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2018 OSCAR-NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS  Overall rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 15 at the Tivoli) 

 143 minutes | No MPAA rating

“BLACK SHEEP” (UK, 27 minutes) B
In “Black Sheep” a young black man named Cornelius Walker describes how as a child he was uprooted from his multicultural London neighborhood (his Nigerian parents feared urban violence) and relocated to a tiny burg in Essex.
There he encountered worse racism than he’d ever experienced in the big city. He was cursed and beaten and, in a desperate effort to gain acceptance, even bleached his skin and wore blue contact lenses.
And it worked. Over time Cornelius was taken in by his one-time persecutors;  ironically, to please them he found himself imitating the same violent and racist behavior he sought to escape.
“I wanted love, so I made friends with monsters,” he says.
Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn’s doc is about 1/4 talking-head interview with Walker; the rest of the film consists of dramatic re-creations employing actors.  Thirty years ago this format would have earned the contempt of documentary purists. But times change. The result is a devastating look at racism and human nature.
“END GAME” (USA, 40 minutes) A
Movies don’t get more real than “End Game,” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s gut-twisting/transcendent look at life in a hospital ward dedicated to dying.
Epstein and Friedman  — whose resumes include films as diverse as “The Celluloid Closet,” “Paragraph 175” and “The Times of Harvey Milk” — turn their cameras on the medical professionals, patients and families living and dying in the University of California Med Center in San Francisco.
Over its 40 minutes we get to know a good many of these folk who — unlike the rest of us — can no longer ignore the ultimate reality of death.  They have to decide how they are going to die — not just the medical side but the human side.
“Every moment is still a gift” says one patient; even so, not every patient is willing to endure debilitating treatments in order to gain a few days or weeks.
As you’d expect, the material is explosively emotional. One is left with the utmost respect for the individuals (and their families) who were wiling to share the intimacy of their last days…not to mention the realization that the things happening on screen will undoubtedly happen some day to each and every one of us.
“LIFEBOAT” (USA, 40 minutes) B
Every year thousands of North Africans flee poverty, war, persecution and famine by clambering aboard waterlogged small boats for a dangerous trip to Europe.  One in 18 of them drowns.
Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser’s “Lifeboat” looks at the efforts of the German non-profit Sea-Watch to rescue these hapless immigrants. Their cameras are aboard one rescue vessel when it comes across three boats carrying more than 1,000 refugees.
It’s an instant humanitarian emergency.  These travelers suffer from dehydration, heat stroke, sea sickness…and there’s a slew of pregnant women, some of whom have gone into labor.
In the relative calm after they’re taken aboard several of these refugees explain where they come from and how they came to be on an overcrowded boat in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The captain of one of the rescue vessels says that with just one turn of the historical cycle the comfortable Western countries could find themselves living a Third World existence…and at that point their residents would become the riffraff that nobody cares about.
“A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN” (USA, 7 minutes) B+
Despite a running time of only 7 minutes, Marshall Curry’s “A Night at the Garden” packs an emotional and intellectual punch that leaves  viewers reeling.
In effect, Curry offers us documentary footage of a 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 Nazi supporters.
Not Germans.
No these were red-blooded American citizens who stared lovingly at banners equating George Washington and Adolf Hitler and wildly applauded bombastic make-America-great-again rants from swastika-bedecked orators. At one point a protestor somehow gets onto the stage and is beaten for his efforts while the crowd roars its approval.
One assumes that Curry has edited and shaped this archival footage…or perhaps he just threw it up on the screen as he found it.  In the end it doesn’t matter. “A Night at the Garden” reveals a disturbing bit of American history that today looks all too familiar.
“PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE”  (India, 26 minutes)  B+

The lowly sanitary napkin hardly seems like the flashpoint for a revolution. That is, until you visit parts of rural India, where ignorance of the female anatomy and psyche is so complete that a young man, asked about menstruation, answers: “It’s a kind of illness right? Mostly affects girls?”

Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton’s “Period. End of Sentence” is about Kotex coming to the sticks.  Or at least a locally-produced sanitary pad, hand-crafted by women (for most, it’s their first paying job) in a small factory and distributed to customers who initially have no idea what it is or how to use it.

Only 10 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads, we’re told.  Which explains why every farming community has a vacant lot or field  littered with hundreds of bloody rags, the result of the female population dealing with their periods in the age-old manner.

In a paternalistic society where menstruation is a taboo subject and girls are told that the prayers of a menstruating female will not be heard, something as seemingly retro as readily available sanitary napkins can become the spearhead of a feminist movement.  And that’s the sort of uplifting momentum
“Period…” sets in motion.

The next generation will be even more informed.

| Robert W. Butler

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Jamie Bell

“DONNYBROOK”  My rating: C (Opens Feb. 15 at the Screenland  Tapcade)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: R

“Donnybrook” is a fistful of  cheap melodrama, what with its emphasis on the drugs and violence its protagonist encounters en route to an underground bareknuckle slugfest.

At least give writer/director Tim Sutton props for trying to elevate this yarn with the sort of ashcan realism and social commentary most commonly found in the work of Brit auteur Ken Loach (“The Angels’ Share,” “Jimmy’s Hall,” “I, Daniel Blake”).

Which is not to say that Sutton pulls it off. You can see him struggling to give this chunk of cheese relevance by peppering it with  observations on blue-collar American angst.  That approach worked in “Hell or High Water”; here not much of it sticks.

When we first encounter Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell…yeah, the original Billy Elliott) he’s robbing a gun store and smashing the owner in the face.  This is our hero?

Well, yeah.  Jarhead  may do bad things, but he does them to support his meth head wife (Valerie Jane Parker) and two young kids. By the logic of “Donnybrook” this makes him a hero.  Everybody else in sight is far worse.

Especially Chainsaw Angus (Frank Grillo), the neighborhood drug dealer.  Accompanied by his sister Delia (Margaret Qualley),  with whom he has a master/slave relationship that reeks of incest, Chainsaw cuts a wide path of bloody destruction.  He may be the only dealer who’d rather kill his clients than sell them drugs.

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Zain Al Rafeea

“CAPERNAUM” My rating: B+ (Opens Feb. 15 at the Tivoli and Rio)

126 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Personal drama and social commentary find an almost perfect marriage in “Capernaum,” an  Oscar-nominated (for foreign language film) heartbreaker about a little boy navigating life on the mean streets of Beirut.

Written and directed by Nadine Labaki (whose earlier efforts — “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?” — look simplistic by comparison), “Capernaum” stars 12-year-old Zain Al Rafeea, who gives a performance for the ages.

The story is bookended by a trial.  Young Zain (Al Rafeea) is currently in juvenile lockup for, in his words, “stabbing the son of a bitch.” Now he has dragged  his no-good parents (Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Yousef) into court; basically he’s suing them for giving  birth to him.

Filmmaker Labaki does not dwell long on this improbable  spectacle. Most of “Capernaum” is a long flashback depicting how things came to this sad state. Zain’s journey is like that of a Dickens protagonist through a world of few pleasures and much indifference.

Right from the get-go it’s obvious that Zain is one tough little guy. He swears like a sailor and has a chip-on-his-shoulder attitude. He is uncowed by adult authority and is openly contemptuous of his parents, crooks whose current scam is delivering drug-impregnated clothing to Zain’s imprisoned older brother.

The only family member Zain cares about  is his older sister Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam). When the frightened girl experiences her first period, Zain explains what’s what and gives her his T-shirt to use as a menstrual pad, warning her not to tell anyone that she’s reached this milestone. Sure enough, once their parents get wind of Sahar’s condition they sell her to their landlord.

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2018 OSCAR-NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS  Overall rating: B+

109 minutes | No MPAA rating

“MADRE” (Spain, 19 minutes)

In this gripping nail biter form Spain a young mother (Blanca Apilanez) receives a call from her 6-year-old son, Ivan, who is vacationing with his father. (The couple are divorced or separated.)

Little Ivan is using his dad’s cell phone to report that he’s alone on a beach. He doesn’t know his location. His father left him there and hasn’t returned.

Mom keeps the boy calm; no doubt her ex will soon return.  But the situation quickly escalates when Ivan reports the appearance of a strange man who starts chasing him…

The direction by Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Maria del Puy Alvarado is like a precision watch wound to the breaking point; the tension generated by this setup is almost unbearable.

In fact, the pure storytelling is so overwhelming that it takes a while for viewers to discover that, incredibly enough, the bulk of the film is one uninterrupted shot  unfolding in Mom’s apartment.  The logistics of pulling off this tour de force are daunting. But “Madre” delivers.

“FAUVE” (Canada, 17 minutes) B

Two boys are roughhousing in what looks like an abandoned strip mine.  For several minutes they dare each other to do dangerous things, wrestle and climb over rusting equipment.

But then they find a manmade lake. It looks enticing…until they discover to their horror that the muddy banks are the consistency of quicksand and can quickly pull a child to his doom.

Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon rev up the tension and fear and leave us with a haunting depiction of a young life all but ruined.

“MARGUERITE” (Canada, 19 minutes) B+

The elderly Marguerite (Beatrice Picard) lives for the daily visits by her caregiver Rachel (Sandrine Bisson). But when she learns that Rachel is in a relationship with another woman it triggers Marguerite’s own memories of a stymies girl-on-girl romance from long ago.

This film from Marianne Farley  is a study in gentle revelation, a heartbreakingly tender look at the life that its protagonist might have had.

“DETAINMENT” (Ireland, 30 minutes) A-

Based on a 1993 murder case that rocked Great Britain, “Detainment” is a docudrama zeroing in on the police interrogations of two 10-year-old Liverpool boys who eventually were convicted of killing 3-year-old James Bulger, whom they kidnapped from a shopping mall.

The dialogue in Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon’s film was drawn almost entirely from the recordings of the police sessions with the boys, and what emerges is one of the most harrowing 30 minutes of cinema imaginable.

The young killers — interrogated separately but in the presence of their stricken and disbelieving parents — pose a perplexing contrast.

Jon (Ely Solan) is terrified and panic stricken, weeping helplessly in his mother’s arms. He paints himself as a victim of his partner’s malignancy.

Robert (Leon Hughes) is, by contrast, a psychopath in training, a defiant little shit who lies nonstop and uses mind tricks to try to derail the cops as they build their case. He says it was all Jon’s idea.

In all probability neither could have done it alone, but together the boys proved a lethal mix.

As ghastly and off-putting as this tale is, there is no question that Masters Hughes and Solan deliver two of the most amazing performances by child actors ever captured on film.

“SKIN” (USA, 20 minutes) B

The first moments of Guy Nattiv’s “Skin”  offer a touching display of family warmth.  A young boy, Troy (Jackson Robert Scott), is getting a front-porch haircut from his doting dad, Johnny (Jonathan Tucker). Then, with Mom (Danielle MacDonald), they drive out to the country with friends for a day of shooting up old cars.

Little Troy proves a crack shot with a rifle, much to his father’s delight.

Just one problem with this cozy scene.  Johnny and his pals are virulent racists.   We’d know that just from their tattoos, but that night upon returning to town they nearly beat to death a black man in front of his wife and children.

The friends of the victim seek revenge, not through violence (though they do kidnap Johnny right in front of his distressed son) but by using ink and a tattoo needle to turn the racist into that thing he hates so much.

With its emphasis on irony “Skin” plays a lot like an updated episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Its melodramatic elements almost go too far, but the performances keep it all in check.

(Interestingly enough, the short “Skin” is a companion piece to a feature film by Nattiv also called “Skin.” In the feature Jamie Bell portrays a real-life skinhead who rejected his racist upbringing and systematically had all his hateful tattoos removed.)

| Robert W. Butler

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2018 OSCAR-NOMINATED ANIMATED SHORTS  Overall rating: B

 56 minutes | No MPAA rating

Traditionally animated shorts were aimed at the funny bone.

Mickey Mouse. Bugs Bunny. Tom & Jerry.

Well, that was then.  As this year’s slate of Oscar-nominated animated shorts makes clear, today’s animators are interested in big themes and deep emotions.

Only one of the nominees is overtly comical.  The others gravitate toward the arty end of the narrative spectrum, with a special emphasis on works that attempt to encompass an entire life (or a big chunk of one). (Remember the wedding album sequence that opened Pixar’s “Up”?  It’s the spiritual grandfather of many of these nominees.)

“ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR”  (Canada, 14 minutes) B

In Alison Snowden and David Fine’s savage spoof of psychiatry, a canine shrink convenes a group therapy session of diverse animals.

Among others, there’s a pig with an eating disorder and a leech with self-esteem problems. But things go really south when a new patient invades the room: a towering gorilla with anger issues.

The dialogue and voices are basically naturalistic; that it’s all being delivered through cartoon animals makes it truly bizarre.

Classic moment: Leonard, the doggy doctor, notices the discomfort in the room when a single-mom praying mantis laments the difficulty of finding a good male of her species. Adapting exactly the sort of diffident therapy-speak that pisses off so many of us, Leonard offers: “Clearly, sexual cannibalism is for some still a taboo.”

Tres droll.

BAO”  (USA, 8 minutes B

If you saw “Incredibles 2” last year you probably caught Domee Shi and Becky Neimann-Cobb’s “Bao,” which played before the feature.

A visually sophisticated (and wordless) valentine to maternal longing and generational conflict, the film centers on an Asian household — presumably Chinese — where the wife fantasizes that one of her hand-made stuffed dumplings is actually a baby.  So fertile is her imagination that she watches the little guy grow up, go to school, hit those difficult teenage years and eventually show up at the door with his new squeeze, a perky Anglo gal.

“Bao” takes a too-cute (borderline freakish) idea and turns it into emotional gold, especially with its universal theme of the young growing up and more-or-less abandoning their parents.

“LATE AFTERNOON” (Ireland, 10 minutes) B+ (more…)

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“THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD” My rating: B+

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Time travel may be just a theory, but something like it is at work at theaters where Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”  is playing.

Jackson, the director of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” franchises, has taken hundreds of  hours of World War I movie footage owned by Britain’s National War Museum and from it fashioned a feature film that practically jumps off the screen and into our laps (and that’s even if you pass on the 3-D version).

The story he tells is that of common English men — boys, really — who signed up to go to defend their country and found themselves in the ghastly trench war of the Western Front in France.  The film relies on snippets of audio interviews the BBC conducted with veterans of the Great War back in the ’60s and ’70s;  now long gone, these men reveal their experiences and innermost feelings about what they went through.

But what makes “They Shall Not Grow Old” absolutely mind-churning is the way Jackson and hundreds of technicians restored the old footage, cleaning up the dust motes and cracked emulsion, colorizing the images and providing an immersive stereo soundtrack.

The film’s first 30 minutes are basically the story of recruitment and training in  black-and-white; then, with the troops’ arrival in France, the screen blossoms with color as we are, in effect, dropped into the meat grinder.

The transition from black-and-white to Technicolor is as poetically jarring as it was in “The Wizard of Oz.”

There’s stuff here that even hard-core World War I junkies haven’t seen. Like what a trench latrine looked like (a thick pole stretched across a pool of muck; we see four bare bottoms simultaneously making use of the facilities). Like a bad case of trenchfoot, a ghastly condition born of wearing wet boots and socks for days on end (in effect, it’s gangrene).

There are piles of dead rats, the result of a housecleaning in one trench. There are bodies hanging on the barbed wire; some stayed so long their living neighbors could watch the slow process of decomposition over weeks. (One old gent describes war as “a fantastic exhibition of anatomy.”)

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Matt Green

“THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET” My rating: B

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

Matt Green may be a bit nuts, but it’s a wonderful nuttiness.

Now in  his early 30s, Green has spent the last seven years on a quest to walk every street, bike path, pier and park in New York City. He figures that all ads up to 8,000-plus miles.

He’s still not done, but his project has now been documented by Jeremy Workman in “The World Before Your Feet.” This love poem to the Big Apple is enough to make you want to drop everything and start hiking.

Workman’s doc is kind of awe-inspiring. We see Green striding purposefully through swirling seas of humanity; we also see him as a solitary figure in an empty landscape (yes, NYC has such places).

He cruises past landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum, but also wanders down alleyways, across seaside boardwalks and on footpaths through quiet parklands and even a ghost town in Queens. He walks in sweltering summer humidity and in blizzard conditions.

Along the way he takes pictures, which he posts on his web blog. And he meets lots of everyday people, including some who initially are suspicious of him (given his ability to defuse tense situations, Green might consider a post-walking gig as a mediator or reconciliation facilitator).

He is particularly fond of cemeteries (we see the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Harry Houdini) and of the exotic plants (fig trees!!!) that have somehow taken root surrounded by concrete. He finds the oldest and tallest living thing in the city, a tree called The Queen’s Giant.

He has stumbled across hundreds of homemade 9-11 memorials erected in front yards or painted on the sides of buildings.

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