Thursday, March 28, 2024

Not unfamiliar

We were about 20 minutes into Love Lies Bleeding, when I realized: "Oh. This is True Romance." The latter is a Quentin Tarantino scripted and Tony Scott directed film about two lovers in the midst of darker circumstances than either really wants to engage in, who end up being forced to engage and fight their way out. In the latter film, it's Christian Slater, playing a nerdy comic book store employee, and Patricia Arquette, playing a vagabond turning tricks to try to make it somewhere. In Love Lies Bleeding, it's gym manager Lou (Kristen Stewart) and bodybuilder Jackie (Katy O'Brian) who fall together, pursuing or avoiding their own dreams and then get wrapped up in a scenario that is way beyond what either expected and, of course, have to fight their way out. The one slight difference is the inclusion of some degree of phantasmagoria, which reminded Tricia of Natural Born Killers, which is another good reference to the type and style of film that this is, including the preponderance of gore and the willingness to show sex as the human thing that it is, rather than the Hollywood style that it's often glossed with. But having said all of that largely positive stuff, the obvious rejoinder is that the whole package isn't exactly original, either, other than the central couple of the story being two women, as opposed to the hetero pairings of the other two films.

That's not to say that it was a bad film, because it wasn't. It was pretty entertaining, all things considered, even if the screenplay trended toward shock value more than story depth. But it was the entertainingly familiar, rather than something that grabbed you by the brain and said: "This is new. Pay attention." It's set in the late 90s, as we hear radio announcements about the fall of the Berlin Wall, which seems like a rather arbitrary time period, at first, but later becomes more apparent when the question of readily available steroids becomes a part of the story. I wonder sometimes, as well, if films get set in the recent past to avoid the complication of cell phones and the instant communication that they now provide, which is a good way to blow holes in your story of tension and mystery that would otherwise be sapped by someone picking up their phone and using GPS. (This reminds me of one of my favorite perspectives on William Gibson's Neuromancer, the novel that invented the concept of cyberspace, and how he was able to imagine a world run entirely on an interactive cyber network 50 years from now, complete with self-aware AI, but people were still using pay phones...)

As with many films in this situation, the performances are what carry it. Both Stewart and O'Brian play characters that are human, in that they display poor judgment, rampant emotion, and a predilection for decisions made by passion, rather than reason. Similarly, Ed Harris is great as Lou's shady father, Lou Sr. But the characters themselves give the whiff of being stock-obvious. Jackie is a bodybuilder looking for fame from bog-standard Oklahoma, rather than somewhere more unusual, like a Jersey suburb. Lou Sr. has a fascination with beetles, which serves as nothing other than a detail before a shocking moment right near the end. It doesn't form any part of the character other than as a distraction. Contrast this with Ted Levine's Jame Gumb is Silence of the Lambs, who was fascinated by moths (specifically, Death's-head hawkmoths) because of their inherent transformation from larva to moth, as he was attempting in his transition from male to female. That attraction to bugs reflected the essential nature of the character, whereas in this film, it's just something for the audience to ogle at ("The bug guy?" "Yeah, the bug guy.") Similarly, Lou is the frustrated person who detests both of her parents and doesn't talk about them with anyone if she can help it, but the story eventually pries her story out of her. This is where the screenplay might have let down the talent of the actors involved and the film as as a whole.

The final scene, which involves the aforementioned phantasmagoria, is somewhere between amusing and eyebrow-arching. Yes, we weren't really sure whether our "heroines" would survive or not and that's always good in terms of a story, but when it arcs into the fantastical, we kind of lose the emotion behind their otherwise very real and expected circumstances that led them to this point. You could say that the end of the film is where we arc into romance novel territory, which is a complete departure from Jackie and Lou's relationship to that point (including the sex scenes) and which is commendable, IMO, as far as writing goes, just to throw the audience for a second and get them to sit up and pay attention. But the ending moments can also be seen as maudlin, even if hilarious, and that's when I circle back to questioning why this screenplay seems like so many that have come before it, rather than branching out into its own approach that would make this film stand alone as its own production. So, yeah, worth a watch, but not compelling.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Been there, Dune that

As noted when Part One came out, two-and-a-half years ago, Denis Villeneuve's style and attention to theme and mood shines through in most of his productions and Dune: Part Two is no different. The visual splendor and Hans Zimmer's excellent score are the high points in this second half the same way they were in the first. And in terms of story structure and trying to encompass all of Frank Herbert's highly-developed universe, this film has the same flaws, in that the actual practical application of the spice and the enormous presence of the Spacing Guild are both absent from what was originally a highly political tale. But in this part of the overall picture, I think that that lack emphasizes a problem with the way the story is being received by many.

Dune is a story about religious fanaticism and how seemingly positive changes at one point can have distinctly negative consequences down the line. (Anyone thinking of the supposed Chinese proverb about the horse and the old man can give themselves a gold star.) That fanaticism takes many forms, from the Bene Gesserit adherence to their plan of breeding the ultimate human to the Fremen prophecies of the Lisan-al-Gaib who will lead them to paradise. Herbert rooted his story in many of the traditions of the Middle East and its most prominent religion, Islam, which itself is derived from the other two prominent religions of that region: Judaism and Christianity. That was intentional because one of the primary messages of the novel is that extremism is bad and can lead to unintended consequences. The Bene Gesserit not realizing that their perfect human might not be under their control when all is said and done is one of them. But the other is that when Paul, the nominal "hero" of the story, finally defeats the Harkonnens and the Emperor of the Known Universe, the immediate result of that is a crusade by the Fremen to deliver the message that the mahdi (literally "savior" in Arabic) has come and all worlds must bow to him as the Fremen do. (The irony of a group known as the Fremen (i.e. "free men") slavishly devoted to the whims of one man in the name of freedom and/or paradise is perfectly placed here.)

But that message is apparently too subtle for some, since people are coming away from the film with the idea that Paul is a hero (something that the novel almost directly states is the wrong thing and which Herbert wrote three more books to reinforce, as many had that problem with the novel, as well) or that the real message is about outsider Europeans exploiting a non-European culture for their own ends. That latter part does have some play, but it's not anything like what most should be walking out of the theater with foremost on their minds. And I think part of the reason for that, alongside the tendencies of many to look at stories purely from a "good guy/bad guy" perspective, is that, again, the practical elements of the Dune universe in this version are almost completely ignored in favor of the spiritual elements. Granted, that, too, is Villeneuve's style. His stories (such as Prisoners and Arrival) almost always contain a heavy dose of the spiritual, either central to the plot (as in the former) or driving its interpretation (as in the latter.) Dune has both, which might have made him an ideal storyteller for the cinematic version of it, but which also means that things like the Guild and the Mentats are left by the wayside, leaving solely the spiritual elements like the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen at center stage, which then possibly delivers a message which is actually counter to the one Herbert wanted to bring. One thing to keep in mind is that the structure of the novel is mostly about people standing around (or sitting, as in the excessively long dinner scene) and talking. There's nothing wrong with that. Isaac Asimov built an entire oeuvre on people talking about historiography and robot ethics and those are often really good stories. But they're also really difficult to translate to other media. 

Visually, just like with Part One, it's resplendent. There's a long sequence on Giedi Prime where we're introduced to Feyd-Rautha (an excellent Austin Butler) in which the "black sun" of Giedi Prime bathes everything in black-and-white until we step out of the sunlight and things like skin tones reemerge. The celebratory fireworks in that kind of sunlight resemble globs of ink hitting a windshield. Just as with Lynch's film, the most interesting visual touches almost always orbit around the Harkonnens. But the sandworms are also kept offscreen sufficiently to still elicit real menace when one of them bursts forth from the ground and the Fremen culture has a much more "lived in" feeling and, undeniably, a much more Bedouin feeling, as well. But the spice harvesters and gunships and other elements of heavy technology are also much more visually developed than in earlier attempts at the story. One element of this film that completely failed for me, however, was Christopher Walken. Not only did he not fit my image of the head of House Corrino, but he's been so typecast by memes and earlier performances that when his face appeared onscreen for the first time, I immediately muttered: "More cowbell." The part written for him was also way below his ability to deliver an impact, as it mostly required him to be looking pensive, whether someone was delivering bad news or Paul was threatening to exterminate his line. There just wasn't much of a part to be had, so Classic Line (or at least look) Walken was never going to have the room to operate, which means this was basically just part of the film's marketing, rather than giving real substance to the role. In the broad view, that's OK, since the emperor was mostly a stand-in in the novel, as well, but it still feels like an opportunity missed.

As with so many things we've seen recently, it's not a bad film and definitely worth seeing in the theater for the greater impact of both sound and screen. But just like I said with Part One, I've never been a Dune devotee (even if I do LOVE the board game) so anyone trying probably has a steeper hill to climb with me than most other viewers. This is the modern version of Star Wars for a new generation, but one thing to remember is that that film wasn't very good, either, once you looked past the visuals.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The line between a biopic and a documentary

I heard the story of Sir Nicholas Winton when it was contemporary, in the late 80s. News emerged that a man who had rescued dozens of Jewish children during World War II had been surprised by a British talk show when it turned out that the rest of the studio audience were, in fact, many of those children. It was a nice story and certainly one that went a long way toward looking at one of the "average" heroes of that time, such as Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat to Lithuania who also facilitated the flight of thousands of Polish Jews from the area, and Jan Swartendijk, who did the same as a functionary of the Dutch government-in-exile. The difference with Winton is that the latter volunteered to go to Czechoslovakia (he was then working as a stock broker) in order to assist the Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia in performing their mission of getting as many people out of the soon-to-be-conquered state as was possible before Nazi Germany took full control. The retelling of those events and how the 1980s version of Winton (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins; reportedly at the Winton family's request when they discovered that a film was being made about Nicholas) dealt with the aftereffects and the later discovery by the wider public of his actions is the bulk of the film called One Life.

The intent of the producers (Joanna Laurie, Guy Heeley, Iain Canning, and Emile Sherman; the latter two most notable for having produced The King's Speech) was probably to bring Winton's story to a much wider audience, now 35 years past the time it was first widely revealed. In that respect, there's not a lot of elbow room for presenting that story, since they'd want to stick to what is already known and which has a fair amount of tension and challenge in 1939 and internal struggle in 1988. The unfortunate side effect of that is if you already know the true story, a retelling of it isn't so much examining the person and his actions as much as giving a BBC retrospective on what already happened. That's not to say that the film is boring or trite or obvious or any of the generally negative labels one can apply to a middleweight, not-quite-Oscar-bait production. It's fine. But it's not really more than fine, other than the scenes of Winton meeting his now middle-aged and beyond children, who owe him their continued existence, which are as emotionally affecting as anything you might see on film. I was reminded of Liam Neeson's classic final scene in Schindler's List, where he bemoans how much more he could have done to save people from the Nazi horrors. These scenes are excellent and played without overdramatization by the performers. Just the moment of Nicholas looking into Vera Gissing's (Henrietta Garden) eyes and realizing that he was able to do that because he had tried so hard to make the impossible, possible. (The chorus of sniffling throughout the Michigan Theater was easy testament to how well that scene was played.) I also can't leave without a favorable comment for Helena Bonham-Carter, one of my all-time favorites, who plays Nicholas' mother, Babi, who helps him navigate the British bureaucracy.

But it's also not much more than what it says on the tin. I think Hopkins did quite well in a role that virtually demanded stock English restraint and in which he was haunted by the ghosts of all of the people that he wasn't able to save. It's also the first time I've seen Hopkins show as much emotion on screen as he did since Magic, where he was traumatized by his own ventriloquist's dummy. There are merits to the film, well beyond just keeping the threat of fascism and identity-driven policy fresh in everyone's mind while the Orange Idiot and his sycophants attempt to replicate the past. And I'm quite sure that Tricia, Jaime, and Larissa all enjoyed it more than I did because the story wasn't familiar to them and they could experience it with the sense of discovery, as well as emotional weight, that those producers, again, likely intended. However, it still feels as if it were lacking something that might have pushed it forward for me. As regular readers are aware, I'm all about a good documentary, so even if that's what this was, I'd say it's worthwhile. But I guess I was expecting something a bit more traumatic; something akin to Schindler's List and this film just didn't bring that weight with it. The fact that I've seen way too many movies and am, thus, highly jaded is almost certainly involved in my conclusions. Regardless, it's definitely worth seeing. But I wouldn't blame you if you waited to stream it at home.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Dolling too hard

I have been and likely always will be a Coen Brothers fan. One of my all-time favorite films is Miller's Crossing, which is a paean to the glories of noir like no other. Many critics felt that it went too far in that respect, in that it became almost a self-parody of itself and the genre as a whole. I've watched it at least a dozen times and would watch it again almost any time, especially if someone else was there and would be willing to hear me extoll its virtues while watching. I feel similarly about many of their other productions (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou?, True Grit; on and on.) So when I discovered that Ethan Coen was directing a new feature that he had written with his wife, Tricia Cooke, I was instantly interested. The previews made it look even better. But the sad truth is that Drive-Away Dolls could be accused of a similar phenomenon that is leveled at Miller's Crossing: trying too hard. In the case of the latter, the assertion is that the film is TTH to be noir. My assessment of the former is that it's trying too hard to be a Coen Brothers film.

The premise is that of two women who are part of Philadelphia's lesbian community in 1999, deciding to pull up roots and change their address to Florida and, in the process, driving off with a MacGuffin in the trunk of their rental car that a pair of henchmen for a Philly crime lord are in pursuit of. Wacky hijinks ensue. Now, there's nothing wrong with that premise, in general, if the writing and the performances can back it up. It's a bit thinner than other films of the Coens' oeuvre (the complexity of Burn After Reading's plot makes it seem like a Platonic poem in comparison) but, fine. Let's just roll with it. But the problem should be obvious, in that the writing is just that step below in the same manner as the plot and there are no performances that really serve to carry it in the manner of Coen Bros. films past, although it's fair to say that Margaret Qualley comes close. But most of the film is about she, as Jamie, and Geraldine Viswanathan as Marian getting into quite predictable situations and finding not very innovative ways to get out of them. The general consensus among our group when we left the theater was that it was "cute" and that's probably about as high as you can reach in being complimentary.

Don't get me wrong. It's not a bad film. It's just not a great one like the vast majority of Coen output has tended to be. The only film that I've seen that didn't have both brothers involved was Joel's version of the tragedy of Macbeth, which I thought was excellent and this was Ethan's first solo outing that I'd been able to catch. He also did a documentary about Jerry Lee Lewis that was moderately well-received and that's about what can be said about this film. It's OK. It's quite funny in spots, but with none of the endlessly-quotable dialogue that is famous from their dual efforts. It attempts to be as bizarre as something like The Big Lebowski in moments, but never really crosses that border that would make the unbelievable believable. Instead, it depends on basic shock value, primarily around the MacGuffin which is there seemingly to serve as an excuse to get Pedro Pascal into the film for all of three minutes of screen time. Similarly, Matt Damon is also on the cast list and does well in the very brief time that he's offered, but both his and Pascal's appearances smack of them "wanting to do a Coen" in the same way it used to be a quest among SAG members to "do a Woody" (i.e. be part of a Woody Allen film in some way.) Their inclusion is name recognition and little more than that, which is not what you'd normally expect a Coen production to be involved in.

Again, Qualley does really well as the rambunctious side of the odd couple; determined to show Viswanathan that desiring and enjoying sex isn't taboo, even if segments of society at that time (25 years ago-!) and still (sigh...) declare it to be so. The film spares no efforts to show that, yes, sex is actually a good time, no matter the genders (or toys) involved and I appreciated their being that up front about the topic and the action. It's not really present for titillation (although it borders on it, at times) but instead seems to be present to normalize the idea, which is fine. It just would've been far more interesting if such an idea had been released in a film in 1999, rather than 25 years later(!) where much of the audience is ready to shrug their shoulders at the supposed novelty of it all. On top of that mundanity, the inclusion of multiple scene breaks that seemed to present a presumed acid trip that had little to do with our lead characters or the people pursuing them was a really odd inclusion. Again, it seemed to be trying too hard to be "weird" in Coen Bros. fashion, similar to The Dude's bowling vision, but not nearly as funny, interesting, or relevant to the film. Instead, they're just interludes seemingly shot through a multicolor lava lamp (which would've been relevant to and interesting in 1969, but not 30 years later) that just left the audience wondering what they were until finally getting the answer to at least whom was showing up in them at the end of the film, but not really understanding why they were ever present in the first place.

So, yeah. Is it worth seeing? If you're sitting at home one afternoon and bored, sure. But making an excursion out to the theater and paying for seats? Not really. I'd like to see more of Qualley in the future (she has another comedy coming up by the same writing/directing duo ("Honey Don't!")) but, at this point, I'd really like to see Joel doing more with Ethan to see if they still have that magic.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

A very mixed bag and the best for last (and not nominated): 2024 Oscar-nominated animation shorts

The easiest answer for why this review took four days to get around to writing while the other two were both done the next day is because I was fairly underwhelmed by this year's offering in the Animated section (and, admittedly, I was writing other things, too), with one real exception that didn't even get nominated. So, yeah... But, I recall saying the same thing last year, so perhaps my standards (former comic writer; animation fan) are just higher in this category than others.

One of those that I really appreciated, thankfully, was the first: Our Uniform. It's a simple survey of the clothing requirements for girls and young women in Iranian society, which director, Yegane Moghaddam, animates atop images of various fabrics so that there's a real texture to the film, almost literally. There's a disclaimer at the front about how she's not criticizing the wearing of hijab but the gently mocking tone throughout ("... while other people can wear what they want...") is evident. The inside joke is that the choice of clothing can both conceal and reveal the motivations of the wearer and the state requiring such to be worn because, after all, men don't have those restrictions in the Islamic Republic. These are the obstacles that you have to (ahem) skirt in order to get your message across in a repressive society and I think Moghaddam delivered on her intent, with a smart and creative execution of the medium, as well.

The next selection was Pachyderme, a more standard animated approach (drawn and CGI) about a young girl in the south of France who's trying to translate the trauma she's experiencing at the hands of her grandfather who dotes on her but also takes advantage of her (healing her fishhook-wounded finger with the "healing kiss", for example.) Director Stéphanie Clément did a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere with what should have been bright summers at grandma and grandpa's house by restraining the color palette and keeping everything a bit misty, not only to emphasize the distance of the memories and the girl's attempt to suppress them, but also to demonstrate the unease that she felt while staying there. It just felt to me that she and writer Marc Rius kind of missed the target, in that the broad strokes of the story could easily be misinterpreted as simply childhood fascination with the wood knots in the ceiling. I think in their attempt to be indirect, again to emphasize that distance (natural or self-imposed) from these memories and to not come right out and state the abuse she was suffering, they lost the thread a bit. Visually, there was nothing particularly noteworthy, either.

Letter to a Pig, on the other hand, stepped it up a notch in terms of translating distant memories of trauma. The story is about an elderly man in a classroom reading the letter he wrote to a pig who helped to conceal his presence in a farmhouse where SS soldiers were looking for him during World War II. While most of the students are unimpressed, one young girl begins envisioning a train of twisted variations on identity and memories. This film was "deeper" than the other two, in that it was longer and, thus, had more time for its scenes and moments to settle and play into other meanings of the trauma of being less than human, but perhaps just as empathetic as the animal who enabled the storyteller's escape. I appreciated the animation style, as it kept largely to black-and-white to emphasize the tension of the story and the fine line work of the artists, but also dropped in spots of color to provide texture so that the viewer didn't become detached from the black-and-white world. There's certainly an argument to be made that the topic is becoming a bit worn with age, but given the current political circumstances with the fascists in the US and events like what the Israeli state is doing to Gaza, I think the message may be more resonant than ever.

While the first three entries approached with subtle meanings (at least at first), the fourth entry, Ninety-Five Senses, didn't seem to have any particular meaning in mind at all when it opened. It was Tim Blake Nelson voicing a man who delivers an ode to the value of the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Abruptly, we learn that he is delivering this ode from a prison cell, where he is about to be executed for the unintentional murder of a family that might not have occurred had he possessed one of the senses in question. It is, in part, a tour through the regrets of this man as he understands that less emotional choices might not have led him here, but also a pointed question at the nature of capital punishment for the execution of an impaired individual who acted without particular intent but will pay for it as if he did (the fact that the overall atmosphere is from the Southern US is, doubtlessly, no accident.) Visually, it was one of the best of the night, as the film veers through six different animation styles as he describes each one of the senses and then finishes with his current circumstances. I especially appreciated the pen-and-ink technique as he watched/remembered the flames engulfing the house.

Unfortunately, the last entry we saw among the nominated films was less impressive. War is Over!, Inspired by the Music of John and Yoko hits the high mark in terms of technical ability for the animation, with the 3-D CGI presenting the action in great detail and impact. And the story- of two soldiers on opposing sides in World War I playing chess against each other via carrier pigeon until an attack is ordered -is certainly something that any sane person can agree with and appreciate. But, overall, the production felt trite and was a marked contrast to the far more subtle storytelling of all of the other nominated films. It had serious money and star power behind it (akin to the dreadful Hallmark card of last year) and that seems to be what is supposed to carry it to success; along with the trite and obvious message that most voters will instantly be able to understand and applaud for. Unlike last year's winner, it's not a bad film. It just doesn't do much other than provide some really nice visuals and, again, deliver a message that most sane people should be able to agree with. There's nothing new or really inspiring here, on top of the insistence at looking at 50-year-old pop music as still the highest calling in modern culture.

And then the screen lit up with a bold, white title: "HIGHLY COMMENDABLE." This is the Academy's version of "honorable mention", which very rarely appears and is usually only for one short that didn't quite make the cut. This year, we got two.

The first was I'm Hip, where a self-assured cat (mildly reminiscent of Top Cat) sings and dances to Dave Frishberg's song of the same name, assuring everyone watching that he's the coolest guy in town. It's fairly amusing and hearkens back to the Hanna-Barbera era of animation (with erupting symbols (!!!) for emotion and characters able to survive any kind of fall or impact), but it left me wondering just what made it "highly commendable", since there was nothing particularly visually impressive about the techniques involved and it's not a story so much as a music video. It was a direct contrast to the heavier aspects of most of the nominated films, but that still shouldn't justify its inclusion. I liked it, but was left kind of mystified that it was part of the ensemble at all.

In contrast, there were no questions after Wild Summon as it was, for me, easily the best offering of the night and, of course, wasn't even nominated. It's a depiction of the lifespan of a female salmon, emerging from an egg, traveling down the river while avoiding predators (but still getting tagged by researchers) and venturing into the open ocean, only to have to make the return trip all the way back to her spawning point when the biological trigger is tripped. The salmon are represented as broad-mouthed women in wetsuits, complete with diving masks, and changing color based on their life stage. There's no deeper meaning to it, other than some references to industrial pollution hindering their life cycle, but it was still a fascinating story and the best visual presentation of the evening. This film easily could have replaced three of the five nominated pictures and would be my preference to win if it had.

As it is, my vote would probably go to Ninety-Five Senses, but I'm afraid that the deep, deep desire for Boomer music in the form of John and Yoko will probably carry the day. Meh. 

Monday, February 19, 2024

Tragedy, before and after, with a dose of whimsy: 2024 Oscar-nominated Live Action shorts

The next category, which we actually saw first, was Live Action. As noted earlier, in general, this was the better overall collection of films which, IIRC, is similar to last year.

The After- The film tells the story of a businessman who sees both his wife and child murdered in front of him and how he lives in the aftermath (hence, the title.) First off, it's a great performance by David Oyelowo, whom I'm most familiar with from Star Wars: Rebels of all things, as the voice of Agent Kallus. He's been in small parts in a number of films I've seen, but now that I've seen this performance, I think I'm going to seek out some of his starring work. But his performance was the strongest part of the film, as the scenario to enact the plot was bordering on the hard-to-believe (the UK, having sane gun laws, doesn't have nearly the ease with which a double murder could occur in the US, as we are just days away from that most American of events: a mass shooting at a Super Bowl parade.) After that, the story simply shows Dayo (Oyelowo) living life as a rideshare driver and listening to his clients get on with the various travails of their lives that don't even approach the anguish that he's experienced and don't provide him any progress toward dealing with his grief until his last job, which then initiates a breakthrough... which they then completely spoil by switching the subtle score to a pop song that's somehow supposed to embody this man's grief. It utterly ruined the moment for me and took away all the energy that Oyelowo's work had generated. This was my least favorite of the set, but still worth the time to see.

Red, White and Blue- In immediate contrast, this was easily the best of the night for me. Written and directed by Nazrin Choudhury, it's a very timely episode about a single mother in Arkansas searching for an abortion provider and having to find money and time to travel to Missouri to find one. Like The Barber of Little Rock (also in Arkansas, appropriately enough), it's a great rendition of the economic realities that many people in this country face and whom have their lives affected by the callous decisions of others working in the name of ardent ideology and social control which have far-reaching effects that they either don't know, don't care about or are, of course, the point. Brittany Snow is excellent as Rachel and the film demonstrates not just the emotional anguish and economic desperation that she endures, but also the often demeaning circumstances by which she's surviving the "American Dream." It's an evident political statement, as well, not least when Rachel makes it to a clinic without an appointment and says that she's traveled all the way from Arkansas and the nurse at the front desk waves a hand at the crowded waiting room and says: "You and all the rest of them from THAT state." There are, as always, a multiplicity of two Americas; one set defined by money, another by race, and yet another by political boundaries between the 21st century states and those still dominated by 19th-century thought (and misogyny, which is even worse than the 21st century version.) This was the most effective dramatic punch of the night and one that will probably last the longest with many viewers.

Knight of Fortune- Continuing the theme of tragedy, this film is about a recent widower, Karl (a brilliant Leif Andrée) having to confront the viewing of his wife in the local morgue. While there, Karl encounters Torben (the also excellent Jens Jørn Spottag), another widower who asks Karl for help with his own efforts of viewing and through his grief who ends up leading him on a much more involved experience than Karl expected. Along the way, they're frequently in the company of the mortuary porter (Jesper Lohmann) whom, although he says he's seen it all, probably hasn't seen much like this. Despite the overall theme of tragedy, there are enough lighthearted moments throughout the story that it's almost impossible to come away from the film without feeling like you've experienced something genuinely uplifting. There's wonderful attention to detail, as well, in things like the fact that Andrée is a Swedish actor and so speaks Swedish, while Spottag is Danish and, thus, speaks that language and they have to take a moment to assure each other that they're saying the same appropriate things in these trying circumstances. It's obviously much more relevant if you know those languages and live in those countries, but this is a Danish film. Andrée's face when they have a close encounter with another family in a viewing room is something I'm going to remember for a long time. Wonderfully acted and a great short story, this was my second favorite of the evening.

Invincible- Based on a true story, Invincible presents the circumstances of Marc-Antoine Bernier (Léokim Beaumier-Lépine), a teenager with some prominent mental health issues in a youth detention center in Canada. Allowed weekend furloughs with his somewhat distant parents, the intense young man finds even the rather loose constraints of the center (can wear their own clothing, are taken to outside recreation like swimming pools, etc.) so confining that he continually acts out and brings the hand of the administration down upon himself.. This yearning for a greater freedom than even outside life can provide becomes most evident when an instructor reads aloud the poem that he's written in class. I've felt that urge for something different that's indefinable and just beyond one's grasp and the frustration that it brings with it, so this character resonated with me quite a bit. The fact that his parents mirrored mine in their almost complete indifference to the unique identity that is their son until he does something wrong also struck me as quite familiar. The film continues with the overall theme of the night and is a solid entry for the trophy, even if overshadowed by some of the others. I'd be interested to see more of Beaumier-Lépine's work.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar- The final entry is the one that had both the blockbuster writer and director (Wes Anderson) and the equally prominent cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, among others.) As I mentioned a few months back, this immediately struck me as another collection of actors "dying to be in a Wes Anderson", so here was their opportunity. It's also the second time that Anderson has adapted a Roald Dahl work (Fantastic Mr. Fox), although this story was even more suited to Anderson's usual approach than the previous. As I'm an Anderson fan, you'd think this would have been my favorite, but like I mentioned those few months ago, I'm to the point where what I'm seeing from him no longer seems original and this was no different. I think it ran too long for what it was trying to do and, although it was funny in his usual whimsical style, also felt rather repetitive by the end. I really appreciated Patel's narration of much of the story and his constant breaking of the fourth wall to demonstrate that narration ("What other ways? [looks at audience], I said.") The production values were the highest of the set, by far, because it had the most money and star power behind it, so it seems like it's a heavyweight in a lightweight competition and, as much as I enjoyed it, it still didn't have the impact that RWB and Knight had for me.

My assumption is that the trophy goes to Henry Sugar because of that star power and production value, but I still think Red, White and Blue was the best of a very good lot. We'll finish off tomorrow with Animation.

Music, books, living and building: 2024 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts

It's Oscar short season and we ended up seeing two categories in one day again. The second was Documentary, but that's the one I'm going to cover first because Live Action, collectively, was the better category this year.

Nâi Nai and Wài Pó- This was director Sean Wang's film about his paternal and maternal grandmothers, who live together to support each other, as their respective husbands had passed years ago. It's a very simple presentation about how they go about their daily lives; morning exercise and then activities of various sorts, like gardening or a day for dancing to music. It was quite funny and very cute seeing the two of them dress up in a variety of costumes which they freely admitted was because their grandson was there with a camera. It was also remarkably insightful on their polar opposite views on life, where Wài Pó, who is 83 said she felt like she was still 20, while Nâi Nai who is 94, said she felt like she was 100 years old. That perspective included their thoughts on the future, where the latter said that she would be fine with just another year or two of life, while the former bemoaned the fact that she had to die at some point when she clearly felt there was so much living to do. That extended to their activities, in which Wài Pó took the lead on thinking about trying new things, while Nâi Nai was content to flip through photo albums and phone numbers, reminiscing about the friends she'd lost and the good times she'd had with them. It was a great encapsulation of both elderly life and life, in general.

The Barber of Little Rock- This was the story of Arlo Washington, a Little Rock, AR entrepreneur who chose to follow the path of his mother, whose life was cut short at 31, and devote his life to work toward building and supporting his community. To that end, he started a barber college and used the money from that to begin People's Trust, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI; a non-profit bank), which provides micro and small loans to people in personal need or to begin businesses in the "south of the highway" section of Little Rock. It's a great depiction of life that much of (White) America never sees and almost immediately had me kicking myself for not still being involved in progressive politics, as these were the people and scenarios that I saw all the time when I was and whom still really need help. Arlo is an incredibly forward and positive thinker and the genuine emotion that frequently overwhelmed his clients when they finally found someone who would not only help them but actually listen to them was quite telling. I saw that frequently in my previous activity and it's a measure of both how much people in the "wealthiest nation in the world" still need help (especially if they're not White) and the humanity of those who make it their purpose to help them and, as Arlo frequently states, to grow the community as a whole. This was my second favorite among the offerings.

Island in Between- This was S. Leo Chiang's story about Kinmen, the small island right off the coast of mainland China which is a territory of the Republic of China (aka Taiwan.) As such, it was both the initial target of the People's Republic of China intentions to reclaim the territory it regards as its own and a heavily-militarized outpost that the Taiwanese regard as the first line of defense against the Red Menace. Chiang, who is originally from Kinmen, spent many years in the US, and is now a resident of Taipei, spends some time regaling us with the history of the island and the ardent propaganda against the looming enemy and how Kinmen was intended to be the launching point for the retaking of the mainland for the Chinese people and the destruction of the vile communists. Given that relations between the two nations have much improved since the 1950s, no one really thinks about that much anymore and, honestly, the film kind of reflects that neglect. It was a pretty rote depiction of the situation then and the tepid situation now and this was, by far, the least interesting of the nominated films.

The ABCs of Book Banning- This film, directed by Sheila Nevins, the head of MTV Documentary films, is obviously extremely timely. The most notable thing about it to me was that MTV still exists in any way, shape or form. I say that largely because I knew everything that was depicted here. Every time they put up another book cover that was promptly crossed with a glaring red "BANNED", "RESTRICTED", or "CHALLENGED", all I did was nod my head and think: "Yeah, I knew that already." I was clearly not the target audience. I also wondered why the font and format of those glaring red titles changed two-thirds of the way through the film. However, the real upside of the show was the collection of interviews with 7-10-year-olds who are the students of the schools where these books are being banned. To a person, all of them reacted with confusion and dismay at the idea that these stories and this information was being denied to them, especially when they learned exactly what these books were about. For example, And Tango Makes Three, a book about a penguin chick with two fathers (a situation that did happen at the Bronx Zoo and does happen in the wild) has been banned or challenged in multiple districts because it draws attention to the idea of same sex marriage; an appalling thought for the ignorant and/or religiously fanatical among society. The children presented with this book and others usually responded with "Why would they ban a book that just tells the story of people being who they are?" That, of course, is an extremely modern attitude which should give most hope for the future and the film overall does that. It just wasn't particularly new to me so, while I liked it, it's definitely a story I've heard before.

The Last Repair Shop- Right up front, this was my favorite documentary of the evening. That was because not only was it about music, but also because I didn't even know this program existed and was happily surprised that it did, especially in the environs of Los Angeles which, like many big cities, seemed like it had begun to phase out cultural activities for public school students. The program is one in which musical instruments are provided to those students and repaired for them when they inevitably encounter the problems that all crafted devices do. If it had just been about the repair shop for instruments, it wouldn't have been as interesting as it was because they also delved into the rather interesting characters who operate the shop and their backgrounds which led them to becoming experts in the repair and maintenance of brass, strings, woodwinds, and pianos. They include a single mother immigrant from Mexico, a man who came out in the early stages of the Gay Power movement in San Francisco, a former fiddle player for the Bodie Mountain Express, and an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan. All of their stories are interesting and provide context for how they ended up assisting the musical dreams of children across the spectrum of LA existence. Needless to say, the story (ahem) sang to me and, for once, I think my favorite is also the clear favorite for the Oscar this year.

Next up is Live Action.