The Nightingale(8/17/2019)

In 2014 the most buzzed about horror movie, for that matter one of the most buzzed about movies period, was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.  That movie didn’t really have much of a presence at the box office (the title probably didn’t help) but it’s become a pretty substantial cult hit and remains one of the decades more critically acclaimed horror films.  Personally, I wasn’t quite as bullish about the movie as some people, but I think I’ve come around on it a little.  When it came out we were kind of drowning in movies about people being haunted by nebulous ghosts and the movie resembled that formula a little too much for me to fully embrace it at the time.  Looking back though I think I was maybe being a bit too picky; the movie managed to do a whole lot with a little and its psychological subtext was probably difficult to pull off and the film’s ability to communicate it well was impressive.  Removed from the hype I see that it’s quite the accomplishment.  But even when I was a Babadook skeptic I was excited to see what Jennifer Kent would do next and now that her second film, The Nightingale, has been released I was excited to go even though I’d heard it was a pretty different kind of movie.

The Nightingale is not really a horror movie and is instead more of a historical revenge movie.  The film is set in Australia, and specifically on the island of Tasmania in 1825 when the country was still very much a prison colony and in the midst of what is still known today as the “Black War” between British colonist and the Aboriginal population.  The focus is on an Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who was sent to Australia for petty crimes and is married to another convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby) but still very much a prisoner under the control of a British officer named Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who uses her as a “nightingale” who sings to the troops to build morale.  Unfortunately Hawkins’ possessiveness over Clare extends far past any reason and this obsession results in a night of extreme violence which leaves Clare’s husband and child dead and her both physically and sexually assaulted and left for dead.  When she wakes up she learns that Hawkins left the next day to go on a trek across the Tasmanian wilderness in order to fight for a promotion he fears he’ll lose for semi-unrelated reasons.  As such Clare decides the only thing to do is to hire (under false pretenses) an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find him and his cronies in order to exact revenge.

The Nightingale is a very different movie from The Babadook and fans of one are not necessarily going to be fans of the other.  The Nightingale is not really a horror movie so much as it’s a really dark historical revenge movie.  I’m not one to give out “trigger warnings” but I’m pretty sure that one would be appropriate for this one given that it contains multiple rape scenes, depictions of genocide, and some graphic violence.  The rape-revenge movie is of course something of a dubious genre often rooted in exploitation but this film tends to shy away from genre tropes and leans more on being a character study rooted in its setting.  It’s certainly not the first movie to depict 19th Century Australia as a sort of Oceanic old west untamed frontier (John Hillcoat’s The Proposition comes to mind, but I can only assume that there are other examples) and it certainly isn’t the first movie to explore the violent oppression of the aboriginals but it certainly does make that conflict a vivid and apocalyptic background for what is an oddly exciting adventure through the wilderness.

Kent shoots the film in the academy ratio and recreates the period effectively throughout.  This isn’t really an “action” movie per se but she does shoot the scenes of violence with panache.  Aisling Franciosi does a good job of rendering Clare’s anguish and she and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr have very strong chemistry as the film’s central protagonists as representatives of the underclass being victimized by British imperialism.  Sam Claflin is also strong as the film’s villain though I must say that if the film has a weakness it’s that Hawkins as a character is evil to the point of ridiculousness.  I’m certainly not naïve to the depths of awfulness that the British colonists were capable of and get that he and his cronies are sort of meant to be a stand-ins for all of that but this guy really seems to go out of his way to be evil above and beyond his own self-interest and by the time they had him casually gunning down a small child for petty reasons I was almost laughing at how thickly they were laying it on.  I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the ending, which seemed like it was going in one of two ways but ended up sort of going in both of them at once in a way that didn’t entirely work.  Overall though this is a pretty strong piece of filmmaking and a worthy if unexpected follow-up to The Babadook.  I’m not sure what Jennifer Kent is planning to do next with her career but she has my attention all the more after this.

**** out of Five

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood(7/26/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

For about as long as I’ve been watching Quentin Tarantino’s career there’s been the specter of its eventual end.  Tarantino announced a while back that he was planning to quit filmmaking after he’d completed ten films, thus locking in a filmography for fear that he’d lose skill with age and have that taint his legacy.  He’s likened it to a boxer knowing he only has so many fights in him.  On some level this seems unnecessarily defeatist, after all Tarantino’s idol Martin Scorsese seems to be more than capable of making exciting and relevant films well into his 70s, but I do kind of see where that instinct comes from.  There have definitely been filmmakers like John Carpenter who seem great but then suddenly become incapable of making good movies once they hit a certain age.  More commonly though directors find themselves in a position where they make their last great movie, then they make four or five mediocrities, and then they end their career without fanfare.  I can see why Tarantino would want to avoid that, but there’s always been a degree of skepticism about this whole scheme.  Tarantino is plainly deeply in love with filmmaking to the point where it’s hard to see him willingly giving it up, so everyone just kind of assumed that plan would go the way of the Vega Brothers spinoff.  But now with the release of his ninth movie (his marketers have been making sure you’re counting) he’s really close to that end goal and if that ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is any indication Tarantino appears to be dead serious about his retirement plans and has been thinking about aging out of relevance someday very carefully.

The film is set in Hollywood during the year 1969.  Our focus is on a pair of fictional characters: a down on his luck star of B-movies and TV westerns named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Booth is a veteran stuntman but there’s been something of a pall over his career because it’s believed (perhaps rightly) that he murdered his wife and got away with it.  In many ways he’s been working as an assistant and driver for Dalton, but Dalton’s career isn’t terribly healthy either.  Dalton became famous as the star of a TV show called “Bounty Law” and he’s made a few grindhouse movies but at this point he’s mostly doing guest appearances as villains on other people’s shows and an agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) is trying to convince him to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim with Sergio Corbucci.  All the while Dalton is kind of unknowingly in the line of historical fire as he resides in a house on Cielo Drive right across the street from the home of Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), which everyone knows would become the sight of the Manson Family’s most infamous murders in the August of that year.

When auteurs on Tarantino’s level make movies you don’t generally go into them like you would a general release.  Like, when I turn on a movie I haven’t seen by Fellini or Ozu or someone like that the last thing that’s on my mind is whether it’s “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense so much as I’m looking to see how they address their usual themes or advancing their aesthetic.  Eventually you have to determine if it’s a major or minor work but unless they’ve really dropped the ball the question of whether the film is even worth seeing is king of beside the point.  So let’s get the mundane consumer advice out of the way upfront.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie, duh.  It’s got a pair of fine performances at its center, some very funny moments along the way, it’s interest in 20th Century pop culture and iconography is impressive, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.  That said, while I am the last person to complain about the runtime of Quentin Tarantino movies even I would have to admit that those criticisms might have a tiny bit of validity this time and that certain parts of the movie worked better than others.  Within Tarantino’s recent oeuvre it lacks the energy and entertainment value of Django Unchained and the visual mastery of The Hateful Eight and certainly isn’t the radical reinvention that Inglourious Basterds was.  Were I to rank his films it would probably be nearer to the bottom than the top, but whatever, the dude’s hardly ever made a movie that was even a little bit bad and being low ranked among his films is like being towards the bottom of a ranking of moon landings.  So, thumbs up, four and a half stars, if you’re trying to decide between seeing this and seeing The Lion King, Stuber, Hobbs and Shaw, or whatever other market-tested product Hollywood is putting out by the time you’re reading this, see this.

Again, Spoilers going forward, last warning.

With that out of the way, let’s look a little deeper into what this movie might be saying and how it fits into Tarantino’s career and into the filmmaking landscape.  This is technically the first movie that Tarantino has made that was released by a major studio, or at least made by a major studio without going through a specialty division.  He made the movie for Columbia/Sony after there were… issues… with the people he’s worked with most of his career.  When it became known that he was shopping this project elsewhere there was actually something of a bidding war to see who he’d begin working with which kind of surprised me given that, well, he doesn’t make movies about superheroes.  He makes R-rated independently spirited original movies that are driven by dialogue and esoteric references rather than CGI effects.  He does have a good sized fan base and he’s certainly proven to have some commercial instincts to reach audiences beyond that, but at the end of the day he still doesn’t exactly embody what Hollywood normally values that strongly these days.  Hell, even back in the 90s he was something of a renegade voice who needed to come through the indie backdoor in order to find a place in “the industry.”  And that’s the thing about Tarantino’s whole retirement plan: had he announced it recently rather than over a decade ago one could easily imagine that it was a reaction to a belief that he and his style of filmmaking were being pushed out by Hollywood, and that anxiety almost certainly fuels Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the past Tarantino has rather snarkily said his whole retirement plan was in place because he didn’t want to find himself making “old man” movies, which is ironic because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is absolutely an “old man movie.”  It’s loaded to the brim with references to obscure nostalgic ephemera that no one under fifty is going to recognize (it makes “Mad Men” look downright lazy in its period detail), it completely ignores the filmmaking trends of its time, and most importantly it’s quite literally about old (well, Hollywood “old”) men not knowing how to react to “the kids” these days.  The selection of 1969 as a year for Tarantino to set a movie about overtly about movies in is certainly not a coincidence.  Anyone who knows film history knows that the late 60s was a tumultuous time for Hollywood where a new generation was rejecting the style of filmmaking that had been working since the Golden Age and new mediums like color television were increasingly acting as competition for the cinema and clearly Rick Dalton sees himself as a potential casualty of this transition.  It also definitely isn’t a coincidence that Dalton’s genre of choice is the western because that is also genre which even at its height was all about generational change and hardened pioneers being replaced by the “civilized” world they helped to usher in (the movie rather pointedly has a character saying he wants to connect 1969 with 1869).

That said, one shouldn’t view Dalton as a complete stand-in for Tarantino himself and the film should not be mistaken as a work that’s entirely on his side.  For one thing, Dalton does not appear to have ever been as accomplished as an actor as Tarantino is as a filmmaker.  He appears to have been something of a second rate talent and we’re given ever reason to believe his self destructive tendencies have as much to do with his professional shortcomings as changing tastes.  A very uncharitable reading of him is that he’s exactly the kind of mediocre white man that is going to be the first one to be threatened by more tolerant hiring practices.  More successful actors like the real Steve McQueen (who Dalton is established as a second rate non-union replacement for) are shown to fit in fairly well with the new generation and other members of the younger generation like Sharon Tate and the eight year old girl that Dalton has a breakdown in front of seem to be worthy replacements for the likes of Dalton.  So in many ways it feels like the work of someone coming to terms with his own irrelevance in a changing world in which two flawed heroes from a dying world are set up to, like in the westerns of yore, go on one last great hurrah before leaving the world to the next generation… and then the Manson family shows up and everything goes crazy.

If the pricklier aspects of Dalton and Booth are meant to represent why this change may be necessary, the Mansons are meant to represent everything that’s shitty about the next generation.  The real Manson Family was of course a perverse funhouse mirror reflection of the hippie flower power movement; they were people who discarded all the values of a the previous generation and rather than replacing them with new and better values they replaced them with Charles Manson’s insane bullshit and became monsters without honor or humanity.  Given their propensity to spout hollow slogans of radical consciousness they barely seem to understand one could maybe see them as a stand-in for the kind of woke twitter trolls who may be inclined to “cancel” Quentin Tarantino, especially given a speech delivered by Susan Atkins right before the murders where she accuses screen violence for the Vietnam war.  However, I think the bigger statement Tarantino is trying to make about Manson has less to do with modern political discourse and more to do with the effect that the Manson murders are said to have had on the American psyche.

The cultural narrative has long been that the Manson murders shocked the nation in such a way that it kind of killed off the very notion of flower power and ushered in the end of the sixties.  That way of viewing things is, of course, kind of ridiculous.  Cultural evolution does not happen that cleanly, but when the legend becomes fact print the legend.  So when Dalton and Booth inadvertently re-route history so that Manson’s minions are the ones massacred that day rather than Tate and her friends they are, for all intents and purposes, fighting the future and keeping the groovy sixties going on past the expiration date in our history books.  On a more personal level this ending can also be viewed as a moment where the old dogs like Tarantino rage against the dying of the light, use their old world toughness to protect the innocent, and not only fight back against the people who would replace them but incinerate the motherfuckers with a damn flamethrower.  So in many ways this ending would seem to be in contradiction with the resignation with the future and obsolescence we saw earlier in the film and which Tarantino seems to be advocating in the real world… but does it?

This is of course not the first time that Tarantino has dared to re-write history with one of his films.  In Inglourious Basterds he killed Hitler and burned the Nazi regime to the ground and in Django Unchained he had a black man fight back against the slave holding south and blow up a plantation and metaphorically the debased society that built it.  In both cases these are meant to be richly deserved cathartic retributions against debased philosophies which would usher in more enlightened ages more rapidly than in the real world.  Here we’re certainly supposed to be happy that Sharron Tate has been saved but otherwise the revisionist history at play this time around seems to be something of a different beast.  For one thing, Charles Manson is no Adolf Hitler and his idiot goons are no Hans Landa.  We actually don’t see a lot of Manson himself in the movie and while we can intuit that the events of the film’s finale would eventually lead police to Spahn Ranch and result in his arrest Tarantino does not seem to view him as an adversary worthy adversary whose philosophy needs to be cathartically dismantled.  Rather, a lot of what happens in that ending kind of feels like overkill.

The trait that initially changes the trajectory of the killers is not enlightened heroism but rather an old drunk asshole basically profiling what could have easily been a group of innocent young people under different circumstances and all but telling them to “get off his lawn.”  And the way the Family acolytes are dispatched, while likely justifiable homicides is about as ugly and brutal as the actual killings from history despite being directed at people who ostensibly “have it coming” and the consciously absurd bit with the flamethrower borders on the psychotic.  That the two then react to killing these “damn hippies” with such casualness also stands out, as does Dalton’s general disinterest in the well-being of his new wife.  Are we supposed to feel happy about all this?  I’m not so sure that we are.  Just consider the music cue that’s playing when he walks away from the bloodbath to meet with the recently saved Sharron Tate.  Rather than some triumphant pop song it’s a sparse cue from the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean which almost sounds like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.  And rather than taking a Victory Lap like Django or asserting something to be a masterpiece like Aldo Raine, he just walks out of frame while the camera lingers on the empty driveway.

There’s something ominous about it all and I think that’s Tarantino signaling his own ambivalence about what he’s just done as a re-writer of history.  Viewed as a confrontation between actors and Manson family members this is all a relatively straightforward battle between good and evil but viewed as a confrontation between generations it’s uneasy.  These two jackasses might be in able to claim the moral high ground in relation to the Manson Family but they maybe aren’t in a position to claim superiority over the future they don’t even know they’ve wiped out just because Tarantino loves to live in the past and that’s the big difference here: Django Unchained and Ingourious Basterds were movies where historical revision ushered in a new world but here revisionism is meant to maintain the status quo and Tarantino seems to realize that there’s something kind of problematic about this.  He knows he’s being small “c” conservative and I don’t think he likes that feeling and I think the film is in many ways an expression of that.

Am I reading too much into this?  I don’t know, maybe.  This is actually the second straight Tarantino movie I’ve come out of with a fairly elaborate theory I’ve had to try to back up and while I do stand by my belief that The Hateful Eight is a complex allegory about political division I’m not sure that every granular piece of evidence for this which I found in my first viewing exactly holds.  I’m also not sure I get how every piece here fits together either.  Like, I totally see how Rick Dalton fits in with my little theory but I’m not entirely sure how Cliff Booth does or what Sharon Tate’s exact role is in it all and there are other parts of the movie that I don’t have the same sort of bold reading of.  It’s in many ways a movie of ideas and iconography moreso than a work of storytelling and that makes it feel kind of weird and misshapen and I’m not sure how a lot of people are going to react to that.  However, I think this is going to be looked back at as one of the important keystones of Tarantino’s career and I think his true fans are going to be able to pick up what he’s putting down, and if he does go forward with his plans to retire after his next movie I’ll certainly miss his work but after seeing this I think I finally understand.

****1/2 out of Five

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2018(2/10/2019)

During the last two years I found myself forming something of a new end of year tradition for myself by going to see the Oscar nominated live action shorts.  Unlike the documentary shorts (which are very easy to track down online and on Netflix) and the animated shorts (which are usually very short), the live action shorts seem to me to be the ones that really benefit from going to the package that gets put into theaters by a company called ShortsTV.  These theatrical presentations have become increasingly popular over the years but could be in danger given that the short categories are probably going to be on the chopping block in the near future in the Academy’s unending quest to shorten its telecast at the expense of its integrity.  That said, if they keep nominating classes of shorts like the ones this year that could hurt this little tradition as well.  Personally, I’d say this is actually the best roster of live action shorts they’ve nominated in the three years I’ve been paying attention (with one notable exception) but they are decidedly not going to be for all tastes.  All five of these nominees is rather dark and some are downright grim.  Child endangerment is something of a running theme and audiences sensitive to such material may not find this to be a very fun evening at the cinema.

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.

 

Mother (Madre)

The first short of the package is probably the most conventionally entertaining of the five insomuch as its disturbing content fits well within the confines of the mainstream thriller genre and would not be overly noteworthy were it not in this company.  The film, a Spanish production directed by a guy named Rodrigo Sorogoyen, begins with a woman in her late twenties and her mother walking into an apartment.  You instantly assume that the mother is the mother of the title, but you start to reconsider that when you learn that the younger woman is herself a mother of a small child and the action really kicks off when we learn that this child has somehow found himself alone on a beach in France with his father (who he was vacationing with) having disappeared.  The mother frantically tries to get as much information as she can from the child before his battery runs out and there’s a real kinetic charge to watching this mother panicking and doing her best to solve the situation.  The film is also done largely in a single shot as it follows the two women around this apartment and incorporates some interesting surround sound elements as well, making it one of the most technically accomplished of the five.  It’s big weakness however is that it ends abruptly with no real resolution to the conflict at its center.  When watching it I had a hunch that this was meant to be a proof of concept and perhaps opening scene to a longer movie along the lines of The Vanishing or something and sure enough this director is currently working on a feature length adaptation.  I’d be interested to see that version, but the way this shorter version ends just kind of makes you feel like you were tricked into watching a (very well made) trailer.

B-

Its Oscar Chances: Low. Some people might want to recognize it simply for being the most professionally made, but that ending is going to be pretty off-putting in general and for better or worse this just doesn’t feel like the film out of the five that will elicit strong reactions one way or the other.

 

Fauve

The next short is the first of two French Canadian live action shorts and both one of the best of the shorts here and one of the most disturbing, which is kind of saying something.  The film concerns two children of about ten or twelve who are playing outside in the outskirts of a town and are playing a strange game amongst themselves involving various dares and “made you looks.”  The two become increasingly oblivious to how dangerous this behavior can be as they wander into a cement mine and continue to play there.  Unpleasantness ensues.  That description probably makes the film sound rather trite but the film is really good at building tension and the sense of dread it creates is definitely intentional.  Director Jérémy Comte clearly has both a command of his craft as well as a sort of perverse view of humanity that I’d like to see expanded on and he adds a little note at the end which I suspect some will hate but which I think does make the film go full circle in a dark but oddly satisfying way.

A-

Its Oscar Chances: In another year I would be a bit more optimistic about this one but a lot of people are going to come out of this bunch of films really sick of seeing children placed in danger and given that this movie does that most clearly they may take that frustration out on it.

 

Marguerite

The third film in this presentation is another French Canadian film and is the only film of the bunch which doesn’t involve children or bad things happening to them.  It’s not exactly a “happy” movie but in this bunch it feels like an oasis in a desert of misery.  It involves interactions between a PCA and an elderly woman who lives alone in a house.  At a certain point the old woman learns that the PCA is a lesbian married to a woman, which brings back memories of her own past being in love with a woman herself but having never been able to act on this because of “the times.”  Ultimately there’s not a whole lot to the film, it’s certainly less eventful than the other four, but it’s reasonably well acted and constructed and I think director Marianne Farley would be well suited to making dramas on a larger canvas.

C

Its Oscar Chances: This is sort of the opposite of Fauve in that I think it kind of benefits from the company it’s in.  In normal years I would say it didn’t have a chance because it lacks anything to really make it stand out and stick in the memory, but this year it’s a total apple in a basket of oranges and could well be something of a protest vote in opposition to what the other films put their audiences through.

 

Detainment

The fourth and most controversial of the shorts is Detainment an Irish production set in England which takes another look at the Jamie Bulger murder, which if you’re not familiar with was a case that occurred in Liverpool during the early 90 where two small children kidnapped and murdered a toddler for reasons that appear generally psychotic.  The film is largely a reenactment of the interrogation of these two children intercut with reenactments of the moments leading up to the murder.  The film is just tasteful enough to not show the actual killing but it is certainly discussed in graphic detail.  I will say that the acting in the film, especially amongst the two child actors, is very strong and I suspect that is a big part of why the film received the nomination.  However, everything else about this thing seems completely misguided.  The family of the real Jamie Bulger have come out against the film, which was not made with their permission.  Personally I don’t feel that the making of any movie based on fact should need the blessing of an estate in order to be made, but if you’re going to do that you should at least have an important movie to show for it and this isn’t it.  In many ways it falls into the same trap as Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit in that it recreates a really extreme act of human cruelty while ultimately finding nothing to really say about it except to stare into the abyss, and that movie at least had the excuse of bringing attention to a lesser known moment in history, which is certainly not the case with the Bulger murder which is one of the most discussed cases in all of true crime.

D

Its Oscar Chances: None

 

Skin

The final film in the package is Skin, an American film from an Israeli director which focuses on a family of white supremacists who are covered in hateful tattoos, listen to obscene music, and have no qualms about using grotesque slurs.  They’re white supremacists of the worst kind, but they do seem to love their son and at least treat him well.  The film does come close to the making the American History X mistake of making a critique of white supremacy which nonetheless gives more screen time to the white supremacists than to the ultimate message, but this problem is somewhat mitigated by the twenty minute format and by the fact that the characters rarely really articulate where they’re coming to these hateful views.  Eventually the film builds to a vicious hate crime and then it transforms into a slightly more fanciful revenge scenario where the skin heads “get theirs” in an implausible but interesting way.  The film works best if looked at as a sort of modern day fable, but I’m not sure that its conclusions are overly profound.

C+

Its Oscar Chances: Not bad, in fact I’m kind of reluctantly going to predict it simply because its finale stands out as one of the more creative moments in any of the films and because the film at least leaves the audience with some feeling that evil has been defeated by the end, which a lot of the other films lack.

 

Final Thoughts

With the 2018 live action shorts we are faced with the limits of programing a block of short films simply through all the options being nominated for an award rather than through a more strategic selection.  I’m going to assume it’s just a coincidence that most of the nominees this year are as dark as they are because I doubt any voters necessarily wanted it to turn out this way.  I feel like almost all of these shorts would have been better served as the most serious film in an otherwise neutral festival block than played one after the other pretty much inviting comparison between them all.

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.

Neruda(1/28/2017)

1-28-2017Neruda

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.

Nocturnal Animals(12/11/2016)

12-11-2016NocturnalAnimals

It’s not terribly common but there is something of a history of people becoming film directors after rising to prominence in other fields.  The most famous example would probably be the circle of film critics who would pick up cameras themselves and begin the French New Wave, but there are other examples as well like when Jean Cocteau transitioned from his literary achievement into filmmaking achievements or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s transition from the world of literature and public intellectualism to the world of cinema.  This sort of thing isn’t unheard of today either what with people like Julien Schnabel being able to transition from painting to filmmaking or (on the more lowbrow side of the spectrum) Rob Zombie being able to be both an active rock star and a fairly prolific film director.  However, one of the strangest of all the transitions into filmmaking was that of Tom Ford, who went from being a fashion designer famous enough to warrant having an entire Jay-Z song named after him to being a pretty successful film director when he made the 2009 film A Single Man.  That movie, about a gay man in the 1960s mourning the death of his lover, is not really a movie that’s been at the forefront of my mind since seeing it but I do remember being fairly impressed by it when I first saw it.  Ford’s sophomore effort was seemingly delayed as he focused on his day job, but after about seven years he has returned with a thriller of sorts called Nocturnal Animals.

The film focuses in on a woman named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who owns an art gallery and lives a life of cosmopolitan glamour and is married to a stable and attractive man named Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer).  Things are looking up for her until she received a package containing a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals” (a former nickname he had for her) and dedicated to her as well.  Intrigued she begins reading the novel, which is dramatized at length onscreen as she reads it.  This story within a story focuses on a man named Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is turned upside down when a group of rednecks led by a guy named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) runs him off the road and kidnaps his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) and leave him stranded in the West Texas desert to die.  This novel disturbs Susan to her core and starts to distract her from her day to day life and leaves her to reflect on where she went wrong in her first marriage and where she is today.

Nocturnal Animals certainly has a unique structure, the way it intercuts dramatizations of the novel with the “real” story actually reminded me a little of the “Tales of the Black Freighter” sections of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” both in terms of format and content.  In fact, the “fake” story might actually take up more screen time than the “real” story; at the very least it has more of a conventional beginning middle and end.  This “fake” narrative also has what is easily the highlight of the movie, a very tense scene in which the novel’s protagonist encounters a band of hillbillies and has a road rage incident escalate into violence in a way that really brings the viewer in on the protagonist’s general impotence in the face of this looming threat against his family.  That material is very effective, but from there this novel within a film starts to get more than a little hokey.  The revenge sections of this narrative are rather clichéd and filled with elements like generally unmotivated villains and police investigations that are rather ridiculous.  To some extent the film can be excused for some off moments here by the fact that it’s reflecting a narrative written by a fictional author of questionable talent ala the sections of the movie Adaptation that were supposedly penned by Donald Kaufman, but at a certain point the film is still spending a lot of time presenting this stuff.

What’s more, it seems a little odd that the Susan character would get this worked up about a book that kind of sucks.  Early in the movie I had assumed that the narrative being presented by the novel would much more closely mirror some pain in Susan and Edward’s past, but as the flashback narrative progresses it becomes clear that the split between the two of them was a lot more mundane and in some ways underwhelming than what the movie initially teased.  Clearly there are supposed to be parallels between the two stories as Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both but the wife and daughter characters are not played by either Amy Adams or the young woman who plays Susan’s daughter in one scene and no one else has a dual role either.  I suppose there are other parallels between the novel and the flashbacks in the vaguest of plot parallels what with both being about a meek man wronged, but if there are any other connections they kind of seem to be in Susan’s mind moreso than on the page and the similarities certainly don’t seem like they’re strong enough to cause her to lose sleep and start seeing creepy things in her day to day life.  If anything this novel mostly just makes its author seem kind of pathetic: a dude who after something like twenty years still hasn’t gotten over being dumped and is still engaging in vaguely stalkerish writing projects rather than moving on with his life.

I got some sense that the movie was trying to make some sort of statement about the “two Americas” that we saw emerge over the course of the recent election: that of urban sophistication and that or rural simplicity with neither depictions seeming true so much as proactively exaggerated.  In the “real” story we get a glimpse of Susan’s life in Los Angeles which is almost cartoonishly vapid and filled with people dressed in ridiculously garish clothing and people backstabbing each other right and left and all this is driven home by Susan’s mother who seems to view class with about as much nuance as Marie Antoinette.  On the other hand we see the rural world of the novel which is filled with random violence and resentment.  It is also almost certainly not a coincidence that the “real” story depicts a world that is largely female dominated while the story of the novel is highly masculine and filled with bravado, resentment, and metaphorical dick measuring contests.  There’s no way that this tension is accidental and yet the movie never really goes anywhere with any of this so much as it drops these observations and moves on without coming to any conclusions.

So, looking at the movie I’m not really sure what it wants to be exactly.  Its format seems to suggest it wants to be this unique and sort of meta-exploration of its character’s psychology but it also wants to be a satire about American class struggles and it also wants to be a kind of trashy revenge thriller and I’m not sure the movie really works on any of those levels.  Its strange structure and abrupt ending will probably baffle anyone expecting this to be work as a sort of beach-read style mystery but I also don’t really think the ideas are there for it to work as anything deeper.  Ultimately the movie is kind of a mess, but not a completely unsatisfying one.  Amy Adams is pretty good in the movie even if she seems a bit young for the role she’s playing and the film’s basic craft elements also function pretty well.  It certainly gave me a lot to dig through even though I ultimately didn’t really like what I found upon further reflection, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours watching a movie.

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