Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Foreign Film and Live Action Short

I'm literally beginning to write this post in tears as I deleted over 2,200 words on my two favorite categories. With any luck, analyzing these another time will be more productive than the first time.


Anyway, that puts me behind on my already overfull schedule, but I think I can still make it. I had decided to put the short form live action films with the foreign films for a few reasons. Firstly, they're almost all foreign (one is English and from the UK). Secondly, I didn't want to pair them with the best picture nominees as that'd be both a really long post and slightly distracting from the grand finale. So let's get to it. I had the pleasure of catching the short films at the Detroit Film Theater and supposedly you can now see them on demand from iTunes and Amazon. That's not quite as true as they'd have you believe, so you'll have to do a bit of scrounging to find what you may.

The short film nominees:
  • Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn’t Me)
  • Avant Que de Tout Perdre (Just before Losing Everything)
  • Helium
  • Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?)
  • The Voorman Problem
Aquel No Era Yo is a high production tale that almost makes you think it's the story of foreign aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa who get mistaken for another group left to plead "That wasn't me!" as child soldiers learn to kill. Instead, though, it's a retelling of events before a classroom by one of those soldiers who escaped as he struggles to convince others and himself the child responsible for those things all those years ago "wasn't me." The pacing is strong, the production well thought out, the acting believable, but the script is a bit painful. In an otherwise stellar production, we have mostly nameless soldiers in a nameless war in a nameless African country and one of them is saved by a white woman and goes on to speak to a white classroom about the horrors of child armies? With a few minor tweaks this film could have been really, really solid, but the script does hold it back.

I have ragged on the pacing in French film being slow and the tension being not particularly terrifying (Amour, Caché), but Avant Que de Tout Perdre offers up as nervous a half hour of film as I've seen in a long time. In it, a woman is attempting to escape from her abusive partner with her children, and the script is fraught with disastrous possibilities throughout. Every moment, you're waiting for something awful. The writing for the abuser is strong portraying him, accurately, as a man knowing just which buttons he can push in public. The acting is disturbing, the pacing divine, the screenplay delicious. Avant Que de Tout Perdre is brutal and honest and raw.

Helium in some very tangential ways reminds me of The Fall, a film that should have been more than it was but never quite peaked. It plays up the sappiness of a sick child as one of the hospital janitors proffers an afterlife alternative to Heaven, Helium. The effects never quite did it for me. They were never quite surreal enough to be surreal and never quite realistic enough to be real while not settling into a comfortable middle ground, either. The production design, in my memory, borrows a bit from Hugo, and all told it's a well-done film, but never quite captivating.

In Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? we're charmed with the struggles of a family for whom Murphy's law is in full effect. It's funny and charming. While I don't think film must be serious, there is nothing here that seriously contends for best short film.

American audiences will likely be most comfortable with The Voorman Problem which features a couple recognizable actors and isn't so serious as Aquel No Era Yo or Avant Que de Trout Pedre. The film is almost entirely spent in dialogue between Voorman and a doctor, presumably of the psychological persuasion. The script is just thoughtful enough to not overrun the audience, charming enough without being a comedy, and serious enough without building tension. It's a good film, but never executes anything well enough to be considered too strongly.

The real standout here is definitely Avant Que de Tout Perdre. It's simply one of the best films I've seen all year regardless of format. Do I think the story of a woman escaping an abusive partner who never acts truly dangerous in the screenplay will resonate with academy voters? No, I unfortunately don't. I hope the tightness of all its parts will be striking enough, but I expect the true terror the film presents to be lost on those voting. Likewise, I don't expect there to be enough social consciousness to recognize the faults in Aquel No Era Yo's screenplay, and I expect it to take home the statuette.

The foreign films are regularly my favorite category of the year. The concentration of awesome is unparallelled, and is on display here despite omissions of The Grandmaster and Palm d'Or winner La Vie d'Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 which was both ineligible and, perhaps, my favorite film of the year. I don't so much mind The Grandmaster not making the final cut as the rest of the choices are solid, and La Vie d'Adèle's lack of presence makes sense. So what did make it?

  • The Broken Circle Breakdown
  • La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty)
  • Jagten (The Hunt)
  • L'image manquante (The Missing Picture)
  • Omar

These were harder to see in no small part because of their limited and foreign releases. As such, I saw three of these in five days and have unfortunately not gotten to L'image manquante as of yet.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is an exquisite tale of perpetual heartbreak that jumps between timelines. While the sound mixing never quite matches Inside Llewyn Davis, this film achieves a beauty and depth of character that the Coen brothers never reach. The timelines intertwine unhesitatingly, but the editing is grounding and the audience is never lost for more than a few seconds. Many screenplays adapted from plays do little to obfuscate that fact. August: Osage County is about as obvious an example of a film adapted from a play as there is this year. The Broken Circle Breakdown's rewrite did a grand job of differentiating the film version from the original play. Veerle Baetens surprisingly delivers a stunning and powerful performance that lifts the film well beyond the source material. A serious multitude of things came together beautifully here.

The similarities of The Broken Circle Breakdown's jumps between highs and lows is mirrored in the strangest of ways in La grande bellezza's subdued characters. Here we follow one-time author and full-time socialite as he falls into despondency after his sixty-fifth birthday and wonders what the values of his life, his work, and his friends are. In a lot of ways I'm reminded of Sideways, a film that came out when I was twenty. I knew it was quite well done, but a lot of the themes of someone in their thirties just didn't resonate with me. In similar ways, I wonder if Jep's introspection and distancing from the Roman party scene will make more sense to me a decade or two down the line. I feel I have a toe in the door of understanding someone approaching that epoch of life, but I won't pretend to really get it. That said, the film is magnificently composed as it flits through a grandeur that can only be brought to the screen in Rome, and the soundtrack is equally haunting. Toni Servillo performs admirably as the inquisitively lost Jep. There's a real beauty here that shouldn't be overlooked.

I was really excited to dive into Jagten when I saw Mads Mikkelsen was attached, and he doesn't disappoint here. He's accused of sexual assault of a child, and his characterization of a man who loses his friends, family, and community is - in all the good ways - hard to watch. The tonality of the film reverberates throughout and leads to the perfect ending. The film is a hard but enjoyable watch - if you're ignorant of the real world detriment it causes. Mads' character, Lucas is accused in ambiguous terms with the film script clearly favoring his side to the point that the victim eventually admits that she said something foolish and the assault didn't happen. That'd be great if false rapes are rare, and rarer still when you remove all the false rape statistics built on social pressure, police coercion, and lack of legal support. Add in the dismal rate of conviction for rapists bolstered by presumptions of female deceitfulness, and you have a film championing incredibly rare victims. Now, I realize most films are based on rare stories; the common is mundane. The issue I have is in propagating a socially damaging and false stereotype that has very real, very violent consequences for a lot of women all around the world. When people talk about rape culture, this is exactly what they're decrying. If you're looking for this years banner film for rape apologists and the Men's Rights Movement*, Jagten is unfortunately it.

The first film ever to be designated with Palestine as a country of origin** is this year's Omar. Curiously, Omar was introduced to me as a love story and felt like a war story, though I'm sure if I'd been told it was a war story, it would have felt like a love story. In that way it felt similar to Cidade de Deus and Pan's Labyrinth in which the war served more as a setting for really raw and powerful drama. The vilification of the Israeli soldiers as they intimidate, abuse, and ensnare Omar into being an informant is strong enough to make the director's point but not nearly as heavy-handed as I might have expected. The editing made for a fast paced, emotional ride through the lives of three young men and a girl who serves as sister to one and love interest to the other two. While everyone is sufficient, Adam Bakri's acting is the clear highlight of the four. The tension and psychological fear and intrigue are keenly played out on his face and through his body. The introduction of Bakri is as solid of a debut performance as I've seen in some time and certainly better than Barkhad Abdi's.

Had Jagten undergone some screenplay revision, I could have gushed about all of these films. The remainders are all worthy of high praise. To me, The Broken Circle Breakdown is hands down the best of the bunch. Like Avant Que de Tout Perdre, this is one of the best films I've seen all year. Again, though, I don't expect it to garner the favor of the academy voters. Omar reminds me a lot of my favorite films in the early 2000s from Latin America. They were hungry and raw and powerful. They promised at potential in in cases like Alfonso Cuarón have realized it in ways I never dreamed. Expect to see more from Hany Abu-Assad, and relish the chance to see such great film from both sides of a war. I think Omar will be overlooked too though, and that leaves La grande bellezza. It's a beautiful, deep, poignant look at the questions of relationships, life, and legacy and it deserves to be recognized.

*Full disclosure: I didn't read this article in full, but the bit I skimmed seemed rather sensible. Please let me know if it's not. I do plan to read it in full when I have time myself.
**2005's Paradise Now which shares Omar's director, was designated with Palestinian Authority as its country of origin

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