Oscar and his Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

It’s become increasingly easy to see the Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, documentaries, and live action, and I’ve enjoyed them a great deal.

The documentaries generally give an in-depth examination of some small aspect of life or interesting person, usually overlooked and often a moving testament to the human spirit. (I’m thinking about the former prison inmates taught to staff a high-end Cleveland restaurant in last year’s Knife Skills or Joe’s Violin from 2017.)  

The live action films explore myriad stories of the human condition—last year’s film about the deaf child who wanted to learn sign language—including lighter moments, such as the absurdly funny 2017 Spanish film, Timecode.

Not this year. The Academy process resulted in nominees of almost unrelieved bleakness. We skipped the documentaries (on racism, Nazism, dying, and the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). The only film with a hopeful message was about young women in India trying to overcome the stigma of menstruation. That they needed to was discouraging enough. Maybe these films were truly outstanding, but the topics (except the last) are well-worn.

We had a similarly dubious assessment of the live action shorts nominees, noting the heavy “children in peril” theme, but made a last-minute decision to see them anyway. It would be a job of work to decide which was most depressing (links below are to trailers):

  • Madre (Spain) – the mother of a six-year-old has a shaky phone connection to her six-year-old son abandoned by his father and alone on a beach somewhere, he can’t tell her where. Great acting by Marta Nieto as the distraught and helpless mother. Director’s Notes.
  • Marguerite (Canada) – an elderly woman in failing health and her compassionate caregiver. Sweet acting, but breaks no new ground.
  • Fauve (Canada) – two children enter an abandoned, forbidden mine. Quicksand figures in. All I can say is, Why?
  • Skin (U.S.) – a heavily tattooed redneck, though a supportive father, lets his racism run rampant, which goes badly in an unexpected way. (Casting against type, FYI, the actor playing the dad is a ballet dancer.) Interesting, well-acted.
  • Detainment (Ireland)  – the most controversial of the films, it’s about a 1993 British case, in which two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old. The script is based on the police’s taped interviews with the boys. The actors playing the children and their parents do a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy for the detectives, either. The mother of the slain boy campaigned to have the film withdrawn from Oscar consideration because she hadn’t been interviewed for it; however, director Vincent Lambe wanted the actual police interviews to speak for themselves. The case has raised questions about the proper handling of juvenile defendants. In a chilling note, viewers are informed that the last two tapes from the interviews were deemed to disturbing to be heard by the jury and have never been revealed. Tough to watch but a strong contender.

Photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.

The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

Western writers have exploited the tiger, says Aditi Natasha Kini in a Literary Hub essay, that goes on to illustrate the interplay of literature and wildlife mismanagement.

Authors have been mesmerized by the elusive tiger’s beauty, stunned by its cunning, and fascinated by its ferocity. Whereas a lion is social and, according to no less a wildlife expert than Gunther Gebel-Williams, tends to want to get along; tigers don’t care about you, not even about each other at times, as the recent London Zoo tragedy attests.

Alas, our fascination has been deadly for the tigers. “Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?” Kini asks.

Hard to believe in this era of heightened consciousness that a New York Times South Asia bureau chief “a few months ago,” Kini says, started writing admiringly about the hunt for a tiger deemed menacing to Indian villages. Despite the editor’s “several breathless articles,” certainly this writing did not generate the bloodlust of a century ago, when an estimated 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925.

Kini draws a connection between this murderous spree and the vilification of tigers in literature and popular culture. They came to be portrayed as evil, monstrous, and murderous. Jungle creatures, “especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it.”

The near-extermination of wild tigers becomes another environmental depredation that naturally devolves from what Kini calls “the narrative of human supremacy.” Now, one legacy of that narrative contributes to global warming, and the habitat loss likely to result will provide a further threat to the species.

The World Wildlife Fund’s estimate that more tigers live in U.S. backyards than in the wild has received fairly wide publicity. Nevertheless, four states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—have no laws at all about keeping dangerous wild animals as “pets,” including this week in an abandoned Houston garage. The reduced circumstances in which many of these animals live is the exact opposite of the iconic creatures of fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing tragedy.

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

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Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

While a bright line has traditionally separated news and entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film historian Max Alvarez showed clips of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.

Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.

Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.

The Post, Meryl Streep

Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal decision by Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both films, the journalist is the hero.

A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger (2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer). In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect information and relentless attack.