Monday, March 28, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Still playing a couple shows at the Coolidge this week and one more time at the ICA on Sunday, so this isn't a totally irrelevant post after the ceremony!

Anyway, we've got a really solid group this year, so let's get right to it:

"On My Mind"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

If Martin Strange-Hansen's "On My Mind" has any issues, it's that he seemingly feels some need to inject more tension and conflict than is really necessary. The story has barmaid Louise (Camilla Bendix) happy to serve a drink and fire up the karaoke machine when Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) comes in after closing time, with owner Preben (Ole Boisen) choosing to be fussy about such things. The audience, of course, has already had a glimpse of why Henrik needs something to settle himself down, but they're likely going to go along with Louise and empathize with the man anyway. It's not that Preben is hard to believe - many have encountered folks who easily default to not really being able to see more than an inch beyond their own nose - but he winds up feeling transparently like a means to keep the short running in place more than anything else.

It's a great little piece around that, though; Hammerich and Bendix do really excellent work sketching out who these people are without Strange-Hansen having to feed the audience more information than they really need, and this has at its heart one of film's great karaoke scenes, even if it's unconventional: Even if the activity seems tremendously unappealing (as it does to me), the filmmakers still get across just how important escaping into that sort of performance can be, expressing oneself in part by changing context.

(Though I am kind of amused at how the karaoke machine lists "You Were Always on My Mind" as an Elvis Preseley song, since he's well behind Willie Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys in terms of who I associate the song with. Probably in fourth after Hammerich now!)

"Please Hold"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

This played one of the virtual Fantasia Fests? Huh, I feel like I would have seen it, in that case, but I don't remember it. Odd, because I like it a lot. It's targeted absurdity that recognizes that its audience is not exactly living in a subtle world, so there is no particular need for satire to be subtle. Every point it makes about the American prison-industrial complex feels bang-on, ripped from a story disturbingly hidden on page B18 Law & Order-style. Co-writer/director KD Davila knows his target and homes in on them.

It works, both as a short film and as a story, in large part because lead Erick Lopez makes unjustly-targeted Mateo such an amiable, likable protagonist; he's an easy guy to spend twenty minutes with and is able to rail against his twisted situation in such a way that the audience doesn't find him off-putting, and Davila recognizes how so much of this happens because so many good people want to believe the system is built to be fair and just needs a bit more earnest effort when it isn't. Amid all the very obvious exaggerations of real-world injustices, this unstated idea at the center quietly seeps into everything.

I'm not sure when this was made, but if it's a pandemic-shot production, it's one of the ones that made especially good adaptations. Where so many shorts shot in 2020 or 2021 make the use of screens and empty streets into something that needs to be explained and worked around, this feels like something built around those requirements but not about why they exist in the real world., and as a result has a sense of authenticity even though it doesn't actually redress things outside of its main set that much.

"Sukienka" ("The Dress")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Tadeusz Lysiak's "The Dress" isn't actually about a dress, but it's a clear and clever way to distill the limbo Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka) often finds herself in - someone of her short stature and proportions can often find casual clothing in the children's section, but something sexy needs to be custom-ordered or tailor-made, making her feel less like a woman and not really sure what to do when one of the truckers (Szymon Piotr Warszawski) who stops at the motel where she lives and works as a maid actually shows some interest.

Dzieduszycka delivers a genuinely impressive show of frustration that has been going on so long that she's just come to treat it as her life's baseline, the thing that makes it hard for her to get along with even the people like co-worker Renata (Dorota Pomykala) who are at the point of taking her height in stride, mixing it up with general working-class frustration. There's an untidy, transitory feel to even the more permanent parts of the setting, underscoring the limbo where Julka keeps herself, maybe right down to how everybody she meets tends to give her a different nickname.

That the search for a dress is not a quest but just a thing that that hovers over this upcoming date makes the short a little shaggier, but that seems fair and honest. Julka has given up on quick fixes or one thing turning her life around, but that doesn't mean solving that sort of problem won't help.

"The Long Goodbye"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

How speculative is "The Long Goodbye" meant to be? Aneil Karia's short feels like the kind of thing that could either be based on a real-life incident or a warning about how things like this aren't far off, and that's perhaps part of the point - dire warnings and horrific events overlap in time, which maybe plays into the ways that this film gets even more peculiar as it keeps going past when most would fade to black.

That's the second big tonal shift; after what looks like a household of Middle-Eastern descent apparently preparing for a wedding suddenly finds themselves pulled out by black-clad men with guns, who may be government or may not be. The wedding prep had been a little tense in the way such things are - a lot to do in a little time, and the TVs in the background broadcasting ominous stories - but this is something else altogether, although it's a pretty nifty job of showing how people just trying to live a life with the constant hum of such things in the background can suddenly find it interrupting into real terror.

And then… Well, the short gets weird. One of the most prominent characters is played by Riz Ahmed (credited as "co-creator"), who stands afterward and does a spoken-word/rap piece, and it's an odd bit, making what had previously been subtext text, not exactly logical given what had previously happened. It's nicely-done, if a thoroughly theatrical thing to cap a short that had previously been naturalistically performed and grounded. It'll throw some, but then, it's not exactly a short looking to make its point subtly.

"Ala Kachuu - Take and Run"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

"Ala Kachuu - Take and Run" is built on hammering things home as well, but then, that's sort of the point: Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) is a bright young woman who dreams of going to University but has to practically run away to do it, only to find herself kidnapped into marriage, and it's not even an arranged one - she was just convenient. Husband Dayrbek (Nurbek Esengazy Uulu) seems decent, as such men go, but Sezim has no intention of becoming one of the women her mother's age who eventually accepts this as the way things are.

Writer/director Maria Brendle does excellent work keeping her eye on a certain line, where the film isn't just showing the cruelty and sexism of the culture in this part of Kyrgyzstan or how Sezim suffers, but isn't lecturing about how, as much as the men who kidnap force themselves upon their "wives", it is the women who eventually accept it that allow this system to be perpetuated. Granted, the audience is going to want Sezim to spell it out - she and friend Aksana (Madina Talipbekova) and kid sister Aygul (Aybike Erkinbekova) are clearly perceptive enough to understand it, but that kind of direct confrontation might keep the viewer from letting how people become complicit to bury their own shame and anger really fester - and, besides, a certain moment works best if someone figures it out herself.

It's also a striking film to watch generally; Brendle and her crew find the beauty in a land that is poor, isolated, and backward in many ways, and do a good job building high-speed escape attempts around someone who is clearly just driving for the first time or two. There's a great moment early on where Sezim and her mother are making bread together, which is apparently a major part or the wedding rituals, and the way that Sezim is just no good at it compared to her - but has still familiar enough to work in a shop later - is a great, quick way to establish her character. Alina Turdumamatova does a nice job of making Sezim feel like an ordinary girl who knows she deserves more rather than someone exceptional enough to break the system.

As I finish writing this, the awards have already been handed out (off-screen, apparently), because I saw them late and have had a busy-ish week. If I'd had a vote, it would have been for "Please Hold", although that was going to be a long shot. I'm not surprised "The Long Goodbye" won - a name as familiar as Riz Ahmed in a short gives it a heck of a boost - and certainly can't gripe about it.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

One of the odder effects of Disney moving all of their Pixar releases to their streaming service during the pandemic is that no short films have accompanied them into theaters, meaning that the "Best Animated Short Film" category lacks an obvious front-runner. Indeed, the category and theatrical presentation of it looks rather different than it has in previous years, with longer entries, a larger fraction of which are unambiguously geared toward adults. Where the theatrical package usually has to include some "highly commended" runners-up in order to reach a length where moviegoers feel the price of a ticket is worth it, this group passes the 90 minute mark without any help.

"Robin Robin"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Of course, there are still some familiar entries, though "Robin Robin", an Aardman-produced British half-hour Christmas special, now comes via Netflix rather than the BBC. It is, however, the sort of thing that should seem instantly comfortable - cute animals, earnest but dry humor, and a noteworthy voice or two sprinkled into the cast. It's a simple, fun story - when a robin's egg falls out of its nest and hatches after being found by a family of mice, the new sibling struggles to prove she belongs.

As with many of the best movies of this type, there's a dry sort of anarchy to what filmmakers Dan Ojari & Michael Please are up to as Robin (voice of Bronte Carmichael) cannot help but demonstrate that the whole "quiet as a mouse" thing does not come naturally to her at all, blithely leaving a mess behind her at every opportunity. She spends much of the film paired with a Magpie voiced by Richard E. Grant, all matter-of-fact about his obsession with shiny things, while Adeel Akhtar delivers not quite saintly patience as the mouse family's Dad and Gillian Anderson gets to be enjoyably sinister as a hungry stray cat. There are fun little songs and impressively staged chases. The animation is so impressive that it's hard to tell which sort of Aardman film it is - impeccable stop-motion with some digital assistance, or CGI with models built to resemble and move like plasticine. It is, from the jobs listed in the credits, the former, but is occasionally smooth in the way this medium often isn't to make one second-guess.

It's a charming little thing, thoroughly traditional right down to an earnest ending that lays out how Robin can be both bird and mouse and that this is only complicated if one makes it so. It's a fine before-bedtime story.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Anton Dyakov's "Boxballet" is the sort of animated short that in many ways seems to be built to see how far one can stretch its character designs and still have its characters recognizably part of the same human species. Its ballerina is sleek and thin, with her body seeming to twirl without it affecting her head at all; the boxer is lumpy and damaged, with an oxbow of a broken nose. They don't belong in the same space, obviously, except that each is a little too honest for their chosen metier. A chance encounter has him more open to something beautiful in his life and her maybe less self-destructive in her pursuit of perfection.

Dyakov tells this as visual anecdotes and without enough words to make subtitling necessary, and at times that seems not quite enough - there's not a whole lot of room for back-and-forth, and the ballerina gets lost in a sea of identically-designed figures in a way that the boxer really can't. It's a tricky thing to make them both represent something and become individuals, especially when there's an expressive deadpan slapstick to his matches while she can't quite escape choreography. They can't quite become actual characters together.

It probably also doesn't help that the coda doesn't quite hit the same way was it would have when the film was made a year or two ago - the fall of the Soviet Union and the promise of a new Russia where one doesn't have to fit the role others have chosen always had soem caveats, but requires a bit more grappling in March 2022.

"Affairs of the Art"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

I'm a bit curious how Joanna Quinn's "Affairs of the Art" plays when seen next to "Dreams and Desires: Family Ties", her previous short film from 2006 with which it apparently shares characters. Quinn dives right in without doing much to introduce the brash and enthusiastic Beryl, who has grown obsessed with creating art while also chronicling her sister Beverly's odd journey from creepy little anarchist kid to Beverly Hills taxidermy maven, but then, it's not like these are characters that need to be explained and set up: That Beryl just sort of barges in and spits a lot of weirdness out without context, filling in bits as they occur to her, is kind of who she is, and being methodical in her portrayal might not sit right.

It's the sort of film Mills and writer Les Mills make, too, where the morphing characters and the seemingly-raw pencils hint at a raw stream of consciousness that keeps Beryl from really talking about how, as you get older, the drive to create and appreciate art can take hold. It's rather meta in that way - an attempt to create clear expression out of chaos, where you're never quite sure what is sheer randomness and what has intent, especially when the randomness often is a part of what one is trying to communicate.

"Bestia" ("Beast")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

If nothing else, Hugo Covarrubias's "Bestia" has one of the more clever uses of its medium as a framing device, in that one of the first thing one notices about the design of its stop-motion main character is a crack in her oversized head, a zoom into which leads to the main flashback and whose later appearance serves as a climax. It's a neat trick, showing that how, especially in animation, how one tells a story is intimately related to the story itself.

That story, I suspect, has greater resonance in its native Chile, where one will connect what she is doing to the specific atrocities committed by the government in the 1970s, rather than just the idea of an autocracy building an atmosphere of distrust among its own people. The character designs are impressive - she's a frumpy little lump with the tiny face on her big head pinched into a permanent disapproving scowl, her hair an unmoving helmet, an obviously nasty piece of work who seems to elicit disdain more than fear. The thing is, she's accompanied by a big German Shepherd who is obviously intimidating and powerful but whose body language suggests a desire to please even when sitting obediently still. She's got affection for this dog but there are scenes where he's placed in a room with prisoners where you can't help but wonder what she's having it do. It's a quiet but cutting look at how evil twists things - he should be a nice but protective companion, she should be a brusque but concerned neighbor, and the government should be supporting its citizens rather than engaging in paranoid surveillance, but…

It's a simple but effective little tale. This sort of animation isn't the only way Covarrubias could tell it, but he's mingled the medium and the message very well.

"The Windshield Wiper"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Alberto Mielgo's "The Windshield Wiper" is ambitious and abstract, posing the broad question of "What Is Love" in its opening seconds and then intermingling a number of vignettes, all looking as if filmed as live action and then rotoscoped with digital tools, before returning to the man posing it.

It is, truth be told, sort of pretentious, and not necessarily in a good way where you can see the filmmakers aspiring toward something grand even if they never reach it. The very framing of a man in a café, smoking and asking a question sort of banal in its intended depth, is as likely to create a mood where one rolls one's eyes rather than finding oneself intrigued, and some of the scenarios - particularly the two tattooed young people in a supermarket who are an obvious match never looking up from their phones' hookup apps even when they are matched with each other - are easy targets. The painted-over style can sometimes be its own worst enemy, tying the film to realism but covering up the smaller human gestures Mielgo seems to be trying to elicit.

They make for great stills to be put on a poster or next to an article, though, and often impress as bold colors splashed across a screen. At best, they can emphasize how the viewer is an outsider looking in even if what they are watching looks familiar, perhaps most especially as a homeless man rages at the television screens in a shop's front window. That moment may have the least to do with the film's stated theme, but it's immediate and popped into sharp relief by the style in a way that the other moments strive for but seldom reach.

It's interesting that the people assembling this package found themselves going back and forth between words and pantomime, and how even the most whimsical shorts have something of an edge once one gets past the one obviously made for kids. I wouldn't bet against "Robin Robin" getting the statue - Aardman is awful good at what they do, and what they do is what many people see animation as being best suited - but I certainly wouldn't complain about "Bestia" getting it either, for being such a pointedly chilling story that makes the most of how animators can use every piece of the image to build toward what they want to say.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 March 2021 - 31 March 2022

Honestly annoyed that the Academy scheduled the Oscars for BUFF weekend. Who do they think they are, anyway?
  • Which is to say, The Boston Underground Film Festival will be running at The Brattle Theatre through the weekend, with the New England shorts, Nitram, Hypochondriac, and the "Trigger Warning" shorts on Friday; a kid-friendly-matinee of The Secret of NIMH (rather than the usual Saturday morning cartoon block), the music videos, the comedy shorts, Watcher, and the Gaspar Noé double-shot of Vortex & Lux Aeterna Saturday; wrapping up with the Weird Local Film Fest selections, the comedy shorts, Neptune Frost, Medusa, and Hatching on Sunday.

    Once that wraps, there's a quick "From Hollywood with Love" program with Crazy Rich Asians on Monday, Boomerang on Tuesday, and a 35mm print of When Harry Met Sally on Wednesday. Not technically part of that program is Thursday's 35mm screening of Casablanca, which is a special benefit screening for Ukraine and other people displaced by war.
  • If you're Team Oscar, The Coolidge Corner Theatre is there to help you cram and catch up, with Dune, Drive My Car, King Richard, The Worst Person in the World, and a 35mm print of The Power of the Dog rotating through the various screens all week, as well as the animated and live-action shorts.

    The 35mm midnights are fortunate/unfortunate programming coincidences - Altered States on Friday was already programmed before star William Hurt's death, while Saturday's Enter the Void is happening while BUFF has director Gaspar Noé's most recent two films on the other end of the 66. They also have a program of short films for young audiences from the 2021 New York International Children's Film Festival on Saturday morning, and all-day marathon of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy on Sunday, Love and Basketball as the Big-Screen Classic Monday
  • The big opening this week is The Lost City, with Sandra Bullock as a romance writer who may have researched the subject of her new book a little too well, as a billionaire played by Daniel Radcliffe kidnaps her to search for it, leading cover model Channing Tatum to attempt a rescue. Fun cast, although I kind of worry that they seem to have felt the need to put what looks like it was meant as a fun surprise in the trailer. It plays the Arlington Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, CinemaSalem, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (Including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), the Embassy, and Chestnut Hill.

    Also opening is Infinite Storm, with Naomi Watts in a based-on-a-true-story thing about a hiker who finds an injured man on Mount Washington just as a massive storm is about to hit. That plays the Somerville Theatre, Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Kendall Square. South Bay, and the Embassy.

    I don't know whether Sing 2 has actually left theaters, but it "re-opens" with sing-along shows at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards (and maybe Fenway, South Bay, and Chestnut Hill). There are also multiple previews of Everything Everywhere All At Once with the filmmakers appearing at the MIT and IFFBoston presentations on Sunday and Monday, though I don't know if they'll still be in town for the Imax Xenon shows at Boston Common and Assembly Row on Wednesday. Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row have Man of God for an encore on Monday, and documentary Never Forget Tibet (also at Arsenal Yards) on Thursday. Arsenal Yards has A League of Their Own on Monday.
  • After being delayed due to a Covid surge in India, RRR - Rise Roar Revolt has finally arrived, a 1920s-set action piece from the director of the Bãhubali movies (and Eega, the infamous "man seeking revenge after being reincarnated as a housefly" flick). It plays Apple Fresh Pond (Telugu/Hindi/Tamil), Boston Common (Telegu, including Dolby Cinema/Hindi), Fenway (Telegu/Hindi), Kendall Square (Telugu), South Bay (Telugu/Hindi), Assembly Row (Telegu/Hindi), and Arsenal Yards (Telugu). It sucks up most of the screens for Indian cinema, though The Kashmir Files continues at Fresh Pond while Gangubai Kathiawadi continues at Boston Common.

    Anime Jujutsu Kaisen: 0 continues at Boston Common (including Imax Xenon), Fenway, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill. Check showtimes for whether it's playing dubbed or subtitled Chinese comedy-drama Nice View sticks around Boston Common.
  • The Somerville Theatre offers a Maggie Gyllenhaal double feature with her direction The Lost Daughter and starring in Secretary (the latter in 35mm) on Friday. A more lighthearted twin bill plays Saturday, with Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Time Bandits. A Hard Day's Night plays Monday, the "Face/Off: Travolta vs Cage" double feature on Tuesday is Blow Out & Moonstruck on Tuesday, with Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope on Wednesday and Peter Bogdanovich's Sait Jack on Thursday.

    Their sister theater The Capitol has The Godfather, as well as soccer documentary King Otto, which covers the unlikely underdog story of the 2004 Greek National Football team.
  • ArtsEmerson and The Boston Asian-American Film Festival have a "Projecting Connections" Spring Showcase this weekend, with The Six, a documentary about the six Chinese survivors of the Titanic, on Friday; a book talk with the authors of Rise on Saturday afternoon; and thriller Snakehead that evening.

    Emerson has a public screening of this year's student films - the "Emerson Film Festival" - at 6pm on Wednesday in the Bright Screening Room at the Paramount Theatre, with filmmakers on hand and a reception afterward. The Bright Lights program returns there the next day with C'mon C'mon, with faculty discussion afterward. Both are free and open to the public with tickets able to be reserved on the afternoon of the show.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues their showcase of Flora Gomes, this year's recipient of the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship, with Mortu Nega (Friday), The Blue Eyes of Yonta (Saturday), and Tree of Blood (Sunday), all screening on 35mm film with Ms. Gomes there in person. They will also present "An Evening with Akosua Adoma Owusu" on Monday, with the Ghanaian-America filmmaker there to present and discuss over an hour of short films
  • The Boston Israeli Film Festival presented by Boston Jewish Film continues through Wednesday. Most of the program is available for streaming throughout, but there are two livestreams on Sunday - a Q&A with the diretor and subject of That Orchestra with the Broken Instruments at 1pm and the director of Cinema Sabaya at 3pm - while the closing night show of Let It Be Morning will only be presented in person at the Coolidge. Belmont World Film is also doing a hybrid presentation of their spring series, with A Change of Heart online from Friday to Sunday at also playing in person at Arsenal Yards on Sunday, while The Heroics will only be offered online, starting Tuesday and running through next Monday. Both are French dramas.
  • The Oscar Nominated Shorts continue on-screen with the Live-Action and Animated Selections playing the Embassy and Coolidge; animation plays at the Kendall. West Newton has Documentary Friday through Sunday and Live-Action on Saturday and Sunday, The Lexington Venue has Documentary (Friday/Saturday), Live Action (all weekend), and Animation (Saturday/Sunday); The Luna has Live Action and Animation on Saturday; The ICA has Live-Action on Friday.
  • The West Newton Cinema has 12 separate things on their six screens this week: Two Oscar shorts programs (Friday-Saturday), The Lost City, The Batman, Cyrano, Uncharted, Drive My Car (Friday/Saturday), Parallel Mothers, Sing 2 (Saturday/Sunday), West Side Story, Licorice Pizza (Saturday-Wednesday), and Encanto (Saturday/Sunday).

    The Lexington Venue has The Outfit and the Oscar Shorts this weekend.

    The Luna Theater has The Cursed Friday and Saturday evenings, the Animated and Live-Action Oscar shorts on Saturday, Dr. Strangelove on Sunday, plus Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has The Batman, The Lost City, and X this weekend.
  • It's not local, but The National Museum of Asian Art is offering not just documentary Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, but all four of his films (Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress) for free for a week starting at noon on Saturday. This is all great stuff!
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes. Jordan's Furniture and the film program at the MFA are still in limbo.
I'm at the Brattle for BUFF more or less non-stop through the weekend, and may check out The Lost City, RRR, and/or some of the things I skipped last weekend afterward.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

BUFF 2022.01: You Won't Be Alone and The Nest

I've been trying not to jinx this for the past few weeks while also checking to see if the schedule had been announced, because I don't believe in jinxes but also don't see the point of talking about something that may not happen. Well…
Did they make that the opening night film of the festival as a sort of comment about how we've been doing these things in living rooms with maybe one or two others in the household who are into the sort of thing over the last couple years and it really hurts peculiar genre films i particular, or is it just a happy-ish coincidence? I don't know, but with BUFF being one of the first festivals canceled for Covid, it's really good to see it back.

I've mentioned before that even more than most film festivals, you've got to go into this one knowing a good chunk isn't going to be your thing, but it's kind of fun to note that they spent the first night looking at the two poles of modern horror with the classy art-house material of ou Won't Be Alone and the rather less-intellectual The Nest. I don't know that either really made a huge impression on me one way or the other; both flavors have either gone harder and been more precisely crafted (or, perhaps, more amusingly slipshod) but they still more or less do what they set out to do. The most interesting thing is that these two movies are more or less in the same genre but don't have a whole lot more in common than that.

Well, aside from the nasty fates the kitty-cats meet early on in both movies. They've got that in common.

You Won't Be Alone

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2022 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 2022, DCP)

There's a part of me that wonders if it's a red flag that this movie was not released by A24 - it's the sort of thing they've had a good instinct for, but if they let it go to Focus/Universal, maybe it's lacking something. It's not really scary, but filmmaker Goran Stolevski doesn't entirely grab something more grand and universal.

It's kind of odd that a man made this movie, given the extent to which this film about a pair of shapeshifters often finds itself resolving into a mother/daughter story: It starts with a woman bargaining with a the "wolf-eateress" known as "Old Maid Maria" for the life of her daughter Nevena, said witch returning 16 years later to claim her prize, take the form of her mother, and make Nevena a witch capable of taking other forms herself, with later events focusing on motherhood and Nevena being tormented by Maria, who wanted a child of her own but is a terrible surrogate mother, alternating between sabotaging and abandoning Nevena.

The first thing she does, when Nevena is an infant, is maim her so that she cannot speak, which persists no matter what form she takes. There's an odd thing about this movie in that it doesn't seem to know what to do with her lack of a voice, like it was added as a folk-horror version of the need to keep people from using cell phones. There's this idea of how Nevena's isolated childhood left her with a strange inner voice and point of view even before she became a witch, and she had to learn what it means to be human by observing from outside and experiencing different points of view, and it's a good one, but there's seemingly not a whole lot of thought given to the woman she would become. It's a rich vein of material that winds up feeling kind of generic despite the interesting folklore it's built on. Nevena's female identities tend to run together - they're all the same physical type - and her narration disappears as "Bosilka" and "Biliana" integrate into their villages.

On the other hand, sometimes it's best to just let mythology be mythology, a bunch of jumbled larger forces that those who believe can't fully understand rather than a jigsaw puzzle made of parables that fit perfectly together. The world shown here isn't complex, whether in its fantastic elements or the more mundane ones. If anything, I suppose, it comes down to the idea that the world is often horrific and unfair, and you've got to decide whether you'll embrace it or demand it embrace you.

The Nest '87

* * (out of four)
Seen 23 March 2022 in the Brattle Theatre (BUFF 2022, DCP)

The Nest is surprisingly amiable, as Corman-produced junk goes. It's dumb and fairly unambitious, built out of horror movie spare parts, but the leads are pleasant and it's occasionally kooky rather than floundering. There's no money to spend, of course, but the filmmakers do a fairly decent job of working around that for a while. They keep the cast members who can contribute something front and center (and give credit to Terri Treas and Stephen Davies who know just how weird to make their secondary characters) they find locations that feel more expansive than maybe they are, and the bloody comes often enough to distract from how they really can't mount an actual killer-cockroach attack.

That's part of how the filmmakers bite off more than they can chew at the climax, though; the masses of roaches never seem like active super-roaches once it's time for them to be more than just something rustling the grass. Director Ternce Winkless is unable to make a ticking clock situation work, and the "boss" monsters that the special effects department whips up aren't good enough to splash across the screen because they're neither surprisingly cool or charmingly cheesy, but trying to shoot around them only highlights the problem.

With these decades-old b-movies, it's often worth looking to see what became of the folks involved, and a surprising number are still working. Heck, writer Robert King is doing some pretty darn good TV for CBS/Paramount - who'd've thought the guy who made this had The Good Wife/Fight and Evil in him?

Friday, March 18, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 March 2021 - 24 March 2022

If you like genre movies, it's a pretty spiffy week coming up!
  • The biggest reason: The Boston Underground Film Festival kicks off at The Brattle Theatre on Wednesday, with You Won't Be Alone and the restoration of The Nest that night and Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr., Honeycomb, and The Innocents on Thursday, then sticking around through the next weekend. Buy tickets early, as many shows will sell out.

    Before that, the Brattle finishes up their Tribute to Sidney Poitier with Buck and the Preacher on Friday, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love on Saturday, In the Heat of the Night on Sunday, and 35mm prints of Sneakers and Stir Crazy on Tuesday.

    On Monday, they and The DocYard present A Thousand Fires, with director Saeed Taji Farouky in person to discuss his film about a family-run oil well and the son who dreams of being a soccer star.
  • Master looks like it's on the classy end of that genre, with Regina Hall and Zeo Renee as two African-American women at a mostly-white New England college who find that its past may be haunting them in more than metaphorical ways. It's at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and on Amazon Prime.

    The midnights include a screening of The Room and a 35mm print of Roger Corman's The Trip (which stars Peter Fonda & Bruce Dern from a script by Jack Nicholson) on Friday and a print of Fantastic Planet on Saturday. There's a Masked Matinee of The Worst Person in the World on Saturday, a Big Screen Classics marathon of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings on Sunday (with Ralph Bashki's animated version playing Wednesday), a 35mm print of Rashomon on Monday Tuesday has a Science on Screen presentation of Sorry to Bother You with Professor Michel DeGraff discussing language rights beforehand, while Thursday has a Cinema Jukebox show of The Doors.
  • If you like horror, there are two new options. Sandra Oh stars in Umma as a woman who finds strange things afoot on her farm when the remains of her mother arrive from Korea. Irish Shim directs, and Sam Raimi produces. It's at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row. There's also X from Ti West, where some locals do not take kindly to the crew of young people shooting an adult film in their town. It's at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, the Embassy, and CinemaSalem.

    For those more drawn to crime, there's The Outfit, which is not based on the entry in the Parker series but instead features Mark Rylance as a tailor who maintains a drop box for the mob in order to benefit their protection, at least until a standoff occurs one night. That one plays The Capitol, Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, and the Lexington Venue.

    If you want blaxploitation-style action, there's Alice, with Keke Palmer as a slave escaping a plantation who discovers that the world outside is not at all what she was led to believe. It's at Boston Common and Kendall Square.

    The restoration of The Godfather returns to theaters (again), with shows at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, and Boston Common. Boston Common also has Trolls: World Tour.

    Arsenal Yards plays the 2019 Little Women on Monday evening, while Greek film Man of God, depicting the life of Saint Nektarios of Aegina, plays Monday at Fenway, South Bay, and Assembly Row. J-Pop concert film Arashi Anniversary Tour 5 x 20 Film: Record of Memories plays Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row on Tuesday. Boston Common and Fenway also rotate various Best Picture nominees in and out, mostly excluding the streamers, although Fenway includes CODA.

    There are also special previews of The Lost City on Saturday (Fandango) ,Tuesday (Girls' Night Out), and Wednesday (Date Night Out) at Boston Common, Fenway (Tuesday only), Assembly Row, in addition to the usual Thursday shows.
  • Anime Jujutsu Kaisen: 0 - which I gather is a prequel to the anime series, based on a prequel to the Jujutsu Kaisen manga, may actually be opening on the most screens. It plays Boston Common (including Imax Xenon), Fenway, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill. Check showtimes for whether it's playing dubbed or subtitled.

    The big Bollywood action-comedy this week is Bachchan Paandey, which creatures Akshay Kumar as a rookie director making a film on gangsters who winds up with more trouble than he expected when he's spotted doing "research"; it's at Fresh Pond and Boston Common. Apple Fresh Pond also opens Telugu comedy Stand Up Rahul and Kannada-language action-comedy James on Friday, with Marathi-language historical action/adventure Pawankhind playing Saturday and Sunday. Telugu romance Radhe Shyam continues at Fresh Pond and Fenway; Fresh Pond keeps Bheeshma Parvan and The Kashmir Files; while Gangubai Kathiawadi continues at Boston Common. The big Telugu action epic RRR - Rise Roar Revolt finally opens at Fresh Pond (including Hindi and Tamil), Boston Common, Fenway (including Hindi), and Arsenal Yards on Thursday, with opening night at the Common including a 7pm Imax Xenon screening and Arsenal Yards showing it on the CWX screen.

    Chinese comedy-drama Nice View also opens at Boston Common, with Jackson Yee as a kid in Shenzhen who gets involved with gambling to pay for his sister's surgery.
  • Landmark's Embassy Cinema.also has Ukrainian film The Guide, with proceeds going to the Ukrainian Relief Fund.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a number of live shows in their main room this week, but also has Dr. Zhivago in 35mm on Sunday, Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter from Monday (downstairs on Tuesday), and a "Face/Off: Travolta vs Cage" double feature at of Urban Cowboy and Raising Arizona on Tuesday.

    Their sister theater The Capitol also opens documentary I Am Here
  • The Oscar Nominated Shorts continue on-screen with the Live-Action and Animated Selections playing the Embassy, animation at the Kendall, and rotating offerings of Documentary, Animation, and Live Action at the Coolidge and West Newton. The Luna has Live Action (Saturday) and Animation (Friday/Saturday); The ICA has Animation on Thursday.
  • The Bright Lights program in the Paramount Theater's Bright Screening Room on Thursday is Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective, including a post-film discussion on the documentary about Native Americans returning to traditional means of managing the land; as usual, the film is free and open to the public with tickets able to be reserved on the afternoon of the show.
  • Holy cow, The Harvard Film Archive is showing movies again, one of the last places in the area to re-open (at least among those that are going to reopen). Their first show back is My Voice on Thursday, the first in a series of films by Flora Gomes, this year's recipient of the McMillan-Stewart Fellowship. It stars Fatou N'Diaye as a Cape Verdean woman who believes she is cursed to die if she sings but is drawn to music, also voyaging to Paris. It plays on 35mm film.
  • The Boston Israeli Film Festival presented by Boston Jewish Film starts on Thursday with a screening of Dead Sea Guardians at the West Newton, with most of the streaming selections also going live that day.

    Belmont World Film will begin their annual film series next Friday, with most films online and some screening in person; tickets and passes are now available.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues The Batman, Cyrano, Uncharted, Drive My Car (Saturday/Thursday), Parallel Mothers (Saturday/Sunday/Tuesday), Sing 2 (Saturday/Sunday), West Side Story, and Encanto (no show Friday). The Lexington Venue has The Outfit and The Batman this weekend.
  • The Luna Theater has the Animated Oscar shorts on Friday and Saturday, with the Live-Action program on Saturday. Fargo plays Sunday, plus the usual Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has The Batman, The Worst Person in the World, and X this weekend.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes. Also, with the HFA back in business, we're down to the Imax screens at Jordan's furniture and the film program at the MFA being the last places to reopen, and both of them have removed film pages from their websites in the past couple months.
I will be trying to cram WAY too much in before BUFF, somehow hoping to get to a couple Poitiers, Alice, The Outfit, X, the last couple shorts programs, and Umma. Seems unlikely, to be honest.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Film Rolls, Round 1: Carole Lombard and Charley Bowers

I've mentioned before that I have a terrible time choosing between good options - when I'm on vacation, I get decision paralysis figuring out what I'm going to do that day until I've wasted a couple of hours, and more to the point of this exercise, I've spent many an evening wasting time deciding what to watch, and even deciding I didn't have time to watch that before going to bed.

(People ask me why I don't have Netflix, and honestly, adding that to this sort of paralysis isn't going to help me watch more movies.)

Anyway, I've been amassing movies much faster than I watch them for a while, so what to do? Well, make a game of it. Therefore I present "Film Rolls" (the third name I've put on this post but this one's sticking), a board game (of sorts) which admittedly has all the strategy of Chutes and Ladders and the arbitrary scoring of Whose Line Is It Anyway?. First, the board:

These are (mostly) the movies I've purchased over the past few years which I have never seen before. There's a lot of Hong Kong, and indeed, part of the reason I'm starting this now is that I've just put in a big order to DDDHouse and it threatens to expand past my ability to store them. The contents of the various boxes are:

Row One
Box One: Western movies from early cinema to 1935
Box Two: Western movies from 1989 to 2014

Row Two
Box One: Western movies from 1935 to 1954
Box Two: Western movies from 2015 to present
Box Three: Chinese/Hong Kong movies from Bruce Lee to 1994

Row Three
Box One: Western movies from 1954 to 1967
Box Two: Japanese movies
Box Three: Chinese/Hong Kong movies from 1996 to 2017
Box Four: Tsui Hark, Zhang Yimou/Gong Li, and Pang Ho-Cheung

Row Four
Box One: Western movies from 1967 to 1973
Box Two: TV sets and Korean movies
Box Three: Chinese/Hong Kong movies from 2018 to present and John Woo
Box Four: Johnnie To and music discs

Row Five
Box One: Western movies from 1974 to 1988
Box Two: Hitchcock!
Box Three: The Star Wars saga
Box Four: Ringo Lam, ShawScope, Wong Jing

That's the board, although there's a good chance it gets rearranged. Here are the players:

I picked that Mookie Betts figure up during an epic rainout at Fenway last summer, and quickly came up with this idea, but figured making a game out of it would require an opponent. Surprisingly, there weren't a lot of things with the same scale that looked like my thing, but I saw blind-box toys at Comicazi last week and they seemed like the right size, even if they're not always my slice of pop culture, but the Bruce Lee box looked cool, so I dropped $8, liked what I found, and set him up next to Mookie.

As for the rules: I roll a giant d20 and move the figure across the board. The setup is made so that I don't get too mired in any one sort of movie, even if I roll a bunch of ones. The "players" get points from the star ratings in the review, so landing on a box set is a great opportunity to pull ahead. Whoever scores the most by the time they get past Wong Jing wins!

Of course, given that the point of this is to get me watching my backlog, I feel completely free to make new rules up as I go along and apply them inconsistently (I mean, if I don't feel like going through a 10-disc box set…). One I think I'll go with is that a 20 roll gets that "player" a bonus pick from the "recently purchased but previously seen pile". Maybe I'll do something wacky if someone hits the Funkos being used to fill space in the shorter rows. Oh, and the board itself will change as I take the movies I've watched out and slide stuff from new orders in. If I were "competing" with someone else, I still think cheating would be encouraged.

So let's get started. Roll that die, Mookie!

14! That gets you to - "The Carole Lombard Collection II"! Making a power move there.

And for Bruce…

A 5! That lands him on "The Extraordinary World of Charley Bowers"!

So, let's see how our guys did!

Hands Across the Table

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It's kind of a neat trick this movie pulls, making its central romance feel both impossible and inevitable, especially since the other options presented are fine - honestly, Ralph Bellamy's Allen Macklyn is so thoroughly likable that you kind of get mad at the movie for basically treating him as less than a viable leading man because he's in a wheelchair. He's just thoroughly well-meaning even if Fred MacMurray's Theodore Drew III is so feckless. Amiably so and self-aware in his fecklessness, but ridiculous nonetheless. In just a little bit of time, one even becomes fairly fond of Astrid Allwyn's Vivian Snowden, the heiress to whom Drew is engaged.

So how does it work? More than anything, I think, by convincing the audience that these two like each other and let that attraction grow without a whole lot of fanfare. Carole Lombard's Regi Allen is serious enough when she says she's looking to marry someone with money, yeah, but she's not really able to go through with it, befriending Allen rather than targeting him. Lombard is spiky and sarcastic here and it plays well off MacMurray's easy patter, and there's a whole cloud of supporting character around them that do what they need to but never overload the movie.

From 75 years down the line, it's a fun time capsule, too. Regi is a manicurist working out of a barber shop but also dispatched to rooms in the apartment building/hotel for which the shop is an amenity, and it's funny to see this as a sort of male vanity. The Depression is there and having no money is taken seriously, but minimized a bit by one of the film's funnier lines ("remember the Crash?" / "Yeah?" / "That was us."). There are also some uncomfortable bits of stereotyping - all three movies in this box set have some cringe-worthy bits with Japanese and Black characters.

Love Before Breakfast

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 February 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Oof, but some movies really don't age well, to the point where one is tempted to look back and see if there were people backing away from this one. It's a romantic comedy built around obsession that always finds the antics of the man who would wreak havoc on everyone else's life to get what he wants funny.

Admittedly, that's kind of the fine line that screwball walks. It's not impossible for a movie with such a broad premise - corporate titan Scott Miller (Preston Foster), understandably attracted to New York socialite Kay Colby (Carole Lombard), buys the company that employs her fiancé Bill Wadsworth (Cesar Romero) and reassigns him to Japan, only to let it slip and earn Kay's scorn. There's a way to make these characters broad and their actions just play as big rather than malicious, but the movie never does the work to establish that the previous connection between Kay and Scott that's vaguely mentioned has some sort of reciprocal spark, or gives either a personality beyond "selfish rich jackass". There's plenty of room for comedies about how the rich are different or making their antics exaggerations - and this cast gamely makes those jokes and by and large makes them work - and perhaps if Romero's Bill was around more and maybe established as a sort of Diet Scott, there'd be more of a story about Kay stubbornly refusing to face what she really wants. Instead, he lingers as a pleasant default alternative to Foster's stalker, though that's not where the movie winds up going.

The Princess Comes Across

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This movie reunites Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray just seven months after Hands Across the Table, and it makes me wonder what it was like to watch the same actors have their characters fall in love on-screen in different ways every few months.

They're an especially fun pairing here, with Lombard playing an out-of-work actress doing her best Garbo as "Princess Olga" (because what ocean liner would charge a princess actual money?) and MacMurray as the musician she bumps out of the ship's best suite. They've each got sidekicks, and then there's also a blackmailer, an escaped felon, a ship full of detectives, and ultimately a murder to solve. The script does a nice job of balancing all of that material - it's a cozy enough mystery to allow for some capers and hijinks but not overpower everything to the point where the caricatured international detectives can't be goofy and the sparks between Lombard and MacMurray feel like a distraction.

This sort of movie hasn't entirely disappeared, but it's much harder to come up with a setting that is simultaneously contained but crowded enough to bring in new characters when you need it these days without it being a period piece. It's kind of a shame, because that's a great spot for both comedies and mysteries to be. That Benedict Cumberbatch is kind of a dead ringer for young Fred MacMurray makes me kind of want to see someone remake this while still keeping it in the thirties; it's a solid concept with roles comic actors can chew on.

"The Extra-Quick Lunch"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I occasionally forget that animated shorts existed between "Gertie the Dinosaur" and "Steamboat Willie", but they did, with this early collaboration between Charley Bowers and "Mutt & Jeff" creator Bud Fisher an example. To modern eyes, it's incredibly stiff - even as Mutt & Jeff are fluid designs, the customers (especially the pretty lady) occasionally feel like they were drawn once and pasted in - but it's got a number of pretty good gags, even if the filmmakers seem to be taking a beat too long for the punchline every time.

It is, of course, also an early example of Bowers playing with mechanical things, although this was so popular a trope in silent films (and presumably other media; Rube Goldberg was of this era) that it wasn't necessarily unique to him.

"A.W.O.L." * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Scroll up one for "animation in this period often seems like a black hole", but it sort of applies to this one as well, with the added caveat that "A.W.O.L." often has the feel of an animated editorial cartoon, with metaphors helpfully labeled and the occasional feel that the soldier who has been tempted by "Miss AWOL" is wandering over a large piece of paper as opposed to France. It's a peculiar sort of thing that is extraordinarily of the moment both in form and content - it's not hard to imagine this being produced quickly, shipped to France, and shown to soldiers getting impatient for the next boat home - and as such even its more inventive bits of cartoon comedy don't exactly work, a hundred years later, but it's still kind of fascinating.

"Egged On"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

"Egged On" is the first known "Bricolo" comedy - that is, the first where Bowers is playing a sort of exaggerated version of himself, an inventor whose elaborate creations eventually take a turn into the surreal - is a pretty fully-formed example of what many would be like, with certain standard props and ideas kicking around: The man loved his eggs and Model Ts. He and his collaborators also had what appeared to be singular talent for designing strange situations that might look like they could exist in the real world and doing stop-motion animation, especially for 1926.

It's kind of a mix of different ideas - initial slapstick bouncing between offices in a building before heading out to a farm to actually build Charley's machine which would make eggs somehow unbreakable, then a frantic attempt to collect enough eggs to do a demonstration. The supporting characters are a kooky sort of hodgepodge, and even at twenty minutes long, one's likely to say "hey, why don't you just…" a couple of times. It's delightfully goofy, though, especially once the Rube Goldberg machine shows up and then just taking a screwy left turn once an automobile's engine starts heating eggs which then hatch as miniature cars.

The whole thing is downright peculiar, but I kind of love it, both as a live-action cartoon and the way it combines excitement about anything being possible and an understanding about how the results might be weird.

"He Done His Best"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The next short on the disc has an infatuated Charley ("Bricolo" en France) taking a job as a dishwasher at his crush's father's restaurant, sparking a mutiny because he's not union, and then converting it into an impossible automat that rapidly grows its produce within the central machine. I had no idea that restaurant workers had such a strong union back then - what happened?

The film seems a bit more focused than "Egged On" in certain ways - no less anarchic and impossible to predict once Charley's gadgets start working and failing in equally impressive fashion, but there's a certain logic and progression to the jokes that lets it build a bit better than the pure jumpy randomness of the previous one. It doesn't exactly manage the sheer levels of absurdity that some of Bowers's shorts do, but it's genuinely funny from start to finish and has a pretty darn decent punchline.

(It's also one of those weird cases where a nearly-50-year-old Bowers is playing a lovelorn/naive twenty-something, just a ton of makeup, and it works okay in HD but can't have been fooling anyone in the huge movie palaces.)

"Fatal Footsteps"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

"Fatal Footsteps", meanwhile, is almost sensible at points, with Charley trying to learn the Charleston to win a contest despite the farmer he works for being the head of an anti-dance league. Its charm in large part comes from the earnest fondness that said fellow's heavyset daughter has for him; for all that the premise of the movie involves Charley trying to win the hand of some other girl he doesn't even know because he barely considers this one as much more than part of the background, the movie has few jokes at her expense, so it works when she's suddenly visible to him.

Plus, there's plenty of fun destruction caused by the inevitable automatic dancing shoes. The whole gag of Charley covering the house with practice footprints may be one that I suspect never actually happened in real life, but it kind of works here as something a guy as determinedly eccentric as Charley might do rather than a "normal" thing getting out of control, but when the crazy slapstick with going up and down walls and an impossible performance takes off, the short works pretty darn well.

"Now You Tell One"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

"Now You Tell One" isn't the entire reason why I ordered this set once it became available, but of the four shorts Serge Bromberg presented when I made that trip to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it's the one that hit me the hardest. On second viewing, there's some weird biological WTF-ery to go along with its cartoon mice and other exaggerations that kind of has to be seen to be believed. If nothing else, it's the one I'd use to introduce folks to just how delightfully peculiar this guy making live-action cartoons in the roaring twenties was.

What I said back in '15

"A Wild Roomer"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I may have just recognized the pun in this short's title, two weeks after watching it for the second time.

This was the first Bowers I saw back at SFSFF '15, and it's a hoot, a bunch of silent-movie tropes smashed together and executed in the most ridiculous fashion possible - and it's not like the Buster Keaton takes on this theme are restrained and reasonable! Of the Bricolo shorts, it's the one I could most easily see extended into something feature-length - maybe a 70-80-minute feature, admittedly - because there does seem to be a little more around the edges than usual

What I said back in '15

"Many a Slip"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I feel like there's a gag missing from "Many a Slip" about how and why the Bricolo house keeps getting further and further off the ground that I missed, like this had to be cut down to two reels and none of the stop-motion bits with the "slipperiness germs" was going. Or maybe it's just a bit that everyone in the 1920s would get but which has fallen by the wayside over the last century.

It's kind of a weird movie in some ways, leaning hard on the hoary "in-laws from hell" gags while on the other hand mocking them by making a big joke out of banana peels suddenly being adhesive. And, no mistake, every time that "banana peel behaves contrary to expectations" happens, the movie works much better than it's got any right to. And if "pretty wife who adores her eccentric husband and is past justifying it to her skeptical family" is a favorite character type, Corinne Powers is a great early example.

What I said back in '15

"Nothing Doing"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

There aren't a whole lot of gadgets and creatures in "Nothing Doing", and I suspect that the result is an indicator of why Bowers isn't mentioned alongside the other great silent comedians (aside from how he never did features) - take away the surreal zaniness and special effects, and have him play a character unlike the inventive eccentric, and he's not that much funnier than any of the likely dozens (or hundreds) of other guys making short comedies in the 1920s. It's not great material - Charley wants to marry a girl, but her father's a cop and won't let her marry outside the profession, so he finds a way around the minimum height requirement to join the force, promptly making a hash of everything - but it's something a the greats could have worked with.

This kind of feels like it wants to be a Chaplin short, but Bowers can't wrap himself around this other persona. His skills are in playing a pretty specific sort of screw-up, and this isn't it.

"There It Is"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Confession: I didn't really remember details of any of the previous Bowers shorts I saw back in SF as I watched them. I remembered the Bricolo persona and the idea of them, but none of the gags really rang a bell nearly seven years later. "There It Is", on the other hand, is hard to forget, the most cartoonish of his live-action shorts and maybe the fastest-paced, a barrage of broad gags, slapstick, and exaggerated characters. The Fuzz-Faced Phantom is right out of a comic strip and by himself makes this perhaps the most successful live-action cartoon of its era.

What I said back in '15

"Say Ah-h!" (second half)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Only the second half of this exists, so you're kind of being dropped into the deep end, but that does gets you the proto-Svankmajer bits where Charley feeding an ostrich various odds and ends causes it to lay an egg that hatches into a bizarre sort of ostrich kratt that eats everything in sight. It's impressive stop-motion work - for all that Bowers never became a great performer, his animation skills continued to build even if lesser works - and he still knows his way around a simple but effective joke, like a rock-hard egg after the bird eats concrete.

"Whoozit" (second half)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Bowers thought oysters were really entertaining creatures to anthropomorphize, and, y'know, I don't think that's the case.

"It's a Bird"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

I wonder how common it was for silent artists to try and rebuild some of their greatest hits for sound, which Bowers and company do here, bringing back a few egg gags from previous shorts and the Liar's Club from "Now You Tell One" (although that was apparently a common trope of the time). It's a goofy thing that nevertheless has some genuine laughs and impressive animation, even if it's not one of Bowers's best. What's kind of interesting is how suddenly having sound sort of pings this crew in a different creative direction - where before, the stop-motion creatures were limited to pantomime and seemed a natural fit for it, the bird he meets in Africa with the wacky eggs now talks, and that seems to make sarcastic jibes flow easier than wise frustration.

"Believe It or Don't"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It's 1935, and now Bowers is back to animation, and I wonder a bit if "It's a Bird" just didn't work right for him, or if even the smaller studios weren't sure about him in the more naturalistic works that sound encouraged. "Believe It or Don't" has some nifty work to it - some pieces look impressively soft and muddy - but by and large he's rushing to punchlines that don't feel quite that clever.

"A Sleepless Night" (silent)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

The soundtrack for this one is lost, and Lobster didn't commission a score the way they did for the silent entries, which means what you've got here is ten minutes that are more unnerving to watch than they're supposed to be (after all, anyone who's been to a silent movie event will point out that they weren't really silent).

It's fun and impressive stop-motion, though, good enough to pass muster compared to things produced decades later. It's as good as any other short with cartoon mice living inside someone's walls and tangling with the larger animals as they try to steal from the humans' pantries, although there's something really neat about how the three-dimensional environment makes the film both more real and more askew than the painted backgrounds of the typical cartoon. You can see how all the things would have to have space and go around corners to be connected, and it's to Bowers's credit that he works with that rather than trying to just do "normal" animation with a different medium.

"Wild Oysters"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This is from the same series as "A Sleepless Night", and having dialog and voices available lets the pretty basic personalities of the mice in the wall come out - although, you're not going to believe it, but the husband is kind of shiftless and lazy and the wife is gruff and brooks nothing that's even nonsense-adjacent! They try to avoid a cat and a dog, which is pretty much the same sort of thing as in the previous one, and every cartoon with mice in walls, and you can sort of see why there aren't more. Like with "Nothing Doing", Bowers doing the same thing as everyone else is competent but not necessarily inspired.

But then you get to the really crazy stuff, when the Pop Mouse alternately befriends and ticks off some oysters that are sitting on the kitchen counter, and… well, Bowers likes his oysters, and they are even weirder now that one's got a tough-guy voice and a mouth to go with the little eyeballs. In Bowers' imagination, these ridiculous little blobs are going to flop around alone but also combine into a superorganism, and the results are downright weird in a way that I'm not sure kids were ready for in 1937. Or are now, really. Not that Bowers was the only one who got weird making these things, but this is the sort of short that makes one wonder just who it was made for.

"Oil Can and Does" (aka "Pete Roleum and His Cousins")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

And here we come to the end of Bowers' career, a stop-motion bit of advertising for the petroleum industry in full color that obviously hits a little differently eighty years and a whole bunch of pollution and conflict later, where he was basically a hired hand, supervising the animation of characters built by the Bunin Brothers in a short film that Joseph Losey made to be shown at the World's Fair. It's noteworthy - these are pretty sophisticated puppets - but even for seventy years ago, the shilling is something else.

… Okay, that was a lot. So here's where we stand after the first round

Mookie: 8 ½ stars - a strong start!

Bruce: 5 ½ stars - note that while I could say I'm weighing each of these shorts by their runtime and how they add up to roughly two features worth, it would be a lie - I feel completely free to make new rules up as I go along and apply them inconsistently, remember? This just feels about right.

So after taking the viewed movies out, where do we stand?

Still in square one, but at least I'm starting to make some progress through this insane backlog!

Saturday, March 12, 2022

After Yang

This movie is extremely my thing, from its delightful opening credits to its careful world-building to how its characters all sit a while, cope with loss, and maybe come out a little wiser without defaulting to tradition. It brought me from snort-laughing at a running joke about buying something "certified refurbished" (which I may have done a few times) to enjoying big sci-fi concepts to the very human heart of it without any one aspect trivializing the other.

Also, I love that Colin Farrell's Werner Herzog impersonation carries delight and curiosity rather than the detached nihilism so many people go for. I love Herzog, not just for how he seems larger than life and kind of odd, but for how he seems genuinely fascinated by a world that sometimes makes no sense and works to understand it rather than dismiss it. I see a lot of the same in Kogonada.

(Obligatory Kogonada's first movie Columbus is great, rent Columbus, it's the first thing I saw Haley Lu Richardson in and I've been impressed ever since.)

(Obligatory "Colin Farrel with an Irish accent is always better than Colin Farrel with an American accent" note)

After Yang

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 March 2022 in Landmark Kendall Square #3 (first-run, DCP)

Kogonada's After Yang is a wonderful sort of oddity, a film which looks into the future and embraces the idea that it will be different without actually being about those differences or treating them as window dressing. It is, primarily, a movie about sadness that recognizes that this sadness exists in large part because of the presence of great joy, and as a result it might not exactly be a sad movie. The memory of it may make one smile more than weep.

It takes place a little further into the future than one might think, introducing the audience to a small family - Jake (Colin Farrell), who operates a small tea shop and can sometimes seem detached; Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), his wife, who shoulders some of Jake's responsibilities; Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), their adopted daughter; and Yang (Justin H. Min), a technosapien meant to serve as Mika's brother and help her maintain a connection to her Chinese culture. Kyra worries that she and Jake delegate too much to Yang, but that problem will soon be exchanged for another, when a minor-seeming glitch one night has him in an off state the next morning. Their neighbor recommends an underground technician, who finds an unusual chip in Yang's core, which a researcher (Sarita Choudhury) describes as a seldom-seen memory bank. As Jake examines the contents, he's able to see his family from the outside - and also notices memories of Ada (Haley Lu Richardson), who has no connection to the family at all.

Movies like this are often set a metaphorical twenty minutes into the future, not just to save the budget but so that the situations their characters face are new and strange, society's struggles with something new equivalent to people facing new-to-them issues writ large. Interestingly, Kogonada pushes far enough ahead as to be past much of that - there have been clones and technosapiens for a while, and although scientists and even technosapiens themselves are still learning to truly wrap their heads around how their minds work, there's a humility to it. What Jake, Ada, Mika, and Kyra are dealing with is not something unique and unprecedented, but it's still hard, and that it doesn't map exactly to what a viewer who has lost a family member feels is a feature rather than a bug, highlighting how everybody's experience is different and difficult to know from the outside.

It gives Colin Farrell terrifically melancholy material to work with. His Jake is withdrawn, likely somewhat depressed from how he seems out of step with much of the world, and he's not exactly well-prepared for a break in his routine or dealing with his daughter's life being upended. Kogonada does something kind of clere by have the flashback where he and Yang talk clearly about philosophical uncertainty memorable for a kind of funny bit even as the heavier material is being laid out, and it makes his baseline clear enough that one can see him fighting some of his less appealing traits and growing more open as the film goes on. His reluctance to tell Mika that Yang has effectively died is clear without needing to be underlined.

Mika's more extreme moments of acting out tend to be offscreen, but Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja is impressive in how she projects the right sort of stubbornness to make the audience believe it, the near-tween who is aware enough of the world to have hard questions but enough of a kid to get very frustrated. It's an intriguing contrast to the manufactured wisdom that Justin H. Min shows as Yang - he's built to be understanding and level and not condescending, but also aware that his understanding is hollow even if it's not fragile; he speaks with truth and conviction but maybe not authority. It doesn't hurt one bit to bring in Haley Lu Richardson, either; she presents Ada as someone who has a whole slew of her own issues that may have being a clone at their root but which also may not, and the guardedness of how she connects with Yang and Jake is genuine, even if it's not the center of the film.

Lest all this seem too heavy, it's worth mentioning that the film is a delight to watch. It may prime the audience for choppy waters at the very start, but it injects joyous energy right away with opening titles that double as a dance party. The production design team does really excellent work in making this future's look clean but not minimalistic or sterile; everything is easy to recognize and understand but more likely to include lively clutter than Apple-store emptiness. The film is also full of people having to find words to explain something that might not seem obvious to another, and that it almost always leads to kindness and empathy is something that sticks with the viewer.

If the film has a flaw, it's that one occasionally wonders a bit about what is going on off-screen - Jodie Turner-Smith's Kyra spends a little too much time being a foil for Jake rather than going through the same issues herself, for instance. It's perhaps an inevitable result of how precise, humane, and intriguing everything one does see is, and in that case, it's hardly cause for complaint.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 11 March 2021 - 17 March 2022

Nope, no-one at the multiplex seems to wanna mess with Batman.

  • Even with a few screens given to that, Kendall Square.has room for a couple new entries. First up is Compartment No. 6, a Cannes-winning film that has a Finnish woman on a train back to her homeland after breaking up with her lover in Moscow, sharing a small compartment with a Russian miner.

    There's also All My Friends Hate Me, which I rather liked when it played Nightstream this fall. It's a funny, weird little story of a man reuniting with university friends (including an old flame) only to find the situation growing stranger by the minute.
  • It's narrow openings elsewhere. Boston Common opens I Am Here, a documentary about Ella Blumenthal, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor living in South Africa. Tyson's Run opens at Arsenal Yards; it's the story of an unathletic boy with autism training for a marathon. Fresh Pond gets Gold, starring Zac Efron as a future prospector fighting off those who would take the massive nugget he has found.

    Boston Common has a "Thrills & Chills" surprise screening on Friday evening, while Arsenal Yards has matinees of Hotel Transylvania: Transformania from Saturday to Thursday and Twilight on Monday. Saturday features the latest BTS concert, a live stream from their "Permission to Dance" tour in Seoul at 4:30pm with encores at 8:30pm. It's at Kendall Square, Fenway, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Fenway and South Bay also have anniversary screenings of The Quiet Man on Sunday and Thursday.
  • Telugu romance Radhe Shyam opens at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and Fenway; it stars Prabhas and Pooja Hegde and is set against the backdrop of 1970s Europe; all three locations also have Hindi-language screenings, with Fresh Pond also having it in Tamil. Apple Fresh Pond also opens Bheeshma Parvan, a Malayalam-language revenge thriller starring Mammootty, Hindi-language drama The Kashmir Files, and action/adventure Etharkum Thunindhavan, whose language is not clear from the theater's site, on Friday. Gangubai Kathiawadi continues at Boston Common and Fresh Pond, Jhund at Fresh Pond. Anime Jujutsu Kaisen: 0 opens in a number of places next Friday (Boston Common, Kendall Square, Assembly Row), including Thursday night shows, with Boston Common having it on the Imax Xenon screen.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a weekend-plus of "The FIlms of Márta Mészáros", including The Girl (Friday/Saturday), Don't Cry, Pretty Girls! (Friday/Sunday), Diary for my Children (Saturday/Sunday), Diary for My Lovers (Saturday), Diary for My Father and My Mother (Saturday), Binding Sentiments (Sunday), Riddance (Sunday), Adoption (Monday), Nine Months (Monday), The Two of Them (Tuesday), and The Heiresses (Tuesday).

    The second leg of a Tribute to Sidney Poitier kicks off Wednesday with a 35mm print of A Raisin in the Sun, with Paris Blues following on Thursday and more shows continuing through the following Tuesday.

    That brings the schedule up to The Boston Underground Film Festival, which has announced an impressively stacked schedule, with tickets and a limited number of passes on sale.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre mostly keeps the same lineup aside from the Oscar shorts switching up, but also have a 35mm print of The Holy Mountain at midnight Friday, a kids' show of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on Saturday morning, a new restoration of Blue Sunshine at midnight that day, a masked matinee of The Batman on Sunday, a 35mm "Big Screen Classics" show of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives on Monday, a special 35mm screening of Willow on Wednesday, and another Big Screen Classic on 35mm, Trainspotting, on Wednesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has their first "Slaughterhouse Movie Club" presentation in a couple years on Friday, with an 8pm burlesque preshow before Mars Attacks! at 9:15pm. The "Face/Off: Travolta vs Cage" double feature at on Tuesday is Grease & Peggy Sue Got Married, and they also will show David Lean epic Ryan's Daughter on Thursday, which is kind of an odd St. Patrick's Day selection. All of these special presentations are on 35mm film.
  • The Oscar Nominated Shorts continue on-screen with the Live-Action and Animated Selections playing Kendall Square, Boston Common, and the Embassy all week, with rotating offerings of Documentary, Animation, and Live Action at the Coolidge (all week), CinemaSalem (Friday to Sunday), and the Luna (Friday and Saturday).
  • ArtsEmerson will be streaming documentary Try Harder! as part of its Shared Stories series (in association with The Boston Asian-American Film Festival) from Friday night until noon on Monday (although ticket sales cut off Sunday night), with director Debbie Lum taking part in a pre-recorded panel to discuss her documentary about students at San Francisco's top school stressing out about college applications.

    The Bright Lights program returns to the Paramount Theater (after a week off for spring break) on Thursday with Tahara, a teen drama about best friends who are thrown after a classmate's suicide. Director Olivia Peace will take part in a discussion afterward; as usual, the film is free and open to the public with tickets able to be reserved on the afternoon of the show.
  • The Museum of Science adds "Penguins 4-D" to their rotation of short films in their 4-D theater starting Saturday.
  • The West Newton Cinema continues The Batman, Cyrano, Uncharted, Drive My Car, Parallel Mothers (Saturday to Wednesday), Sing 2 (Saturday/Sunday), West Side Story, and Encanto (no show Sunday); The Lexington Venue has The Batman, Drive My Car, and West Side Story this weekend.
  • The Luna Theater has the Live-Action Oscar shorts on Friday and Saturday, with the Documentary and Live-Action programs Saturday. Featurette "Jack Kerouac's Road: A Franco-American Odyssey" plays early Sunday afternoon while Pulp Fiction has the later two shows that day, plus a Weirdo Wednesday.

    Cinema Salem has The Batman, The Worst Person in the World, and rotating Oscar shorts this weekend. They also have a special screening of Ukranian film The Guide on Sunday afternoon, with director Oles Sanin dialing in from Kyiv before the screening. Free tickets must be reserved, and donations will be solicited for Ukranian relief.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol, The Venue, and many of the multiplexes.
Still haven't seen The Batman, Cyrano, The Worst Person in the World, two of the Oscar short programs, and Licorice Pizza; should probably get on that before BUFF swallows all my time.

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts

Watching the selection of short documentaries nominated for this year's Academy Awards, one gets a sense of how much work goes into getting them into shape, considering how most are independently produced. There's not a mask to be seen and only a brief mention of Covid-19, a reminder that for the most part, these shorts were shot before 2020, and between the time necessary to edit, do other post-production, and then travel the festival circuit before being picked up and nominated, films often meant to be relatively immediate can look like time capsules.

Not that all of them are necessarily built around looking at the world right now; two of the five are more personal looks into the past. It's an interestingly varied slate, at least.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

It's not uncommon to watch an Oscar-nominated piece that is pushing right up against the definition of a short subject and wonder if the original or ultimate intention is a feature, especially when the movie is something like "Audible". Filmmaker Matthew Ogens has a subject in Amaree McKenstry-Hall who has the sort of "ordinary life in unusual circumstances" situation that lets one connect and learn - Amaree plays on the top-tier football team of Maryland's School for the Deaf - and his film is put together well enough, but it could perhaps benefit from greater focus or room to get into more depth across the board.

Part of the issue is that most viewers have likely seen the broad strokes of Amaree's story plenty of times before, minus the "...and they're Deaf!", and the specifics of it never manage to take it to the next level. A coach gives out some sports-movie platitudes about them being underestimated; Amaree's father follows the familiar arc of walking out on his family, doing some time, finding God and preaching at a storefront church; Amaree and his girlfriend apparently had a fight and don't know what the future holds. It's material that has inherent power, and which could be even more intriguing if Ogens dug into what this means for these kids specifically. And I don't necessarily mean doing a touristy "how do Deaf kids handle this?" thing, but consider how an early scene is a montage of Amaree clearly being too rough on the field, but Ogens doesn't use this as a starting or ending point. It's seemingly not connected to the loss of a friend, and it's not something the viewer sees him grow out of despite his apparently being more centered later on. It's one moment relatively unconnected to others in the film.

It's also odd that one can't exactly tell what position Amaree plays, or even particularly suss out whether his team is really good or if their good record and long winning streak against other Deaf schools is because they're elite or because they're the best in a lower division. A documentary short isn't going to have the same sort of coverage that a big-budget feature or top-level sporting event does, but if the game is going to be central, it should help tell the story more. Meanwhile, there are other scenes that are too dramatically staged or cut between angles too much like a fiction film. It doesn't make one question the authenticity of this movie, but it does create a movie that doesn't quite become engrossing the way a documentary short can.

"When We Were Bullies"

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

It would be nice if Jay Rosenblatt's "When We Were Bullies" also tried to extract something universal from its specific group of (former) kids, but it instead winds up embracing its navel-gazing to the point of near-insufferability. There's an interesting idea or two at the center, but the main takeaway often seems to be that these Boomers really need to get over themselves.

Rosenblatt opens by mentioning that he has used the incident that inspired the film, a reaction to a stern teacher that turned into a pile-on against an introverted student, in a previous short ("The Smell of Burning Ants"), but that it still stuck with him 50 years later, and apparently did so for other classmates as well. So he begins a quest to speak to them, work out what it all means, and eventually speak to his fifth-grade teacher who is still alive and once again living in New York City.

There are questions to be answered here, about how these kids were primed to turn on "Dick" (as the fourth "Richard" in his class, he got the worst nickname) and how it apparently haunts them later, but it's a narcissistic sort of self-examination, rather than a systemic interrogation, with a great deal of talk about how making this film was something Rosenblatt had to do and asides of how he was going through something awful at the time, and little grappling with how Dick apparently decided he'd finished with this thing twenty-odd years ago. There's some cut-out animation and public-domain clips to cover the narration and phone interviews. Ultimately, though, Rosenblatt never seems to reach any conclusion beyond "I still feel bad and don't like it", and makes little case for this mattering beyond PS 194.

"Three Songs for Benazir"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

For Elizabeth & Gulistan Mirzaei's "Three Songs for Benazir", the history that has outpaced it is not (just) Covid, but the American retreat from Afghanistan and fall of the country to the Taliban. In a movie that already features one cut to how things changed while the filmmakers were away, it's hard not to wonder what the next jump would reveal, although that hardly makes this film feel incomplete.

Indeed, the Mirzaeis seem less interested in the way the world around young couple Shaista & Benazir is changing and how the present moment is frustrating. They're a delightful pair - Shaista is clearly besotted with his wife and the way she laughs at the songs he improvises for her shows that the feeling is reciprocated (as an aside, Pashto as a language seems impressively able to turn simple statements into beautiful music). But they're in a refugee camp, and options are limited: Shiasta has a third-grade education and hates making bricks, so the army seems to be the best way out, but joining is not so simple.

There is tremendous power in the setting - the clay buildings of the camp seem simultaneously temporary and ancient, a place likely meant to be transient but becoming a community of its own as the endless war continues. The surveillance balloon above them has an unnervingly bomb-like shape. It's a specific-seeming mire, but even if one doesn't really know what a regular life is for a young Afghan couple, it's easy to grasp this pair wanting and trying to live one despite everything. That's why "Three Songs" becomes an impressive example of what film can do, sketching out what's necessary to create empathy in a short burst.

"Lead Me Home"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Directors Pedro Kos & Jon Shenk don't have solutions to offer to the situation outlined in the opening text of "Lead Me Home" - that Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle have all declared states of emergency related to homelessness in recent years - but if they've got rage, it's been buried under the same weight one sees affecting its subjects, whether they are the ones living rough or trying to help that group survive. There may be plenty of reason for anger, but it can't interfere with the work.

Though the unhoused people in the movie do speak their names and occasionally give their backstories, Kos & Shenk are careful with their narratives - the purpose here isn't to show how the system can be navigated, to celebrate success stories or highlight how any specific situation can put a person on the streets. Kos (credited as editor as well as director) and his team make sure that the viewer can follow these people but tend to only show middles of stories, giving a sense of how there's no single story but also showing the commonality of the experience. Homelessness makes people uncomfortable enough that they will often try to find a justification or (like the NIMBYs shown at a city council meeting toward the end) a reason not to engage, and the filmmakers do their best to make the situation clear without providing folks that escape route.

If Kos is in charge of framing in that way, cinematographer Shenk is the one who gives scale. He's fond of the shot that starts from a prosperous-looking neighborhood and pans slightly to show not just one, but several shelters huddled together. It repeats often enough to become a bit played out by a certain point, but it's a good illustration. The scale of these encampments seems to grow larger as the film goes on, and the film is impressively disciplined with how it uses scale: Tight, staring-into-a-camera framing as people tell their stories; something a little more broad as the unhoused go about their days and others try to help, and broad widescreen shots that show that this isn't just a couple of people here and there, but a large-scale problem. Without narration or talking heads, they make the clear point that the size of the problem as a whole is much larger than the people trying to fight it can handle, and the causes are too individual for a one-size-fits-all solution. As a result, the film can't help be a bit despairing, but also doesn't quite give into pessimism - these folks have to keep trying, after all.

"The Queen of Basketball"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2022 in the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater (Oscar Shorts, digital)

After four shorts like that, the people packaging the nominees must be extremely grateful to have Ben Proudfoot's "The Queen of Basketball" to end on. It's a upbeat movie whose subject is the sort producers must dream about - accomplished, charismatic, and apparently just waiting 40 years to tell her story.

Luisa Harris's story is pretty straightforward - born in Mississippi in 1955, she grew to 6'2" in high school and was the potential superstar women's basketball needed when Title IX opened the doors for more women in college sports, the only Black woman on her school's team. She was on Team USA when women's basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976, was drafted by the NBA's New Orleans Jazz, and then… Well, there was no WNBA back then. What's important is not so much the recitation of these facts but seeing how Harris carries this with her. She knows just how good she was, what she owes to her coaches, and what her place in history is, and she relates it in a way that suggests she remembers the joy of those days but isn't stuck there. Throw in enough quick bits of material backing up her words, and Proudfoot can build a nice rapport between her and the viewer.

He's conscientious with what he does and doesn't include, too - it's eventually clear that Harris is in a wheelchair now, but as this fact likely has little relevance to the story he's telling, he doesn't make a thread out of it, or dig too deeply into Harris not trying out for the Jazz, as the change in Harris's tone indicates that she maybe wonders what-if a little more than she says. The basketball footage is revealing; one can see that Harris was in fact very good while also showing that the women in today's WNBA are clearly next-level without diminishing her importance as a pioneer.

It's interesting to look at "Audible" and "Queen" as bookends to the presentation; much as the latter could easily be dismissed as a feel-good puff piece, it's got its eye on a message it communicates smoothly, while the former can't quite make its scattered nature a virtue. If I had a vote, I'd probably give it to "Three Songs" or "Lead Me Home", though I'm loath to handicap what a group that collectively decided "Bullies" was one of the year's five best in this category will say.