Screening The Shorts

Today Kish and I continued our project to see as many of the the films nominated for Oscars this year as possible.  We screened the five “live action” short films that are up for an Academy Award.  They are playing, as a group, at the AMC Lennox.

timecodeUnder the Academy Award rules, the short film category is limited to movies with a running time of 40 minutes or less, including credits.  The films therefore must be more compact, without a lot of subplots or extraneous characters who might otherwise hog the screen time.  And yet, the storytelling is still there — and in fact might actually be enhanced and made more powerful by the time limits.  When you compare the short films to the kind of big-budget fare that Hollywood typically produces, you realize that all of the CGI and explosions and special effects sometimes interfere with, rather than promoting, the basic tale-telling that is a key part of the magic of movies.

The five finalists for 2017 include films from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland.   All were terrific, and their stories, and tones, were dramatically different.  The Hungarian film, Sing, told the story of a children’s choir controlled by a domineering conductor.  Silent Nights, the Danish movie, explored a relationship between a Ghanan immigrant trying to make money to send home to his family and a volunteer at a Salvation Army shelter.  In the Spanish film, entitled Timecode, a security guard at a parking garage who has to review surveillance video learns something surprising about the guard who holds down the other shift — and the movie ends with a laugh out loud joke.  The French movie, Ennemis Interieurs, is a taut interrogation between an Algerian immigrant who wants to become a French citizen and the police office relentlessly questioning him to try to determine if he might be a terrorist.  And the Swiss film, La Femme et le TGV, introduces us to a baker and chocolatier whose innocent act of always waving the flag and smiling as the train rumbles past her house produces some interesting consequences.

There’s lots of good movies and talented filmmakers out there, and the short film genre allows the Academy to recognize works that otherwise might not get much attention.  If the five nominees come to your local theater, you won’t regret checking them out.

My First Phone Number

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were discussing the wonderful movie Lion, and specifically the part where a five-year-old boy, suddenly finding himself in a strange city a thousand miles from home, was unable to communicate his home town or his mother’s name — but nevertheless could fend for himself and survive for months.

Could we have done the same?  As five-year-olds, would we also have been unable to communicate to the authorities about how get us home?

rotaryphone-jpeg-size-custom-crop-755x650I’m quite sure that, at the age of five, I didn’t possess the kind of hardiness, stoicism, and long-term survival skills “Saroo” showed in Lion.  (After all, he and his brother were out stealing coal from trains and using other techniques to try to help feed their family, and I was just growing up in a small but tidy house in Akron, Ohio.)  But, I did have one thing that Saroo apparently lacked — my mother drilled all of the little Webners relentlessly, so we would memorize our names and our phone number.  Even as a small boy, I knew my name, my street, my city, and that seven-digit number that someone could call to let my parents know where I was.  And, in fact, when I went wandering around the block on one occasion, I told the nice people who found me my phone number, and they called and Mom came and got me.

Even now, 55 years later, that same phone number comes immediately to mind.  I can’t remember the phone numbers I had in my college apartments, or when Kish and I lived in Washington, D.C., or in our first homes after moving back to the Columbus area, but I remember that first phone number with ease.  It’s as if the drilling with Mom at the kitchen table as I ate another bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning engraved that phone number into the deepest synapses of my brain, where it can never be erased.

Of course, it’s totally useless information now — but still, it’s kind of comforting to know that I still remember something from so long ago.  Mom did a pretty good job.

Moonlight

Kish and I are continuing our quest to watch the Academy Award Best Picture nominees.  On Sunday we screened Moonlight at the Drexel, and I was still thinking about the movie hours later, amidst all of the Super Bowl hoopla.  It’s the kind of film that worms its way into your guts and sticks around, forcing you to think about it.

moonlight-posterMoonlight tells the three-part story of a quiet little boy — known variously as “Little,” Chiron, and “Black” — who grows up in a poor, drug-infested part of Miami.  His father is long gone, and his mother is on a downhill slide into drugs.  He’s relentlessly bullied by other kids, his mother (beautifully played by best supporting actress nominee Naomie Harris) smokes crack, brings strange men into their apartment, takes his money, and plays all kinds of mind games with him, and he’s just fending for himself and clinging to a really terrible life.  He’s got no chance for a safe, secure, “normal” existence.  It’s a brutal tale to watch, and I ended up feeling as sorry for this young man as I’ve ever felt for any movie character in any film I’ve ever watched.  The actors who play this character as a boy and a teenager — Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders — are flat-out brilliant.

But even amidst the terrible reality on the mean streets of Miami, the young man encounters kindness.  A drug dealer named Juan (played by best supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali) befriends him, feeds him, and waits out his silence.  (The scene where Juan teaches “Little” to swim — and to trust another person, just a bit — is a beautiful little vignette.)  A young woman gives him a safe place to stay whenever his mother orders him out of the house.  And he makes a connection with a classmate that turns out to be a lasting one.  But those few happy moments are overwhelmed by the horror, and fear, and routine betrayal that are a part of this kid’s everyday experience.

By the time we get to the third segment of the movie, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is grown, has moved to Atlanta, and has become a hardass drug dealer with gold teeth inserts.  When an unexpected phone call brings him back to Miami, to see his mother and interact with his past, what will he find?  We just desperately want something good to happen to this wounded person who really never had a chance.  We get only a partial answer, and we leave the theater wondering:  what will the rest of this young man’s life be like?

Even a few days later, I still wonder.  How many movies have that kind of staying power?

Lion

Last night Kish and I went to see Lion at the Drexel.  It’s one of those independent films that lurk under the radar screen and never get shown at the local suburban multiplex — but that really have an impact, where you find yourself thinking about it hours or days later.

Lion tells the story of “Saroo,” a five-year-old boy growing up in a desperately poor family in northern India.  To help his illiterate mother, who heads the family, Saroo and his older brother Guddu steal and sell coal and look for work whenever and wherever they can.  When Saroo convinces Guddu to take him on a quest for “night work,” everything breaks down.  Saroo finds himself trapped on a train that travels more than a thousand miles and deposits him in Kolkata, where he is alone and unable to speak the local language.  He becomes one of India’s lost children.  (Shockingly, the film notes, in the closing credits, that each year 80,000 Indian children become “lost.”)

The boy doesn’t know the  correct name of his home town, or his mother, and has no way to return.  The scenes of the small yet resourceful little boy trying to eke out a life in a vast city are unforgettable and heartbreaking — yet he survives, is eventually placed in an orphanage, and is adopted by an Australian couple who later adopt another Indian boy.

Twenty years later, Saroo has grown up in a beautiful waterfront home in Tasmania and speaks English with an Aussie accent.  He begins to find himself haunted by memories of his long-lost mother and brother and an overwhelming guilt that they have been frantically searching for him for all those years.  Using Google Earth, railroad routes and estimated speeds, and a lot of maps he starts a seemingly impossible quest to find his home town — a quest that complicates his relationship with his adoptive parents, his adoptive brother, and his girlfriend.

Lion is a well acted and filmed movie, with staggeringly beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside and overwhelming scenes of little Saroo abandoned in an uncaring city.  Dev Patel is excellent as the grown up, obsessed Saroo — showing acting range far beyond the comedic roles I’ve seen him in previously — and Nicole Kidman is equally good as the strong and loving adoptive mother who resolutely tries to hold her diverse family together.  But the movie is stolen by Sunny Pawar, who plays young Paroo with a genuineness that can touch even an insensitive brute like me.

Keep an eye out for Lion and try to see it in a theater, where you can fully appreciate the cinematography and really terrific soundtrack.  And if you do, be sure to stay in your seat until the very end — when you’ll learn why the file is entitled Lion.

Carrie Fisher

Carrie Fisher’s death yesterday, a few days after she suffered a heart attack on a trans-Atlantic flight, came as a terrible shock.  Fisher was only 60, and she had so much to offer to the world as a writer, actor, and advocate on mental health issues.

Fisher was great in The Blues Brothers and When Harry Met Sally, and she wrote a number of funny best-selling books, but of course she will always be remembered by many — including me — as Princess Leia of the original Star Wars films.  I’m sure that Fisher often bridled at her association with that gun-toting resistance leader with the fantastic and iconic hairstyle, but I’ll always believe that her depiction of Leia Organa was one of the things that fundamentally and forever shifted the kinds of roles that women played in Hollywood films.

Of course, women had always had some meaty roles, but in action films or sci-fi films women typically were the objects around which the action revolved, rather than the proponents of the action.  Not so with Leia Organa!  From the first moments of Star Wars she was the key driver of the plot, setting R2D2 off with the plans for the Death Star, standing toe to toe with Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, recruiting Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo to the cause of the resistance, getting tortured and firing blasters and trading insults with the best of them.  (“Could somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?”)  Princess Leia was as far from the damsel in distress as you could get.  Sure, she ultimately fell for Han Solo — who wouldn’t? — but she was always ready to strangle Jabba the Hut or blast a squadron of imperial storm troopers on a moment’s notice.  Not every actor could pull off such a role, but Carrie Fisher did it flawlessly and convincingly.

Lots of people make movies that achieve enormous popularity, but then fade over time to the point where their roles are only dimly recalled and people wonder what all the fuss was about.  Not so with Carrie Fisher.  She was a true trailblazer, in her acting, in her writing, and in her frank and always humorous discussions about her struggles with her condition, her addictions, and her weight.  She touched more people than she perhaps ever realized.

Rogue One

Rogue One tells the back story that occurred immediately before the original Star Wars movie, about how the rebels acquired the plans to the Death Star.  It’s a kind of conscious effort to knit together the original movie with the end of the three prequels, so we see older characters from the prequels, as well as characters from the original Star Wars film.  (Keep an eye out for a quick glimpse of R2D2 and C3PO, as well as the guys who are primed for a fight in the cantina at Mos Eisley.)

empire_rogueone-160822Rogue One not a great movie, in my view, but it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re a Star Wars buff.  The film is choppy, as if the goal was to show us as many different planets, moons, and other locations in the galaxy as possible, and the plot is, at times, a confusing jumble.  It’s got some memorable characters — I particularly liked the hulking, sarcastic robot turned gunslinger who is a key part of the rebel group, and the blind devotee to the teachings of the Force — but the overall tone is very dark.  We are seeing the cruel, barbaric Empire in full flower in this film.  And we also get a peek at Darth Vader at the height of his powers, before he becomes conflicted by his interaction with Luke Skywalker — the adherent of the Dark Side who can brutally cut through a dozen rebel fighters with a few gestures and slashes of his light saber.

The movie uses some kind of computer program to recreate characters from the original film — like the evil Governor Tarkin, and Princess Leia in her white Star Wars outfit.  The technology is vastly improved, but you still feel like you are looking at a computer animation, rather than a real person.  It’s kind of fascinating and creepy at the same time.

One other comment:  if you’re going, don’t waste your time with the 3D version, which is what I saw.  I didn’t see any reason why there is a 3D version.  There’s nothing hurled at the screen, and no overly dramatic vistas.  Unless you like sitting in a theatre wearing a cheap pair of glasses, I’d head to a regular screening.

Hacksaw Ridge

“War movies” have gotten increasingly difficult to watch over the years.  In the old days, men died heroically while ringed by their buddies — taking a bullet, closing their eyes, and then slumping over after saying a few well-chosen words about their loved ones and the cause of freedom.

No longer!  For decades now, war movies have been much more focused on trying to accurately depict the horror and brutality of war.  Ever since Saving Private Ryan, the battle scenes in war movies have become a bloodbath, with heads shot off, legs blown off, men screaming in agony, and battlefields littered with intestines, blood, and body parts.  You really need a strong stomach to go to a war movie these days.

hacksaw-ridge-2016-andrew-garfieldHacksaw Ridge, with its depiction of a savage fight to take a ridge during the battle of Okinawa in World War II, definitely falls into the “strong stomach” category.  But around the battle it tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who wants to participate in the campaign against the Japanese, but whose religious beliefs and personal story won’t allow him to fire a gun or take a human life.  So he enlists in the army, puts up with the disbelief of the other members of his unit, narrowly defeats a court martial for disobeying orders to fire a weapon, and ultimately is accepted by his fellow soldiers and becomes a first aid corpsman.  And when the unit goes into battle on Okinawa, Doss displays incredible courage and gallantry under fire in his efforts to help desperate wounded men, ultimately lowering them each down a cliff before going back to try to find “just one more.”  For his heroism, Desmond Doss became the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Hacksaw Ridge is a good movie because it’s a classic American story about one man standing true to his beliefs and showing how one man can make a difference.  It has a lot of the familiar elements of war movies — the hard-boiled sergeant, the soldiers from every part of the country, the tough-talking guy who starts out a bully but ends up a comrade — and, in the battle scenes and their aftermath, brutally explicit carnage as the Americans and the Japanese fight hand to hand with rifles, pistols, flamethrowers, grenades, packet charges and machine guns.  All of that death and destruction created the vicious setting that allowed Desmond Doss, well played by Andrew Garfield, to show what one man of faith was capable of doing.  And in the scenes after the battle, when after nightfall an exhausted Doss keeps going back, risking death from the Japanese patrols in his efforts to try to save just one more wounded soldier, the tension created by the film is electric.

It’s a good story, but one that is brutal in the telling. After the movie Kish said she just couldn’t watch parts of it.  Maybe there’s something to be said about war movies that are so bloody and realistic that they are terrible to watch.