Tag Archives: Oscar contender

A Man Called Ove

There is indeed a man called Ove. He is a crotchety old man who rules his condo tenement with fierce rigidity. He’s aged out of his job and his wife has left him (well, died, but he’s such a grump I can only assume it was purposely, to escape him). I shouldn’t joke; his wife’s grave is the only time and place where he’s a little tender. Does he list her a litany of complaints? Of course he does. But only because the world’s gone to MV5BNTgzNDcxYzEtZDljOC00NDZmLTk2ZTAtOTVhM2Y1MWI1YzUyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDc2NTEzMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1581,1000_AL_shit without her. The only reason he hasn’t committed suicide yet is the damn neighbours, who need constant monitoring and discipline, and who else would take it upon themselves to mete it out?

It turns out that Ove has had a pretty interesting life. It’s just that no one knows it because he isolates himself, sequestered in a condo that’s still a shrine to his dead wife. It’s only because some boisterous, needy new neighbors draw him out against his will that we learn the ups and downs that have contributed to his current thorny state. If you’re feeling like this sounds a little sentimental, well, it is. But it stays just shy of saccharine thanks to a nuanced performance by Rolf Lassgård in the title role. He never lets Ove go full-martyr, he keeps the role alive and flawed and beautiful. Ove’s may not exactly be a unique character arc, but it’s charmingly irresistible in Lassgård’s hands.

The film is a little predictable but so sweetly executed that I’m finding it hard to fault it. It’s surprisingly funny at times, mixing genres fairly deftly, making for a lovely, bittersweet, and humane character study that’s a pleasure to watch.

 

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Oscar Spotlight: Live-Action Shorts

My favourite thing about sitting down to watch a short film is having no idea what to expect. I rarely watch a feature film without having seen a trailer or at least having read something about it. When I watch a collection of shorts, I am pretty much ready for anything.

 

mindenki_behindthecurtainMindenki (Sing). Everyone who wants to is welcome to sing in choir, promises the principal at Zsófi’s new school. The truth, she will soon discover, is more complicated. Zsófi is an enthusiastic student until her spirit is crushed when Miss Erika, who thinks they may have a real shot at the championship this year, takes her aside and asks her to stop singing out loud.

Mindenki has a lot going on in just 25 minutes. Watching a 10 or 11 year-old being told by her favourite teacher that she simply isn’t good enough and that she should just “mouth the words” while the others sing is pretty much as heartbreaking as it sounds. It says a lot about the ways some students can get left behind and the ways that a careless teacher can demoralize a child and stifle creativity.

silent-nightsLikeable actors, terrific editing, and a timely story go a long way in elevating the imperfect but nonetheless effective Silent Nights. Mostly a love story set against the backdrop of the immigration and refugee controversy in Western Europe, Silent Nights follows a brief affair between a Danish girl volunteering in a shelter and a homeless man from Ghana.

Silent Nights packs a lot of story into 30 minutes and it features a much clearer beginning, middle, and end than I’m used to seeing in short films. It’s actually structured like a min feature film complete with subplots that lead nowhere. The script is ocassionally a little too sentimental but it earns big points for introducing us to two complex characters that we can care about.

 

With just 15 minutes, Timecode is the shortest of the five nominated shorts. It’s also potentially the most confusing. Luna is a parking lot attendant who discovers that her colleague Diego has left a surpritimecodese for her. He has danced his heart out in front of the security cameras for her amusement. I have to admit though that it took me awhile to recognize it as dancing. I thought at first that he was fighting off an invisible assailant. So begins their unusual shift exchange ritual.

Timecode has already picked up several awards including the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and more importantly Best International Shortfilm at the Whistler Film Festival so its got a serious shot at the Oscar. It’s cute, well-made (even if not always well-danced but hey we forgave La La Land), and is probably the least pretentious of the five nominees. I just simply didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the others.

 


Ennemis Interieurs (Enemies Within)
is the more disciplined of the two Europeans Can Be Racist shorts (see Silent Nights above). Enemies Within is mostly just two people in a room talking but holy shit is itennemis-interieurs3 tense. A citizenship interview slowly morphs into a full-on national security interrogation.

Ennemis Interieurs can sort of feel like just a really good scene from the glory days of Homeland but the acting and directing are superb and it says a lot in a short time about institutional racism and self-fulfilling prophecies.

 


La Femme et le TGV
is my favourite of the five. And not just because it has trains. An aging woman discovers that her daily ritual of waving at passing trains hasn’t gotten unnoticed or unappreciated. The train’s conductor decides to write her a thank you note and their pen palling reignites her passion for litgvfe.

I’ve read one reviewer accuse La Femme et le TGV of stealing its tone from Amelie. While I agree that Amelie would give you a pretty good idea of what you can expect, I would argue that my favourite live-action short of 2016 takes some of what worked best from Amelie to deliver something funny, touching, and lovely.

Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts, 2017

Borrowed Time: a sheriff returns to the site of a crash, the source of his guilt, the symbol BORROWED-TIME-2.gifof his grief. The animation is twelve steps above incredible, from the flecks of gray in his beard to his slightly crooked teeth and the just-noticeable ripple of his mustache in a gentle breeze, the animators clearly know what they’re doing. Directors Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj tell the story precisely and economically, every frame adding a tragic detail. Builds to an impressive emotional valve in just under 7 minutes.

Pearl: told from a hatchback car that has traveled the country with a dream and a song, 3060252-inline-1g-dont-be-surprised-if-googles-animated-short-pearl-wins-an-oscar-this-yearPearl is the story of a girl, her father, and their music, clearly a family gift. We got to see this short in the Oscar package at the fabulous Bytowne theatre, which means we saw it on the big screen, which is actually not how it was intended to be shown. Pearl is the first virtual reality movie to be nominated for an Oscar. Director Patrick Osborne chooses a blocky animation style paired with endearing music that makes me wish that I too had enjoyed the VR experience, because it’s a whirlwind of pride, sacrifice, and in virtual reality, you’re the one with camera: every viewing would literally be a slightly different movie.

Piper: this is the one most of you will already be familiar with, having screened in advance of Disney-Pixar’s Finding Dory. It’s about a baby sandpiper being taught to forage for her tumblr_og1b37dVCN1qd79gyo5_540.gifown food. The beach is not always as serene as it looks and an unexpected wave leads to some PTSD for one cute little birdie. But she learns confidence and resilience, and the joy of helping others, all in less than 6 minutes. The animation is stunning. The ocean’s foam impressed me, the movement of each individual grain of sand. In great Pixar tradition, writer-director Alan Barillaro offers us something truly beautiful.

Blind Vaysha: pictograph-style animation (Sean called it “deliberately ugly”, I would blind-vayshadescribe it more like wood-cuttings, if I was feeling generous) tells a parable of a little girl born effectively blind – her left eye seeing only the past, her right only the future, which means the present is one big blind spot. And guess what? There isn’t any happiness in the past or in the future, it’s all happening right now and if you can’t see that, you can’t really see anything. Director Theodore Ushev has a great theme and plays on it with swirling visuals, challenging the audience to experimentation.

Pear Cider & Cigarettes: after several warnings to remove children from the audience, this “graphic” offering by writer-director Robert Valley is narrated in the first-person about pearcider_a.gifRob’s charismatic but troubled friend, Techno. Techno’s near god-like status comes crashing down as he slowly poisons himself to death with alcohol. It’s definitely the only animated short with full-frontal nudity. It was originally a graphic novel, or novels, comprising several volumes, which is why this short film clocks in at a hefty 35 minutes, every single frame of which is hand-drawn by Valley himself, over the course of half a decade or so.

The verdict: Piper’s going to win. Borrowed Time is probably its only real competition, and I feel they’re both deserving. I’m not sure how many Academy voters will have seen Pearl in VR but even the theatrical cut is immersive and interesting. Can the animation team from Google really win an Oscar? While Blind Vaysha certainly has an eye-catching style, the story didn’t draw me in, and it ended too abruptly and without much resolution. Pear Cider and Cigarettes down right turned me off. If you’re going to bother animating a 30 minute sequence, you should also go to the trouble of writing, then editing your story- the narrative style just didn’t work for me. I feel unpatriotic down-voting both Canadian efforts, but them’s the breaks; Pixar’s still at the top of the heap. Take aim, animators.

 

Oscar Spotlight: Editing

The Academy Award for Best Film Editing is very closely correlated to Best Picture. For 33 years, 1981-2013, every Best Picture Winner was nominated for Film Editing. Two thirds of Best Picture winners also win for Editing.

[What broke the mould? In 2014, Birdman won Best Picture but was shut out of the Best Editing nominations. Those went to American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash; Whiplash won.]

Editing is the invisible art that even editors struggle to describe.

Nebraska editor Kevin Tent: It’s hard to articulate what editors do, but when it’s bad, you’ll know it. When it’s good, you’ll never know.

Gravity co-editor Mark Sanger: The editor needs to provide a canvas that complements all of the other aspects to tie them together. If an audience has engaged deeply enough with a story to nominate it for best picture, then they understand the pages were bound together in the editing.

Any clearer? Basically, what Oscar voters are thinking is:  Are there special challenges that go into it? Multiple story lines? Non-linear? Does it flow well, is the story clear? Is the film visually exceptional? Is the movie long but doesn’t feel it? Directing a movie is telling (showing) a story; editing a movie is how well you can tell it. Sometimes good editing means you don’t notice it at all, it seamless pulls together all the elements of the movie. Other times, it might purposely draw attention to itself: Wolf of Wall Street’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker says “In ‘Wolf,’ we’re doing shocking cutting deliberately, because their world is out of control, and wild.”

Only the principal editor is named on the award. He or she may sit down and do the first edit of a movie by themselves, but the director is almost always sitting beside them for the polish of the film, and their work becomes blurred with judgments about pacing, film language, and martinscorsesethelmaschoonmakerpowellgadves9f5idlmore. Lots of directors have a go-to editor as this person will be their right-hand in making the film complete. They get to know each other very well, and must share a vision for the film, while pushing each other to make the best film possible. Michael Kahn, the most nominated editor is Oscars history, and tied for most wins (3), is a frequent collaborator of Steven Spielberg – they’ve worked together for nearly 40 years. Schoonmaker and Scorsese are also collaborators over several decades. Some of these editor-director ‘marriages’ last longer than the real ones do in Hollywood.

You probably can’t truly judge an editor unless you’ve seen the raw material they had to work with, but there are some things to look out for: is it focused? graceful? do they keep you on the edge of your seat when there’s action? are you riveted during a great performance? does it keep your interest throughout? are you ever confused, or left wondering what’s happening in a scene? do they stay on a particularly good moment for as long as it holds emotionally, or cut away too soon? What’s left out is just as important as what’s kept. And sometimes staying, rather than cutting, is even more powerful. Yup, it’s a lot to think about and certainly would require more than one viewing to really judge. There are only about 220 members of the Editing branch of the Academy, and they’re the ones who pick the nominees. Then everyone gets to vote for who wins.

This year’s nominees:

John Gilbert, for Hacksaw Ridge: Gilbert was previously nominated for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, but the Academy likes war movies in terms of editing. The battle scenes have lots of intense editing, and Gilbert agrees that these are what the Academy is responding to: “They’re made up of fragments of images, a lot of it is very short shots and high john-gilbert-1-1000x1482intensity. The idea was to put the audience in amongst it and people really feel it in the battle scenes, a lot of people sort of cover their eyes, there’s a lot of bloodshed and mayhem, and it’s quite sustained.” While the initial work of stringing the film together can be done quickly, perhaps in a week, the real meat comes afterword, when director and editor sit down together to make all the difficult choices. “I worked with Mel Gibson for about 10 weeks on it. I originally thought that 10 weeks was not going to be enough. About half the movie is battle scenes, with a lot of quick-cut action, and a lot of choices due to the amount of footage I had. Mel had been in during the shoot and we went over some sequences in great detail, looking at re-speeding shots, and trimming frames, taking quite a bit of time. There are always key scenes where small changes in performance and timing can be critical and we worked hard on them.” Gilbert is quick to point out that editing is a collaborative process: “The assistants break it down into scenes for me, and I skip through the circled takes to start with, just to have a look at what sort of coverage I’ve got. I like to get an idea in my mind about the shape of the scene, where I’m going to use the wide shots, where I’m going to use the close-ups, and how to best use the coverage I have. I like to find what I think are they key moments in the scene and make a note of any magic I find in the performances. I make a ‘selects’ sequence as I go, which I make in story order, and that becomes the basis for my first edit. It is also useful if the script supervisor has a good relationship with the director and is able to give me insight into what they were thinking, and any moments they loved when shooting.”

Joe Walker, for Arrival: Walker worked with Denis Villeneuve last year on Sicario and again this year on Blade Runner 2049, so they’re forming quite a successful partnership. He was previously nominated for his work on 12 Years A Slave. As Villeneuve and Walker wrapped up Sicario, Villeneuve passed him the script for Arrival, and he was immediately drawn to it for its “strong female lead. It was educated and it was grown-up, and I was fascinated by the joe-walker-800x600application of my craft to it, in so far as it’s right in the middle of what I think is our super power as editors, which is the manipulation of time.” Arrival is told with little glimpses of memory, other times, other places. How do you sew that all together? “Many things were just grabbed moments that were sort of very emotive and beautiful, a hand touching a baby’s hand in a cart, or an out-of-focus shot of a horse in a stable. They could have gone anywhere. Trying to build that into the narrative and marble this narrative through with these little glimpses of a memory, if you like.” Arrival doesn’t have a strictly linear approach, nor is it classically circular or backward or necessarily out of chronological order. It simply does not exist within our perception of time and order. It’s interwoven, with all moments touching each other, if you can think of time reaching around on itself. “To really be moved by the ending, we felt we had to adjust that. We had to make sure that the wall that we built at the beginning wasn’t so solid that we couldn’t kick it down, but also we had to choose a real moment where people will definitely get it. That’s right at the heart of editing and narrative storytelling, working out when you’re just ahead of the audience, or in parallel with the audience, and never behind. We always wanted to compliment the audience’s intelligence so that they could figure it out themselves.”

Jake Roberts, for Hell or High Water: Jake “NOT the Snake” Roberts has worked on some pretty great films, including Starred Up, Brooklyn, and Trespass Against Us, but this is his first Academy Award nomination. He was a film buff grown up and expected to be a “film maker” img_8854but fell into editing rather accidentally, and fell in love with it quite whole heartedly. “The alchemy that occurred when you juxtaposed certain images or performances and added music or sound effects was ‘filmmaking’ to me in the most literal sense. I’ve been editing ever since.” On the particular challenges of making a neo-Western like Hell or High Water: “The challenges were mostly about tone and pace. It’s a serious film but has plenty of laughs in it so we had to be careful not to let it get too heavy or too silly and walk a line between it’s extremes. Likewise we wanted the film to be languid in places and for the audience to be able to hear the space and the silences but equally for it to play plausibly as a mainstream thriller.” How does he evaluate editing? “Never stop asking questions of the material. What do I (as the audience) want to see next? What information, be it visual or expositional, do I need to follow the story? What don’t I need? What is repetitive? Why don’t I like that character as much as I should? Why does it feel slow here?”

Tom Cross, for La La Land: He’s only been the lead editor on films since 2010 but he’s already got one Academy Award under his belt, for – you guessed it – Whiplash. How does Cross describe his collaborator, director Damien Chazelle? “Very, very prepared. In that way, it really helps me as an editor to put the movie into the first cut. The other thing that is so great about Damien, as a director, is that he is a true believer in what film editing can do. He gets very excited about solving problems, whether they be story problems or a character problems. I shouldn’t really say “problems,” but issues. He gets very excited about solving certain issues lr-tomcross_whiplashthrough editing. To his credit, he’s a brilliant writer and a visionary director, but he also is not afraid to change something in his script, whether it be dialogue or action, in order to fit what the film has to be.” How does Whiplash compare to La La Land? “In the case of Whiplash, the directive was to tell a story at a break neck pace, and with a certain amount of precision. As if the character of Fletcher was editing the movie itself. In the case of La La Land, Damien had similar directives for the editing. He had different styles that he wanted to do scenes. He used certain romantic scenes that would play out at a slower pace, and maybe less cuts. He knew that in order for that to really work and have the right emotional impact, he would have to offset that in other scenes. Other scenes have quick cutting, or fast cutting, or are told with dissolve, or other optical techniques. I think that something that excites me about Damien’s work is that he really looks at how editing can help tell the story. He’s a real believer in varying the pace and varying the speed of the cuts in order to accentuate moments when he wants to have something play slower and more romantically.” Lots of the movie relies on old Hollywood techniques to help make the film feel more dream-like, sweeping camera movements and dissolving scenes. In that way, the editing too is a throw-back. Some scenes that are meant to be more ‘modern’ (like the concert footage with John Legend) feature a lot of cutting, but others, such as when Mia and Seb dance in the observatory, are a single, brave take. And for all La La Land’s big, showy, numbers, there are also quiet scenes that convey a lot of emotion. “There were items where the editing would have to take a back seat and be very invisible. That could be seen in the dinner scene where they break up. It was directed to me as an editor to use these four shot units—we had a medium shot of Sebastian, a medium of Mia, a close of Mia, and a close of Sebastian. That’s all you have.”

Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon for Moonlight: If Sanders and McMillon win, they’ll make history. moonlight-editorsActually, they already have; McMillon is the first African American woman to be nominated as an editor. She’d obviously also be the first to win! Sanders and McMillon divided the job between the two of them, with Sanders primarily focused on the first two segments and McMillon working on the third. The third, of course, was the toughie, and McMillon had to convince writer-director Barry Jenkins to move substantial pieces around in order to maximize and earn emotional involvement. Once he was on board “we found a place for everything, it became organic.” “Barry’s really focused on what life feels like,” Sanders said, specifying cutaways of a hand sifting through sand, or Naomie Harris moving in slow motion through the yard. Sanders and McMillon tinkered with sound design, and chose abrupt cuts to black, but kept a respect for the elegant camera work. “When you get such beautiful footage, you have to treat it like another performance,” Sanders said. He also explains the particular challenge of working for college pal Jenkins: “maintaining Barry’s filmmaking voice, which was observational and ponderous, and always wanting to preserve that, but still needing to keep things moving.”

 

So does that make things clearer, or muddy the waters? And who’s your pick for Oscar?

 

 

Oscar Spotlight: Costume Design

If you need a refresher on all the fun stuff a costumer actually does, please check out last year’s post. If your memory’s a steel trap, then delve right into this year’s Academy Award nominees for costume design.

Joanna Johnston, for Allied: Johnston has a challenge in this film in that she has to somehow integrate glamour and the war. Marion Cotillard is a spy, and a wife, and a gallery-1480717036-hbz-embedmother. She moves from cocktail parties with politicians to London’s air raids. But with such disparate films as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Saving Private Ryan under her belt, you might say that Johnston was up to the task. We are first introduced to Cotillard in Allied as she’s wearing a purple dress ” I wanted her to look sexy and beautiful, but not in a “base sexy” way, so we put the sex [appeal] in the back because I knew we were going to see her first from the back. It’s a beautiful Italian fabric; very fine, very delicate silk with this silver shimmer through it, which picks up on the highlights on her.” Later, Cotillard is seen in a green evening gown “I wanted to do a classic column-style dress—very statuesque. I wanted the fabric to be quite liquid. When she’s on the move, she’s got this liquid quality to her, gallery-1480714959-hbz-alliedwhich silk satin does beautifully. Because it was nighttime, the light hit all those highlights [in the fabric]. Again, it’s this sort of old-fashioned quality, but it also had to be quite functional; she had to be able to run in it and do all those things. At one point she actually had a weapon underneath it, in the skirt, so there was a lot of stuff about that [laughs].” The costumes in Allied are indeed very beautiful, but that was something that sometimes felt disingenuous to me – like it didn’t quite fit into a movie set during wartime. The character does transition into more tweeds when she’s at home during the raids, but she’s always just a little too glamourous for my understanding of the time. Johnston has a long history of working with Allied director Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg; she received her previous Oscar nomination for Lincoln.

Colleen Atwood, for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Colleen Atwood is a name you may recognize even as a complete neophyte to costuming. A frequent collaborator of Tim Burton’s you can imagine that her costumes are often fanciful, colourful, and FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEMsurreal, just what J.K. Rowling had ordered. She’s worked on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice In Wonderland, for all of which she won Oscars. The secret to her success? “I’m controlling like that. I look at and approve every fitting, no matter who anybody is, and I am very controlling in how I want everything to look. It’s important: it matters, and you never know what you’re going to see. I learned a long time ago that you can’t control what happens with pieces you care about unless you’re there, so I’m there.” Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920s NYC, in a universe where magic exists. “I love the fantasy stuff, I love that. That’s why I took on this movie. I like the challenge of it, and I like integrating fantasy into a period like this. You get to step out of it slightly and make something that’s a version of that time. Which is what movies have always done: in a way, they glamorise time.” How does she get her inspiration? “I reread a couple of [F Scott] Fitzgerald books, fb-trl2-87163-h_2016which are always fun to go back to because he’s very descriptive about the frenzy and the romance of the period. It has so much heart that it’s helped me, and this story has so much heart.” She tracked down period pieces from all over the world, hunting in all the best costume shops, but lots had to be made from scratch as there just aren’t a lot of period wizarding outfits to be had, no matter how hard one scours. Eddie Redmayne’s signature peacock blue overcoat is one-of-a-kind.

Consolata Boyle, for Florence Foster Jenkins: Boyle is director Stephen Frears’ go-to costumer; she was previously nominated for The Queen. Boyle did just as much research for this film, as it is once again a biopic with a real woman’s wardrobe for reference, and each piece was recreated from scratch. Meryl Streep wore padding to flesh out her meryl-streep-sketch-padding_florence-foster-jenkins_image-001character, and each costume had to be built around the padding. “The performance costumes had a very specific aesthetic. They were overblown and a lot of her clothes she would’ve made herself or her friends made, so there was an amateurish feeling about them. But then also the way she dressed in her daily life had that quality of being childish and over-decorative.” Boyle used a consistent colour palette of “naive pastels”to bring Florence to life, and to delineate different costumes for different aspects of her life, all of which were fairly theatrical. Stephen Frears is full of praise for her work: “I barely need to speak to her as I know what she’s doing is going to be dazzling. I’ve worked with her for 25 years, so I’m very lucky.” Florence made all sorts of garish costumes and it’s a complete delight to see them recreated nullon the big screen, along with her penchant for accessorizing within an inch of her life. “I worked incredibly closely with Meryl every step of the way, we had a lot of discussion early on about how she would express her inner emotions in her clothing. [Florence] was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous. They were high camp but with a softness so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.”

Madeline Fontaine, for Jackie: Fontaine also had a lot of real-life references for her work in Jackie – we’re talking about style icon and former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, after all. Natalie Portman gives a tour de force performance as Jackie and Fontaine makes sure she’snatalie-portman16 got the goods to back it up. Photos and footage of the first lady are so iconic that if even one brass button was out of place, people would notice. She worked with Chanel to get the famous pink suit down to perfection, even hand-dying the wool to achieve the perfect shade of pink (the actual dress is preserved in the National Archives and wasn’t available for consultation). Historical accuracy was important, but for filming purposes, so was duplication: “All the “original” pieces are handmade in our workshop.  We needed to create more than one – we made five of the natalie-portman17pink dress, for instance. Chanel supplied the buttons, the chain of the inside jacket, (“couture” detail for the weight of the jacket, and a signature…), and a label, in case the jacket would fall down [onto] the floor.” Since the film jumps between colour and black and white, the dresses sometimes had to be done in different shades so that our eye would not perceive a difference. Every piece in the film was true to Jackie herself “The elegance she showed in every situation, even while relaxing on holiday, proves this: she was never captured by surprise not looking perfect.”

Mary Zophres, for La La Land: Lots of people wondered how this particular nomination was snagged. Hadn’t Zophres just gone to the mall and bought some brightly coloured costume_split_4dresses, after all? It would be an unlikely win for sure – in the past 20 years, 17 have been period films, 2 were fantasy-based, and last year was post-apocalyptic Mad Max. It might be argued that Chazelle’s La La Land doesn’t exactly feel strictly contemporary. With so many references and throw-backs to old Hollywood musicals, La La Land exists in a stylistic world of its own. Mia and Seb wore classic, timeless looks, and Zophres embraced a fusion of styles. “In my mind, there’s a bit of an arc to Mia. It starts off grounded in reality and by the time you get to the epilogue, she’s wearing that fantasy la_la_land_-_sketch_2_-_embedwhite dress when they’re dancing in Paris. I put a lot of fabric and I wanted it to feel like air.” Zophres looked to old Hollywood for inspiration and was deeply rewarded. “The two models for Mia were Ingrid Bergman (a poster adorns her bedroom wall) and Judy Garland. I found a pink halter dress for one of the montages that’s similar to the one Ingrid Bergman wore for her Hollywood screen test. For the Planetarium peak, Damien and I both landed on green because we both loved the image of Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born,’ where she wears almost like a jade green dress.”

 

Which of these ladies has your vote?

 

 

The Red Turtle

It’s haunting and beautiful and tragic and oddly seductive. The Red Turtle is the prettiest girl in your class who also happens to pull down straight As: fecking brilliant. I wasn’t sure if it would even earn girl next door status with me – an animated film with no dialogue?

While The Red Turtle has no speech, no words at all, it is far from silent. It has lovely but 1027992-theredturtle-05retiring music throughout, but manages to speak directly to your heart. That’s sort of the catch with this film, you have to let go of the normal film-going experience, and just feel your way through this one.

A man is lost at sea and washes ashore on a deserted island. He makes several escape attempts but his rafts keep getting destroyed. The culprit turns out to be a red turtle, a turtle who just happens to have the power to die and come back a woman, which is a pretty cool power. Imagine how stoked the dude is – doomed to a solitary life but then magically accorded a mate?

Director Michael Dudok de Wit had only a few short films to his name when he got a call from animation superstar Studio Ghibli asking if they could distribute his 2000 short Father And Daughter in Japan, and oh, p.s., would you make a feature film for us? He was floored. Ghibli has never done a non-Japanese film before, but they were clearly entranced with Dudok de Wit’s style and talent. The result, La tortue rouge, is pure visual narrative. It’s extremely simple story-telling, but effective. It laps at you like waves on a sandy beach. Cumulatively, it can knock you off your feet. This may be Dudok de Wit’s first attempt, but he nonetheless has an Oscar nomination to show for it.What do I have? I have a teeny tiny shadow on my heart – a shadow in the shape of a red turtle sliding back into the ocean.

 

 

OJ: Made In America

First, understand that OJ Simpson, to me, is the murderer. I was a kid when he killed his ex-wife and her friend, so I hadn’t known him as a football player or movie star or celebrity before then. The first I ever knew of him was when his white Bronco interrupted my Saved By The Bell marathoning.

This documentary doesn’t just seek to illustrate the life and times of one Orenthal James Simpson; rather it places his career and his crime within the context of L.A.’s race wars in the 1980s and 1990s. While the things you thought you knew about his sensational murder oj-made-america-show-400x400trial aren’t wrong, they’re explored with new understanding, through a lens of his being a black man, sort of, but not really.

What on earth do I mean by that? OJ grew up in the projects, as he is fond of saying when it’s convenient. He dreamed not of glory or achievement or wealth, but of fame, of being known. Certainly his football career granted him that. He was a big deal in college football circa 1968, kept his nose clean, stayed out of politics, and earned himself the Heisman trophy. He was drafted to the NFL where he suffered a bit of a slump but had a rebirth by 1973 when he set a record rushing for 2000 yards in one season. I walk my dog further than that nearly every day, but apparently that’s some sort of accomplishment in football.

OJ became a star athlete and celebrity whose fame transcended his race. White American embraced him, and OJ played his part. He courted white culture and did his best to never remind anyone that he was still technically a black man. He was the first national black spokesperson, for Hertz rental cars, and that meant he’d arrived. When he retired from football, he traded in his black wife for a white one and transitioned to Hollywood.

Yeah sure he beat his wife on the reg, but with a wink and an autograph the cops would be slapping him on the back, making no reports, casting no aspersions. Life was good until Nicole up and left him and his jealousy surged. The one night Nicole was found dead, nearly decapitated in fact, in a small ocean’s worth of her blood. A friend who had had the misfortune of stopping by at the wrong time, Ronald Goldman, was also killed. And this time the cops couldn’t deny that the crime had OJ’s name all over it.

We all know that OJ was acquitted, but this documentary shows his acquittal as an act of vengeance. The jury was stacked largely with poor black people who had seen members of lead_960the LAPD be acquitted in he Rodney King beating. Here was a chance to right that wrong and make the system work for a black man for once. Everyone conveniently forgot that OJ had spent his entire adult life distancing himself from the black community and they made him a civil rights hero. His lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, played the race card and he played it hard “dealt it from the bottom of the deck” it’s said. And he got off. But instead of relishing his incredible good luck, OJ’s life continued to derail until he found himself in court once again, this time found guilty and sentenced to some 33 years in prison, whether or not his crimes truly warranted it. This, again, was retaliation rather than justice.

At 467 minutes, this documentary achieves a depth we haven’t seen before and earns itself an Academy Award nomination – but is this fair? It had a qualifying run in theatres (though who would pay to sit for nearly 8 hours is a mystery to me) but it was produced and aired on television, in 5 parts on ESPN. Every other documentary had to play by different rules, hovering around that 90 minute mark that makes a film viable and marketable. This is the longest film to ever receive a best documentary nomination, and I can’t help but wonder if this will change things moving forward.

I can’t ignore that this film is very effective, juxtaposing the American dream with American reality, pinning OJ’s circumstances in a time and place that were far from ideal. It is balanced and cheese almighty is it ever thorough, complete with Marcia Clark in a redemptive hairdo. Glory be! It doesn’t waste any of its 467 minutes, nor are any redundant. There is much ground to cover and the film makes clear that OJ is not just a man of his own making, but an idol that a whole culture had a hand in creating (and destroying). There are so many insights here that I sent constant missives to Sean, just venting my hurt and frustration. I’ve come away with a breadth of understanding that his filled a gulch I didn’t even know existed in my awareness of this epic and polarizing event. There are discoveries to be made here, if you’re willing to follow director Ezra Edelman’s trail of breadcrumbs for the requisite 7 hours and change.

The White Helmets

The White Helmets is a short, 40 minute Oscar-nominated documentary that’s available on Netflix right now, and here’s why you should watch it:

My amazing godson is into many things: Ghostbusters, Paw Patrol, trampolining, and putting Sean in jail (aka my mom’s closet) are just a few. When he was one, I remember sitting out in the backyard on a sunny summer day, and marveling at his chubby little finger pointing at the plane leaving a white cloud across the sky. None of the adults would have noticed it, but at one he was fascinated with planes and trains and automobiles and had a habit of pointing them all out with unabated fascination.

The White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, are a group of volunteers social-share-01known for the white helmets they wear while rushing into the crumbling buildings and raging fires left after an airstrike. They live in and around Aleppo, and are committed to saving as many of the innocent but somehow still targeted civilians that get attacked every single day in Syria.

Over 400 000 Syrians have been killed in the past 5 years. The city of Aleppo is in ruins. There are no more services, no more infrastructure. Ordinary people – a tailor, a blacksmith, a builder – are learning the art of first response because they must. No one else is coming.

This documentary doesn’t touch the terrorism, it tackles instead the every day heroism of those who pull bodies from the rubble. The white helmets are of course not exempt from the violence. Their homes are just as likely to be bombed as anyone else’s. They pull family members from the wreckage. They know pain. And they risk everything to help. 154 White Helmets have died to save others, but 78 000 others have been saved to date. They have been nominated as a group for the Nobel Peace Prize but are banned from entering Donald Trump’s United States of America.

One man, a devoted White Helmet volunteer, tells the camera of his young son who crawls into his lap, cowering in fear every time a plane goes by. To him, plane = bomb. And that’s what tore me to shreds. By accident of birth, by geographical lottery, I am privileged. My godson is privileged. He thinks planes are wondrous. This little boy knows planes only to be destructive. It isn’t fair.

 

 

 

To donate: https://peoplesmillion.whitehelmets.org/act/peoples-million

 

 

Elle

Michèle is attacked in her home, brutally raped by a man in a ski mask. She cleans up the mess, and herself. She doesn’t reveal the assault for several days, when she calmly tells a tableful of friends at a restaurant. Her response may seem a little cold to some, but she’s grappling with it, in fact reliving it all the time (which means we get to witness the rape repeatedly). Michèle has some childhood trauma that makes her distrustful of the police, but after the attack she continues to get threatening text messages that keep her on edge.

Michèle, the character, is an interesting woman. She’s a successful businesswoman, the boss at a video game company with a lot of young men working under her, with varying degrees of respect, resentment, and lust toward her. She has a grown son who is increasingly under the thumb of his pregnant girlfriend, and thus more estranged from his elle-6mother. She has exes, lovers, and erotic fixations. Some of them may surprise you. She reminds us that there are many ways to respond to this kind of violation, and none of them are necessarily wrong. But victimhood does not sit well with Michèle; Michèle plots revenge. Michèle’s complexity is a welcome layer to this psychological thriller, and it’s superbly executed by Isabelle Huppert. Huppert won the Golden Globe for her performance and is nominated for an Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. This is a career best for her, and she’s not exactly a slouch.

The harder pill to swallow is that Elle is directed by Paul Verhoeven – THAT Verhoeven; Showgirls Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s filmography is, erm, varied. Neither Robocop nor Starship Troopers really signal that he’s capable of this kind of film. Tonally it resembles Basic Instinct most closely, but this work still shows more maturity  and more nuance than we’ve perhaps seen from him before. Maybe this is owing to the film’s source material, the book ‘Oh…’ by Philippe Dijan.

Fire At Sea

Fire At Sea is an Italian documentary directed by Gianfranco Rosi that won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is nominated for an Oscar.

It’s about the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean, between Africa and Italy, and focuses on the European migrant crisis, during which some 15000 people have died trying to reach the island. Hundreds of people board boats that are barely seafaring and risk their lives trying to make it to a safer life. Not everyone makes it.

It’s such a sad story, and an important cause. I wanted badly to like this movie. Badly. Meryl Streep, chair of the Berlin jury, called the film “a daring hybrid of captured fuocoammare-1footage and deliberate storytelling that allows us to consider what documentary can do. It is urgent, imaginative and necessary filmmaking.” Meryl, love ya, but I respectfully disagree.

I realize I’m going to be in the minority here, but Fire At Sea nearly bored me to death. There’s no narration to drive the story. There isn’t much of a story at all. It follows some island natives who have very little to do with the migrant crisis, and if their lives are affected by it at all, it remains a secret from us. Lengthy scenes are spent on a 12 year old boy who has a lazy eye and an aptitude with slingshots. Why give so much time to him and very little to the actual refugees? The only thing I can conclude is that the film maker is making the migrant crisis seem every day, as perhaps it feels to the people of Lampedusa who have witnessed so much and are now impressed by very little. But for me, hearing people plead for their lives over a CB radio, begging to be saved from their rapidly sinking vessel, it’s horrible. It’s fucking atrocious. But in this documentary, it’s given no more weight than is given to the kid discussing his allergies. So while I concede there might be some bigger meaning going on here, that it’s the juxtaposition of banality and tragedy that really underlines the horror, it just felt off to me, the refugees basically an afterthought.

The length of the scenes are painful, and Rosi’s aesthetic detracts from the film’s impact. Yes, life must go on, even in face of unspeakably injustice, but perhaps this film would have served its subject better had it focused on one more than the other. While I appreciate the message, I can’t help but object to the medium.