Short Term 12 – On The Never-Ending Battle Of Child Care

Grade: A

Grade: A+

It’s very difficult for me to decide what to say about Short Term 12. It’s rare that a review not simply pour out of me, but that is only a compliment to the film. Leaving the film, I felt… dazed. Unsure what to feel, still reeling from the experience. I’ll do my best to describe what I enjoyed about the film, but more than anything, I want to simply tell you to SEE IT! Now, on to my review.

Short Term 12 is about a young manager of a short care facility for troubled teenagers, Grace, played with complete immersion and sensitivity by the always wonderful Brie Larson. As she emphatically states to a newcomer employee, they are not friends, parents, or therapists – they are meant simply to provide a safe environment for the children under their protection. it becomes clear quickly, however, that the lines are very much blurred for her in that regards. It is revealed that she has abuse in her past herself, which both shows why she works so tirelessly for the children in the foster home, and why she she has such a hard time acclimating to the idea of becoming a parent herself. It occurs to me now that the title of the film may also be a reference to the early stage of her pregnancy.

She is helped through this by Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), a boyfriend who is very nice and supporting, but ultimately has a hard time penetrating her inner world – largely because Grace has such a difficult time letting him in. The foster home itself is populated by a whole group of very real-seeming children, some more troubled than others. None of them are stereotyped at all – while you may think you get what archetype they fit in early on, the characters do possess the ability to surprise the viewer. A character you may think is well-adjusted may offer a deeper well of trouble than you thought possible. In fact, one gets the sense that the characters whose problems is not shown explicitly are having no less of a hard time.

All of the wonderful actors are helped enormously by the wonderful script by Destin Cretton, whose previous feature, I Am Not A Hipster, I have never heard of. Short Term 12 is shot in the hand-held style that is so common in independent cinema that it may occasionally be trite. Cretton imbues it, however, with style and careful selection of shots, keeping it from going down the path of haphazard, unclear, random cinematography that often troubles other films shot in a similar style. This helps establish the movie as a cinematic experience, while simultaneously feeling so close to life.

There is no great victory or adventure shown in this film, and what victories are shown can only be viewed in the context of the characters lives as temporary moments of respite. While there is a central storyline, in Markus (Lakeith Lee Stanfield) leaving after turning 18, and the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), both of whom are experiences difficulty in their relationship with their parents and the foster home itself in different ways. Ultimately, however, as the ending illustrates beautifully (by mirroring almost completely the opening scene) the never-ending nature of the battle the workers must fight on a daily basis. Grace cannot be passive in her job, she truly gives the care of the teenagers her all, trying to save herself in proxy. The film is simply wonderfully human and warm, and (though I do not always place huge premium on this), feels completely genuine. There is sentimentality here, to be sure, but it does not even approach the territory of fake melodrama. Short Term 12 is cinema, and life, in one.

Concussion Does Not Offer Easy Answers, But Seriously Questions Our Views On Sexuality

Grade: A

Grade: B+

A question that is repeated several times in Concussion is “Why did they split up/get a divorce?” Robin Weigert’s character Abby asks it herself several times, but she is not the only one. It isn’t Abby, it seems, that is haunted by the question, and the death of relationships it refers to, but the world of the film itself is.

This is not the obvious question for the film to concern itself with. The titular concussion occurs right at the opening, with Abby’s son (whom she is raising along with her life partner, Katie, played by Julie Fain Lawrence) throwing a baseball at her head. It is implied that, as is so often the case with children, the act is simultaneously purposeful, and an accident. She experiences anger and emotional difficulties in the days that follow, and is determined to get back to work in real estate. Having not known her prior to the beginning of the film, however, it is impossible for us to know whether or not this is uncharacteristic for her. She appears to be sexually frustrated, and clues throughout the film suggest deeper issues in her life, including her relationship with Katie. Abby’s sexual desire appears to be awakened, either through the head trauma, or as a result of subsequent events, and as a result, she ends up engaging in prostitution. This is definitely not out of financial desperation, but rather out of an emotional one. Stacie Passon, the writer/director, avoids ever pinning down how much of this is due to the concussion itself. No direct link is made with it, but it being the title and the opening of the movie makes us wonder.

To be frank, I don’t know how much of the omission is deliberate, and what part of it may simply be the remnants of a vestigial storyline the screenplay or the final edit of the film evolved past. Overall, while the filmmaker does not always maintain the tricky balance in that regard, she does not fall, which she certainly deserves a lot of credit for – that is a tricky act to pull off. To suggest that she is only doing this because of an injury would be to reduce the character to someone who is simply mentally ill. As a consequence, her actions would lose validity, the story would become simply sad, rather than exciting, which Concussion rather is, at times. The concussion does serve a purpose, however. In its absence (and without the addition of some major psychological or physical abuse, which would easily tip the movie into melodrama), Abby’s journey of sexual awakening would make her a cheating wife. Yes, an understandably frustrated one, but dishonest nonetheless. Audiences would turn on her, when ultimately, we are meant to sympathize with her.

There are several other things addressed in Stacie Passon’s film to mention. The first of these is the opening, which contains just the audio of an extraordinarily, offensively, misogynist conversation, delivered entirely by women. The shallowness of the conversation’s content, about having to “choose between face and ass” when it comes to deciding on one’s ideal weight rings very true, and illustrates very clearly how deeply ingrained the sexual objectification of women has become in our society. This is followed by opening credits of women working out. In fact, working out, and looks, take up a large portion of the character’s lives – outside of other housewife duties, the characters typically take various fitness classes or work out and gossip. This seems simultaneously genuine and depressing, which helps identify with what Abby must be going through.

Another interesting topic is that while both Abby and Katie seem like familiar characters, or even archetypes in certain situations – the housewife, and the overworked/disinterested spouse – they are a same-sex couple, raising children, with no big deal made of the subject. The film does not use that as some big surprise or twist or plot point – instead, the movie may work just as well (though adjustments would, naturally, have to be made) if the characters were heterosexual. The fact that Abby’s clients, once she starts in the escort business, are exclusively women, does provide an interesting facet to the story, however. When she has her first experience with a prostitute, she is unimpressed, perhaps in part because she cannot see herself in the woman, whom Abby finds rough and physically unclean. It isn’t until she sleeps with Gretchen (Kate Rogal) that she considers taking on clients herself. Afterwards, she is able to develop certain relationships with the customers, seeing her own struggles in theirs, and helping them as a way to help herself.

Ultimately, there is plenty to work through in Concussion. Whether you want to examine the process of a relationship’s breakdown or what causes it, the complex relationship our society has with sexuality, or the strain we put on unrealistic standards of beauty for women, there is something for you here.

 

Blue Ruin Offers Nearly Unbearable Tension, Great Pacing

Grade: A

Grade: A

Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller in the style of the original, pre-franchise Death Wish. I mean that not in terms of performances or direction, which is quite different and not to be compared.  The similarity here is simply in the fact that the focus of the movie, unlike most revenge plots, is a poorly defined, somewhat aimless act of rage, rather than the brilliantly executed operatic revenge of most action movies or thrillers.

The film begins with a homeless man living in his car (which I can only assume is where the name of the movie comes from) finding out that the killer of his parents is being released from prison. There is no dramatic flashback to the tragedy that spurs him to act as he does. All that we see is his current life, which hints much more subtly at the pain Dwight, played with great sensitivity by Macon Blair, has experienced due to the trauma. He goes into action, seeking out his revenge in the first act of the film. Rather than making that the main drama, however, the film asks what the consequences of this act of violence will be. Or did he even get the right guy? Is simply executing the man who already went to jail for the crime the justice he seeks?

Blue Ruin could easily suffer from having a somewhat passive protagonist, if Macon Blair’s performance wasn’t so imbued with humanity. It’s rare to see a thriller’s lead be so meek while heading head-first into danger. The movie is largely silent, as Dwight seeks to end the terrible situation he finds himself in. I will say that, perhaps in part due to the silence of the movie, the character’s motivation for the specific actions he is undertaking is occasionally unclear. The aim of the character is not to identify with the character, but rather to follow him through his experience from the outside. We are offered glimpses into the character only through his actions, and in that respect us feeling like we do understand the character, his backstory, or his mental state at all is to the filmmaker’s credit.

The filmmaker behind this film is Jeremy Saulnier, who does a great job of creating a genuine feeling world. While I know next to nothing about the young director, whether or not this is informed by any real experience is irrelevant in that context. The story of a family feud’s tragic climax feels very real, and the fact that the direction regularly works in glimpses and closeups, allowing us to see in detail the meticulous way Dwight goes through his life (and, later, vengeance) only intensifies this feeling.

Wrong Cops – Dark Comedy and Hell

Grade: B+

Grade: B+

Wrong Cops is considerably less absurdist than Quentin Dupieux’s other films – most notably, Rubber, and Wrong. It is, however, one of the darkest comedies I’ve seen recently. The eponymous cops are cruel, misogynist, racist, bad people. The film makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise this. In fact, what makes the things on the screen particularly shocking, at least at first, is that the heinous actions are undertaken by police officers, who, above all, make no attempt to disguise their criminal activities.

This is also what provides much of the comedy, at least initially. In the hands of another filmmaker and other performers, the blatant sexual harassment, drug dealing, and complete apathy about police work would provide fodder for a thriller about police corruption. As it stands, however, the absolute, obvious, comedic ineptitude of the officers is what separates them from villains. While they presumably succeed in a significant enough portion of their illicit activities to not only continue doing it, but remain at large, the fact is that the majority of the film concerns their foibles. Mark Burnham is selling weed packaged in dead rats and trying to get rid of a half-dead guy he’d accidentally shot. Eric Judor is writing techno music. Arden Myrin is stealing found money from a Steve Little, a colleague. Ultimately, while not always brimming with good taste, the humor hits. We quickly learn to watch this not as serious reflection of any real-world situations, but as what it is – a series of comedic situations, masterfully set up to deliver laughs.

One of the characters brings up, towards the end of the film the theory that all of the characters are actually dead, and in hell. Admittedly, the character admits to being hugely stoned, and his rambling, nonsensical speech is mostly played for laughs. It does, however, sort of make sense. For one thing, the next scene underscores it by the appearance of an animal that reminded me, strangely, of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Appearances from both Marilyn Manson and two of the cast members from Twin Peaks underscore the feeling that something like that may indeed be happening here. It would also explain a shot guy that just will not die. If only for the reason that we are laughing at these characters, rather than empathizing with them in any way, it’s a pretty enjoyable stay in hell, all things considered. This is certainly not to suggest that the film is actually meant to be a serious portrayal of hell – but all these characters are certainly going there.

Parkland Is More Of A Historical Mood Piece Than A Movie

C+
Grade: B-

Parkland is actually something of an anti-movie. It does not offer a protagonist or a point of view. It does not contain an antagonist for us to root against, or even any doubt or drama about what may, or may not, happen to any particular character. Granted, it is certainly not the first movie for which we know the ending, but even whereas many other similar films would fictionalize the events to a certain degree, Parkland resists this completely. It offers no conspiracy theories; no details, in fact, gory or otherwise, that we might not know from elsewhere. It simply proceeds out of sheer inertia, Oswald’s shots ringing out in the first minutes of the film, and the rest of it refusing absolutely to change its mood or direction, as everyone around the events struggles to make sense of what has happened.

The shock that was a felt by Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 is consistently felt throughout the whole movie. If there is any drama here, it is in the inability of the people surrounding the events to make any sort of sense of the tragedy. We have doctors in the titular Parkland Hospital (Zac Efron in a perfectly forgettable role alongside Marcia Gay Harden), doing their absolute best to save John F. Kennedy when there is obviously nothing they can do. Jackie Kennedy, played by Kat Steffens, completely shellshocked about the sudden blow. Secret Service (Billy Bob Thornton) and FBI (Ron Livingston) recovering from what is perceived as their failure. Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale) trying to come to terms with what his brother had done. Perhaps most intriguingly, Abraham Zapruder, played by the always interesting Paul Giamatti, dealing with having just recorded the death of one of the most important men in the Western world.

None of this has the appearance of being even remotely dressed up or dramatized. The down-side to that effect is, of course, the fact that the movie is not even slightly dramatic. There is no suspense at all, just a very consistent and unwavering mood of shock, chaos, and tension. The film is, in fact, almost entirely one-note. If the subject matter where different, the movie might almost look like a very dark comedy, with some of the very true-seeming moments of absurdity. A group of secret service men struggling to fit a coffin through the door of a plane might evoke laughter in a different context, or if it were simply executed less sensitively. This is, however, not a problem here.

In fact, it should be noted that even the details of the killing itself are tastefully cut around. There are no gratuitous shots of the moment the president’s head was hit by a bullet. Even the famous Zapruder film is not shown in the film, instead only offering glimpses of reflections of various shots. The film certainly offers no gleeful recreation of the gritty details as a less sensitive filmmaker may wish to do. Director Peter Landesman certainly deserves praise for that achievement.

Again, this is not quite a film in a traditional sense. There is no attempt at all to create engaging characters or traditional plot. It is simply a reflection of the mood and atmosphere of an important event. In that respect, it does a fine job.

Zero Theorem Is Interesting, But Does Not Cover New Ground For Gilliam

The_Zero_Theorem_posterI hesitate to make easy comparisons between Terry Gilliam’s latest, Zero Theorem, and 1985’s Brazil, but luckily the link has been made for me – Gilliam himself has referred to the film as the last of his dystopian trilogy, the middle being 95’s Twelve Monkeys. I must confess that while I have seen Brazil, it has been a while and I do no remember (or, perhaps, understand) the film to the extent I should. Gilliam’s films have always hinted towards greater meaning, without them quite penetrating to me. I cannot decide whether that is because they actually lack anything to penetrate beyond what is on the screen. Granted, there is always plenty happening on the screen in his films, but at face value, both Brazil and Zero Theorem are not overly complex as critiques/satires of modern society. There is little ground broken on that front that was not already covered in the countless other dystopic fiction. What remains, then, is to ask what, if anything, the films have to say aside from that.

Qohen Leth (whose name is commonly mispronounced or misremembered by other characters, perhaps hinting at lack or loss of identity), played by Christoph Waltz, certainly hints at deeper meanings. Having felt earnestly a lack of it for most of his life, working obsessively and compulsively in a job he does not enjoy, Qohen awaits a phone call that would change everything. The film does not hide that this is not a rational expectation, and even if it were he takes it to a sociopathic extreme. He avoids any distractions that would prevent him receiving the call, such as interpersonal relationships or going outside. Given a new assignment by Management, amusingly portrayed by Matt Damon, he shuts himself away to prove the eponymous Zero Theorem, the precise meaning of which I will not spoil to any who would choose to find out for themselves. Suffice it to say that the question of whether or not there is a greater purpose behind things is very much engaged front and center in the film.

To expect a clear answer either way would, of course, be silly. The long-standing mystery over what, precisely, Qohen is expecting or trying to achieve, however, also serves to conceal drama in the picture. There is certainly nothing resembling urgency in the picture, even if certain characters do possess it on the surface. Terry Gilliam attempts to satirize numerous aspects of modern society, and is spot on in taking certain aspects to their logical extremes – such as advertisements amusingly following passers-by. For the first time in the aforementioned dystopian trilogy, internet is a major player in our lives. While publicly condemning its influence while speaking about the film, the film itself does not make clear why a connection made over the internet is less valid than any other. It seems that Gilliam is so convinced it is less than genuine, and expects us all to agree to such an extent, that he does not even try to illustrate why he feels that way. The film seems to engage in a distraction towards the center of the film, in the form of an alluring seductress, Bainsley, played by Mélanie Thierry, with whom Qohen becomes increasingly infatuated. If the film is from his perspective, this can be forgiven, as she herself is something of a distraction (perhaps even a purposeful one) in his life. That being said, their relationship does seem to illustrate some lack of focus. If the filmmaker was striving for her to represent some greater sense of meaning, this was not made adequately clear.

Gilliam’s strength has, of course, always been visual, and Zero Theorem is no exception. There is always plenty happening on screen, in garish color and flamboyant design. The charm of the picture is it’s absolute refusal for any affectation of being cool. It is, in fact, the opposite of cool, which normally expresses itself in cool detachment, coyness or attempts at subtlety. Even the most garish action movies accomplish “coolness” by, in fact, turning some of the color and detail down, while accentuating certain things for effect. Gilliam’s world is by far the busiest we would ever see. Color is everywhere, sets overflowing with hand-crafted detail. These elements are, as always, enjoyable due to their complete lack of affectation. The artist puts on the screen precisely what he finds exciting. And while the film ultimately adds up to very little other than the question of whether or not there is any meaning to life, it is certainly never boring.

Inside Llewyn Davis Gives Us Genuine Insight Into an Artist’s Life

Inside Llewyn DavisYou may be tricked by the ending of Coen brothers latest picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, to believe that nothing of significance happens to the titular character. That the endings’ return to the place where it all began signifies a lack of an arc, and that the events themselves are not going to have a lasting impact on Llewyn. This is wrong.

It’s true, the week or so over the course of which the film takes place does not end with some momentous change in the character’s life. Rather all of the story, the character’s evolution that takes place all serves to return the character to his status quo – which, as it happens, is a constant state of crisis, quitting, and change.

This understanding of the character is, in truth, what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so insightful. The central character, a struggling folk singer, may in another film seem very familiar – and, indeed, be rather boring at this point. What distinguishes Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn, however, is the fact that he’s not the naive, impassioned young musician we’ve seen portrayed a million times before. He is, rather, an old hand at this. While the first time we see him play is certainly beautiful – the film opens on that very image, an extended look at one of his songs that hints at a depth of suffering and self-understanding that, frankly, does not truly seem to exist in in the singer. Llewyn is not an enlightened, suffering artist, but rather a musician in the grip of boring reality. He makes money here and there recording a song or playing a gig, but his album is not selling well, and Llewyn is permanently couch surfing with people that, altogether, don’t seem to like him very much. Those who do like him, seemingly, do so by having to continuously forgive and forget his past slights and wrongs.

It would be easy to say that Llewyn Davis is simply a guy down on his luck, and that he is certainly the way he would present himself. The truth is, naturally, considerably more complex. While being, to a certain extent, a victim of is circumstance, he really does create much of the trouble he finds himself in. Definitely not through stupidity, which he could not be accused of – but occasionally due to the smugness his intelligence creates. Not through being an asshole, as he is often accused of, though he frequently takes his frustration out on those around him. Instead, he simply does not seem to be able to cope with his life properly. He despises mere “existence”, as he humorously accuses his father of, yet finds himself doing nothing more than that in the music world. His day-to-day is no more exciting than any one else’s existence. Neither is he himself burning with inner drive and enthusiasm about the music he’s making. Though he’s frequently shown playing, we never see his excitement about music, or a drive to succeed, which we must assume he must have had at some point in his career. It is perhaps not surprising, nor a spoiler, that he finds no major success with his music – neither during the course of the movie, nor, likely, later. He even attempts to quit music during the course of the film but finds, for various reasons, that he can’t even do that! Therefore, he is trapped, in his mundane, day-to-day existence, despite being a folk musician of some note. This shows that even in entertainment business, which we are so often trained to see as glamorous is just as conducive to boredom.

This is not to suggest that Inside Llewyn Davis is some dour, depressing film. It is, at times, as funny as anything the Coen brothers have put out. In fact, there isn’t even a tone of darkness, typically. Following Llewyn is not an unpleasant journey, because the Coen brothers refuse to make it so. It is full of enjoyable characters – small roles by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, and John Goodman vary from serious with Mulligan to hilarious with the Coen veteran Goodman. It is the complex portrayal of the central character, however, that makes Inside Llewyn Davis a worthwhile film.