Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, February 23, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Shoplifters (2018)

To we feeble film nerds idling away in obscurity here in America, the Cannes Film Festival seems like this mysterious event happening in a far away land. While the Oscars generally award highly marketable or at least easily accessed motion pictures, the top prize awarded at Cannes usually goes to foreign language film. While a Best Picture win causes a movie to go down in cinematic history, the Palme D'or winner are often forgotten or at least overlooked. At least, that's how it seems to be in American film fandom. Maybe it's different in Europe. This is my long-winded way of introducing “Shoplifters.” A Japanese film, it won the Palme last May and is now nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Some are saying it might even have a chance to win the honor.

Somewhere in Tokyo lives a family. Father Osamu, mother Nobuyo, and step-sister Aki all have menial jobs – and grandmother Hatsu's pension – but it's still barely enough to make ends' meet. In order to further provide for themselves, the entire family shoplifts food and other goods. After a successful night at the grocery store, Osamu and son Shota spot a little girl shivering in the cold. After discovering that her parents beat her, the little girl is adopted into the family. Changing her name from Yuri to Lin, she quickly becomes part of their life. The group live their lives, challenges and joys arriving. As Shota begins to feel uncertain about the shoplifting life style, secrets are revealed.

I grew up in a poor neighborhood pretty far away from the poor neighborhoods of Japan but there was so much I recognized in “Shoplifters.” The entire family, five people at first, six after Lin arrives, crowd into grandma's house. And Hatsu appears to be a bit of a hoarder too, making the small, unkempt home especially cramped. Osamu, Nobuyo, and Aki all work – at a construction site, a factory, and a peep show – but hours and pay are still in short supply. The family steals not just because it gives them a thrill but because they frequently have to in order to survive. While director Hirokazu Kore-eda beautifully captures the details of this lifestyle, he doesn't let it define the characters. They have little joys in their lives, like enjoying a corn dog on the beach or the kids discovering a hatching cicada in the park. When you have so little, these little moments matter even more.

As “Shoplifters” go on, you get the idea pretty quickly that everyone came to this family the same way Yuri/Lin did. Aki is the black sheep of her family, rejected in favor of a more successful younger sister. Shota was stolen by Osamu out of a car he was locked in. Hatsu is a lonely old woman that took them all in. As with Lin, they changed their names upon being accepted into this make-shift family. Unlike their birth families, which were neglectful or abusive, this is a family they all chose. When inevitable loss arrives, it's exactly the same as loosing a loved one. Though some of them, Shota especially, are reluctant to accept this connection, it is the make-shift heart that drives “Shoplifters.”

In a way, every member of Osamu and Nobuyo's family was “stolen” from someone else. Ultimately, “Shoplifters” has to grapple with what ownership even means. They break the law largely to survive, though not always. Shota starts to feel guilty about this as he sees Lin, not much older than a baby, being indoctrinated into an illegal lifestyle. This is only the first of several moral ambiguities in the household. The last third is built upon revealing the horrible truths behind this arrangement, breaking the hearts of the characters and the viewers. Yet, as the deeply poignant conclusion shows, the grim facts behind their bond doesn't make it any less meaningful, does it?

I haven't seen any of Horikazu Kore-eda's other films, though many of them are well regarded. Based on the merits of “Shoplifters,” I'm willing to say this guy knows what he's doing. This is a powerful film, poignant and gritty but frequently very funny. You grow close to this cast of characters quickly, relating to their struggles and cheering for their small victories. (The extremely talented cast helps a lot.) Roger Ebert said that movies are empathy generating machines. “Shoplifters” is a great example of this principal, being one of the most humanistic and touching films I've seen in recent memory. [9/10]

Friday, February 22, 2019

OSCARS 2019: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

In the past, the live action and animated shorts have been packaged separately. If the animated shorts didn't run very long, usually a few runner-ups were included to make the run time worthwhile. This year, whoever is in charge of such things decided the cartoons were too brief and that they should just stick all the shorts together.

If you follow these categories the way I do, you probably already known that the live action shorts are always an especially somber and depressing collection of stories. So we end up going from a trio of animated features that at least temper their sadder moments with surreal comedy to a collection of extremely downbeat live action shorts. That doesn't seem like the best plan to me. This also causes the entire program to run well over two hours, a bit long for something like this.


Hailing from Spain, “Madre” begins with the everyday scene of Marta and her mother entering her apartment. After a few minutes of talking, Marta receives a phone call. It's from her six year old son. The upset boy explains that his father has apparently left him on the beach. He's alone, it's getting dark, and his cellphone battery is close dying. The panicked mother attempts to determine where the boy is and where his dad went. When that proves unhelpful, she attempts to find help from the police or her ex-husband's current girlfriend. That's when the situation takes an even graver turn.

Writer/director Rodrigo Sorogoyen shoots “Madre” in a single, continuous shot. As Marta grows more concerned, and her unseen son becomes more endangered, the camera movement becomes more and more frenzied. This does a good job of replicating the panic she feels, as it becomes increasingly apparent how much danger her little boy is in. The unsettled feeling in the viewer's stomach only grows as Marta does everything she can to get her child, present only as a small voice on the phone, to safety. The acting from Marta Nieto is excellent, the fear and terror she feels being conveyed clearly. The credits, for whatever reason, are done in an especially grating fashion. I don't know what's up with that. “Madre” is a grim nineteen minutes but one that gets exactly the reaction out of the audience that it's aiming for. [7/10]


Next up is the French-Canadian “Fauve.” It follows two adolescent boys, Tyler and Benjamin. The two are messing around in the countryside, attempting to one-up each other with more outrageous stunts. Their game eventually takes them to a completely empty open pit mine. Foolishly crawling down into one of the pits, the two boys take turns getting stuck in the sticky, wet cement-like substance. Eventually, Benjamin starts to sink into it, causing Tyler to hopelessly look for help.

“Fauve” is exactly the kind of artsy-fartsy, miserablist storytelling I've sadly come to expect from the live action shorts. The early scenes of the two kids goofing off together are interesting. Director Jeremy Comte accurately captures the boyish chaos and playing among male friends at that age. However, once “Fauve” arrives at the mine, it gets stupid in an overly serious, somber way. The idea of a wide-open area like that being so completely abandoned strains plausibility. So does the cartoonish way the kids sink into the ground. After things get especially grim, “Fauve” graduates to full-blown pretentious, with wide-screen shots of Tyler wandering the rocky area and an obnoxiously ambiguous ending. I was fully expecting things to go in a surreal direction from there but they never do, making “Fauve” seem even more frustratingly pointless. [5/10]


The French “Marguerite” is another bummer of a short film but at least its story is told with a degree of subtly and pathos. The titular Marguerite is an elderly woman nearing the end of her life, her frail body covered with wounds. While her nurse is bathing her one day, she discovers the other woman is a lesbian. This causes Marguerite to reflect on her own past, on the time when she loved a woman but was unable to ever consummate or even publicly admit her feelings.

There's definitely a certain grace to “Marguerite.” Director Marianne Farley takes some time to establish the characters and their setting. The audience feels how Marguerite's memories and age weigh on her just from her appearance. The quiet way she discovers her nurse's status as a gay woman, and how that plays out, occur in a very sweet manner. “Marguerite” is ultimately a touching tale of long repressed desire and a long-since-atrophied need to be recognized and seen. The acting, from Beatrice Picard especially, is very good. And it's nice to see some representation of an elderly LGBT person. [7/10]


If four of the five animated shorts are linked by themes of parenthood, four of the five live action shorts revolve around young boys being involved with violence. An Irish film, “Detainment” is directly based off police transcript from a shocking crime committed in 1993. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, two eight year old boys, are playing hooky at the mall and shoplifting. This is when they abduct two year old James Bulger. The older boys dragged the toddler to a railway before beating, torturing, and killing him. “Detainment” details the crime in flashback, as the two young perpetrators are interrogated by the police, assembling a timeline of this heinous event.

While “Green Book” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” have gotten most of the press, a smaller Oscar controversy has swirled around “Detainment.” The mother of James Bulger, the murdered boy, apparently was not consulted during the making of the film at all. She has protested its release and petitioned for its nomination to be removed. So the question circling “Detainment” is whether its treatment of this incredibly disturbing true life case was worth pissing off the victim's mother. I've got to lean towards “no” on that one.

The film portrays Robert Thompson as a heartless sociopath, who manipulated the other boy into helping commit the crime and then tried to blame him for everything. Jon Venables, meanwhile, is depicted as being dragged into this horrible crime largely against his will. Considering Venables has been linked to other crimes since then, including the possession of child pornography, this is in questionable taste. The same could be said of the entire film. I'm not sure what the filmmaker hoped to accomplish by directly using the real police transcripts. The film seems satisfied to just portray this events, not to make any point. His visual direction is largely heavy-handed, the flashbacks being filmed in a blurry, flashy manner. While decently acted, the film just made me feel disgusted without any wider point. [5/10]


This year's connecting fiber of kids being involved in violence comes full circle with “Skin,” a film with maybe the most offensive premise I've seen in quite a while. The short revolves around a family of white supremacist. Young boy Troy doesn't seem to understand the hateful rhetoric spouted by his tattooed father and his skinhead friends. While at a grocery store one night, a black man smiles at the boy. This prompts his father, Jeffrey, and a group of racists to brutally beat the man in the parking lot. A few nights later, Jeffrey is abducted by a group of black gangsters who devise a painfully ironic and utterly cartoonish punishment for him.

Congratulations to “Skin” for being maybe the worst Oscar-nominated film of all time. If you thought “Detainment” was tasteless and “Green Book's” handling of racism was tacky, get a load of this shit. Up until the beating sequence, the early scenes of “Skin” captures a white trash existence in a fair way. I thought this was going to be a story about a young boy realizing racism is wrong. Instead, following the brutal-for-brutality's sake act of violence, “Skin” spins towards a ridiculously offensive plot twist.

I think the film's moral is suppose to be “violence only begets violence” but making a white supremacist a victim of a group of scary black men, directed in such a way that they look practically demonic, sends pretty much the worst possible message you could in 2019. Wrap it up with a pointlessly nihilistic, faux-shocking ending and you have a film poorly conceived on a level I haven't seen in quite a while. Not that I needed any more proof of how out-of-touch and clueless the Academy is but “Skin” getting nominated at all shows an astonishingly poor sense of judgment on their behalf. [3/10]

OSCARS 2019: The 2019 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

For the last few years, the Oscar nominated short films – once almost impossible to see if you weren't an Academy member – have been made available to the public through cable on-demand programs and various online markets like Amazon about a week before the ceremony. This year, however, it seems the shorts won't be made available to rent until after the 24th... Everywhere that is, except the iTunes store. Being determined to see as many of the nominated films as possible, I naturally bought them through this manner. I had a credit on my iTunes account anyway.

And I have to tell you, I'm never going to buy a movie through iTunes ever again. My attempt to buy them through my computer resulted in a weird error screen, the program repeatedly asking for my password, redirecting me to edit my payment information, and eventually crashing when I attempt to look at my purchase history. So I ended up having to watch the shorts on my fucking tablet. After successfully buying and downloading the shorts package, I was then faced with obnoxiously frequent buffering. Why does something I own have to buffer?

Anyway, enough of the bitching. Here's my thoughts on the animated shorts.

Animal Behaviour

“Animal Behaviour” hails from Canada and seemingly continues a tradition of demented animation that has been going on for a while. The short details a group therapy session for a group of various animals. The delicate equilibrium of this setting, held together by a dog/psychologist named Leonard, is thrown off with the newest member joins: A large gorilla with anger problems.

“Animal Behaviour” essentially has one joke but it's a pretty good one. The short contrasts human neurosis with behavior that's considered perfectly normal in the animal world. So we see a leech who is considered clingy by her partner, a pig that overeats, a cat that obsessively-compulsively licks herself, and a pigeon haunted by childhood memories of pushing his brother out of his nest. It's an amusing idea that is extended to cartoony lengths, such as the leech breathing into a bag or the dog doctor revealing his own compulsions. (Hint: They involve a stick.) The slow build-up here, where the different anxieties and problems of the various characters are revealed, is funnier than the slapstick chaos that eventually follows. However, it all comes around for a decently muted conclusion. The animation is nice too, especially the sequence devoted to the pigeon's horrifying memory. I also like the amusingly round and stout character designs. [7/10]


“Weekends” follows a young boy named Bruce. His parents are recently divorced. Weekdays with Moms are characterized by quiet piano playing, mishaps while cleaning house or cooking dinner, and outdoor exploration. During the weekend visit with his Japanophile father, however, Bruce gets to mess with samurai swords, play video games, listen to Dad Rock, watch gory action movies, and eat Chinese take-out. The arrangement seems to work yet Bruce still dreams about his parents getting back together. This goal is squashed when his Mom brings home a boyfriend and his dad gets engaged.

“Weekends” is likely to summon up emotions for any child of divorce. While my life after my parent's divorce wasn't anything like this, I can still relate to these feelings. This melancholy sense that there's something missing in the house, the permissiveness of one parent versus the other attempting to hold it all together. The weirdness when step-parents or boyfriends enter the picture. “Weekends'” highly stylized character designs allow for a strong degree of symbolism. Mom's frailness is hinted at by the brace on her neck, Dad's stoic quality by his reflective sunglasses. The boyfriend has a candle growing out of his head, indicative of both his short fuse and blazing temper. The way the movie uses various pop culture signifiers – Dire Straits, Nintendo – becomes a reoccurring joke of sorts. It doesn't quite end on a salient point, as that final dream sequence is a bit of a question mark, but there's some potent emotion leading up to that frustratingly ambiguous ending. [7/10]

One Small Step

You might notice some themes emerging through this year's animated shorts. “One Small Step” is about Luna, a little Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut. Her father supports her one hundred percent in this goal. This support is shown through the way he fixes her various pairs of shoes – playtime astronaut boots, saddles, track meet sneakers – as they break apart over the years. As she goes off to college, struggles with academics, and eventually is rejected by the space program, she starts to take her Dad for granted. And guess what happens next?

“One Small Step” works despite being rushed and maudlin. At only eight minutes long, it doesn't have quite enough time to pack in all the necessary emotion. When the inevitable loss comes, we don't feel it as much as we should have. Nevertheless, this one still tugs at your heart strings a little in the scenes that follow, as the way Luna remembers her father are portrayed in a very sweet manner. Also, this is maybe the prettiest of the nominated shorts. The short seamlessly combines hand-drawn illustration and computer animation. Though a little too predictable and touchy-feely, “One Small Step” is still worth seeing. [6.5/10]


Yes, a surprising number of this year's animated shorts are connected by concepts of parenthood and Asian motifs. “Bao,” which was packaged with this summer's “Incredibles 2” and is left out of the shorts package, is similarly themed. In it, a Chinese woman, lonely because of her busy husband, sees the dumpling she has made for lunch spring to life. She starts to raise the little dumpling baby as a child. There are several years of joy, the mom finding happiness despite his doughy child's tendency to get injured. As he grows older, the two grow apart which is very upsetting for the woman. You might have noticed that this is a metaphor for overbearing parenting in general.

Though no less obvious in its themes than “One Small Step,” “Bao” is much more effective overall. There's a lot of humor here, in the way the woman's eyes bulge out at the various antics her child gets into. Or the way she dives into frame to prevent him from playing soccer. (The adorably pudgy character designs get a lot of credit for this too.) The emotion is real too and you really relate to the lonely woman's desperation to hang onto this child she loves. That makes the climatic reconciliation especially meaningful. When combined with the lovely animation – the food looks absolutely delicious – and pretty score, it makes “Bao” one of the best of this lot. [8/10]

Late Afternoon

Also excluded from the shorts package for some reason, “Late Afternoon” comes from Ireland. Only the second of the shorts to feature any major voice-acting, the film is about an elderly woman named Emily. As her nurse arrives to prepare her lunch, she feels a wave of memories washing over her. Of her childhood spent playing on the beach or exploring caves, of finding love during college, of her own years as a parent, and finally how she arrived at this point.

“Late Afternoon” features probably my favorite animation of the lot. The short does a gorgeous job of visually illustrating how memories manifest. Little items – a biscuit floating in a cup of tea, a simple photograph – reminds Emily of very specific events. How they enter her mind is visualized by waves of colors enveloping her. Using this same trick, we see years of her life compressed into a few short minutes. Such as when waves on a beach become the water in a bathtub, revealing a pregnant belly. It's also just really pretty to watch and leads up to a fittingly emotional conclusion. Overall, another strong one that also has a story revolving around parenthood. [8/10]

Thursday, February 21, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Free Solo (2018)

I mentioned this recently but it definitely seems to me that documentaries are becoming more popular than ever. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The modern ubiquity of Youtube, where infotainment content flourishes, have made audiences much more interested in what they call non-narrative storytelling. Internet streaming services have made feature documentaries accessible to a wider audience. It seems likely to me that people binge-watching and obsessing over “Making a Murderer” and the like online and then lining up to see docs in theaters is probably related. Yet I was definitely still surprised to see a television advertisement for “Free Solo,” which was already an Oscar front runner at the end of last year. I guess I still don't expect to see movies like this getting TV spots, though I'm pleased to see mainstream audiences becoming more open.

The film follows Alex Honnold, a “free solo” mountain climber. I didn't know what that was before seeing the film but apparently it's a type of climber who scales tall cliffs, mountains, and rocks completely without rope or safety equipment. Unsurprisingly, there's a high mortality rate even among the experienced “soloers.” Honnold has required a reputation as among the best free climbers, having conquered several famous natural wonders. His next goal is a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which has never been accomplished before. The film tracks the weeks leading up to his climb and how his obsession affects his personal life.

I couldn't get into “Free Solo” because Alex Honnold strikes me as a boring protagonist. Which is weird, right? The dude has an extremely dangerous hobby. Without any exaggeration, the film captures him risking life and limb. He's obviously smart too, as his apparent interests in philosophy and literature reveal. (Not that the movie gives any indication of that.) Yet, for some reason, everything the guy says in this documentary just made me roll my eyes. The movie attempts to delve into his mind. We learn about his childhood, how both parents were emotionally closed-off. He gets a brain scan, to determine if he's some sort of psychotic danger junkie. Yet this real person never seems to come alive as an interesting character. His ruminations on his vegetarian diet or living in a van are insufferable, making him seem like the most empty of dude-bros. He talks about climbing in such a technical way, that there's no art to it, no passion. He doesn't seem to entirely understand why he's compelled to do this incredibly dangerous thing. So the audience is never given much of a reason to care about that question either.

Since there's nothing much to probe in Alex's head, “Free Solo” instead tries to build material out of whether or not he'll succeed at his climb. Of course, there's not much suspense over whether or not he'll make it to the top of El Capitan. If he died during filming, “Free Solo” would obviously be an entirely different movie. Despite the foregone conclusion, so much attention is paid to the build-up of him making the climb. There are several premature, failed attempts, where he's too nervous to go far. The film also focuses a lot on Alex's girlfriend, who you feel immensely sorry for. The relationship is obviously doomed, as his extremely dangerous hobby makes her deeply uncomfortable. It's repeatedly confirmed throughout the film that free climbing is more important to him than her, that he'll probably die doing it some day. There's even an ill-advised attempt to blame Alex's performance anxiety on her, which is shitty. She seems like a nice person too.

Yet I think the positive notices “Free Solo” has received doesn't have much to do with Honnold. Instead, “Free Solo” does feature some virtuoso film making. The camera operators utilized drones to capture Alex's ascent, when they weren't just strapping themselves to the mountains he climbs. There's several stunning shots in the film. Such as a moment where a rival free climber falls from a very tall height. Your heart jumps into your throat until you realize he's wearing a parachute. The shots of Alex appearing tiny on the face of El Capitan, way up in the sky, are incredible. As are moments devoted to him squeezing into tiny crevices or dangling off perilous inclines. Instead of the laborious build-up, “Free Solo” probably should've been a hour-long television documentary devoted solely to this breathtaking footage.

I really think Honnold's total lack of camera presence is why “Free Solo” floundered for me. There are side-bars in the film that are interesting. Such as a list of other experienced free climbers who died doing their thing. One fatality occurred why the film was shooting, Alex's reaction being typically blank. A moment where a fan of Honnold's, dressed in a pink unicorn costume, meets him on the mountain sure is interesting. Ultimately, a documentary is only as good as its subject. Despite his incredible feats and skills, and the thrilling way they are captured on camera, Alex Honnold makes it difficult for a viewer to give a shit about him. [6/10]

OSCARS 2019: Border (2018)

The other night, I said the Academy usually turns its nose up at horror. This has generally been true in all but one category. Historically, the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category has been a chance for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy to get some AMPAS love. Notable winners include “American Werewolf in London,” “The Fly,” “Beetlejuice” and “Bram Stoker's Dracula.” At least, that's how it used to be. Blame it on the declining use of practical creature make-up or on the overall gentrification of awards bait but Best Make-Up has kind of started to suck in recent years. The shift seems to have started around 2007, when biopics heavy in aging make-up - “La Vie en Rose,” “The Iron Lady,” “Dallas Buyers Club” – started to push out the monsters. This is how “Suicide Squad” ended up becoming an Oscar winning movie. Voters' unwillingness to venture outside of certain perimeters has caused some foreign language films to unexpectedly score nominations. Following in the footsteps of “A Man Called Ove” and that one with the long title is “Border.” And, miracles upon miracles, this Swedish language film does have monsters of a sort in it.

Tina has always been told that she was born with a chromosome disorder, accounting for her unusual appearance and abnormal reproductive organs. She also has a unique ability to literally sniff out hidden items, making her well suited to her job as a border control agent. Her ability brings her in contact with two strange men. The first of which is smuggling child pornography on his phone, a capture that sees Tina being recruited by the Swedish government to uncover a pedophile ring. The second is Vore, a man with the same facial structure as Tina. Strangely attracted to him, she lets him move into the guest house in her home. Soon, Vore reveals that the two of them aren't humans but trolls. While Tina is enthused to embrace her true heritage at first, she soon discovers Vore's other secrets.

“Border” is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of “Let the Right One In.” Much like that film and novel, “Border” is an odd coming-of-age tale and a love story between two monsters. Tina is a little old for this kind of plot but “Border” is, nevertheless, about her discovering her body, learning who she is, and finding her purpose. Accepting her powers and using them to fight heinous crime gives her a drive that was missing previously. The romance with Vore is driven primary by her coming to understand her own heritage, feeling accepted for the first time. This leads to an incredibly weird sex scene, a moment that combines the visceral, the disgusting, the weirdly funny, and the oddly touching. Watching Tina come into her own, accepting herself, is sort of sweet even if “Border” goes about conveying this in the most uncomfortable, creepiest fashion possible.

There is something of a divide in “Border's” narrative, as the troll plot and the crime story don't seem to connect immediately. Yet it's definitely fun in its own way. The scenes of Tina literally sniffing out various infractions, from small things like teenagers sneaking booze into the country to major criminals, are fun to watch. The details of the child pornography ring is sickening. (“Let the Right One In” had a pedophile subplot too, so it's clearly a point of grim fascination for Lindqvist.) Yet seeing our oddball heroine self-actualize against such a clear cut evil is worthwhile. The sleuthing scenes, of her collaborating with the government and using her superpowers to find the responsible party, are compelling story telling.

Most of the reviews of “Border” seem to dislike when the crime plot overtakes the troll-sex plot. How exactly the two plots intertwine is easy to predict. The hidden motivations of a certain character are heavily foreshadowed. Even the bizarre plot details of the last third, which features another squirmy monster and some more body horror, can be anticipated. Despite these flaws, I find this turn dovetail with the coming-of-age story. Tina suffers a loss of innocence, learning that she can't trust everyone. She is given a choice, between her human roots and her troll heritage. In other words, as sudden as some of these plot turn seem, they are just as much about Tina's growth as a character as anything from the first half of the movie.

It's pretty unexpected that a movie as weird as “Border” got an Oscar nomination. Apparently, this was Sweden's submission for Best Foreign Language Film, which is probably how it got the Academy's attention. Yes, the make-up effects are excellent. Tina and Vore don't look like special effects at all, just normal living things that happen to be exceptionally ugly. The acting is excellent, with Eva Melander as Tina remaining likable and vulnerable despite the heavy makeup. Yet a movie featuring explicit troll sex is not the kind of thing I expected to appeal to Oscar voters. Then again, in a post-”Shape of Water” world, I guess anything is possible, as far as hot monster lovin' goes. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Of Fathers and Sons (2017)

Unfortunately, as long as the wars there rage on, documentary filmmakers will be drawn to the Middle East. Of course, a war zone is going to bring out the best and worst of humanity, creating the sort of naturally dramatic situations that make for compelling film making. One of the strongest films in last year's round-up of Academy Award nominated documentaries was “Last Men in Aleppo,” which was about the bloody Civil War in Syria. This year, the same category returns to the same country with “Of Fathers and Sons.” You can't blame the Academy for being attracted to this stuff because it's undoubtedly important types of films being made in a contested area.

Much like many of these other documentary makers, the director of “Of Fathers and Sons” risked life and limb to tell this story. Talal Derki pretended to be sympathetic to Salafi jidahism and would-be terrorists in the area in order to gain access to the families. He eventually befriends Abu Osama, a Muslim extremist who works as a mine remover. Abu is a huge fan of the Taliban and the September 11th terrorists attacks, naming the oldest of his two sons after Osama bin Laden. (Giving the kid the name Osama Osama.) Derki's camera follows the man and his sons, watching as the kids are indoctrinated into the ways of violence and hate. After Abu has a leg blown off by a mine, the boys are sent off to a terrorism training camp.

By taking his camera into the home of a fanatical would-be terrorist, Derki does an unlikely thing: He humanizes extremists. We see Abu doing normal, everyday thing. He plays with his kids, frequently in the kind of way any father would. He sits around, eating with his friends and talking about the things that concern him. (Which just happens to be punishing infidels.) More than anything else, Derki shows that Abu isn't a very good extremist. He is mocked by his neighbors. His attempts to shoot at someone off-screen goes awry, the man claiming his gun jammed. His friends often do not seem impressed by his exuberant shouts of support. Yet, no matter how disgusting or imbecilic a figure Abu is, you can't help but feel sorry for him when he looses his leg or his collection of beloved books are burned.

Yet do not mistake this intimacy for sympathy. Derki does capture some disturbing behavior, made all the more disturbing by how casual it is. The father teaches his sons to speak the language of violence. The boys capture a bird, eventually stabbing it to death and burning the dead body. Dad is not bothered by this behavior. The kids get into fights at school, throwing rocks at teachers and other students. When its discovered one of those boys is starting fights, his father smacks him. While playing with his youngest son, Abu's friend starts casually making jokes about electrocuting the child. Nobody in the household finds any of this unnerving. This is normal for them. When contrast with the youth of the brothers, the easy way they accept this violence becomes more disturbing.

That sense of unease only grows as “Of Fathers and Sons” continues and Osama Osama winds up in a terrorism training camp. Derki watches the horrendous training boys as young as seven undergo. They leap through flaming rings, forced to do chin-ups while being shot at. They even observe their play time through the lens of religious warfare. It's certainly disturbing to watch such young children being shipped off, carrying machine guns and told to kill. Yet Osama – who does poorly in school and can't make friends – flocks to these ideas. Obviously, because he wants to impress his father. In the film's final minutes, as Derki leaves Syria forever, he mentions how Osama would continue down this path of violence, while his brother would focus on school.

It's a sad, sad story. Yet “Of Fathers and Sons” isn't just a story of Islamic extremists. Its theme – of men being taught that violence is the only way they can communicate, of someone substituting actual potential with religious fanaticism – is not exclusive to the war in the Middle East. The disturbing frankness with which Derki captures this behavior definitely makes “Of Fathers and Sons” an important document of a country in crisis. It's not light viewing but films like this should be seen, as its educational in the truest sense of the world. [7/10]

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

OSCARS 2019: First Reformed (2017)

Paul Schrader knows what he's doing but rarely gets credit for it. You'd think having classics like “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” on his screenwriting resume would secure Schrader's reputation among America's most important filmmakers. Instead, his name doesn't come up nearly as often as it should. His first five features as director – running from “Blue Collar,” through “Hardcore” and the underrated remake of “Cat People,” and into “Mishima” – all have cult followings of some sort. Yet the number of motion pictures he's made since then have been largely ignored. I'm not suggesting disowned Nicolas Cage crime flicks or movies with Lindsey Lohan deserve a second look. However, I would hope the wave of critical praise that has greeted “First Reformed” will finally give one of American cinema's most enigmatic figures a little more respect. It got him his first Oscar nomination, because the Academy is among those that underappreciated Schrader.

Ernst Toller is the head pastor of First Reformed, a 250 year old church in upstate New York. He has recently decided to start keeping a journal, in hopes of reaffirming his faith during the church's re-dedication, which a local megachurch is sponsoring. He is having health problems of increasing severity and using alcohol to dull the constant pain. His concerns are drawn into sharp relief when parishioners – Michael and his pregnant wife Mary – ask him for council. Michael is an environmental activist, who protested a local factory ran by a man named Balq. Michael wonders if it's right to bring life into this world when humanity has inevitably pushed it towards environmental catastrophe. This awakens a crisis in Ernst.

“First Reformed” summons up and tackles about a hundred different issues. It has been self-described as an encapsulation of all the themes Schrader has wrestled with over the years. Yet the movie is most about how the human soul reacts in the face of hopelessness. This sense of despair ranges from the deeply personal to global in nature. Ernst became a pastor after his son died in Iraq. Despite saying he found solace in God, this is a pain he clearly has never totally processed. He feels deeply unsatisfied with his work. His congregation shrinks, more people flocking to the near-by megachurch, with First Reformed becoming a tourist attraction. (The quietness with which he responds to said tourists is one of the few moments of comedy in the film.) When Michael’s research forces him to confront the irreparable damage man has done to Earth, he has trouble correlating the inactive role religion plays in the world with the fear and rage he feels. He feels professionally, personally, and existentially useless. These questions – what do we do when life feels useless? When the planet seems to be hurdling towards total destruction? – are ones many people are feeling these days. I know I am. “First Reformed” provides no easy answers but stares into the dread these feelings cause.

Throughout the film, Ernst refers to the grievances of his life as “petty.” Yet these petty concerns seem to be piling up. Schrader lingers on the everyday anxiety this causes. Such as the excruciating pain Ernst feels when urinating blood or vomiting. Or the humiliation during the everyday work of running a church, unclogging a toilet, removing a dead animal caught on a fence, worrying about old plumbing, accidentally spilling food on a man at the soup kitchen. Is this Doing the Lord’s Work? He dismisses these feelings, including his depression, as prideful. Yet other people cause him anger too. Such as an obnoxious America First kid in the youth group he councils, a scene that so perfectly captures the frustration of our modern political discourse. Or Esther, a woman active in the church that has a crush on him. He eventually lashes out at her, causing another moment of uncomfortable comedy. If these concerns are as petty as Ernst describes them, why do they bother him so much?

The audience is made directly privy to these anxieties through voiceover, as Toller’s diary entries are narrated to us. The diary is an act of self-flagellation, as writing down and re-examinating his thoughts only increases his anxiety. Despite the storm raging inside, Ethan Hawks stays mostly quiet in the role. At least at first, he has a certain dignity to maintain, as an authority figure in his dwindling community. As the story goes on, as Toller’s fears become harder to control, Hawke’s performance gives over more and more to desperation. He stammers during heated debates about environmentalism before finally flailing into animal cries of agony at the very end. Hawke so perfectly captures the anxiety of our modern age, trying to hold it together even though everything, inside and out, is crumbling.

Schrader shot the film in 4:3 ratio, the black bars on both sides of the screen narrowing the eyes into the center of the frame. This causes the audience to even further examine the exact, precise images unfolding. Everything inside “First Reformed” has been placed there with a purpose. It’s a quiet, still film, much like attending church. The perfectly arranged nature of the film causes an odd beauty, in moments as brutal as a dead body discovered among a stainless field of snow. It also causes discomfort in the audience when that stillness is disturbed. Such as a hallucinogenic moment when Ernst and Mary levitate through scenes of natural beauty, before his thoughts of environmental destruction intrude, in a way any anxious person will recognize. Or the deeply disturbing ending, where the church-like hush of the film is disrupted by acts of violence, bodily lust, and a dream-like tone that leaves the exact implications of the events open to interpretation. This approach, a horrifying blackness intruding into the spiritual tranquility, extends to the musical score. It’s largely quiet and empty, save for when Lustmord’s churning, discordant noise bubbles up, a bad memory stabbing into a calm day.

There’s so much more to say about “First Reformed,” as Schrader litters the movie with symbols and question. What to make of Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, a pregnant woman that is as virginal seeming as her namesake? Or quizzical shots, like Peptol-Bismol swirling ugily into a tumbler of booze? It’s part of the director’s Transcendental style, his way of making movies that function more like visions than straight narratives. What makes “First Reformed” work the best for me is how accurately it captures living a life with anxiety, how any peace is squeezed out by an uncontrollable feeling that the world is ending or that your body is dying. It’s obviously one of last year’s best films. The Academy overlooking it in the Lead Actor, Director, Cinematography, and Best Picture categories truly calls for penance. [9/10]