Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, February 23, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Big Sick (2017)

I miss “@midnight” way more than I ever thought I would. You wouldn't think a Comedy Central game show hosted by an obnoxiously upbeat Chris Hardwicke, about slumming stand-up comics making fun of internet memes, would be worth much. Yet the series was surprisingly consistent comfort food for me. Moreover, it introduced me to a number of stand-up comics I probably wouldn't have heard of otherwise. Such as Kumail Nanjiani. While Nanjiani was never my favorite performer on that show but he's clearly on his way up. “The Big Sick” was partially based on Nanjiani's own life, especially his relationship with wife Emily V. Gordon and her struggle with illness. The film would become a surprise hit, the highest grossing independent film of 2017. It's ridden a tide of hype that has now gone all the way to the Oscars.

Nanjiani stars as himself. As a child, his devoutly Muslim family immigrated from Pakistan to America, settling in Chicago. As an adult, Kumail struggles with his heritage. He's an atheist but lies to his parents, saying he still prayers. He puts up with his mother's awkward attempts to pair him with a good Pakistani girl. He tells mom and dad he's studying to become a lawyer when he's actually pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. One night he meets Emily, a vivacious (and white) woman he quickly falls for. He refuses to tell his parents about the relationship, leading to the two eventually breaking up. That's when Emily falls into a strange illness, being put into a medically induced coma while fighting an infection. Kumail stays by her side during this, eventually forming a bond with Emily's eccentric parents.

“The Big Sick” was primarily sold as a romance. This is, weirdly, one of the weakest aspects of the film. Nanjiani is playing himself and does fine when dealing with the film's comedic aspects, or when playing against his family. However, his limitations as a dramatic actor show when forced to deal with Emily's illness. An on-stage breakdown comes off as mawkish. Zoe Kazan, a wonderful actress, plays Emily. She also spends most of the movie in a coma, limiting Kazan's opportunities to show her ability. Moreover, the circumstances over which the two break up is totally bogus. Instead of explaining the situation to her, the two argue and escalate in that kind of contrived, false conflict that is common to romantic-comedies. Emily's initial refusal to accept Kumail's affections, following her awakening from her coma, just makes her look like a bitch. This prevents the emotional conclusion from being totally convincing.

A problem with “The Big Sick” is that it tries to do too many things. It's a film about Kumail, Emily, and the illness that nearly comes between them. It's about Kumail trying to prove himself in the world of stand-up comedy. It's also about Nanjiani struggling with his family and his cultural identity. (This last point is most evident in a subplot about Kumail writing a one-man play about his life, which digresses greatly into the history of Pakistan.) Kumail's relationship with his family provides probably the film's most stereotypical segments. It's a typical story of a son bristling against tradition and the path his parents set out for him. Now, there's some funny moments here. The terribly failed dates, with increasingly goofy women, provide some laughs. Especially in a scene where the parents discover the girl can speak Urdu. However, Kumail's parents and brother never rise above being broad caricatures.

This is in contrast to Emily's parents, who are easily the highlight of the film. Holly Hunter plays Beth, Emily's mom. Beth is a fiery, powerful person. She's initially deeply skeptical of Kumail. However, after he wins her over, she becomes fiercely protective of him. When a heckler in a club attacks Nanjiani because of his race, Beth violently leaps to his defense. Hunter is hilarious and heartfelt. But that's expected, because Holly Hunter is always fantastic. What's surprising is Ray Romano as Terry, Beth's dad. Romano brings a funny nervous energy to the part, a man who is seemingly always in an awkward situation. In time, Terry reveals himself as a earnest, self-effacing man. Romano is excellent, showing unexpected depth as an actor while maintaining the likable comedic vigor that made him a star.

The most minor focus of “The Big Sick” is on Nanjiani's life in the world of stand-up comedy. This allows for many small roles from Kumail's real life friends and contemporaries, essentially playing themselves. Kurt Braunohler is very funny as Kumail's stoner room mate, frequently stymied by what's happening around him. Bo Burnham shows up as the hackiest, and most successful, of Kumail's comedy friends. Aidy Bryant also appears, getting a few stray laughs to herself. “The Big Sick” focuses briefly on the behind-the-scenes turmoil of the stand-up scene though the goal everyone is gunning for – to impress a random talent scout – seems a little too easy.

“The Big Sick” is a likable movie. Despite grappling with some heavy issues, the mood remains light. Perhaps this is because we know Kumail and the real life Emily are currently married, removing a degree of tension from the story. The film is too ambitious, trying to squeeze too much story into an already lengthy two-hour run time. The romance is not as effective as the script needs it to be. Yet it's funny enough to keep the viewer watching, especially when Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are on-screen. I honestly would've preferred to have seen Hunter or Romano get nominated over the screenwriters but I guess that's just me. [7/10]

Thursday, February 22, 2018

OSCARS 2017: The Florida Project (2017)

It happens pretty much every year. When it comes to the Oscars, there are always snubs. More often than not, it's some indie darling that slips through the cracks. 2018 brought us probably the strongest – maybe even the woke-est – slate of nominees we've seen in years. Even then, stuff was overlooked. Like “The Florida Project!” A tiny independent production from director Sean Baker, who received raves for his debut, “Tangerine,” the movie scooped up some critical praises and topped critics' top ten lists. Despite that, the only Oscar nomination the movie picked up was a Best Supporting Actor nod for Willem Dafoe.  So now here comes my time to judge these things.

Moonee is six. Her mom, Hailey, is tattooed and unemployed. They live together at the Magic Castle, a motel in Kissimmee, Florida. Moonee is friends with the other kids who live there, from similarly down-on-their-luck families. As the long summer stretches on, Moonee and the others try and find ways to pass the time. Hailey, meanwhile, struggles to pay her rent on time. The motel manager, Billy, is understanding but even he has his limits. Soon, circumstances threaten to separate mother and daughter.

In the common pop culture nomenclature, Florida occupies a divided world. The state has, in recent years, become the national punchline. It seems the Sunshine State is associated with bath salts, meth, alligators, and all manner of crazy, trashy people getting into the weirdest fucking shenanigans. At the same time, Florida is also the home of Walt Disney World, of vacation communities and beach front property. “The Florida Project” occupies this world of contrast. The characters sum up many of the stereotypes of Floridians. They're vulgar, tattooed, lacking in class and really poor. Inane jingles and infomercials are always playing on the TV in the messy, bedbug infested motel rooms. Though Disney is never mentioned by name, the garish decorations around the motel – a shop shaped like a wizard, a smoothie stand shaped like an orange, the bright pink color of the Magic Castle – bring the Magic Kingdom to mind. This contrast, between the low class of the hotel residents and the excess of Disney World, is built into the movie's DNA.

“The Florida Project” is also about kids trying to find ways to kill time while living in a swampy slum. Moonee and her friends have to get creative. In the opening scene, they hock loogies onto a neighbor's car. They explore abandoned houses, with equally obnoxious paint jobs, in the overgrown grassy areas. They wander around a mossy field, gawking at the grazing cows. Odd friendships bloom in this environment. The film sets out to match that childish energy, of period of frantic activity and long afternoons of sitting around and not doing anything. At first, this is a little grating. “The Florida Project” begins with kids running around, yelling, screaming, and spitting. Baker frequently shoots his scenes with a shaky, handheld approach. Eventually, the viewer gets on “The Florida Project's” wavelength and starts to dig this approach.

The element of “The Florida Project” that worked the best for me detail the way people below the poverty line survive. Hailey essentially pulls petty cons in order to obtain rent money. She buys discount perfume and hocks it in parking lots at a mark-up. The kids frequently grab free food from a friend's job at a dinner. At one point, mother and daughter walk into a high-class resort hotel and start eating off the complimentary breakfast buffet. Hailey has taught this craftiness to her daughter, who guilt-trips people into buying her ice cream or junk food. Eventually, Hailey has to prostitute herself in order to make end's meet, hiding her daughter in the bathroom while she's with her clients. These scenarios are grim but practical, realistically depicting the state of these things.

Willem Dafoe's nomination is well deserved, by the way. Dafoe plays Billy, the motel manager. The part cast the veteran character actor as a crotchety guy with a tough exterior and a big soft heart. Derivative as that sounds, Dafoe brings him to life beautifully. He puts up with a lot from his tenants, their eccentricities and lack of funds. Though he busts their balls, he still cares. The kids especially. He lets them play hide-and-seek in his office and, in the one of the film's best scenes, protects them from a middle-age creeper. As great as Dafoe is, little Brooklyn Prince as Moonee is the break-out performance of “The Florida Project.” The young girl seems entirely natural yet clearly has an understanding of her character, in great moments where she talks directly into the camera while eating breakfast. Bria Vinaite is also impressive as Hailey, striking the audience as an entirely genuine person that doesn't have much tact but still cares deeply for her kid. (This was Vinaite's first movie. Her second role will be in Harmony Korine's next movie, which sounds about right.)

I liked “The Florida Project,” didn't love it. It's probably because I've lived in areas like the ones depicted in this movie. I've known people like this. I've seen the good and the bad of a life like this. As with previous Oscar-nominated indie darling, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Florida Project” has attracted minor controversy for appearing to make poverty look like this whimsical thing. It's not an entirely unfair criticism, of either movie.  (Though more-so “Beasts” than this one.) The film does come dangerously close to making its setting and characters look a freak show. However, a wonderful series of performance and some grounding touches keeps that from detracting too much. Yeah, this movie is pretty good. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Breadwinner (2017)

God bless GKIDS. Over the last few years, the distributor have brought interesting, fascinating animated films from all over the world to American audiences. Surprisingly, the company's output has consistently impressed Academy voters. Since 2012, indie, off-beat animated films from the company have regularly grabbed Best Animated Feature nominees. If I'm being cynical, I'd say that GKIDS has become the easy choice for “indie” animation, so the category still seems legitimate to hardcore cartoon people. Whatever the reason, I'm glad GKIDS getting attention for movies that might otherwise be ignored. This year, “The Breadwinner” fills that peg. The latest from Cartoon Saloon, the Irish studio behind the also nominated “Song of the Sea” and “Secret of the Kells,” the film takes a look at a more contemporary setting.

The story focuses on a family living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Father Nurullah lost a leg in a previous conflict. His wife, Fattema, their oldest daughter Soraya, and their infant son Zaki stay at home. His youngest daughter, Parvana, accompanies him into town everyday to help him sell his goods. Parvana is now old enough to attract attention from men. While defending his daughter, Nurullah is attacked. Later, he's dragged off to prison for possessing educational books. With no other option, Fattema cuts Parvana's hair and dresses her like a boy. Going out into town to work, Parvana discovers new freedoms and challenges.

“The Breadwinner” is animated in a cute, cartoony style but don't mistake it for a typical kids' movie. The film is surprisingly grim. Nurullah is beaten with his own cane. Fattema is attacked by a Taliban member, left beaten and bruised. After assuming her new masculine identity, Parvana witnesses a young women being attacked. The actual violence is frequently kept just off-screen but the focus on sound design and what the witnesses feel make these moments no less intense. Through this lens, “The Breadwinner” emerges as a critique of masculine violence. Women are a constant target of violence and further oppressed by the Taliban's institutionalized sexism. Parvana's world is opened up when she starts dressing like a boy but is still threatened by violent men.

Yet “The Breadwinner” is not just a grim and downbeat story of life during wartime. There's sometimes a humor to the film. After she begins dressing like a boy, Parvana meets Shauzia, another girl who is living the same deception. The two quickly form a friendship, laughing and joking around. (One could even read deeper into Parvana and Shauzia's friendship, considering the two are already violating gender norms.) The audience likes the outspoken, brave Parvana enough that just seeing her finally freed from the subjugation makes you smile. “The Breadwinner” also has its touching moments. A man, who previously encountered Parvana before she started disguising herself, asks the educated girl to read a letter for him. A letter about a relative of his dying suddenly. The man later helps Parvana out, showing that kindness and compassion can extend pass prejudice and religious extremism.

There's another layer to “The Breadwinner's” narrative. Nurullah hasn't just taught his daughter to read. He's also educated her on the history of the area, how Afghanistan has been conquered by one force or another for centuries. At the same time, he's also passed stories and legends onto her. Pavaran has carried this habit for storytelling. Throughout the film, she tells her little brother a story about a boy on a quest to defeat an elephant god. This subplot also makes “The Breadwinner” a story about story telling. The story-within-the-film mirrors Pavaran's own quest, to a degree. Moreover, it shows how stories can help us through our struggles and allow us to uncover our own strengths.

“The Breadwinner” doesn't catch all the balls it throws up into the air. The ending is a bit sudden, the story being wrapped up in a sudden, not-entirely-satisfying ways. Yet the movie remains a touching, surprisingly bracing film. The animated is lovely, the character designs are crisp and the storytelling sequences have a charming, stylized look to them. I'm glad that the film garnered an Oscar nomination, as it surely is one of the best animated films of the previous year. [8/10]

Monday, February 19, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Disaster Artist (2017)

I came late to the cult phenomenon known as “The Room.” Even though I had heard the jokes and memes, it still proved to be a baffling, fascinating experience. Every new viewing of “The Room” reveals another bizarre detail that wasn't noticed before. Some call it the worst movie ever but, if a film's greatness is measured by its rewatchability, “The Room” may actually be one of the best. So I had to read the behind-the-scenes book, “The Disaster Artist,” written by Tommy Wiseau's reluctant co-conspirator Greg Sestero. It was, no joke, the best book I read last year. I was uncertain of James Franco adaption, due to Franco's uneven work, but “The Disaster Artist” beat the odds. As the film picked up more nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a crazy idea emerged. Tommy Wiseau made “The Room” with hopes of it winning an Academy Award. And now, in a roundabout way, that dream is shockingly close to coming true.

Greg Sestero, a part-time model and struggling actor, meets Tommy Wiseau, an eccentric older man with an accent of undetermined origin, in an acting class. The shy Greg immediately takes a liking to Tommy, who is as fearless as he is lacking in talent. The two soon move out to L.A. To pursue their dream of becoming stars. Greg gets an agent and a little work but Tommy lands no jobs. Rejected and fed up with this world, Tommy decides he'll make his own movie. The script for “The Room” – a story of passion and betrayal – soon takes shape. Wiseau somehow locates the funds to make the movie independently and convinces Greg to co-star in the film. Greg will soon find his friendship with Tommy tested, as production on “The Room” proves difficult, mostly thanks to Tommy's incompetence.

While “The Room,” at least as Wiseau envisioned it, was a mighty melodrama about love and treachery, “The Disaster Artist” has much more modest goals. This is a story of friendship and dreams. As insane as Tommy appears, he encourages Greg to get out of his shell. There's never a dull moment with Tommy. The two bond over their mutual dreams of stardom and love of James Dean. Both are misfits with far-out dreams that seem impossible. While Greg is satisfied to go through established channels, Tommy – partially because he's a weirdo dismissed by everyone – has to think outside the box. There's few cinematic dreamers more far-out than Tommy Wiseau and he goes out of his way to achieve it. In an odd way, he does succeed in his goal of making something people love and respond too. And that friendship wouldn't have been possible without Greg's support.

Of course, being Tommy's friend is not exactly easy. “The Disaster Artist” does not mince words  when it comes to Wiseau being a total asshole. The fearlessness and eccentricity that makes Tommy weirdly charming also makes him hugely difficult to work with. He constantly forgets his own lines, wastes resources in odd ways, and is totally unable to smoothly run a film set. Moreover, he's willing to abuse his actors. Either by locking them up in a sweltering studio or, in the case of “The Room's” infamous sex scenes, getting a little too close with his actress. The point of Sestero's “The Disaster Artist” was that Greg decided to be Tommy's friend in spite of him being a huge asshole and a massive weirdo. Despite all that, there is something undeniably compelling about Wiseau, power mad maniac though he may be.

The prospect of “The Disaster Artist” being turned into a typical James Franco/Seth Rogen stoner comedy concerned me. Odd as it might be to say this, I didn't want the story's strange and utterly sincere heart to be overlooked. Luckily, the cast is actually one of the best parts of “The Disaster Artist.” Franco does not perfectly nail Wiseau's implacable accent but does an admirable job. Moreover, he plays the infamous auteur as both exaggerated lunatic and a fully formed human being, who is motivated by his pain and his wild hopes. Dave Franco, meanwhile, is surprisingly great as Greg. His fresh-faced enthusiasm soon gives way to a weariness that works perfectly, playing off of Tommy's constant misplaced confidence. The cast is peppered with prominent names. Such as Alison Brie as Greg's long-suffering girlfriend or Rogan as Sandy, the put-upon script supervisor/quasi assistant director on the film. While they're all good, with Rogan being especially funny, the Francos and the brotherly chemistry they have are clearly the beating heart of this film.

As an adaptation, “The Disaster Artist” treats its source material in somewhat broad strokes. Smaller elements of the book, such as Tommy's jealousy over Greg's girlfriend and how that informed “The Room,” become major parts of the movie. Meanwhile, a lot of insane details are clipped. The film definitely could have mined the actual filming of “The Room” for more bizarre laughs. Franco also flat-out invents some encounters. Such as a chance meeting with a pre-”Breaking Bad” Bryan Cranston leading Greg to getting a bit part on “Malcolm in the Middle.” Or Tommy attempting to impress Judd Apatow in a restaurant. Some of these elements threaten to make “The Disaster Artist” into one long in-joke. Such as prominent cameos for Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith. Or the comparisons between the actual “Room” scenes and Franco's recreations that play over the end credits. Yet Franco's decisions are mostly sure-footed. Such as taking the story slightly past the literary “Disaster Artist's” conclusion, showing Tommy's reaction to ”The Room” become a masterpiece of unintentional comedy.

Honestly, “The Disaster Artist” still feels like an elaborate in-joke. Franco frequently apes “The Room's” look, with awkward green screen shots and sloppy handheld camera pans. I'm surprised the film connected with critics and audiences, even those that were unfamiliar with “The Room,” the way that it did. While I would recommend the book over the movie, Franco's “The Disaster Artist” is still a hilarious and surprisingly touching story. It humanizes Tommy Wiseau while providing some insight into the insane decisions, both personal and incomprehensible, that lead to the movie's creation. While nothing can quite top Wiseau's aesthetically questionable anti-masterpiece, “The Disaster Artist” is an entertaining companion piece in its own right. [7/10]

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

History, sadly, has a tendency to repeat itself. Last year at the Academy Awards, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi – whose film, “The Salesman,” ultimately won the Best Foreign Language Film prize – was not able to attend the ceremony due to President Trump's travel ban. A year later, something very similar is playing out in another category. Feras Fayyad and the rest of the team behind “Last Men in Aleppo,” one of the Best Documentary nominees, will not be able to attend the ceremony due to another one of the President's executive orders, restricting and banning travel from a more-or-less random selection of countries. This is neither the time nor the place to get into why this sucks but I'll just say that it's a shame that the filmmakers behind this motion picture will not be able to attend the ceremony celebrating their extraordinary film.

Since 2011, Syria has been torn apart by civil war. The simplest version is: Civilian opposition to tyrannical president Bashar al-Assad has led to in-fighting among the Syrians. Air raids and bombings by the Syrian government and its allies, primarily Russia, frequently occur on cities deemed as centers for the opposition. “Last Men in Aleppo” focuses on the White Helmets, a citizen-run search-and-rescue organization. The film focuses on three men – family man Khaled Omar Harrah and brothers Subhi and Mahmoud Alhussen – as they put their own lives in danger every day to rescue people, pulling them out of the wreckage of their own homes.

Feras Fayyad and his team put their cameras down on the ground, in the war zone. This approach lends “Last Me in Aleppo” an immediate feeling. The cameras capture life as it happens. We see White Helmet workers unwind between rescue missions. They play soccer, eat, and sing songs. A lot of time is focused on Khaled spending time with his kids, playing and talking with them. (One especially effective moment shows him sitting in a pitch black room, listening to a cellphone message from his daughters.) He also loved his pet fish, so the film spends some time showing how he procure and cared for his pets. Scenes like this provide context to Khaled and the other's acts of heroism. These are ordinary men, not larger than life figures.

This direct approach to its subject also lends “Last Men in Aleppo” a startling immediacy. One moment shows the Alhussen brothers approaching a burning car, only for an explosion to occur immediately afterwards. We see the camera men, also putting their lives in danger, try and flee to safety with the others. The directors do not turn their cameras away from the hard realities of this story. There are multiple scenes of people, children especially, being pulled from the pulverized wreckage of their own homes. “Last Men in Aleppo” shows several victories, of people being rescued alive. But this is not as common as the sad truth. The White Helmets often have to clean up body parts and remains. Families are broken, illustrated in a scene where a mourning father weeps and curses Bashar. Homes are destroyed, shown in a moment where a drone-mounted camera hovers around the completely wrecked buildings.

“Last Men in Aleppo” does not focus on the political side of the Syrian conflict. (And it pointedly does not acknowledge the rumors manufactured by Russian propaganda that the White Helmets are associated with terrorist organizations.) However, the people interviewed in the doc do sometimes raise an important question: Why do people choose to live in a war zone? Many of the White Helmets, such as the  do it out a sense of duty to their families and countrymen. Some seem like they just want to help people. Khaled Harrah, like many of the White Helmets, ultimately gave his life to this mission. The film concludes with sudden, stark footage of his funeral, followed by statistics on the on-going violence in Syria.

Movies like “Last Men in Aleppo” are not easy to watch. It puts the audience right in the middle of a bloody, intense conflict. It shows the aftermath of that violence without flinching much. Stark reminders like this are needed. Yet tales of heroes, like Khaled Harrah and his fellow White Helmets, are also sorely needed. It's fitting that some of the most touching moments in “Last Men in Aleppo” show us the man in his everyday life, as a human being that was loved by his friends and family. It's a difficult but deeply affecting motion picture. [8/10]

OSCARS 2018: Strong Island (2017)

For a while, it seemed like the Academy was resistant to the idea of films being distributed via digital streaming. If the Netflix logo being greeted with jeers at film festivals is any indication, certain portions of the film community is still resistant to it. However, digital releases have made some serious in-roads with the Academy this year. “Mudbound” scored some high nominations. The documentary category, meanwhile, is dominated by digital distribution. Three of the nominees in this category were released primarily through digital platforms. “Strong Island,” for example, was also a Netflix release. As time goes on, I suspect we'll see more and more nominees released in this manner.

“Strong Island” is from black transgender documentary filmmaker Yance Ford. In 1992, Yance's brother, William, was murdered. Following a brief confrontation at an auto shop, William was shot and killed by a 19 year old white man, Mark Reily. Reily claimed self-defense and was completely dismissed of all wrongdoing by an all-white jury. In the years since, the Ford family has been torn apart by grief at William's death and the injustice of his murderer escaping punishment. “Strong Island” concerns the family's attempt to find some sort of peace over this.

“Strong Island” is, more than anything else, a portrait of a family. The film spends a lot of time with the family before even discussing the facts of William's murder. We hear from his siblings, mother, and friends about his life. Yance discusses driving around with him, receiving encouragement from him. Lauren Ford talks about reading comic books with her brother or seeing movies with him. His friends recall fond memories of playing football or driving around, trying to find women. “Strong Island” gives you a strong idea of this family, the connections and love they had, before introducing you to the senseless tragedy that happened.

And that tragedy did not occur in a vacuum. One of the earliest scenes in the film has Yance's mother, Barbara, discussing an anecdote from her youth. How her father died of an asthma attack because he was forced to wait in the colored waiting room at the hospital. Ford devotes time to explaining the racial breakdown of her neighbor, how it was essentially a segregated black community inside a predominantly white island. About how her parents both had to work hard, long jobs in order to give their children a future. It's absurd to think the color of the attacker and victim's skin had nothing to do with how things played out. It's an injustice that continues, as many involved with the court case, even two decades later, refused to talk to Ford for the film.

While racial prejudice and the role it played in her brother's murder is clearly a big competent of “Strong Island,” grief seems to be the primary theme of the film. The film's visual presentation confronts the audience head-on with this. Ford frequently talks directly into the camera. The film is full of shots of the family home, devoid of people, seeming stark and empty. Another reoccurring visual of the film are family photos, laid out simply in view of the audience. Upon hearing about the flimsy reasons why Mark Reily's self-defense claim was believed, Yance breaks down, weeping long and hard. We see the emotional toll William's death took on the entire family, how it contributed to his father having a stroke or Barbara's mounting health problems. William's death created trauma that may never heal.

“Strong Island” is a highly personal film, obviously. It's successful in making the audience feel the loss the entire Ford family went through, their pain, anger and frustration at a justice system that failed them. Ford's directional sense is strong, creating a film that communicates its themes visually as well as through its interviews. It's not an easy watch but a necessary one, drawing attention to a problems in this country as well as painting a portrait of a family torn apart by a loss. [7/10]

Saturday, February 17, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Loving Vincent (2017)

Few artist have inspired as much speculation as Vincent van Gogh. His vision and innovation, his mental illness and eccentricity, his violent death, his lack of success in life and postmortem recognition as a genius: It's pretty much the perfect romantic ideal of the struggling, misunderstood artist. Fittingly, van Gogh's life has been dramatized many times over the years, in film and song. The most recent example is “Loving Vincent.” This take happens to be animated. The film has drawn much attention for being animated by painting. Each frame was hand painted, in an attempt to replicate the swirling color of van Gogh's painting. This technique has earned the movie much critical success and now an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature of the year.

“Loving Vincent” is set one year after van Gogh's death by self-inflicted gunshot. Armand Roulin, the son of a postmaster, is given the mission of delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo van Gogh, who has also since passed away. Roulin travels to the Parisian countryside. Along the way, he communicates with a number of people who knew van Gogh. Each provide their own impressions and memories of the man, some of them conflicting, some of them showing the details of the legendary artist's last days on Earth.

Simply as a technical achievement, “Loving Vincent” is a triumphant. How does one even paint an animated movie? Apparently, 65,000 frames of animation were hand-painted by a team of 125 painters. On the surface, this is quite impressive. I wish the degree of skill and commitment that went into “Loving Vincent” was more obvious. The viewer figures out pretty early on that the artists working on the film painted over actors portraying the movie's events in front of a green screen. While the color and waving painted lines burst impressively into your eyes, the images they bring to life are too often underwhelming. Instead of following van Gogh's burning imagination to create a visually spellbinding movie, “Loving Vincent's” presentation is essentially the most painstaking, work-intensive, and skillfully produced gimmick I've ever seen in animation.

Narratively, I struggled a bit with “Loving Vincent” as well. The decision to tell van Gogh's story through other people's eyes strikes me as an odd one. The artist himself emerges as a vaguely defined character. We hear about his habits from other people, we see the condition of both his illness and genius, and the facts leading up to his death are repeatedly pulled together. Yet we get very few insights into van Gogh's condition. At one point, the movie even attempts to re-jigger's van Gogh's suicide as some sort of mystery, flirting with the idea that he might have been murdered. Armand Roulin isn't much of a protagonist himself. He's more of a linking device for the various flashbacks that give us the information about van Gogh. Simply put, “Loving Vincent's” story does not engage on an emotional level.

Beyond a visual presentation that makes an impression of sorts, there are some other things to recommend about “Loving Vincent.” Some of the performances bring the story briefly to life. Saoirse Ronan as Marguerite Gachet, the woman who nearly had a romantic relationship with Vincent, manages to enchant and impress the viewer even while animated. There's a brief sequence involving a highly animated doctor laying out the details of van Gogh's fatal injury. There's several truly impressive shots, the painted presentation crossing cities and the countryside.

Ultimately, “Loving Vincent” is a movie that strikes me as more admirable than endearing. Clearly, those who made it had nothing but utmost respect for van Gogh. Yet they also sometimes indulge in some truly corny decisions, like ending the film by recreating the painter's most famous work. I wish the film matched the effort, which really does blow me away, that was put into creating it. It's not a movie that will stick with you because of its characters or story but because of the impressive, if somehow also oddly shallow, technique that brought it to life. [6/10]