Onward(3/10/2020)

What to make of the post-Toy Story 3 Pixar?  This animation studio was considered to be something of a pinnacle of studio filmmaking during the 2000s when they put out movies like Ratatouille and Wall-E the critics used to routinely insist that they deserved Best Picture Oscar nominations but in the following decade they’ve been viewed as something more akin to the MCU: a cog in the Disney machine putting out product that isn’t to be respected too much even when it’s pretty good.  The main thing that’s often blamed on this decline is their increased interest in putting out sequels to their earlier films, and indeed, six of the ten movies they put out during that period were sequels of varying degrees of quality.  But critics haven’t been terribly jazzed about most of the original movies they put out either.  Brave was probably the first of several Pixar movies this decade that was met with a sort of respectful but not overly impressed response despite probably being better than most of what their competitors were putting out.  Coco was better received, but it still wasn’t like it was in the old days, and The Good Dinosaur was pretty much dismissed outright.  Inside Out was the exception, people did view that one as something of a classic but even then there was a bit of a ceiling.  But are these movies really so much worse than the other movies?  I would argue they aren’t, rather I feel like the hype levels are closer to what they should have been all along, but there is something a little odd about the way Pixar seems to get held to a higher standard than most other Hollywood animation studios and the mild reception that their new original film Onward is emblematic of this.

The world of Onward is based on a question I’ve long contemplated: what will it be like when the a high fantasy world of the kind in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones discovers gunpowder, steam engines, and electricity and ends up being something more akin to the modern world but still filled with elves and dragons and the like.  It’s an idea that was explored (by all accounts poorly) in the David Ayer film Bright but here we get a better realized version of such a place.  The film is set in an unnamed country that used to be filled with knights and mages but the idea of “magic” was abandoned during a sort of industrial revolution and the place now looks like a modern American suburbia but populated entirely by various mythological creatures like centaurs, ogres, and pixies and with buildings that kind of reflect the world’s cultural origins.   Our focus is on Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a nightelf who has just turned sixteen and has the normal teenage problems of trying to fit in at school and being anxious about learning to drive.  On the morning of his birthday his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) informs Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) that their long dead father had left the two of them a gift to be opened when both of them are sixteen.  This gift is a mage staff, which greatly excites Barley as he is an avid player of a historically based role playing game (essentially Dungeons and Dragons) and is a big believer in magic, much to everyone else’s disdain.  The staff has apparently been set up to bring the father back to life for twenty four hours, but something goes wrong when they try to use it and all that’s brought back are the father’s legs, which walk around aimlessly.  To complete the spell they’re going to have to find another rare crystal, and finding that will require them to go on a quest that will test their bond.

Early on it seemed like the main theme of Onward was going to be tradition versus technology and that “magic” would act as a sort of stand-in for any number of debates that go around about new ways of doing things: film vs. digital, physical media vs. streaming, or perhaps most pertinently computer animation vs. hand drawn.  There is enough there to kind of make that work as a through line.  Barley’s fanatical devotion to the ways of old is certainly shown to have its limits but there are legitimately some things magic can do which “the new ways” can’t and it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Maybe a few too many things.  Given everything they’re able to do on this journey with rudimentary wizardly it does somewhat beggar belief that this society would abandon it entirely and it might have made sense to show a few more of the downsides of the magic arts.  But really this becomes something of a secondary theme as the film goes on as it ultimately becomes a lot more interested in the relationship between the two brothers and their feelings about having lost a father at a very young age, which I think is a bit of a mistake as that whole relationship is not quite as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.

Despite that I still found the sheer world-building here to be really charming.  Like I said before, this idea of fantasy worlds getting modern technology has been on my mind for a while and it was really fun seeing that very notion get fleshed out in a movie like this.  Like, the movie has a character who’s a straight-up manticore, but she runs a family restaurant for a living and uses her past exploits as a theme for it.  I certainly find that amusing, and there’s a lot of stuff like that in the movie, to the point where I’d probably welcome a sequel to this just to explore the place even more.  There was also fun to be had with the basic adventure that the characters go on here.  I do normally frown at the way Pixar seems to turn almost all of their movies into adventure narratives, but given the motif here it does fit.  That’s not to say every part of the narrative is completely novel and interesting as there are passages that feel more bland than others, but I mostly had fun with it and it really seems weird to me that the movie has not really seemed to catch on with critics and audiences.  It hasn’t been the best marketed film and its title is not the best, but this reception generally seems to be indicative of the double standard that Pixar gets held to at times.

***1/2 out of Five

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts – 2019(2/1/2020)

For the fourth year straight I decided to go to the ShortsTV theatrical presentation of the Oscar Nominated live action shorts and while I was non-commital in the past I think it’s safe to say that this is going to be an annual tradition at this point.  Whereas four of the five documentary short nominees are available online and three of the five animated shorts are available, you usually do need to go to theaters to see any of the live action shorts and they’re usually the only ones I do this for.  This year is a little different, firstly because the shortened Oscar season means that these things are only going to be in theaters for about a week before the Academy Awards ceremony.  Additionally we’re coming off of a live action shorts slate from last year which, for whatever reason, was oddly grim and largely featured short films that involved child endangerment.  It isn’t all sunshine and roses with this year’s crop either but for the most part this is kind of a return to normal for the category with a field of nominees that are not unlike what you’d expect in a given year.

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.

 

A Sister (Une soeur)

Last year’s short program opened with a Spanish short called “Mother,” which was essentially a short thiller built around a tense phone call where someone on one end of the call is in grave danger.  I was instantly reminded of that short when I saw this year’s opener, the Belgian short “A Sister,” which plays out from the perspective of a 911 operator who gets a call from a woman who talks like she’s calling to coordinate childcare with her sister.  Quickly the operator realizes that this caller is actually being kidnapped and is trying to make this call in such a way that her captor doesn’t realize who she’s really calling.  So there’s a pretty clear conceit here and the film’s director, Delphine Girard, does a pretty good job of cutting between the operator and what’s going on in the car while keeping the tension up.  That said, the sheer length of this call does start to push credulity and it also eventually reaches a bit of an anti-climax as it isn’t quite able to as one last twist to the situation.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Nil.  Of the five films this is the one I’d be most surprised to see win on Sunday.  It’s not so much that there’s anything inherently “bad” or off-putting about the movie but compared to some of the weighty places that the other films go to this might feel a bit simplistic.  It’s too grim to be a crowd pleaser but too slight to really get major respect from the voters.

 

Brotherhood

“Brotherhood” is the first of two shorts this year to be set in Tunisia of all places and to my mind it’s probably the stronger of the two.  The film looks at a family living in a fairly remote area who find themselves upended when their eldest son returns to them after having run off to join ISIS with a burka wearing wife in tow.  The mother is happy to see him and wants to welcome him as a prodigal son and to put his actions in the past but the father is gruff and suspicious.  This is probably the most interesting aspect of the film: under any other circumstances this father would seem to be a sort of archetypal closed-minded male grump, but given that he’s having this reaction to a literal terrorist here he would seem to be the one who’s in the right.  The film certainly finds an interesting world to immerse itself in and these characters who are befreckled ginger Muslims just straight-up  interesting to look at.  I was not, however, thrilled with the decision to film this in the Academy ratio, which looks kind of bad on modern film screens and just generally is becoming a bit of an annoying stylistic trend in world cinema.  I also wasn’t completely sold on the film’s ending, which seemed to turn things around a little too quickly and maybe raised a few questions about how a certain character was choosing to present himself earlier in the film.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: Kind of hard to tell.  I am seeing it predicted on some of the major betting markets and prediction aggregates, but there’s kind of an infamous trend of live action shorts having their odds over-calculated when their titles come early in the alphabet. If the voters want to be very substanative in their choice this is probably the one they’ll go with.

 

The Neighbors’ Window

Marshall Curry is not a well-known name but he’s someone who has actually earned four Oscar nominations over the course of his career, all in unconventional categories.  His first nomination was for the documentary feature Street Fight, which followed Corey Booker’s first mayoral campaign long before he became a national figure, and he was also nominated for the documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.  Curry was also nominated just last year for the documentary short “A Night at the Garden” and now he’s nominated for a scripted live action short called “The Neighbors’ Window.”  This is the only English language and only American set short and it begins as this rather comedic take on the “Rear Window” idea of watching people from out your window as it follows a pair of yuppies in a high rise apartment who notice that the young couple across the way have a habit of leaving their blinds wide open, making it so that our central couple can easily see everything they do and mostly what they do is screw.  So this plainly starts out feeling like a sort of indie comedy but it does take a turn for the more serious as it goes as the young couple starts to go through some more serious issues.  I don’t know that the ending this leads to is terribly profound, but there’s only so much meaning you really expect from a twenty minute short like this.

My Grade: B+

Its Oscar Chances: This one is kind of tough to call.  This is plainly the most accessible of the shorts here and the one that Academy members are most likely to relate to.  This could be a double edged sword though because sitting next to these other four shorts this could come off as a little “first world problems.”

 

Saria

The fourth film here is “Saria,” which is technically being listed as an American film but is entirely in Spanish and is set in Guatemala.  The film was directed by a guy named Bryan Buckley, who is probably best known for directing a movie called The Bronze, which sold for a very high dollar amount at Sundance and then bombed spectacularly in theaters.  This short is probably the most stylish of the five films here and I’m going to guess had the highest budget out of all of them.  This is based on the true story of events that happened at an orphanage in Guatemala and focuses primarily on two teenage girls who are thinking about ways to escape from the facility and organize a sort of decoy riot that will allow them to do that.  Spoilers.  They almost get away but are then recaptured… and then they all die in a fire.  That last little bit is clearly meant to be a sucker punch at the end to make you angry about these young lives being cut short, but I found this rather manipulative, in part because the rest of the film isn’t exactly building to a message about fire safety and in some ways it just feels kind of disconnected from the institutional conditions that were highlighted earlier.  It might have more impact for people who were aware of the situation that was being covered and knew what was coming, but I can’t really speak to that.

My Grade: C-

Its Oscar Chances: This one is a bit of a wildcard as I’m not sure how the average Academy member is going to react to that ending.  Some might find it touching and will also respond to the craft and style employed elsewhere in the film, others might find it manipulative like I did.  It’s also unclear how much of a known name Bryan Buckley is in Hollywood and whether that will have any influence on the vote.

 

Nefta Football Club

Much as the opening film this year had a certain kinship with last year’s opener, the closer had at least one key thing in common with last year’s closer “Skin,” namely that both films have big sight gags at the end that they’re kind of building toward.  That’s pretty much where the similarities end though given that “Skin” was a highly questionable parable about race in America and “Nefta Football Club” is… not that.  This is actually the second of these shorts to be set in Tunisia and is a largely comedic short about two kids who stumble upon a donkey wearing headphones and come to learn that this donkey is part of a drug smuggling scheme and the kids get into the middle of it, but in a way that ultimately has comedic results.

My Grade: B

Its Oscar Chances: This is probably the one I’d put my money on if I was a betting man simply because it’s probably the most audience pleasing, which is usually a safe metric to assume the Academy will use.  That said its lightness and brevity could be more of a handicap than I’m assuming.

 

Final Thoughts

There really isn’t a whole lot to say about this roster of shorts besides “they’re fine.”  Last year’s shorts were a lot darker and more variable in quality, but they were nothing if not memorable, and I wouldn’t say the same about this year’s roster.  “Nefta Football Club” and “The Neighbors’ Window” are almost certainly the frontrunners for the award and the other three are varying degrees of interesting and well made.  I wouldn’t say any of these are really high art though and I have to imagine there’s better short-form cinema out there than what got assembled by the Academy this year.

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

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.