The short films nominated for Oscars are on view via various streaming outlets. We watched the five “live action” nominees over the weekend and while, year after year, all the films aren’t necessarily funny or uplifting, they’re almost always interesting.
Consciously or unconsciously, the creative teams behind this year’s nominees must have been immersed in the George Floyd aftermath, because four of the five deal with a character’s interaction with uniformed authorities–police, border guards, corrections officers, most of whom are frustratingly intransigent. The fifth nominee lacks cops, but deals with building understanding between people with totally different backgrounds.
“The Present” by Farah Nabulsi documents the struggle of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, where even the simplest act leads to a morass of difficulties. Performances were good, but the story is predictable. (Tastes differ. IndieWireliked this one best.)
In “White Eye,” an Eritrean immigrant buys a used bicycle, which turns out to have been stolen. The bike’s owner wants it back. The police know only one way to react. Nice twist at the end.
“Feeling Through” involves a young, homeless black man who encounters a blind and deaf white man and helps him across the street. Produced by Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin, it’s a feel-good movie that shows the blossoming of an act of kindness.
“Two Distant Strangers” is an urban Groundhog Day with guns. A young black man repeatedly dreams about (foresees?) a dangerous confrontation with an older white cop. In any version of reality, can this ever turn out OK?
In “The Letter Room,” Oscar Isaac plays Richard, a surprisingly genial corrections officer who screens prisoner mail. (The film was written and directed by Isaac’s wife, Elvira Lind.) One of the death-row inmates receives numerous steamy letters from his girlfriend, and another begs Richard to make sure his daughter’s letters haven’t been lost in the system. Two nice reversals at the end.
New Plaza Cinema hosted a presentation last week by film historian Max Alvarez on how the movie industry has portrayed black-white relations for roughly the last sixty years. For decades, Hollywood had chosen the safe path and avoided interracial stories, but toward the end of the 1950s, cracks started appearing in the film industry’s wall of opposition.
In both the United States and Europe, the trail-blazers were often independent filmmakers, who were less hampered by the challenges Hollywood faced. Independents were not as concerned about running afoul of local and regional censorship offices and, as a result, did not fall prey to the pattern of self-censorship affecting the big studios. It wasn’t just political timidity that made Hollywood reluctant; there were economic considerations as well. They were simply not willing to risk losing the Southern U.S. market. All of this conspired to create what Alvarez called “an untenable atmosphere for artists.”
The emergence and popularity of Miami-born actor Sidney Poitier helped shatter many taboos. The doctor he played in No Way Out (1950) and his breakout appearances in The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958) showed that movies involving Black characters could be financially (and artistically) successful, even when they tackled sensitive topics. While his award-winning performances broke ground for Black characters (Lilies of the Field, 1963; A Patch of Blue, 1965; and To Sir with Love, 1967), he was criticized for taking on roles that were “too nice.” By the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released (1967), a white woman marrying a black man—especially if that man was Sidney Poitier—didn’t create the shock it would have a decade earlier; more important, it was a hit in Southern states too.
By 1967, Hollywood could no longer ignore the Civil Rights movement, and Black characters began having a more realistic edge. Tougher stories appeared. Although five years earlier, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) had tackled the issue of Southern racism, it was set in the 1930s, letting audiences reassure themselves that “that was then.” In the Heat of the Night (1967) with Poitier and Rod Steiger (pictured) brought viewers up-to-date. The film included “the slap heard around the world,” when Poitier’s character, police detective Virgil Tibbs, returned the slap of a racist white plantation owner (an action Poitier insisted be in the script if he were to play the part).
The trope of the racist Southern sheriff was revisited in the 2018 film, Green Book, set in 1962, when classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his white driver are arrested. Unlike Virgil Tibbs, Shirley doesn’t hit back, he simply gets in touch with Bobby Kennedy. There still are racial justice stories to tell. Two brand new films available in streaming that delve into racial politics are HBOMax’s Judas and the Black Messiah, about the FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (trailer), and, on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday (trailer).
Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:
Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)
North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)
The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)
The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)
The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)
Years ago, because I arrived late for a showing of The Three Musketeers, I missed the opening credits. I wanted to see them, though, so when the film ended I stayed in my seat. They were so good, I watched the film a second time. (As a result, I learned what every stage actor knows: No two audiences are alike. Not one laugh was in the same place the second time around!)
Last Friday, we watched an entertaining Zoom program on “The Art of Film Titles,” presented by genial film historian, critic, and mega-fan Max Alvarez, sponsored by New Plaza Cinema in conjunction with New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. It was a fun excursion through the ways in which film titles have evolved over the years and how effective they can be in establishing a film’s mood and tone.
A good example is the beautiful and compelling main title sequence from the 2010 HBO miniseries, The Pacific, created by Imaginary Forces. Combined with the score by Hans Zimmer, you learn—and feel—a lot before the story even begins. Likewise, M & Co NY’s titles for Silence of the Lambs show FBI agent Clarice Starling training alone on a foggy and demanding obstacle course—a metaphor for what she will face (also alone) and the grit she will need when she is assigned to interview Hannibal Lector. A gentler example is the sensuous title sequence by Elaine and Saul Bass for the 1993 film, The Age of Innocence. She cut the sequence to the music of Charles Gounod’s opera Faust, which opens the film. Elmer Bernstein, who was slated to score the titles, said the Faust was so perfect, “keep it!”
In the early days of film, the opening title was a simple affair—one or two static slides, with a lot of facts crammed in. The slide for the 1931 Academy-Award-winning Bad Girl above,, for example, includes not just the film title, but the director (Borzage), the studio (Fox), and the leading cast members. Nothing about it hints what’s coming or how audience members should feel about it. So much data, no information.
Up until the 1990s, film titles and animations were hand-produced. Today, of course, they are mostly computer-generated. That doesn’t automatically mean they are more complex. Alvarez cited one of the masters of film title creation, Kyle Cooper, who has produced more than 350 visual effects and main title sequences. He created his jarring, multi-layered titles for the 1995 movie Se7en without computers, in what Alvarez dubs “serial killer font,” complete with real scratches on the film. You can revisit a great many film title sequences at Cooper’s website, The Art of the Title. You may even find some titles you liked better than the actual movie. I hate when that happens!
Ann Hornaday’s book Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies might sound like a superfluous entry in a list of how-to-do-it guides. What prep do you need? Sure, you can just relax and let the movie experience wash over you, but Hornaday’s deconstruction of the process makes viewing a richer experience.
Hornaday, a movie reviewer for the Washington Post, has organized the book usefully, too—with chapters on screenplays, acting, production design, cinematography, directing, and various technical aspects. She approaches each review with the following three questions.
What was the artist (the screenwriter, the director, an individual actor) trying to achieve?Entertainment? Enlightenment? Not sure? A fluffy confection of a comedy can be just as satisfying and successful (often more so) than a serious drama. A movie hollow at its core can try to distract you with a glitzy surface and stellar cast. But if you find yourself saying “whaaaat?”, a vague purpose or the cross-purposes of too many off-screen cooks may be at fault.
Did they achieve it?Here’s where it’s fun to see several versions of the same material, if you can. The 1996 and 2020 Emmas (Gwyneth Paltrow and Anya Taylor-Joy) up against Alicia Silverstone’s Clueless. On successive nights, I watched Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Valmont (1989). Same story, very different movies. Critics liked DL, but I liked both, and Valmont has the added allure of a young Colin Firth. Or the two excellent Truman Capote biopics (Toby Jones vs. Daniel Craig). Even a fresh conception of a familiar classic can succeed spectacularly: Caesar Must Die is a documentary about prisoners in Rome’s infamous Rebibbia prison being cast, rehearsing, and producing Julius Caesar. Astonishing.
Was it worth doing?Now, there’s a question. And, each of us will have different metrics for arriving at the answer. But if you’ve ever walked out of a theater asking yourself “Why?” perhaps it’s because the answer—at least for you—was “no.” The Wolf of Wall Street, 1917, and The Greatest Showman were films that, for me, weren’t worth the ticket price.
Keeping these three questions in the back of your mind may help if you want to go beyond “Loved it!” or “It was crap!” when you get the inevitable, “So, what did you think?”
This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).
They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.
The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from
its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and
successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens)
and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours,
because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.
Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual
and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t
charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable.
Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.
The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet
ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris
(trailer) at the end
of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his
generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed
by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander
Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.
The early story is important, because Nureyev’s
poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may
help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr.
Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default
assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work
assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s
ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by
politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.
Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with
Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be
likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent
with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the
film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko
critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.
Said Peter Goldberg in Slant Magazine, “Single-minded and direct in its execution, Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s The Mustang is a hard look at the extremes of masculine guilt and healing” (trailer).
The main character, Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) smiles only once, I think, in the whole film. For the most part, Coleman doesn’t interact with his fellow prisoners in a Nevada medium security prison. His attempts at a relationship with his daughter stall. We find out only deep in what his crime was, and the weight of it.
There’s a special prison program (in
place in Nevada and a number of Western prisons IRL) to train convicts to
work with wild mustangs, and tame them to the point they can be auctioned to
the border patrol, to ranchers, or for other uses. Putting a man like Coleman
in a corral with 1500 pounds of frantic horse seems more than a bit risky and
is. If only Coleman can learn relate to this one living thing—and vice-versa—perhaps
they both can be saved. As another prisoner/horse trainer says, “If you want to
control your horse, first you gotta control yourself.”
The parallels between the confinement and anger of this
mustang and this prisoner are obvious. Bruce Dern plays the elderly cowboy in
charge of the project, and he and the other prisoners are strong characters.
But it is Schoenaerts movie and, although the camera is on him throughout most
of it, he grows to fill the screen. Beautiful scenery too. (For one of the most
beautiful and moving films ever about men and horses, get ahold of last year’s The Rider.)Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 74% .
Woman at War (2019)
This movie from Iceland director Benedikt Erlingsson has absurdist elements, real tension, and a lot of heart (trailer). Choral director Halla (played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who also plays Halla’s twin sister Ása) is outraged at the prospect of booming unenvironmental heavy industry invading Iceland. She sets out to disrupt the development plans by sabotaging the electrical system, a bit at a time.
The authorities consider her protests eco-terrorism, and are determined to find whoever is carrying them out, with some nail-biting pursuits by helicopter and drone. To keep the story from becoming too anxiety-provoking, an absurd trio of musicians—piano, tuba, and drums—appears wherever she is, whether it’s on the heath or in her apartment. It’s the incongruous presence of the tuba that lets you know she’s ok.
She’s single and childless, until a four-year-old adoption
request is unexpectedly filled. A child is waiting for her in the Ukraine. From
this point, carrying out one last adventure before flying to retrieve her new daughter, Halla is
also accompanied by three Ukrainian women singers in full costume, as well. I
laughed out loud at this and some of the other antics. You will too.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences 90%.
Netflix provided this 2018 movie from director Brad
Anderson, written by Tony Gilroy, a controversial
political thriller set in Beirut, once the Paris of the Mideast, which has disintegrated
into civil war (trailer).
In 1972, John Hamm is an American diplomat and expert negotiator stationed in
Beirut who, after one tragic night returns to the States. He never wants to go
back. About a decade later, he does, when a friend is kidnapped, and he’s asked
by some highly untrustworthy U.S. agents to help in the rescue. Only Rosamund
Pike seems to have her head on straight. He finds a city in shambles, divided into fiercely
protected zones by competing militias. Finding his friend, much less saving
him, seems impossible. A solid B.Rotten
Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 55%.
This documentary should be appended to last week’s review of
recent films on Caravaggio and Van
Gogh, a rare alignment of the planets that took me to three art films in a
week. This one describes the creation of an exhibition of Rembrandt’s late
works, jointly sponsored by Britain’s National Museum and the Rijksmuseum (trailer). Like those
other big-screen delights, the chance to look up close and unhurried at these
masterworks is the best part. There’s biographical information and commentary
from curators and others. The details of how the exhibition was physically put
together were fascinating too. One of my favorites among the works featured was
“An Old Woman Reading,” from 1655 (pictured). From Exhibition on Screen, you
can find a screening
Tomatoes critics rating: not rated yet.
What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).
Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood
An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus
Garces Lambert (trailer).
Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of
Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches.
You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the
Three art historians comment on the significance of
Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and
using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on,
Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded
with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding
the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.
All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary
quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women,
and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s
journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.
A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of
fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the
flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and
colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward
device several more times to less benefit.
Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.
At Eternity’s Gate
Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach
in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars
Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and
Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling
into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the
townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like
greeting old friends.
You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in
the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known,
it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s
mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank
gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been
Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis
Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was
ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering
performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”
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.
The movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!
She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.
He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.
In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.
Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.
When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.
Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.
And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”