Lee Ji-eun as the mother of the soon to be handed off child are also well rendered and the film comes up with interesting ways to bond all these characters and build drama between them.  The plot does take a bit of a turn for the melodramatic in the third act and the whole subplot with the detectives following them through this whole situation doesn’t quite ring true to me (seems like an odd allocation of resources) but otherwise this is a good if familiar exercise by Kore-eda, who I do hope comes to switch things up a little going forward.
***1/2 out of Five


I’m going to be honest, I did not go into Living planning to be charitable.  This is a remake of the 1952 film Ikiru, from the master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, and as a hardcore Kurosawa stan I really had no interest in seeing his work remade by pretty much anyone.  Of course the obvious rejoinder to that attitude was to remember that A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven were remakes of Kurosawa classics and they are pretty much bona fide classics, which is fair enough but those movies were at least trying to turn samurai movies into westerns which is a kind of translation effort that seemed interesting, but what’s the point of turning a movie about a dying Japanese bureaucrat in the 1950s into a movie about a dying English Bureaucrats in the 1950s?  Honestly I’m still not sure what the answer to that is, but I must admit, Living does a more dignified job of trying than I anticipated.  I actually didn’t know much about this movie before going and I don’t think I even saw a trailer so I was a bit surprised to find that the movie was actually to some extent trying to replicate the look and feel of a 1950s technicolor film; it’s in the Academy ratio and largely uses classical film style and has old fashioned opening credits, though the film’s dedication to this style kind of dissipates as it goes on.  The film’s screenplay was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel winning Japanese-English novelist responsible for such works as The Remains of the Day and someone who is perhaps uniquely suited to translating the face-saving ways of Japan into the “stiff upper lip” ways of England.  Bill Nighy does a decent job of stepping into Takashi Shimura’s shoes in the film’s lead and the supporting cast does some solid work as well.  So, I ended up respecting this movie for the most part but at the end of the day it is standing on the shoulders of a giant and by the time it started replicating that scene on the swings (you know the one) the sheer impossibility of matching what came before became pretty apparent.
***1/2 out of Five

The Quiet Girl(1/29/2023)

The only movie from this year’s Best International Feature category I hadn’t seen before nomination announcement day was this one, a film from Ireland that’s in the Irish language.  I think this is the first time I’ve seen an Irish language film, I don’t know how much of a market there is for them, and there’s not necessarily anything intrinsically Irish about this story.  The film concerns a young girl of about nine who lives in a rather chaotic home who is sent to live for a summer with her middle aged cousins she doesn’t know very well in order to free up time for her parents while they are expecting a new baby.  While at this new home she experiences a different and perhaps new lifestyle that may prove to be difficult to leave behind once the summer ends.  This movie is, nice.  I’m not sure I’m going to say it’s much more than that though.  The girl in it isn’t the only quiet part of it, the whole movie is kind of low key and understated, a real toned down slice of life and it does go for a pretty emotional catharsis at the end if that’s what you’re looking for.  Personally, I was perhaps less moved than a lot of audiences and apparently a lot of Academy voters were, though possibly through no fault of its own.  The movie beat out a lot of competition in that Best International Feature shortlist that I would say are bigger accomplishments and that is perhaps giving me a bit of an unfair bias against the film.  It’s also entirely possible that this might have hit me a bit differently on a different day an under different circumstances but as it was I mostly only thought it was okay.
*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/6/2023

Clerks III (1/1/2023)

To date my favorite Kevin Smith films, by far, are Clerks and Clerks 2 and I may actually like the sequel better.  So I mostly greeted the idea of a Clerks 3 made in 2022 with dread because Kevin Smith is not half the director he used to be and this had all the makings of just tarnishing the franchises legacy.  I’ll give the movie this: it more than likely is the best thing that Kevin Smith has made in over a decade.  Granted I never actually saw a lot what he’s watched in the last ten years so that’s probably an uninformed opinion but he does at least seem to be trying to take his work seriously here rather than making some self-indulgent stoner movie like he’s been making lately.  He has seemed to put at least some thought into where these characters would be at this stage in their lives and shows some reflection about the legacy of those earlier films and has incorporated, albeit awkwardly, some of his own thoughts of mortality in the wake of the director’s real life heart attack.  However I would say that this is kind of making an ending for this franchise that I just didn’t really want.  Clerks II already basically gave us a happy ending of sorts that this movie needed to undo at the beginning in ways that annoyed me and it really wasn’t in service of a movie that was good enough to be worth doing that.  It’s plotline, about Randall making a low budget movie about working at the Quick Stop (essentially the first movie), does not make a lick of sense given that these characters are basically making a young man’s movie in their 50s.  But the bigger problem with the movie is just that it isn’t very funny, or at least not as funny as I was hoping for.  There are a couple of decent scenes sprinkled through the movie here and there and I want to give Smith some credit for trying but the movie ultimately just doesn’t justify itself.
**1/2 out of Five

Three Minutes: A Lengthening (1/2/2023)

The experimental documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening begins by showing three minutes of home video footage that was shot in the small Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938, not too long after the Jewish population captured on the film would be rounded up and killed by the Nazis after the invasion of the country.  The three minutes themselves are fairly uneventful; they were shot by Polish Americans who were visiting “the old country” and the footage basically consists of a crowd of people gathering around and waving at the camera, which would have been an unusual device to see in this setting.  And from there we don’t see any other footage, the whole rest of the film consists of images from this home movie (which was found in a box in someone’s closet) as it’s restored, slowed down, zoomed in on, and just generally gone over like the Zapruder film for clues as to when this was taken and what this lost community was like.  So that’s where the title comes from, they lengthen the three minutes of footage to something like an hour and ten minutes through analysis.  We get voiceover over all of this through “witnesses” like the guy who found the footage among his grandfather’s things and some of the historians involved in analyzing it and we also get a more omniscient narration read by Helena Bonham Carter to fill in some narrative holes.  Ultimately there isn’t exactly that much factual information that can really be learned from the footage itself but the film makes a decent argument that studying it still mattered as it acted as something of a final memorial of these people who would soon be murdered even if we don’t have their names and are just left with these tantalizing faces.
***1/2 out of Five

Athena (1/3/2023)

Athena is a French film that showed up on Netflix without a lot of fanfare in the lead-up but which certainly got a lot of attention upon its release for its visual ambition if nothing else.  The film was directed by Romain Gavras, son of the great Costa-Gavras, who has made a couple of features in the past but who is probably better known for making some pretty striking music videos for people like M.I.A., Jay-Z, and Kanye West.  This feels like a pretty clear extension of the visual style he established previously, though as a matter of substance I can’t help but mostly view it in terms of the career of the film’s co-writer Ladj Ly, the director of the Cannes sensation and Oscar nominated police thriller Les Misérables.  Ly seems like a promising voice, but there’s also something kind of nagging me at the back of my head that he might kind of just be the French David Ayer: a guy who makes violent and genre infused movies about “the streets” while trying to pass them off as authentic.  This movie envisions a scenario in which a (presumably?) innocent Algerian immigrant has been shot by a Parisian police officer and this leads not to peaceful protests or even rioting, but something closer to organized and deadly domestic terrorism on the part of a gang of sorts who open the film by raiding a police station and then barricade themselves in a banlieue called Athena.  I can say that if I were a serious criminal justice reform activist I would not want this movie to represent me, and to be fair I don’t think Gavras or Ly would argue that this is meant to be more of a grim hypothetical of an extreme situation than it is a reflection of exactly where society is currently, but that also maybe feels like an excuse to justify some rather loopy script machinations.  Despite that, I don’t want to overlook the fact that visually the film has a lot going for it and I think it’s worth a look for that alone if nothing else and whatever misgivings I have about the script there is some interesting audacity there.
***1/2 out of Five

In Her Hands (1/4/2023)

In Her Hands is one of a handful of documentaries this year looking at the last days of American involvement in Afghanistan.  This one looks at that conflict through a woman named Zarifa Ghafari, who is the mayor of an Afghan town called Maidan Shahr, which is unusual for that country both because she’s a woman and also because at 26 years old she’s a very young woman.  That’s an intriguing subject but I’m not sure the movie ever really explored it with a lot of depth.  We get basically nothing about the day to day life of Ghafari as a mayor and know next to nothing about her political philosophy or policy initiatives and while I think we’re supposed to take as a given that she’s good at her job the film just generally doesn’t seem to see much of a need to actually establish this.  Instead the focus is almost entirely on the danger she’s in from local extremists and also her eventual escape from the country as the Taliban took over again.  Those are certainly important aspects of her life but the extent to which this movie makes them dominant elements perhaps do the film’s subject a disservice and I must say the film’s structure, in which it basically counts down the months to the U.S. withdrawal, also does her arc a bit of a disservice as it pretty much signals to the audience early on that whatever efforts she’s taking are doomed and that she had might as well just get out of the country as soon as she can.  That sort of makes the documentary feel a bit futile and I kind of wish they had started filming Ghafari earlier on in her career when it still felt like there was some hope.
**1/2 out of Five

The Silent Twins (1/6/2023)

The Silent Twins was a movie that was kind of hard to market when it came out earlier this year; it’s sort of a Polish movie but it’s set in the UK and is in English and it’s hard to just describe the plot without kind of making it sound odd.  In short it tells the true story about a pair of black British identical twins named Jennifer and June Gibbons, who went to school during the 70s and 80s and seemed to have some sort of odd psychological issues that I’m not sure science ever figured out.  The two were both capable of speech and spoke to each other frequently when they were alone with each other but refused to speak to their parents or teachers and as they reached their teen years they began acting out in erratic ways which ultimately landed them in a mental institution for over a decade, being treated by doctors who basically had no idea how to deal with them.  Along the way they did a bunch of writing and art projects which have come to be viewed as interesting outsider art and this film Agnieszka Smoczyńska (director of the Polish mermaid horror musical The Lure) incorporates some of this art into the film but it’s otherwise more of a biographical account.  There were certainly a number of systemic errors that were made along the way in this story but the movie doesn’t necessarily seem to be out to point fingers at society, nor is it really trying to “explain” what went on with these two, whose behavior is about as baffling to the audience as it is to the people around them.  In some ways that’s an asset, as seeking easy answers would have been kind of cheap, but a bit more of a drive towards some sort of goal might have made the film work a bit better.  It’s an interesting watch but it lacks a certain something I couldn’t quite place my finger on.
***1/2 out of Five