A 2021 Film Journey: Day 78

I’ve finally made it through the end of the week. This week was quite the slog, and this post is coming out way too late, but here we are. Tonight’s viewing sent me down one of the two categories in this year’s Oscars that I’ve as of today seen no entries in (the other being narrative short): visual effects.

The Midnight Sky (2020, Dir. George Clooney)

The Midnight Sky' Review: George Clooney's Sodden Dystopian Drama - Variety

I feel like I’ve been rather negative for the last few film entries, but unfortunately, I need to once again tonight. The Midnight Sky split the difference between cerebral arthouse science fiction and commercially friendly science fantasy and in doing so created a film that’s not for anyone. Aside from two intense sequences, the film leans closer towards the more introspective side, but the themes are too blunt and under formed to succeed otherwise.

The crux of the films issues comes from the two stories. While the two do have a clearly defined connection and attempt to share themes, both are significantly underdeveloped to the extent that the thematic connection is lost. Too much of the film’s runtime is caught up in conveying what happens as part of the story, that the characters’ why are ignored. I don’t need the science explained, but a movie like this needs motivations and personal demons to be clearly expressed for the metaphor to work.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 77

This week has been a long one, and there’s still somehow one day left. I think this week’s exhaustion stems back to Sunday’s time change.  All this is to say that today is another short entry for me, but hopefully I’ll be back in the swing of things this weekend. While yesterday marked the last film in the international feature category, today’s film was also an international offering; only this time it’s nominated for documentary feature.

The Mole Agent (2020, Dir. Maite Alberdi)

The Mole Agent | American Documentary

As a narrative the premise behind The Mole Agent is primed for farce. An elderly man, Sergio Chamy, is conscripted by a private investigator to go undercover in a retirement home to keep tabs on another resident. Sergio initially bumbles with technology but is eventually able to understand things well enough to enter the home and begin spying on his target. Once in the home, he quickly becomes the most popular man there and must balance his spying activities with being a convincible resident.

I specifically called out that the premise would work as a narrative because the same story viewed through a lens of reality is exploitative and sleezy in a way that strips the film of much of its joy. Sergio seems lucid enough, but it is hard to look at the women he records and emotionally manipulates as anything but victims. One of the residents falls in love with the conman and is turned down unceremoniously by a man who has no intention of remaining at the facility once his job is complete, and all of them are constantly recorded without the purpose being known. There are extended scenes with residents clearly suffering from dementia that could not have been consented to. Everything about the film just made me feel too dirty to enjoy.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 76

Today marks easily the earlies that I’ve watched all of the international Oscar nominated films (with respect to the date of the ceremony). Much of that is because of this project increasing the raw number of films I’ve seen since shortlists came out. That combined with the continued pandemic keeping me from seeing anything in the theaters made accomplishing the goal much easier this year.

The Man Who Sold His Skin (2021, Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania)

The Man Who Sold His Skin – trigon-film.org

This was a bit of an odd one. The Man Who Sold His Skin is an extremely literal title. The film is about a Syrian refugee Sam (Yahya Mahayni) who sells his back as a canvas to a famous painter in exchange for a new life in Europe. Upon signing a contract, he is given a full back tattoo and is required to sit silently in museums and private shows for hours on end.

The extreme literalness of the title betrays the flaw in The Man Who Sold His Skin. The film feels the need to spoon feed it’s metaphors to the audience. Sam selling his body to find a life away from the country that would see him killed is not subtle. The themes of exploitation are hard to miss. Despite this the film took a three scene break to add a subplot of a group of philanthropists who want to save Sam from exploitation. The subplot only shows up to hammer in the already apparent themes and is then quickly forgotten with nothing coming from the subplot in terms of story.

Bluntness aside, The Man Who Sold His Skin is still an effective film. The themes while overly explained are effective and explore a worthwhile topic. Similarly, director Kaouther Ben Hania is not without talent. The film is filled with complex shot compositions filled with mirrors. I would just have appreciated a film that trusted it’s audience more.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 75

The time change from Sunday continues to plague me, but unlike yesterday where it resulted in me following up my evening film with a short, today I’m just exhausted. I did make it through a movie tonight, so I’m not backing down from goal, I’m just going to likely cut the write up a bit short so I can retreat to my bed. Anyway, today’s Oscar nomination watching was one of the two best picture contenders that I haven’t yet watched.

Sound of Metal (2020, Dir. Darius Marder)

Sound of Metal review: Riz Ahmed tracks a deaf drummer's journey in  standout indie | EW.com

Looking at the best picture contenders for the year, a consequence of the pandemic is that the major studios of the most part took a break from shoveling out Oscar bait at years end. This resulted in an extremely diverse lineup in all the major categories and a film like Sound of Metal being one of the most nominated films of the year when in a fuller year it may have been forgotten entirely. I say this not to disparage Sound of Metal, but just to comment on how happy I am that a film a good as it isn’t lost in a sea of mediocre period dramas.

Sounds is one on the fundamental building blocks of cinema, so Sound of Metal’s extensive use of empty auditory space was risky. Early in Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) deaf journey, the moments of silence are unsettling and harsh. This uncomfortable sound design is purposefully. By being subjected to the subtitle free sign language with uncomfortable sound muffling, the audience is asked to share in Ruben’s misery. Once he has learned to be deaf, the sound takes a more welcoming tone. The film still has large periods of silence or muffled approximation of what Ruben hears, but the mix is less harsh reflecting Ruben’s familiarity with his condition. These subtle but distinct sound decisions perfectly enhance the film all about sound or the lack there of.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 74

Happy Oscar nomination day. I post my initial reaction on the nominees earlier today here. With the list officially out, I can start planning my next month plus of viewings, and I’m in great shape to finish everything before the ceremony. In fact, coming in to today I only have 31 films to watch including both feature length and shorts. Even with a break for the Seattle International Film Festival in April this should be one of the easier Oscar binges I’ve ever gone through. Now to jump into this year’s nominations.

Crip Camp (2020, Dir. James Lebrecht and Nicole Newnham)

Crip Camp' is the Inspiring Netflix Documentary You Haven't Watched Yet |  Femestella

I’m going to try really hard not to judge Crip Camp for the sins of the Academy. It’s not this film’s fault that it received an Oscar nomination over Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020, Dir Kirsten Johnson), but comparing the two may help to explain my personal thoughts when it comes to documentary films.

Crip Camp was a fascinating watch. The subject matter was engrossing, and an alternate side of the civil rights movement is helpful in broadening understanding of a political movement. Especially in a year filled with films about other aspects of the 60s protests and movements, Crip Camp offering a similar yet unique perspective on the subject is a welcome addition.

The premise of the film is infinitely more than in Johnson’s story about preparing for the eventuality of her father’s passing, and yet I still would have much rather Dick Johnson is Dead be nominated if it had to be one or the other. What makes up the difference is the use of the medium. Crip Camp is made primarily of a mixture of home video and archival footage with talking head interviews. This is the same style that documentaries have been using since cinemas inception. I can’t really fault a film for using the tried-and-true method, but I’m looking for something more artistically unique in the crème de la crème of the medium. Crip Camp was good to great but didn’t have the artistic ambition to elevate it beyond that.

It’s late, but my internal clock is messed up from daylight savings so time to watch a short.

Opera (2020, Dir. Erick Oh)

This was a trip. Opera is a film with no narrative, but rather pure artistry. Reminiscent of painter Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel, Opera is nothing but a single see-through structure with extreme detail. Despite a mostly static shot, the 8-minute run time felt almost insufficient to appreciate every moving detail on frame. While more of an avant-garde than a narrative film, Opera is a fascinating artistic endeavor.

2021 Oscar Nominations

It’s Oscar nomination day! As my interest in sports have waned over the years, the Oscars have quickly supplanted that niche for me. Forget the Superbowl; my annual Sunday TV binge will be on April 25 this year. If the Oscars are my Superbowl, then today’s nomination announcement are the start of the playoffs. This post is going to be my thoughts on the nominations. My personal picks and predictions will go up after I’ve watched everything closer to the ceremony.

I promise that I won’t exclusively focus on the negative, but there were two huge snubs that I want to call out before getting too far. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman) and First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) were two of the best films of the year, and both being shut out of the nomination process is a travesty. In addition to being more than deserving of best picture and director nods, I genuinely believe that Sidney Flanigan from Never Rarely Sometimes Always and John Magaro from First Cow should have received best actress and actor nominations respectively. For as much as the Academy have gotten better about recognizing more diverse pictures, the understated personal story that are my favorites are still ignored for more commercially viable pictures.

While those too snubs in lieu of more conventional Oscar fare may have frustrated me, Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell) walking away with five nominations including picture, director, and actress gives me hope. Fennell’s take on the revenge genre is aggressively anti-commercial. Yet despite that it’s become incredibly popular and will have a huge presence at the Academy Awards this year. I’m especially happy for my namesake Carey Mulligan getting her second Oscar nomination. I just want everyone to appreciate how perfect an actor she is.

With those big items taken care of, I’m going to rapid-fire some more thoughts:

  • Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg) won’t be winning any major awards, but I’m glad to see international films continue to get recognition outside of their specific category. I wish Mads Mikkelsen would have received an acting nomination as well.
  • I finally no longer need to lookup the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, and the Academy combines them. In all seriousness, this change makes sense. It’s a rare film that would win on and not at least be deserving of the other.
  • I’m surprised by how little One Night in Miami… (Regina King) received. For a film completely built on amazing performances, it receiving no nominations in those categories was shocking.
  • Granted I’ve not seen all of the Documentary features, but Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson) not even receiving a nomination makes very little sense to me. It was one of the best films of the year documentary or not.
  • The Assistant (Kitty Green) was another shut out film that I would have loved to see with at minimum a best actress nod. That said this is the one I’m the least surprised by as The Assistant was from very early in the year and was not the most welcoming film.
  • Finally, I find it frustrating that Steve McQueen’s Small Axe films were ineligible for any Oscars. Lovers Rock was one of the best films of the year, and the Oscars’ strict rules invalidated what should have been some strong competitors.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 73

Tomorrow the Oscar nominations go live at an ungodly early time. In years past, I’ve attempted to wake up and live tweet them, but mornings have been difficult lately and that combined with today being the first day of daylight savings means I’m not even going to attempt it. Instead, I plan on writing up my thoughts as a bonus post tomorrow. Anyway, instead of continuing my Oscar shortlist binge, I chose to take a one-day break to watch a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while now before returning to nomination viewings.

Enemy (2014, Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

An Enemy Movie Review, Discussion and Maybe an Explanation - Taylor Holmes  inc.

Denis Villeneuve is undoubtedly one of my favorite directors working today. In an era where loud and obtuse cinema occupies an ever-increasing market share, it’s nice to have some filmmakers who routinely create methodically paced complex narrative. His style lends itself perfectly for the low concept science fiction films that have brought him the bulk of his fame, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). His earlier film Enemy proves that his style works perfectly for Lynchian psychological thrillers.

More than just the methodical pace, every artistic decision in Enemy builds to a perfect whole. The entire film is dosed in a heavy yellow tint. This combined with purposefully unflattering establishing shots of unappealing architecture lends the film a level of grime which enhances the unease in watching the film. Jake Gyllenhaal also was the perfect cast for the dual lead. His persona can easily be construed as unsettling, and in Enemy this aggressive awkwardness takes front stage. Everything in the film combines to create an edge of the seat experience without resorting to over-the-top action and explosions.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 72

Despite it being the weekend, today is another one movie day for me. I spent much of the day relaxing after a long week and relied more on comfort media choices to fill my day. Still, I spent some time this evening crossing another film off of the Oscar shortlist. While much of the last week I’ve been focusing on the international films, today I returned to the documentary wing.

Boys State (2020, Dir. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss)

Boys State' Review: Give Me a Teen and I'll Show You a Politician - The New  York Times

Boys State is a documentary capturing a mock government event ran by more than a thousand Texan, high school boys. The film spends its runtime documenting a single year’s event by following four students. Two of the students run the respective fake parties, the Federalists and the unfortunately named Nationalists. The other two are running to be the gubernatorial nominee for the Nationalist party.

The politics of the students on screen are predictably largely conservative given their residence. This combined with the lack of nuance exhibited by most teenagers leads to some uncomfortable moments. Much of the political discourse debated in the mock congress is heavily influenced by the edgelord nature of young men. The topic of secession is frequently brought up, and that combined with the extreme jingoism expressed in speeches hints at fascism.

These uncomfortable moments bring about my main objection to the film. The film lacks a distinct directorial voice. Everything is merely captured on camera and distilled into little more than video blog from the boys present. The extremist fervor evokes no response from the directors, as if they are going out of their way to have no political voice. A too biased director can ruin a film, but Boys State proves that it’s possible to go too far the other way. While non-fiction, a documentary isn’t just a list of facts. Vision and messages are required to bring a topic to the larger world.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 71

Another quick one tonight. Even with it being a Friday night, I’m too exhausted after a long work week to make it through more than one film tonight. Even with only one film watched, tonight I pass the halfway point for watching the Oscar best international film shortlist (8 of 15). I won’t be able to quite finish them this weekend, so any I miss that don’t end up with a nomination may fall off my radar, but I’m happy with the large chunk I’ve made it through thus far.

Quo vadis, Aida? (2021, Dir. Jasmila Žbanić)

Quo vadis, Aida? / Italia / aree / Home - Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso  Transeuropa

That was a downer of a way to end a week. Quo vadis, Aida? chronicles the moments leading up to the Srebrenica massacre from the eyes of a UN translator and native Bosniak Aida (Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbian army shows up to the UN compound, Aida must balance her obligations to her job cordially translating for those who would bring her people harm with her dedication to her husband and sons. What starts as a dry war drama quickly devolves into a devastating depiction of the extremes of a mother’s love.

While not exclusively told from her point of view Aida’s presence is felt in every moment of the film. Đuričić makes the most of the extensive camera time. As the inevitability of the impeding genocide becomes more apparent, she loses her professional demeanor and becomes frantic in her body language. This performance is punctuated by the mostly dialogue free coda. The film drops the intensity and instead becomes hauntingly calm. Đuričić depicts Aida a stone faced and broken while forced to move on in life while being completely unable to in practice.

A 2021 Film Journey: Day 70

These opening sentences are getting a little redundant. Today I’m once again treating myself to a film from the international feature Oscar shortlist. The only thing that separates today from yesterday is that I did find time today to watch a documentary short from that shortlist after. Regardless, I’m going to keep writing these introductory paragraphs for now, but I will be allowing them to get shorter if there’s not much to say.

Charlatan (2020, Dir. Agnieszka Holland)

Charlatan' Review | Hollywood Reporter

I don’t feel like I have a good grasp on how to access Charlatan from a narrative standpoint. The story of Jan Mikolásek feels like it should be told fantastical. A man with a supernatural heeling power who can diagnose any patient through their urine should be larger than life, but the film is aggressively grounded by its nature as a biopic. Given the grounded tone of the film, I feel the film must play better to a demographic of people who know of Mikolásek going into the film.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Charlatan succumbs to the standard biopic pitfall. In trying to tell Mikolásek’s entire life in two hours, the film becomes little more than an episodic collection of scenes from a man’s life. The framing device of him explaining it to his lawyer while incarcerated does little to tie each individual scene together. The film adequately tells the life story of a man but has no cohesive artistic message. It’s not a bad movie; it just lacks anything special and plays out like any other biopic.

Do Not Split (2020, Dir. Anders Hammer)

Do Not Split

Tonight’s documentary short stands in stark contrast to the film that preceded it. Do Not Split was a film with a very distinct style and thematic message. The film captures the Hong Kong protests from late 2019 from a filmmaker on the front line with the protesters. The film is brutally honest in its portrayal and creation. Any interviews are taken on the streets and oft interrupted rather than staged far away from the topic. If I’m being honest, this film meshes with me politically in a way that makes it difficult to be completely objective about it. I can acknowledge that the score was a bit over the top melodrama but having spent much of last summer at police protests of my own I got overly invested in the protesters on screen.