Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Square (2017)

Boy, people sure like to name motion pictures after the geometrical shape composed of four straight lines. When I say “The Square,” what movie am I talking about? Am I referring to the underseen and underrated Australian thriller from 2008? Am I talking about the 2013 Egyptian documentary, which was also nominated for an Oscar back in 2014? Am I referring to at least two other documentaries that exist with the same name? Or am I discussing the 2017 Swedish film that is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars? In this case, I'm discussing the latter most movie. Gee, who would've thought that a square, perhaps the simplest shape anyone could draw, would inspire so many filmmakers?

This particular “Square” is set at the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, housed within the former Royal Palace. The film follows Christian, the museum's troubled curator. Christian does not have an easy job. He struggles to find ways to keep the museum's artwork relevant in a fast paced, ADHD-afflicted world. He struggles as a single father to two rambunctious young girls. His sex life and the egotistic artists he deals with are also sources of frustration. Mostly, the museum's latest star attraction is what's causing him the most grief. A simple square painted onto the ground, the artist set out to make a symbol of altruism and giving. The advertising company the museum hired produced a sensationalist YouTube video that has become a meme, attracting attention and controversy to the museum.

When you look at the films usually nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, you do not usually see an upbeat collection of movies. Just due to the nature of the beast, the films that get attention usually deal with weighty or difficult topics. “The Square” does, in its way, tackle heavy issues. Yet it's also a really funny film. Much of “The Square” deals with contrasting the world of pretentious, high art with more earthly manners. A wordy interview with an artist is interrupted by an audience member who claims to have Tourettes, filling the quiet conference room with shouted profanity. The artist's display is piles of dirt and gravel laid out in a room. At one point, a janitor nearly vacuums up the artwork. Later, the female journalist Christian had a one-night stand with attempts to talk to him while an odd art piece – a pile of chairs, that wavers back and forth and makes a loud, mechanical noise – repeatedly interrupts them. Christian goes from the high class world of the museum to slam-dancing in a noisy club. A cellphone rings during another artistic display. In “The Square,” heady, thoughtful ideas are constantly being derailed by lower instincts.

Pretty much any movie about art or a museum has to tackle the same concept: What role does art play in our modern lives? “The Square” deals with this too, though it ties in with the movie's comedic instincts as well. The main plot, of the museum trying to sell abstract art to the world, directly grapples with this. The weird, quiet art displays are outright compared with other displays, like the flashy cheerleader competition Christian's daughters run through. There's also the question of what the boundaries of art are. By seeing stuff like piles of dirt or chairs presented as art, the audience questions what art even is. “The Square” also questions the limits of art. In a key scene, a shirtless performance artist walks through a dining room and acts like a wild chimpanzee. Eventually, the act gets violent. It's a darkly hilarious and unforgettable scene, inspired by a real stunt and starring one of the performers from the modern “Planet of the Apes” series.

A major subplot in “The Square” involves someone stealing Christian's cellphone and cuff links. The phone's built-in GPS reveals that it's located at a local apartment building. An assistant convinces Christian to mail an accusing, threatening letter to every tenant in the building, hoping to find the thief. This backfires in ways both hilarious and tense. Homeless people constantly appear at the margins of the film's stories. All of this feeds back to the titular art pieces, a simple square on the floor that encourages people to be kind to each other. It's a simple honorable message that nearly everyone in the movie ignores. (Including the museum, who sells the art piece with a video of a child exploding.) “The Square,” using humor and biting satire, asks us why such a simple idea is so difficult to adhere by.

Much of “The Square's” humor comes from its great lead performance. Claes Bang effortlessly switches back and forth between English and Swedish, showing nary an accent. Christian is a man constantly thrust into awkward situations. Whether its his daughters slamming a door, a poor kid confronting him, a tense press conference, or an awkward post-sex conversation with an ill-advised hook-up,  Christian responses with stuttering, self-deflating clumsiness. Bang is hilarious in the part. Elisabeth Moss also appears the journalist Bang's sleeps with. Aside from the surprisingly frank and genuinely erotic sex scene, Moss shows a lot of fine comedic talent in her handful of scenes.

“The Square” is one of the longest films I've watched for this year's Oscar marathon, playing over two and a half hours. Compared to the some of the other long films I've watched this month, “The Square” just breezes by, making me laugh and making my jaw drop. It's a frequently hilarious film that conveys some heavy ideas with humor and striking images. Out of the Foreign Language Film nominees I've seen, they've all been really good. However, this one might be the closest to a straight-up masterpiece, a daring and amusing movie that lingers in the memory and makes you laugh and think. [9/10]

OSCARS 2018: A Fantastic Woman (2017)

When it comes to the different categories, I’m going to say some are more widely watched by Academy voters than others. I would wager the shorts are the least watched, just do to a lack of interest. It seems a lot of Academy voters don’t take animation very seriously, so the Animated Features don’t get too much attention. Lastly, the Foreign Language films probably get overlooked a lot, simply do to the lack of well-known movie stars or flashy awards campaigns. (The same can likely be said of the Documentary nominees.) For me, this year, most of the Foreign Language film nominees were sadly not available. Luckily, I was able to see “A Fantastic Woman” in the theater, so that’s cool.

Marina is a trans-woman living in modern day Chile. She works as a waitress during the week and sings in bars on the weekend. Currently, Marina is dating and living with an older man named Orlando. After a romantic night, Orlando awakes feeling unwell. As Marina rushes him to the hospital, Orlando tumbles down the stairs and hits his head. Shortly after arriving, Orlando dies of an aneurysm. Orlando's family, who did not approve of his relationship with Marina and refuses to understand the woman's condition, do everything they can to exclude Marina from the grieving period. She struggles to express herself in this situation.

“A Fantastic Woman” is one of those movies that introduces a likable, nice lead character then does a bunch of shitty things to them. Much of the movie is devoted to Marina enduring one humiliation after another. The world refuses to let her process the trauma of her dear lover dying suddenly. Minutes after Orlando dies, a police officer questions Marina like she's a potential murderer and then misgenders her. An investigator bothers her at work, alternating between accusing her of being a murderer or a victim. Orlando's family treats her the worst. The son shows up at the apartment, says a bunch of insulting shit, and then threatens to steal her dog and kick her out. The family refuses to let her attend the funeral. Eventually, the son and his friends abduct Marina, wrap tape around her face, and drop her in an alley. Marina, who is always a pleasant and kind person, has done nothing to deserve this. Which makes “A Fantastic Woman” a somewhat downbeat, frequently uncomfortable viewing.

I can only assume director Sebastian Leilo did this intentionally, as “A Fantastic Woman” is partially a film about the difficulties transgender people experience in the modern world. Occasionally, Leilo's symbolism is a little too astute. Such as a dream where Marina, who is seemingly being attacked by the whole world, walks against an increasingly strong wind. Over all, Leilo's direction is strong. He opens the film with bright colors, warm blues and purples flashing across the screen. There are other expressive flourishes, such as a slow zoom into an empty locker. Or a sudden song and dance fantasy sequence inside a gay bar, one of the few times Marina as a character is allowed a moment of pure joy. It's a really nice looking film.

Usually, Leilo trusts his actors to do good work. The film stars trans-actress and opera singer Daniela Vega. Vega's performance is raw and vulnerable without making the character seem weak. In fact, Marina is very strong. She constantly faces humiliation and scrutiny but keeps her composure. It's not until the very end that Marina's frustration finally boils over, allowing a moment of cathartic action. Even then, her pain and grief must quickly be turned inward again. The film ends with a stunning musical display from Vega, Marina taking her pain and fear and transforming it into a pure expression of song. It's a star-making performance and hopefully Vega will get more roles.

“A Fantastic Woman” is an emotionally complex but eventually touching film, showing someone going through a hard time in a world that refuses to accept them for who they are. It features an impressive performance from Daniela Vega and is generally pretty to look at. Some are saying its the front runner to win the Oscar. I still haven't seen enough of the nominees in that category to say for sure. There are others I enjoyed more but this would be a bold, powerful choice for the award. [7/10]

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Icarus (2017)

Can someone explain to me what the big deal about doping in professional sports is? It's probably because I've never, ever given a shit about sports but I don't get the outrage. Oh yes, pro-sports are suppose to be about athletics and fairness. But, come on, people actually watch sports to see peak-level athletes pull off insane feats. Doesn't doping make these crowd-pleasing moments of superhuman aptitude more plausible? Why can't we humans use science to make ourselves as god-like as possible? We all know they all do it anyway. Luckily, for plebs like myself that simply don't understand the problem, here's a documentary to explain why doping in athletics is so bad. “Icarus” is another Oscar-nominated doc from Netflix concerning Russia's attempt to rig the 2014 Olympics by pumping their guys full of super-juice. Russia sure likes rigging things, don't they?

Documentary filmmaker Bryan Fogel had an idea. Despite training hard, he does poorly in a bike race. After hearing about the Lance Armstrong steroid abuse scandal, he decides to start doing drugs to see how this improves his abilities. He contacts Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the scientist responsible for monitoring Olympic athletics doping in Russia. What began as an idea for a documentary takes a hard turn when Rodchenkov reveals that Russia has been doping its athletes for years. Soon, the doctor had made himself an international target.

“Icarus” begins as one type of movie before radically shifting gears and becoming a totally different movie. You'll have to excuse me for thinking the first movie is way more interesting. Fogel totally throws morality and fairness out the window, in hopes of seeing how it'll effect his chances. I think we've all wondered about giving ourselves unfair advantages like that, whether the physical changes and tolls would be worth the benefit. Considering Fogel actually ends up doing even worse after doping than he did before, I guess “Icarus” proves that cheaters never prosper. This also leads him to having an odd friendship with Rodchenkov. The Russian doctor, for some reason, almost never wears a shirt. The two chat over the internet and talk about their dogs. It's pretty funny.

Of course, “Icarus” was not destined to be about more general, relatable human truths like that. Instead, the film quickly becomes about international scandal and political intrigue. Some guy named Dick Pound shows up multiple times. A colleague of Rodchenkov dies mysteriously, from a heart attack that looks a lot like a homicide. Grigory makes himself a target, eventually fleeing Russia and undergoing great scrutiny to bring the truth – that Russia is hella into doping – to light. I didn't find this compelling at all. The specifics of Russia's scam are shocking dull. Considering the insane lengths athletes will go to cheat, their method essentially boiled down to trading dirty piss for clean piss. Dr. Rodchenkov seems like a nice guy but the shift from the small and personal to the huge and global gives the viewer whiplash.

For a documentary, “Icarus” is pretty over-edited. Fogel resists making his film a series of talking heads. In fact, he goes too far in the other direction. The filmmaker edits his own training montage like a movie trailer, with driving music and lots of fast cuts. The film constantly shifts between webcam footage and professionally shot footage. After the focus shifts to the Russian conspiracy, Fogel introduces a heavy-handed “1984” framing device, where Rodchenkov reads from Orwell's text and illustrations appear on screen. It's all seems a little excessive, an attempt to dress up a story that already stretches across the globe.

Maybe “Icarus” just bugged me because it's trying to be two movies. If Fogel wanted to make a documentary about the Russian scandal and Rodchenkov going public, he should've focused on that. The first act just draws the audience in, thinking they're getting something personal, before being revealed as a colder movie about international affairs. And it's long for a doc too, going over two hours. Watched during a time when the current winter Olympics are winding down, “Icarus” just feels more like a belabored attempt to make me care about something I couldn't have any less interest in. [5/10]

Monday, February 26, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Molly's Game (2017)

I've spent a lot of February talking about movies that made a surprisingly strong showing at the Oscars, films that ended up being better liked by the Academy than expected. But what about the opposite, movies that were pegged as big Oscar contenders early on that only managed to score a few nominees? “Molly's Game” must've seemed like a good early bet. The film is the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin, maybe the most critically acclaimed screenwriter working currently and a previous Oscar winner. The film was based on a flashy true story, one that overlapped with Hollywood. At one point, it seemed like Jessica Chastain – a previous nominee that some think is overdue a win – was absolutely going to win an Oscar for this. Instead, “Molly's Game” earned a single nomination.

Molly Bloom was raised to be a champion. Her strict, psychologist father raised her two older brothers to become an Olympic skiing champion and a chess prodigy. Molly's own promising skiing career is cut short by a traumatic spine injury. In the aftermath, Molly seeks out other forms of employment. She gets a job as a waitress in a sleazy club, which leads to her to becoming the personal assistant to a successful real estate agent. He quickly gets Molly to help him run his underground high stakes poker club, which includes movie stars, billionaires, and other members of the elite. Soon enough, Molly is running her own highly exclusive poker game. This leads Molly down a path of drugs, crime, violence, writing a not-quite-tell-all book, and being prosecuted by the government.

In his transference from screenwriter to director, Aaron Sorkin has lost exactly none of his trademark style. If you had no idea who wrote or directed this movie, within minutes, you'd probably guess Sorkin's name. The film is defined by a hyper-verbal style. Very little time passes when Molly Bloom isn't narrating her life story in a verbose fashion or having long, snappy conversations with other people. The film is full of sarcastic, snippy lines, each character carrying at least a dozen bon mots in their pockets at all times. This fleet-footed quality carries over into every aspect of the film. “Molly's Game” is quickly and snappily edited. The score is full of rock songs, providing a high energy to the story.

It's a good thing that “Molly's Game” is so zippy, even with its far-too-long run time of two hours and twenty minutes. Because I really didn't care that much about the plot. Listen, nobody has ever been able to explain poker to me in any way that made sense. Molly's decisions going towards the trial, the gangsters and crimes she gets caught up in, the various people who have screwed her or gotten screwed: I didn't care about any of that. What kept me interested in “Molly's Game” is Jessica Chastain. She's insanely good. Chastain is the perfect delivery system for Sorkin's hyper-kinetic dialogue. With an indomitable personality that is always sharp and on the ball, Chastain almost single-handedly makes 'Molly's Game” interesting.

When not focusing on the fairly tedious plot mechanics, “Molly's Game” touches on some interesting things. As a movie about men and women, it has some intriguing ideas. Most of the men in Molly's lives are terrible. Her dad is a petty tyrant, an emotionally distant bully who lorded his authority over his daughter. We later discover he serially cheated on Molly's mom. (Sorkin being Sorkin, Molly's dad – played by an acerbic Kevin Costner – gets a big, redeeming moment.) Her boss is an even bigger douchebag, a racist and a sexist. Client X, the high-roller celebrity played by Michael Cera, enjoys screwing Molly out of money way too much. It's generally accepted that Client X was really Tobey Macquire, which will make you hate “Spider-Man” in retrospect. Maybe being surrounded by douchebags is why Molly feels the need to be as dominating as she is.

“Molly's Game” is way too fucking long and a lot of it went over my head. Simply because I don't give a shit about poker. The segue into drug addiction felt deeply unnecessary. Sorkin doesn't slack off on his questionable gender politics either, especially since nearly every woman in the film wears low-cut dresses. Still, “Molly's Game” has a fantastic performance from Jessica Chastain. The supporting cast includes some solid appearances from Idris Elba and Chris O'Dowd. The energy level is kept pretty high, even as the story digresses in ways I didn't quite grasp. Good for Aaron Sorkin having such an immediately recognizable style, I guess. [6/10]

OSCARS 2018: On Body and Soul (2017)

It's not uncommon for themes to emerge throughout an Oscar season. Considering the political climate of the past year, you'd really expect two concepts to occupy discussion: Race and gender. Both have come up a lot, with your “Get Outs,” your “Mudbounds,” your “Lady Birds.” However, another reoccurring theme has sprung up this year too.  Depending on how you interpret certain characters, “On Body and Soul” is the third film I've reviewed this month to prominently feature a character on the autism spectrum. Considering how awareness of these conditions have risen in recent years, I guess this isn't surprising. Whatever the reason why, it's fair to say that “On Body and Soul” tackles this concept in a way not quite like any other film.

This Hungarian film follows Endre and Maria. Both work in a slaughterhouse. Endre, an older man with a disabled right arm, works on the office and the floor. Maria, a younger woman with some form of autism, works as a quality inspector. After some steroids are stolen from the slaughterhouse, a psychologist interviews all the employees. She discovers that Maria and Endre are having the same dreams: Of being deer, running through the snow and eating leaves together. Maria and Endre realize the two have a connection. They attempt to form a relationship but it proves more difficult than expected.

“On Body and Soul” is a film with an odd tone. The film, overall, has a very gentle, lyrical atmosphere. This is most apparent in the dream sequences. These are composed of incredibly still scenes of deer, slowly grazing through snowy fields. They watch errant leaves stick through the snow or gently flowing streams. It's really beautiful stuff. Content-wise, this is in contrast to some of the film's other elements. Such as a non-simulated scene of a cow being slaughtered and cut into pieces. Or fairly graphic sex scenes, including a shot of hardcore pornography. Yet all of “On Body and Soul” carries the same dream-like atmosphere. This creates a film that washes over the viewer in a delightful, languid way.

What I liked the most about “On Body and Soul” is Maria. She is a young woman that has a very direct way of dealing with things. She goes about her job with an acute, accurate, unfailingly focused sense of determination. When she realizes something is evolving between herself and Endre, she goes about falling in love in the same fashion. She goes to a record store and listens to a huge pile of CDs – across all genres, until the store closes – in order to find romantic music. She systematically watches pornography, chewing gummy bears as she goes. She goes against her autistic inclinations and practices touching and cuddling. A lesser actress would've reduced Maria to a list of quirks. (She play-acts person-to-person interactions with Playmobil figurines, as one example of quirky behavior.) Alexandra Borbely, however, brings an incredible sense of empathy to the part. She makes Maria  fully-formed human being.

Maria lives a lonely life and perhaps doesn't naturally notice it. Endre, meanwhile, is all-too-aware of how lonely he is. His useless arm is a nuisance but it's enough to create a divide between himself and other people. His attempt to court Maria are awkward. They end up napping in his apartment together, Endre sleeping on the floor on an air mattress. (This isn't the only awkward romantic interaction. A female janitor gives Maria tips on dressing sexy, which she doesn't entirely understand.) Geza Morcsanyi imbues a deep sense of melancholy into the part without loosing sight of Endre's charm and humor.

“On Body and Soul” doesn't nail every aspect. Maria makes a sudden decision near the story's climax that I wasn't entirely sold on. Some of the side characters in the film are unnecessary distractions to the film's point. For the most part though, “On Body and Soul” is a charming and beautifully composed motion picture. It's a quirky love story that doesn't lean too hard into the twee-ness. It's funny without being thoughtful, a surprisingly touching movie about love blooming in the most unlikely of places, told in a deeply lyrical fashion. [9/10]

Sunday, February 25, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (2017)

Pretty much from the moment I started following the Oscars, I've been ragging on Meryl Streep. Totally apart from how you feel about her as a performer – she's certainly had good and bad roles – she gets nominated for Academy Awards way too fucking much. I'm not alone in this criticism of Streep. Yet another prominent performer is quickly becoming Streep's male equivalent. The Academy really likes Denzel Washington. He's won two Oscars and has been nominated six other times. Within the last five years alone, he's been nominated three times. Denzel is good but is he really that good? His latest nod is for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a movie that received fairly mediocre reviews. Is this a truly exceptional Washington performance or did he fill a slot perhaps better occupied by another actor?

For many years, Roman J. Israel has worked as one of two partners in a law firm. The odd, possibly on-the-spectrum Israel mostly stays in the office, perhaps not having the right temperament for one-and-one interaction. When his partner has a heart attack, Roman is suddenly thrust into this position. A life-long activist, Roman has struggled for years to make the world a better place. Following a string of bad luck, including being let go from his law firm, Roman decides to do something selfish, unethical, and illegal. At first, it pays off for him. However, his conscious and other circumstances soon chip away at him.

On paper, the idea of a lauded performer like Denzel playing an ambiguously autistic character sounds like a recipe for disaster. Is just going to be another actor miming a disability in an attempt to win awards, right? Well, whether or not Israel is genuinely neuro-divergant, as opposed to just eccentric, is never quite confirmed. Moreover, Washington makes the guy genuinely likable. He has his quirks. He eats peanut butter sandwiches every day. He never goes anywhere without his iPod, listening to classic soul records. One of his favorite possessions is a bulldog statue. He has memorized the entire legal code. Denzel wears a frizzy wig and slumps his shoulders. Washington extends past these surface quirks and finds Israel's soul, as someone struggling to do right in a frequently troubled world. Considering the crappy things that happen to him, you can't help but feel bad for the guy.

Spending the first half establishing Roman's ironclad ethics, there's a perverse thrill to watching him go the other way. Usually, a fall from grace like this is a tragic circumstance. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” it's a deliberate choice of the character. And it works out for him, at least for a while! There's a delightfully unexpected montage of Roman eating donuts, hanging out on a beach, buying a fancy apartment, and generally enjoying his newfound wealth. Naturally, this elation is short-lived. Soon, the film turns into a very internal type of thriller. Though there's an external threat, most of the tension comes from seeing how Roman will justify his own decisions. This peaks with a fantastic sequence, set rather too fittingly to a slowed down version of the Chambers Brothers' “Time Has Come Today.”

Granted, there's a lot of shit about “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” that doesn't add up. The legal thriller element of the story fall fairly flat. The legalese and outcomes of trial seem less important that Roman's personal struggle. A sequence where the title character is mugged feels very out-of-place. A subplot, concerning Israel building a massive folder for a landmark case, really clatters along with little point. There's a deeply unnecessary romantic subplot, that adds little to the plot and seems inserted more for its own sake than anything else. A scene devoted to Israel talking to a room full of young, hip activist comes off as hopelessly tone-deaf. These are fair criticism to level at the film.

The film is the latest from director Dan Gilroy, who previously made the excellent “Nightcrawler.” Most reviewers and fans have seen “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” as a step down in quality from Gilroy's previous feature. I doubt this one will be reconsidered much going forward, since it does have a genuinely messy screenplay. Yet I found the movie and its main character surprisingly endearing. Did Denzel really earn that nomination? I mean, truthfully, just for variety's sake, I probably would've preferred someone else to get the nod. Having said that, I really liked Washington in this so who knows? I'm wrong often. [7/10]

Saturday, February 24, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Mudbound (2017)

As far as award season narratives go, 2018 has defied one or two. Maybe the Academy actually is changing. One of presuppositions was that the Oscars hate to see movies distributed via digital streaming. “Mudbound,” a critically acclaimed Netflix production, was widely expected to be snubbed. Instead, the film scored four nominations, at least one in the bigger category of Best Supporting Actress. Though “Mudbound” seems unlikely to walk away with any Oscars at the start of next month, the fact that it got nominated at all is pretty surprising. Maybe that talk about bringing younger people into the voting body actually did amount to something.

“Mudbound” is the story of two families, both living in 1940s Mississippi. The white McAllan family – Henry has recently married Laura, the two quickly gaining two daughters – are promised a house in a nice part of town. It's a scam, the building already being promised to someone else. Instead, they end up moving into a dilapidated, small home in a mud field. Living on the same property is the black Jackson family. Conflict soon arises, mostly thanks to Henry's deeply racist father. As World War II begins, Henry's brother Jamie and the oldest Jackson son, Ronsel, are deployed to Europe. Upon returning home, the two men form a friendship. This causes the racial tension in the town to boil over.

“Mudbound” is a melodrama, full of high emotion and socially conscious issues. The film is based on a novel by Hilary Jordan and feels fittingly novel-like. The exact amount of time the story occupies is never specified but considering it begins before World War II and ends sometime well after it, I'd say “Mudbound” covers about a  decade of history. Lots of stuff happens in that time. And not all of it is compelling. A plot point about a neighbor of the McAllan family murdering her husband seems especially extraneous. A subplot about Laura having romantic feelings for her brother-in-law is only occasionally mentioned and fizzles out before the end. The film frequently shifts narrators, several different members of both families gaining voice-overs. In a book, when divided by chapters, this is probably fine. In a movie, the constant change of perspective is disorientating.

The most compelling aspect of the film doesn't even emerge until about an hour into the movie. As a soldier on the battle front in World War II, Ronsel is treated no differently than anyone else. He takes orders, he fights for his country, he watches his friends die, he falls in love with a white German woman. When he returns home to Mississippi, he can't even walk through a grocery store door without being harassed and referred to as a slur. The only person who seems to understand Ronsel is Jamie. The two relate as veterans, as Jamie's PTSD is slowly leading him towards alcoholism. That the idea of a black man and a white man just being friends was enough to steer up racial intolerance in the 1940s south is disheartening. But likely, and sadly, true to life. “Mudbound” works best when focusing on Ronsel and Jamie's friendship and the struggles they face.

I'm tempted to call “Mudbound's” approach to social issues heavy-handed. Jonathan Banks plays Henry's father, probably one of the ugliest and most disgusting fictional racist I've seen recently. He's such an asshole that he even mocks his own son, a clearly shell-shocked war vet, for not being enough of a man. Yet people like this doubtlessly existed. Somehow more insidious is Jason Clarke's Henry. He's not outwardly racist to his black neighbors yet he willingly supports the prejudice of the day. “Mudbound's” gritty southern atmosphere, which mostly exists thanks to the washed-out and grimy cinematography, peaks with a bracing climax. Yes, the Klu Klux Klan inevitably puts in an appearance, the film's racial tension exploding towards intense violence.

“Mudbound” didn't draw me in. That's just the way it is sometimes. While the performances are generally strong, it seems many of the film's more interesting characters – Carey Mulligan as a put-upon wife – are pushed increasingly towards the story's margins. The film frequently struck me as a compromised adaptation, trying to squeeze a novel's content into a movie's run time, keeping some elements but forced to cut other, clarifying moments. Or maybe the book is just like this too. I don't know, I haven't read it. It doesn't surprise that “Mudbound” would find praise and raves. Personally, it just didn't work for me. [5/10]

Friday, February 23, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Big Sick (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 22, 2018

OSCARS 2017: The Florida Project (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Breadwinner (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Disaster Artist (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

OSCARS 2018: Strong Island (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Loving Vincent (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

OSCARS 2018: I, Tonya (2017)

A while ago, for reasons now I can't exactly recall, I looked up Tonya Harding on Wikipedia. I was six years old in 1994 when the entire scandal went down and only had vague memories of it, filtered through years of late night jokes and Weird Al songs. Upon hearing the ice skater's life story, I was struck by how compellingly unusual it was, thinking it would make a good film. Only a few days later, I read that a movie about Harding's life was in development. It was a rather cosmic bit of timing. From the moment images and trailers came out, it was apparent that “I, Tonya” wasn't going to be quite your typical Oscar-friendly biopic.

The film is framed by interviews with Harding, her mother, her former coach and her ex-husbands. Raised by an abusive mother and a father who taught her to hunt and work on cars, she was a bit of a tomboy. However, Tonya had one love above all: Ice skating. She began classes at four, pushed by her harsh mother. By the time she was a teenager, she could perform a triple axel, one of the most difficult maneuvers in skating. Her skill and raw talents won her medals but judges found her attitude off-putting. A volatile relationship with an asshole boyfriend and technical failures prevent her from grabbing the Gold at the Olympics. Eventually, a plot is cooked to sabotage a rival.

“I, Tonya” gives Harding the fair treatment she's been denied for far too long. She had a very hard life, casually abused by a harsh, emotionally distant mother and then hit and attacked by an emotionally unstable boyfriend/husband. “I, Tonya,” for a while, makes it look like LaVona Harding's shitty behavior and constant mistreatment somehow made Tonya stronger or harder... Before dismissing this, in a hilarious and blunt way. Attention is draw to how cruel and imbecilic the people around Tonya were. This does not excuse her of whatever wrong doing she played in what happened but a great deal of context is provided. More than anything else, “I, Tonya” makes you really like Harding. She's portrayed as scrappy, independent, and insightful in her own way, refusing to back down from those that treated her unfairly.

Craig Gillespie's film is also really funny. Some of the characters and events in the film are so outrageous, fact truly being stranger than fiction, that a natural humor emerges. Such as Jeff Gillooly's idiotic best friend, Shawn, a compulsive liar who still lives with his mom. Or the frequently outrageous behavior of Harding's own mother. The interview framing device allows the movie to frequently break the fourth wall. Harding and other characters will directly address the audiences, either dismissing or confirming the events portrayed on-screen. Gillespie's direction matches this pitch. The camera often races through the ice rink with Harding, matching the speed and grace of her movements, further impacting on the audience the amount of skill involved in her routine.

Unlike many Academy-approved biopics, “I, Tonya” is not just a delivery system for some showy performances. Which isn't to say the performances aren't showy. Despite appearing in quite a few high-profile movies, this is the first time I've really been sold on Margot Robbie. Robbie is hilarious and powerful, biting into Harding's dialogue, spitting wild statements like venom. As LaVona Harding, Allison Janney is essentially playing an evil version of Bonnie, her character on the sitcom “Mom.” She almost never smiles, using every opportunity to undermine her daughter's success. Janney makes LaVona's outrageous behavior funny without underselling what a monster she was, painting a picture of a heartless woman. Sebastian Stan, the buff Winter Solider, is unrecognizable in the scrawny Jeff Gillooly. Stan sacrifices any actorly dignity as the nervous, pathetic shrimp of a toxic man. (Though the film actually underplays how terrible of a person Gillooly was in real life.) It's a fantastic cast.

Honestly, my biggest disappointment about “I, Tonya” is that it focuses primarily on Harding's ice skating career and the following scandal. I was really hoping the movie would make more room for the boxing, the sex tape, the rock band, that time she saved an old lady's life. She's had a truly bizarre, unique life. Some of the needle drops on the soundtrack are a little too on-the-nose too. (And I wish they could've used that lovely Sufjan Stevens song somewhere.) For the most part, “I, Tonya” is a funny, sad, energetic, and beautifully performed motion picture. I don't know which notorious nineties woman will get the biopic treatment next – Lorena Bobbitt? Mary Kay Letourneau? – but I'd welcome that wave of revisionism, that recognizes these women as people, not punchlines. [7/10]