Sunday, March 20, 2016
Documentarians who make feature-length films have become incredibly savvy when it comes to what makes documentaries sell. Many of them nowadays weave a narrative from the material they gather. What was once a rather dry art form used strictly for information dissemination has now become full-fledged entertainment in many of the same ways fictional films are. They have characters and there’s a plot and story arc. The short-form documentary doesn’t really have the time to do all that so we’re left with a purer form of art, used by filmmakers to call attention to a problem, a hero, an artist, or another work of art that maybe we don’t think about often enough. With the program of Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, you get five films that are straight-forward and to the point of their subject matter.
First up is Body Team 12, the shortest of the lot at only twelve minutes. It has little time to do much other than spend a few minutes in the horrors of the job of a team from the Liberian Red Cross whose duties involved collecting the bodies of Ebola victims during the deadly outbreak last year. They gear up with full body coverings, multiple pairs of gloves, and goggles. They go in, take blood samples, and then remove the corpse to a crematorium. One team member follows with an anti-bacterial spray to douse the site where the body was and to rinse his team members’ protective gear as they remove it. The risk of infection is terrifying enough and it’s hard not to conjure memories of the 1995 film Outbreak in which a small breach in the armor led to death. But sometimes the most dangerous part of the job is trying to convince family members to take away their loved ones’ bodies without a burial and gravesite. One group of angry men threaten to burn their car with them inside it. David Darg’s film is a harrowing look at grief that accompanies tragedy and at the unsung heroes who helped avert further spread of the disease as much personal risk to themselves.
Monday, March 14, 2016
I've been putting this off and putting this off, but I've finally just got to go for it. Here's my top ten movies of 2015. As always, this is a snapshot of the films I enjoyed and admire the most.
1. Spotlight dir. Tom McCarthy - watching this again yesterday affirmed its placement at the top of my list. Sets a new gold standard for journalism movies, depicting what real investigative reporting is like: a long slog of digging deep on a story. Important subject matter, wonderfully acted and written.
2. Son of Saul dir. Laszlo Nemes - this Hungarian Holocaust film and nominee (and likely winner) of the foreign language film Oscar is surprisingly unnerving. The surprise comes from the fact that I wasn't sure the subject matter could still unnerve me in new ways. Nemes keeps his camera with the main character, an Auschwitz sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner whose job is to usher newly arriving Jews into the gas chambers, then clear out their possessions and remove their bodies to make way for the next herd. The entire story, taking place over the course of a day, is from Saul's perspective giving the film an incredible feeling of tension and horror and confusion.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Thankfully after the sour taste of Truth, a journalism movie with good intentions but very poor execution and understanding of proper journalism, Spotlight came along to remind us that there are people who get it. They get that investigative journalism can be a tool and a force for change and for good and that the ends in themselves are not always justified even if your story is right, or is most likely right. Good journalism requires good, fair, and accurate reporting. It’s about dogged determination in getting people to talk or reveal secrets. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by him and Josh Singer, sis the best movie about the process of investigation and what goes into reporting a story since All the President’s Men.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
The Look of Silence is Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up or companion piece to his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing. Where that film was shocking in its reveal of Indonesian perpetrators of genocide being so cavalier in their admission of what they did, this film is arresting in the way it personalizes the horror. Adi Rukun, the protagonist, is a younger brother of a young man murdered as a Communist in 1965. He confronts several of the commanders of death squads that operated in his province. Their boastfulness and rationalization of horrific crimes against humanity can only be explained as masking of tremendous guilt. There are powerful statements being made here about the need for national reconciliation and the ways in which families fail to fully heal or function without that acknowledgment.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
In an age of reboots and sequels galore coming to theaters and television, it’s easy to become jaded by the lack of originality and craven capitalist instinct to cash in on a known product. Most of the time these projects wind up utter failures because the success of a piece of pop culture entertainment, be it movie, TV show, music, or book is as much the product of the culture in which it was produced and released as the actual quality of the work. You can get the band back together, but you can’t recreate the external climate that contributed to their greatness or the public perception thereof.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
I fail to see what all the fuss and accolades toward Straight Outta Compton is about. Yes, it’s a good movie, well written and acted with a cast of mostly unknown and inexperienced actors. But as a musical biopic, what does it really bring to the table that hasn’t been done countless times before?
The story of the rise of the rap group N.W.A. from a group of friends making music together to a national voice for the powerless inner city black youths in America and FBI pariah is certainly not uninteresting. We’ve all heard of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. This is where they got their start. Eric “Easy-E” Wright died twenty years ago while DJ Yella and MC Wren are the lesser known members of the group. That Dre and Cube worked as producers on the project should not go unmentioned because it’s pretty clear in the film’s narrative which characters are highlighted most prominently. It’s also worth pointing out that their characters come off as the most morally upstanding while Eric Wright, no longer alive to defend himself, comes across (in spite of a lovely redemption at the end) as the instigator of strife within the group.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
The Danish entry and nominee for this year’s Foreign Language Film Oscar is A War written and directed by Tobias Lindholm. This is one of the more unusual foreign films you’ll see in that it more closely resembles a Hollywood film than most. It’s easy to forget that American soldiers haven’t been the only ones doing the fighting and dying in Afghanistan. A coalition of many nations sent soldiers there and A War is about a company of Danish men and women patrolling the countryside and villages to keep the Taliban at bay.