Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 25, 2021



7:40 - Welcome to Film Thoughts' twelfth annual live blog of the Oscars ceremony!

Tonight is the climax of the what's likely to be the strangest Oscar season on the books. The pandemic has totally changed the way we see movies for the last year and that had a big affect on Oscar season. Now, the ceremony tonight is going through a number of unusual loops to make it work. Including enforcing social distancing, breaking up the ceremony across multiple large locations, and bringing in Steven Sodenberg to sprinkle some "Contagion" energy on the night.

7:42 - The Academy has already managed to piss me off by excluding live performances of the Best Song nominees, shuffling them off to the pre-show. Out of all the stupid shit the Academy fills the broadcast with, I don't know why they are always so eager to cut the songs, i.e. one of the few events associated with the broadcast that actually benefits from the live element.

7:50 - Ten minutes to go. Currently enjoying a musical performance that should've been part of the proper ceremony. No, I'm not going to stop bitching about this all evening. 

8:00 - And here we go!

I would watch a buddy cop movie with Bong and Angela Bassett. 

8:02 - Wow, the change of setting and the more active cinematography has already lent a very different feeling to this ceremony. I wonder if it'll be able to maintain this energy the entire night. (It won't.)

8:03 - I saw "COVID Coordinator" in the credits of a new film last Friday... I guess that same class of people are getting paid tonight. 

8:06 - Of these personal stories, "Sound of Metal Guys sold sushi and dog mugs" is definitely the most humanizing. 

8:07 - "Promising Young Woman" won Best Original Screenplay strictly because that last act was so fucking unexpected. Also, Emerald Fennell sounds exactly like how I'd expect her to.

8:08 - Are all the speeches going to be this rambling tonight?

8:10 - I'm not sure how I feel about this way of presenting the nominees... 

8:11 - "Meanwhile... HUNDREDS OF MILES AWAY!!!"

Okay, Regina wins serious points for saying the whole title. 

8:12 - Did, uh, anyone have "The Father" on their Best Adapted Screenplay slot? I guess it's the most... adapted of the nominees. 

8:13 - I'm really missing a live orchestra to play people off-stage already tonight...

8:18 - Wait, that's James Brown's "Black Caesar" score! 

8:19 - Okay, they are using a normal format to announce the rest of the nominees tonight. That first round was awkward as hell. Also, I hope "Another Round" wins just because that dance finale was so lovely. (For the record, "Better Days" is the only one of the International Feature nominees that I think is a real dud.)

8:22 - I hope Thomas accepts the award by dancing around with it and leaping off stage. 

8:25 - Jesus, I had no idea about Vinterberg's daughter...

8:26 - Daniel Kaluuya looking over his shoulder should become a meme.

8:29 - These masturbatory introductory messages are dragging the pace down so much. Please just play clips. 

8:30 - I honestly would've picked LaKeith over Kaluuya tonight. But this is fine. I'm 3/4 tonight thus far. 

8:32 - How long has this ceremony been going on tonight? Two hours? *looks at clock*


8:34 - "My mom and dad had sex!" Okay, not something I expected to hear tonight.

8:35 - Shameful admittance: I have never seen the original "West Side Story." 

Spielberg really missed an opportunity by not CGI-ing Christopher Plummer or Tig Nitaro's face over Ansel Elgort's.

8:39 - I know nothing about fashion but Don Cheadle's bowtight is friggin' amazing. 

8:40 - In Make-Up, I am rooting for "Pinocchio," if only because it's the only genre film nominated this year. I doubt it'll win though.

8:41 - This feels like a winner picked totally at random. But at least "Hillbilly Elegy" didn't get it.

8:43 - I know I've complained about montages and an over-reliance on clips in the past but... Bring the clips back. Please. 

8:45 - Did absolutely anyone expect "Ma Rainey" to be a multiple winner tonight? I didn't think anyone actually liked that movie. 

8:47 - This is the most plodding, humorless Oscars ceremony I've ever sat through. Holy crap.

8:50 - Yes, this was totally worth prioritizing over performing the fucking songs. 

8:51 - Okay, I've got it. The pandemic completely fucked everything up last year, so we're not allowed to laugh or have any fun tonight. That's why the ceremony has been so utterly lifeless.

8:54 - Listen, I've been watching and writing about the Oscars for over a decade, so let it be known I am utterly sincere when I say this: I have never been more tempted to watch something else. I am bored to my core.

8:56 - Where the fuck are the subtitles?

Also, seriously: Who the hell organized the categories this year? Why do you throw Best Director in this early in the night?

8:58 - It definitely seems like some of the heat has come off "Nomadland's" hype train recently. Is it still a lock for Director and Picture? I guess we'll find out in a minute. 

8:59 - Nope. 

9:01 - Oh, nice. A speech that didn't go on for six hours. 

9:06 - Alright, having Riz Ahmed present the Best Sound category makes sense. 

9:08 - There have been a couple of categories tonight that were easy to predict and this was one of them.

9:10 - Really nice of that one dude to dominate the entire allotted speech time. 

9:11 - "Two Distant Strangers" is almost hilariously tasteless and tone-deaf, if it wasn't so offensive, and it's definitely going to win Best Live-Action Short. 

9:12 - Told ya. 

9:16 - There's pretty much no chance in hell of "Wolfwalkers" pulling an upset and winning Best Animated Feature but I want it. I want it so badly, you guys. 

9:19 - Oh, we're doing Animated Shorts instead. It's going to be "If Anything Happens, I Love You" but I am rooting for "Burrow." 

9:22 - The directors of a short about gun violence walking on-stage to the "Grindhouse" music was an... interesting choice.

9:23 - "The Secret of NIHM" is fucking awesome! Thank you for that shout-out, Reese. 

9:24 - I'm really baffled by the decision to show clips for some of the nominees and just do the drollest fucking stories otherwise for others. 

9:25 - "Soul" is going to win but 'Wolfwalkers" will always have my heart. 

9:26 - Cartoon Saloon is going to get it one of these years. 

9:28 - Who had "air horn sound effect" on their "Oscars Bingo" card tonight?

9:33 - "Love Song for Latasha" is my favorite of the Short Doc nominees but it probably won't win. I'm just really hoping "Hunger Ward," the worst kind of white lib guilt porn, doesn't win.

9:34 - That was a win I did not expect. 

9:36 - Shouting out the subjects of the other nominees was a classy move. This guy is cool.

9:38 - As for Feature Documentary, I'm betting "Collective" probably has it in the bag. It's also my pick. 

9:39 - Is Sergio at the ceremony tonight? He's such a sweet heart. 

9:41 - I liked "My Octopus Teacher" well enough but, seriously, I hate that Netflix is pulling off a winning streak tonight. I swear to god, if "Trial of the Chicago 7" wins Best Picture...

9:45 - Why is the announcer so fucking snarky tonight? 

9:49 - Wow, Steven Yuen marching in and saving this entire fucking evening. 

9:51 - Tenet will win, on account of being the only big effects blockbuster released last year, but "Love and Monsters" has fantastic effects work in it and I suggest you all check it out.


9:52 - At least the guy had the sense to keep his speech short.

9:53 - I genuinely have no idea who will win Best Supporting Actress tonight but I am rooting for Maria. 

9:54 - Okay, this is the first surprise win of the tonight that isn't a huge bummer. This speech is adorable. 

9:56 - "How can I win over Glenn Close?" "I am luckier than you." She's awesome, I love her. 

9:58 - And then she doesn't know where to walk off! This is going to be the highlight of the night. 

10:02 - I really hate how they are presenting the nominees tonight. The lack of clips, of just going straight into things with these little anecdotes, is so disharmonious. 

10:03 - As for Best Production Design, "Mank" really deserves it. But I don't think it'll get it.

Alright, what do I know? Also, the musical choices tonight have been mostly horrendous. 

10:06 - That was a nice, short speech. I'm glad "Mank" won.

Halle Berry, you really think we don't understand what cinematography are? I am rooting for "Mank" as well but I think "Nomadland" will get it.

10:07 - I'm glad "Mank" has gotten some love tonight. "Cut my Oscar into pieces!"

10:14 - Only six categories left tonight... Before this very weird ceremony can conclude. 

10:15 - Does Harrison Ford have a mouthful of marbles tonight? I've got to admit that framing this intro around negative feedback to "Blade Runner" was pretty funny though.

10:17 - Best Editing was, by far, the weakest category this year. I think "The Father" and "Promising Young Woman" were the only ones whose editing really stuck out to me at all. "Sound of Metal" seems like a truly random win.

10:20 - I like Viola's hair tonight. 

10:22 - Why are we talking about Tyler Perry? We're just... doing an extended homage to the creator of Madea tonight?

10:24 - I can not believe they cut the songs to make room for the fucking Humanitarian Awards. This shit is so dry. 

10:26 - Oh my god, why is the director of "Madea Goes to Jail" talking?


10:31 - Ya know, what would make the nominees for Best Score more meaningful? IF WE COULD HEAR CLIPS OF MUSIC.

10:34 - "Soul" was always going to win Best Score but I was rooting for Trent and Atticus' other nominated score tonight.

10:35 - "I love you even if I DON'T KNOW YOU!" That made me chuckle.

10:36 - "Ja Ja Ding Dong" was robbed. 

10:37 - At least these assholes are actually playing clips from the songs. 

10:38 - Meh. Should've been "Speak Now."

10:40 - Questlove's Oscar trivia: What the fuck is happening?

10:41 - Jesus Christ, AMPAS, we have three categories left. You were so close to wrapping this shit up before midnight. 


10:45 - This segment is military grade torture but Glenn Close doing Da Butt was... something.

10:48 - It's fitting that this Oscars ceremony was filmed at L.A. Station because it's been a.... train wreck.


10:51 - I'm really looking forward to seeing how this ceremony fucks up the In Memorium segment. 

10:53 - Is it just me or are the names going by really quickly? R.I.P. Wilford Brimley. 

10:54 - I looked away to take a drink and six names passed by. Can't believe this is when they decided to go fast. 

10:59 - Yes, the "Electric Company" theme song is what I think of when I think about the Oscars. Questlove, you're trollin'. 

11:00 - Wait, what are they doing? Are they announcing Best Picture before Best Actor and Actresses? I am so confused. 

11:01 - The attempt to shake up the formula tonight has resulted in the most ass-backwards ceremony. This thing has been all over the place. 

11:02 -

11:05 - "Nomadland" just won Best Picture but, for some reason, we aren't done yet.

11:07 - Frances McDormand encapsulating how this ceremony is making me feel by howling into the screaming night. 

11:11 - Ya know, in retrospect, this is exactly the type of Oscar show I'd expect celebrating the year 2020.

The previous Best Actress winner is presenting Best Actress, because this is the night we throw traditoin to the win.

11:12 - Oh fuck off. Come on, really? I love Frances McDormand but she did not need this one!

11:14 - Of course, the agent of Chaos, Mr. Joker himself, would close out this year and 2020's legacy. 


And just like that, it's over. 

11:17 - I've seen some bad Oscar ceremonies but this one was a train wreck for the books. Everything was wrong and it crystallized with some truly nonsensical final few minutes. I feel like I just slipped into a fucking alternate universe. 

11:18 - And on that note of whiplash inducing madness, I bid you adieu. 

OSCARS 2021: Final Reviews Round-Up

Once again, I'm happy to say that I watched all of the movies nominated for an Oscar this year. That's why I've been posting so many reviews here of late. When you're trying to shove in 56 movies in a few weeks, naturally some films are deemed more worthy of longform reflection than others. Before my annual live-blog of the ceremony tonight, here are short capsule reviews of the remaining Oscar-nominated films that I didn't have time or space to review in full. Some of these are reused from my end-of-the-year retrospective. Thanks to the handful of people reading this. The Live Blog will begin at 8:00PM EST.

Da 5 Bloods

A cathartic examination of the lingering trauma of the Vietnam War on America's black community. Spike Lee's use of aspect ratios, to signify different eras, is brilliant. As is his decision to keep the same actors even during the flashbacks. Delroy Lindo's performance as a veteran still deep in his PTSD is staggeringly great. It's both messy and amazingly concise at the same time, epic but highly personal. [9/10]

Documentary Shorts:


Colette Catherine's unique insights into the French Resistance against Nazi Germany, as someone who was there, is invaluable. The fact that she intentionally downplays her contribution to the cause, or seems mentally exhausted by people calling her a hero, says a lot about her character. Her granddaughter insists history is too important to be forgotten, while Colette has spent her whole life trying to heal those wounds. There's no happy middle ground between these stances and that powerful unease is where this documentary dwells. (Though I do wonder about the ethics of walking a 90 year old woman into the place where her brother died.) [7/10]

A Concerto is a Conversation

A short that could probably stand to be a little longer. A conversation between two generations, showing off much things have changed for a black man in America, is interesting... Yet we still only get a peek at either man's life. Both men are compelling presences and the quiet insight his grandfather has into the racial divide of the forties is fascinating. It's good but I was left wanting more. [7/10]

Do Not Split

The documentary as on-the-ground journalism, as the cameramen were actually in the crowds of protesters when the police started attacking them. So this is a bracing short, democracy being trampled right in front of our eyes. The filmmakers should be commended for communicating a complicated situation so sufficiently. Many of the sights seen here remind me of the injustices that happened in this country last year... The ending is pretty disheartening but that's life in the 2020s for ya. [8/10]

Hunger Ward

Shining a light on atrocities must be done and, after watching “Hunger Ward,” I felt compelled to donate to the charity. Yet I feel like parading dead kids and mothers wailing in agony on-screen with zero context – a sole title card is the only explanation we get for what's happening in Yemen – borders exploitative. We never learn much about the starving babies or the doctors treating them that this documentary is ostensibly about. Also, it opens with a quote from “Watchmen's” Rorschach, a choice that raises a lot of questions. [5/10]

A Love Song for Latasha

Quietly devastating depiction of a totally senseless murder. Allowing Latasha's friend recount what happened was such a powerful decision. This recollection are played over quint and moments of colorful animation makes the point so much more cleanly than a traditional documentary would have. [8/10]


Costumed romantic-comedies are emphatically not my kind of thing. This kind of sophisticated banter and romantic entanglements bore me to tears. That's probably why, despite a light touch and a bubbly energy, I found this adaptation horribly slow. Still, I'll say this much: Anya Taylor-Joy's charms are effervescent and irrepressible. The production designs and costumes are utterly gorgeous. I love how colorful the sets are. [6/10]

EuroVision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Considering this is a comedy about the wackiest song contest in the world, long stretches of this are weirdly low-key. Obviously, the musical numbers are huge and outrageous. Yet most of the attempts at humor boil down to Will Ferrell delivering faux-awkward “funny” dialogue. This might be why the bigger, goofier gags – dancing whales, elves, ghosts, everything to do with Dan Stevens – get the most laughs. It's also over two hours long for some reason, though the big musical finale hits way harder than I expected. [6/10]


Economically paced World War II thriller that does a good job of keeping the tension high throughout. The captain – played with fitting solemnity by Tom Hanks – is always on his feet. The staff is constantly bringing food and coffee for the exhausted sailors. The rightfully nominated sound team creates a cascade of beeps and noise, including taunts from the unseen Germans. Despite never giving us much of a deep look into anybody's psyche, “Greyhound” remains captivating throughout. [7/10]

The Life Ahead

Would-be weepy checks off so many Oscars bait hallmarks – it's a movie about aging, orphans, kids, drugs, sex work and the Holocaust – that it can't help but come off as contrived and melodramatic. (This is the third film adaptation of the story, so it's not even fresh contrived melodrama.) Yet it does have a wonderful performance from Sophia Loren, who goes a long way to adding depth and humanity to the stale material. One or two interesting moment, such as the appearance of a lion or a dance number, also enliven an otherwise forgettable motion picture. [5/10]

Love and Monsters

I knew this one had really won me over when I was genuinely concerned about whether Boy the dog would be safe from a giant centipede monster. The protagonist is charming, with his interior monologue being funnier and sweeter than it had to be. There's actually some really clever world-building here, with how the various monsters are introduced and how human society has adapted in this apocalypse. The effects team really earned their nomination, as the CGI is great and the creature designs are clever and detailed. I think this one is going to become a cult classic down the line. [9/10]

The Midnight Sky

When this is focused on beard-y George Clooney bonding with a little girl on post-apocalyptic Earth, it's pretty good. I'm sucker for “a recluse's heart de-frosts” story lines. When the subplot about the astronauts in space takes precedence – which sometimes take up some really long scenes – this feels like a more typical sci-fi, space survival flick. The two stories never come together in a meaningful way, save for a conclusion with a predictable twist ending. [6/10]


Turning “Mulan' into a wuxia epic isn't the worst idea. The movie's massive budget is on-screen in the form of its visuals, sets and costumes. (Though its action editing needed another pass.) However, elements of the story that were easily accepted in animation – the gender bender premise, the bloodless combat – comes off as hopelessly awkward in live action. Mostly, it's impossible to ignore the movie's status as propaganda for the Chinese government. Especially as the script repeatedly emphasizes how good the empire is, even though it's clear that the “bad guys” are just trying to get their land back. [5/10]

News of the World

Tom Hanks' natural gravitas elevates what is a pretty standard, Dad-appealing western. (Down to him defending a surrogate daughter figure throughout most of the story.) The moral about the importance of a free press is unexpected, at the very least. Paul Greengrass still doesn't know how to shoot an action scene, as the shoot-outs are hassled by shaky-cam and wonky CGI. It's also too long, with an extended denouncement, but I still found this more charming than not. [7/10]

The One and Only Ivan

Totally innocuous fluff for the five-and-under crowd. It's got a nice message about how wild creatures don't belong in circuses or as people's pets. The CGI animals looks pretty good, even if you can't shake the feeling they're artificial. The celebrity voice cast is distracting. The subtle way the 1980s setting is indicated is honestly my favorite thing about this. [5/10]


The modernized fantasy setting results in a number of cute gags, like the raccoon-like unicorns or the pay-off involving the school mascot. The bond between the brothers, and how that will play out, is pretty easy to predict. Yet the lively voice cast, and a few of Pixar's trademark heartstrings-tugging moments, helps the whole thing go down a lot more smoothly. Destined to be among the studio's more forgettable films but not bad at all. [7/10]


Doing a grounded take on “Pinocchio,” that also emphasizes the surrealism of the story, is at least a fresh take on the material. The practical make-up effects are memorably grotesque, another choice that's distinctive if nothing else. So closely following the novel's highly episodic plot results in a meandering pace. (Further emphasized by the overly pastoral score.) The decision to add some truly obnoxious comedy – made much worst in the ear-splitting dub – marks this as a “Pinocchio” that's more interesting conceptually than in actuality. [5/10]

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

As always, Aardman are good at creating nicely tactile characters and environments. I've never seen any “Shaun the Sheep” media before, so I was amused that there's no clearly enunciated dialogue. Ultimately, this can't escape typical kids movie shenanigans. The little alien guy creates a lot of shrill humor. A number of mediocre gags are inserted to prop up a very thin plot. The pop-song needle drops are very distracting. [6/10]


Once again, Pixar manages to sum up big, universal themes – about finding the things that makes life worth living – in a cute, funny, and perfectly paced package. There's a lot of likable slapstick after our characters return to Earth. I really enjoy the minimalist art style of the afterlife. (Or beforelife, rather.) The score is brilliant and so many scenes make an impact. And, yes, it made me cry. [9/10]


Every frame of “Wolfwalkers” is stunningly beautiful. The incredibly lush animation creates one of the most absorbing cinematic experiences of the year. Yet it's not just the visual beauty that makes this film wonderful. The story, of finding acceptance and love in a world determine to tear you apart, is wonderfully conveyed and touching to. And feel free to read into a premise that involves two girls finding each other, while hiding something about themselves from their parents and cruel authoritarians... In other words, “Wolfwalkers” is as brilliantly evocative of our times as it is gorgeous looking. [9/10]

Saturday, April 24, 2021

OSCARS 2021: The 2021 Oscar Nominated Live-Action Short Films

"Feeling Through" concerns Tereek, a seemingly homeless teenager currently trying to find a place to spend the night. This is when he encounters a man at a street corner. The man is deaf/blind and can only communicate via touch. Tereek helps the man cross the street and is then asked to make sure he gets to the bus stop. Tereek stays with the man - who he learns is named Artie - through the night, as they wait for the next bus.

"Feeling Through" comes close to the unfortunate "inspirationally disadvantaged" category, where a disabled person helps an able-bodied person learn a little about life. It's clear that Tereek's brief interaction with Artie changes his perspective on things. He has to suddenly imagine what it's like to explore a world of darkness. How this affects Tereek's own troubles is not elaborated on. Yet the short is never maudlin. Director Doug Roland affects a documentary-style for most of the film, finding mildly clever ways for Artie and Tereek to communicate. It seems "Feeling Through's" main objective is simply to make people aware of the deaf-blind community, which it manages to do in an empathic way without getting too sappy about it. [6/10]

“The Letter Room” follows Richard, a correctional officer who has asked to be transferred to the rehabilitation department of the prison. Instead, he ends up in the mail department. He scans in-coming letters for any contraband or forbidden content. By reading the words they have written, he begins to develop a relationship with the prisoners and their loved ones. Especially two men on death row: A man who has never received a letter from his estranged daughter and another, who is receiving very romantic letters from his girlfriend on the outside. When the girlfriend suggests she may commit suicide after her lover is executed, Richard feels like he has to do something.

“The Letter Room” is the most high-profile of the nominated shorts, on account of starring known actors like Oscar Isaac and Alia Shawkat. (Both of whom give fine performances.) There's a quiet humor to the film, such as in segments where Richard grows aroused reading the sexually explicit letters. Yet there's also some real emotions here, that questions the role of prison guards – people meant to protect those already sentenced to death – in the system. How Richard eventually decides to deal with the feelings his job gives him is easy to guess but I'm glad that's where the story ended. It's a nice conclusion. If prisons must exist, they should be environments where empathy exist. [7/10]

"The Present" follows a man living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He has chronic backpain but a beautiful wife and an adorable daughter who loves him. It's his wedding anniversary and he heads into town, daughter in tow, to buy his wife a present: A new refrigerator, to replace their worn-out one. He has to cross a military checkpoint on his way into town and is detained for unknown reasons for a few hours. After being released, he discovers his daughter has wet herself. Finally making it into town, he buys the fridge. On the way back through the checkpoint, he's forced to unpack the fridge and have all his groceries looked at by armed soldiers. His humiliations still aren't over, as the fridge won't fit through the gate designated for West Bank citizens. 

"The Present" is another short designed to give us white American folks a peek at daily life in a culture few of us have experienced. The protagonist of "The Present" is a normal guy with normal guy problems. He wants to do something incredibly simple, get some groceries and do something nice for his wife, but this is complicated by geopolitical powers completely out of his control. It's frustrating and de-humanizing and you can't blame the guy when he has an emotional outburst. At times, "The Present" piles so much inconvenience on its Everyman main character - it starts to rain when he's pushing the fridge back up the hill - that it borders comical. Yet there's a sense of basic humanity here that grounds the story and keeps it from getting melodramatic. That same quality is what causes the film to succeed in its simple goal, of illustrating the daily struggles of living in a militarily occupied state. [7/10]

Every year, there's at least one Oscar-nominated short that tackles a real life tragedy in a horribly awkward, insensitive fashion. “Two Distant Strangers” is 2021's example. The short follows Carter, a black graphic designer who wakes up from a hook-up. He wants to get home to see his dog. As he's leaving the apartment, he's hassled by a racist cop, who quickly chokes him to death. Afterwards, he wakes up in the girl's bed again. Every time he attempts to leave the apartment, the same cop kills him and he starts the day over. Carter eventually tries to talk things out with the police officer but, even when appealing to his humanity, still ends up being killed in cold blood.

Yes, “Two Distant Strangers” attempts to put a “Groundhogs Day”-style riff on the police brutality that is a fact of life for every person of color living in America. The film invokes the murder of Eric Garner, by having Carter say “I can't breath” while being choked to death. As is the murder of Breonna Taylor, when the cops burst into the apartment and shoot Carter to death by mistake. George Floyd's name even appears on screen. Bringing real life deaths to mind while tying them to a whimsical time loop premise is obviously offensive. “Two Distant Strangers” is seemingly going in the direction of asking if black folks and racist cops have tried talking their problems out, which would've been even more offensive. 

Instead, it ends by having Carter killed each time... Seemingly making the point that “this horrible thing happens and that's horrible” without examining the culture of racism and lack of police accountability that allows these crimes to reoccur. They even play a song whose refrain is “That's just the way it is,” further suggesting the attitude that there's nothing to be done to stop this bloodshed. “Two Distant Strangers” is well directed, with high production values and strong acting, but it's tasteless. Pointing out that police brutality exists, in a world where we can read about police murdering people-of-color every day, is not a compelling or meaningful gesture. [4/10]

"White Eye" is an Israeli film about Omar, a man who claims his bike was stolen. He seems to find it - a distinctive white bike - and immediately attempts to contact the police. They aren't helpful, as Omar has little proof the bike is his, and he attempts to cut it loose himself. That's when the supposed thief - an Eritrean immigrant working in a butcher shop - appears. He explains that he didn't steal the bike, that he bought it, and that he uses it to get his daughter to school. Omar continues to push the issue, contacting the police, who soon learn the other man is working on an expired visa.

"White Eye," very subtly, makes a point about how societal institutions more gravely affect certain groups. Just by taking Omar's perspective, we immediately relate to his point of view. Especially his frustration of trying to explain the situation to the police, a strife anyone can relate to. Omar's actions, of trying to reclaim an object worth 250 shekels (77 US dollars), has huge ramifications on another person's life. Once the chain reaction Omar has started begins, there's no undoing it. It's one of the best depictions of how those people who are privileged in society can affect the lives of those who are not without even realizing it. "White Eye's" powerful script is paired with strong acting and impressive technical skill. The film is shot in a series of long takes, though it doesn't draw too much attention to this. [9/10]

OSCARS 2021: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

“Burrow” is this year’s entry in the Best Animated Shorts category from Disney/Pixar’s SparkShorts program. Considering I loved last year’s choice, “Kitbull,” I had high expectations for this one. “Burrow” concerns a little bunny rabbit moving into her first hole in the ground. As she discovers she has neighbors, with far more elaborate burrows, she begins to feel self-conscious about her humble dreams. Digging deeper into the ground, she discovers more neighbors and eventually ends up causing some trouble for everybody.

Simply put, “Burrow” is adorable. There’s so many cute little gags and details, as we briefly see the other critters living in this underground. Like the salamanders running a sauna or a pair of mice with their own discotheque. The jokes - like the reveal concerning a grumpy badger - come fast. The soft and fluffy character designs are appealing, with a lot of personality in each one. The hand-drawn animation has a likable sketchy quality to it. From another perspective, "Burrow" is also a cute metaphor for being out on your own for the first time and feeling overwhelmed by the options presented to you. It's really sweet how the little bunny never judged by her neighbors for her mistakes. She just immediately accepted into the family. I definitely loved this one. [8/10]

"Genius Loci" comes to us from French animator Adrien Marigeau, previously an animation director on several Cartoon Saloon movies. Reine's quiet time in her room is disrupted by her sister's infant child. Overwhelmed by the noise in the apartment, she slinks into the even more chaotic urban night. There, she encounters several unusual sights - three men fusing into a Minotaur, a woman bursting into flames, an apple that rings like a cellphone - before entering a church. She meets her friend Rosie there, who is playing a music on the organ. This is interrupted by more surreal visuals, before Reine turns into a dog and runs back home.

I'm not entirely sure I understood what "Genius Lodi" is about. Considering Reine's reaction to her sister's baby and her not-entirely-platonic interaction with Rosie, it seems to be a story about a young woman desperate to define herself but feeling constrained by the paths laid out around her. But "Genius Loci" is mostly a platform for some very interesting animation. The style constantly shifts - static black-and-white images, swirling colors, cubistic character designs, lots of squiggly lines - which makes me wonder if this isn't meant to be a fifteen minute through various abstract artforms. The images are often memorably surreal and surprising, like a hand becoming a crawling spider or ash from a cigarette turning into twinkling stars. If nothing else, it's all beautifully animated. [7/10]

Yes, Netflix has even invaded this category too. ”If Anything Happens I Love You” concerns a married couple who silently sit in their home. Their shadows on the wall communicate the feelings they can't bring themselves to express. Around the home, we see signs – a closed bedroom, a paint splotch on the outside wall, a child's shirt in the laundry – that someone is missing. A flashback ensues that shows the couple, during happier times, with a young daughter. And as they send the girl off to school, the same secret shadows begging her to stay, it becomes obvious to the viewer what happened to their child.

“If Anything Happens I Love You” is pretty sad, which is a real “no shit” statement. The device of having the couple's shadows act out the feelings they keep inside, the feelings they know will flood out uncontrollably if they speak them, is a meaningful device. The animation, largely in black-and-white and somewhat sketchy, is simple but effective. When the tragedy – which is heavily foreshadowed even before the pieces fall into place – is depicted in a way that hits the viewer harder. Just the image of a U.S. flag, the only splash of color in the film, makes a large statement. There is a glimmer of hope in the final moments, that people can push through grief without pushing away the people they love. The emotions here are a little too obvious – a musical choice half-way through is extremely distracting – but “If Anything Happens I Love You” still makes its point in a meaningful fashion. [7/10]

Here's another weird one, from filmmaker Erick Oh. (Who previously directed the television spin-off from "The Dam Keeper," an earlier Best Animated Short nominee that I loved.) The camera pans down a massive pyramid, full of many rooms and occupied by vaguely humanoid figures. At the sunlit summit, a gong rings and a religious ceremony seems to ensue. In the core of the pyramid, figures toil in a factory setting. At the darkened base, the creatures - now divided into black-and-white factions - war over a key dangling from the sky... Until they destroy each other. And the cycle then begins again, though a few things are different now and there's some suggestion that things will change more soon.

"Opera" may be best experienced on the theater screen. There's so much going on inside this massive pyramid, that it's hard to take it all in on my television screen. I spotted a recreation of the Last Supper in the center, some sort of medical experiments going on in one corner, and fruit being picked from a tree in another. While the amount of stuff happening is surely impressive - you could probably rewatch this repeatedly and find something new each time - I wasn't as impressed with what it obviously all means. The pyramid in "Opera" is an encapsulation of society, with the haves at the top and the lowly workers, the have-nots, at the bottom. They war over meaningless things and their religious rites are clearly hollow. The final sequence brings us up to today, where those at the peak grow ever fatter. It's not exactly a cutting edge observation and the fact that it's depicted so distantly, like germs watched under a microscope, makes it hard to be too invested. I applaud the effort put into this one but it didn't really work for me. [6/10]

Our final nominee comes from Iceland. It follows a group of six people living in an apartment building as they go about their daily lives. A guy goes to work while his miserable wife sits home and day-drinks. A teenager goes to school, plays video games at night, while his stay-at-home mom tutors a kid playing the recorder. An old man shovels snow outside while his fat wife sits inside and reads. Later that night, they have enthusiastic sex. Oh, by the way, they communicate and express all their feelings and thoughts with a single word: "Ja," the Icelandic word for "yes."

Most of the responses I've seen to "Yes-People" have been irritated scowling, wondering why this dumb-ass thing got nominated for an Oscar. Which I understand. "Yes-People" is definitely dumb. Considering the repetitive and meaningless dialogue, and characters doing stuff like farting or playing music badly, one assumes irritating the audience is the intended effect. Yet the sheer absurdity of "Yes-People" made me laugh a little. If you zoom out far enough, you probably can reduce most societal interactions down to one word. Plus, the exaggerated character designs are cute. I'm not sure it deserved an Oscar nomination but I still kind of liked it. It's better than "Hillbilly Elegy," at the very least. [6/10]

Friday, April 23, 2021

OSCARS 2021: Quo Vadis, Aida? (2020)

The Oscars take themselves seriously. From the early days of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, they have prioritized serious movies – dramas and epics and stirring examinations of the human condition – over everything else. This is why comedies still have to fight to earn any recognition and why science fiction, horror, or stuff like that rarely gets acknowledge outside of the technical categories. (Even then, not so much these days.) This has had an unfortunate side effect of dreary dramas about atrocities dominating more niche categories, like International Feature or the Live Action Shorts. This is why “Quo Vadis, Aida?” feels like the third or fourth movie I've seen about the Bosnian genocide since I started giving a shit about the Oscars.

The time is July 11th, 1995. The place is Srebrenica, Bosnia. Aida works as a translator in a United Nations base, which is home to hundreds of people who have been displaced by the Bosnian War. As the Serb army invades the town, they begin to demand that the refugees in the base disperse. Aida does everything she can to insure a smooth transition of power but soon discovers that bloodshed is inevitable. She fights against the bureaucracy of the U.N. officials while trying to protect everyone in the base, which includes her husband and two sons. 

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” attempts to built tension by putting its protagonist up against one of the most frustrating things in existence: Government bureaucracy. The audience knows from the beginning that very bad things are going to happen here. From the minutes the Serbs arrive in the village, it's apparent that their intentions are far from peaceful. Anyone could have predicted what would happen yet the U.N. officials did very little to protect people. (At least as depicted here.) Aida repeatedly tries to impose the graveness of the situation to the people in charge, yet they constantly insists there's nothing that can be done. It doesn't take living through a genocide to relate to the powerlessness of receiving no help at all from the people who are suppose to protect you.

Watching “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” I was very surprised by something. I've seen enough dreary European movies about war crimes and tragedies that I thought I knew what to expect here: Your nose being rubbed in horrors and atrocities for two hours. “Quo Vadis, Aida?,” however, takes a surprisingly tactful approach when depicting the genocide. The film doesn't have an MPAA rating but, if it did, it would probably be a PG-13. There's little graphic violence. As the hour of the massacre approaches, the audience's stomach tightens up, well aware of where this is going. The film keeps the actual event just off-screen and makes it all the more gut-wrenching because of it. 

Our center in this story is Jasna Đuričić's performance as Aida. Đuričić is excellent at maintaining her composure, despite the increasing pressure on her, the growing fear she feels that things are going horribly wrong. Even in private, she mostly trades light-hearted jokes and banter with her husband and friends. It's only at the very end, when the point of no return is reached and tragedy becomes imminent, that Aida's carefully composed image of stability cracks. Đuričić's emotional outburst is deeply cathartic, even if it does little to stem the violence to come.

“Quo Vadis, Aida?” is not the kind of light watching you can just throw on in the background, obviously. Yet it's tact and patience does make it one of the less punishing, and more emotionally effective, films about the topic that I've seen. Though, much like “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” I am surprised by how much of this movie is in English. I suppose that makes sense when your lead character is a translator but it is odd that two of the nominees from the International category this year are about half-in-English. I'm not sure if that's just a coincidence or represents a concentrated effort from foreign studios to appeal to Academy voters. [7/10]

OSCARS 2021: The White Tiger (2021)

I've been ragging on this all month but, truly, Netflix's dominance of 2021's Oscar season is bordering on the weird. When I opened the list of nominations last month, while scanning through the names, when I saw a title I didn't recognized, I was unsurprising to see most of them were Netflix releases. Like “The White Tiger,” which scored a single nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. Perhaps I should've been paying more attention. “The White Tiger” is written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, the filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed “Chop Shop.” It's also adopted from a best selling, praised novel by Aravind Adiga, which is probably why its writing was highlighted by the Academy. 

Balram Halwai, the owner of a successful taxi cab company in Delhi, writes a letter to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao. (Who wants to hear from “entrepreneur.”) He relates his story, of growing up in poverty as part of India's lower caste. Despite being offered a scholarship as a boy, he was forced to leave school and work at a young age. As a teenager, he convinces the rich landlord of the village – who rules with an iron fist – to hire him as a driver. He befriends the man's progressive son, Ashok, and his American-raised girlfriend. Balram sucks up to his masters but can't escape his status as a servant... Until an act of violence and his knowledge of government bribes offers him a way out. 

Much like last year's “Parasite,” “The White Tiger” is a story of class inequality. Also like the Best Picture winner, it is both culturally specific and universal. The film is a clear indictment of India's caste system. Balram describes it as either living in the dark or living in the light. The poor do not have clean water, in-door plumping, and little access to education. The rich talk about ways to expand their business opportunities. It's a far starker divide than here in America – Balram is regularly beaten and belittled by his employer – but you recognize a lot. The way he's forced to be faithful to his masters, least his family be harmed, and the way he's forced to be faithful to his family, funneling money to him, are just more extreme versions of the same traps that keep the working class poor over here. 

“The White Tiger” tells a pretty grave story. One of its biggest plot points involve a child being run down in the street. Violence and crime are only so far away at any moment. Yet the film maintains a careful balancing act. Throughout the story, Balram pretends to be utterly loyal to Ashok and his family, while inwardly plotting his own scheme. There's often a light humor to this, like when he convinces Ashok and his girlfriend that every place they pass in his village is a holy sight. Yet Balram has an ugly side too. He gets a rival worker fired, by revealing his secret – he's Muslim – to his employees. His interior monologue reveals his own prejudice, such as the mean-spirited thoughts he has about a co-worker with vitiligo. You still find yourself rooting for him though, due to the truly inhumane conditions he has to put up with and the film's very careful tonal balancing act.

Another thing that keeps “The White Tiger” grounded is its lead performance. Adarsh Gourav plays Balram and it's a skillful double performance. Gourav plays Balram, the faithful servant, who responds that he only wants to serve when asked what he wants out of life. At the same time, he has to suggest Balram's real ambitions and plans. A moment that truly impresses is when Balram essentially signs a confession, saying he's responsible for a crime his masters committed. On the surface, he remains obedient while inwardly suggesting the conflict Adarsh surely feels in that moment. 

“The White Tiger's” final moments are suitably ironic, with even the protagonist being well aware of the fate he's set up for himself. Yet, questionable as Balram's rise to riches doubtlessly is, he's ultimately sort of right. There's a moment where the character who has been the kindest and most sympathetic to him still treats him like he isn't human, treating him like a dog mindlessly watching an intimate moment. I guess the moral is pretty evident: If you hope to survive in a capitalistic society, you have to become a monster. “The White Tiger” is a funny and beautifully assembled film about this idea. [8/10]

Thursday, April 22, 2021

OSCARS 2021: The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020)

According to the press release the Academy wrote up about the decision, the Best Foreign Language Film category was re-named to Best Intentional Feature because they felt “foreign language film” was an outdated term. (This same press release also specified that documentary and animated films are eligible in the category, though I don't know if they were excluded before.) Yet the exact wording is interested too. “The Man Who Sold His Skin” is the first film from Tunisia to be nominated. Yet, it's also worth noting, that a large percentage of “The Man Who Sold His Skin's” dialogue is in English. That makes the distinction between “foreign language” and “international” more blatant, doesn't it? Though I don't know if the actual rules determining what qualifies for the category have changed any or not.

While on a bus with his girlfriend, Abeer, Syrian native Sam jokingly declares himself a radical. The government takes this seriously and expels him from the country, turning Sam into a refugee. He is forced further apart from Abeer when the Syrian Civil War breaks out and she moves to Belgium, where she quickly remarries. This is when Sam receives a strange offer. Artist Jeffrey Godefroi wants to turn Sam into a living work of art, tattooing an elaborate visa on his back. Moving people across international borders brings with it a great deal of political red tape. But commodities like art are much more easily transported. At first, Sam enjoys the freedom and celebrity but soon finds that being a living object d'art is more complicated than first assumed.

The point of “The Man Who Sold His Skin' is fairly easy to decipher. When he turns Sam into a work of art, Godefroi is ostensibly doing it to help the guy. At the same time, he's also literally reducing him to an object. Sam is forced to stand in an art gallery for hours at a time, where people come to gawk at him. This does not convey his personal experiences, the things he's seen and felt as a refugee. Instead, he's designated a price tag. “The Man Who Sold his Skin” is about how tragedies occurring in other countries are treated by people abroad. Sam is dehumanized, the much the same death tolls in foreign wars are reduced to numbers. The art world is turning his personal tragedy into commercial gain, a very literal version of wages that can be leveled at any art inspired by real life tragedy.

“The Man Who Sold His Skin” is also, in a roundabout way, something of a comedy. It has to follow the idea of a living person becoming an art commodity to its logical conclusions. This means activist protests a Syrian refugee being displayed in a museum, while Sam's feelings on the situation are more complex. While attempting to “sell” Sam, lawyers have to make sure the transaction doesn't qualify as human trafficking. This eventually gets absurd, when Sam getting a pimple threatens the valuable tattoo on his back. In its final act, the premise has to contend with the idea of someone trying to steal and smuggle this particular artwork: This human being. I have the admire the filmmakers for seeing how many different ways they could explore the ramifications of its premise.

You would think these ideas, both direct and metaphorical, would be enough to occupy the film. In its weakest moments, “The Man Who Sold His Skin” also tries to be the story of a romance. Sam still pines for Abeer. She, meanwhile, gets involved in a marriage that seems to partially be a sham. Most of the interaction between these two occurs over Skype calls, which is maybe not the most cinematic way to handle this subplot. This aspect of the story never really comes to life. Other dangling subplots, concerning Sam's mother and siblings, are also underdeveloped to a serious degree. 

Despite its flaws, I still found the central idea of “The Man Who Sold his Skin” interesting. Any film that takes an outrageous idea and then pursues its to its absurd extremes tends to win my respects. The film has received some criticism for its art world satire being shallow, being negatively compared to “The Square.” The film definitely isn't as good as that one but I still found it to be intriguing. Also intriguing: It's partially based on a true story. (Though not the story of the Japanese guy with a collection of Yakuza tattoos, skinned right off their owners. Perhaps that's a bizarre topic that also deserves a movie.) [7/10]