Short Term 12 – Destin Cretton (2013)

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At this point, when it comes to making a film about child abuse, it’s difficult to find a new and interesting mode to tell the story. It’s a loaded proposition because it’s such a raw idea to so many people that it’s hard to not do it badly. There are so many pitfalls, and it seems like every TV movie version of the story falls into all of them at the same time. But in Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Cretton manages to skillfully step over all of them, delivering a delicate, quietly explosive new take.

Short Term 12 takes place in a dormitory-style temporary foster home for teenagers, where the counselors are short staffed and under-funded but deeply attuned to the kids’ needs — especially their emotional needs. The small band of counselors is led by Grace (Brie Larson), whose even-keeled exterior belies a past where she was one of these kids, and Mason (John Gallagher jr), who uses his breezy, older brother-like charm to make things feel as much like a family as possible. The film is full of determination to not let these kids fall through the cracks, but everything is against them, sometimes even the kids themselves, who mostly come from a place where they’ve just about given up.

In stepping over some of the thematic pitfalls, Cretton actually engages the biggest offender: the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we pregnancy. If the worst kept secret in the home is that Grace and Mason are dating, the best kept secret is Grace’s pregnancy. Even Mason doesn’t know.

In that sense, this is wholly Brie Larson’s picture. Everything hinges on her state of mind. Every actor that appears in the film is supporting her performance, but never once does she let them down. Going in, I’d really only seen Larson in her Emma Stone-esque turn in the 21 Jump Street reboot. I was skeptical that she could carry the whole film on her back, but it was unwarranted. She is another actor entirely in Short Term 12. She is vulnerable yet shut off, entirely relatable but distant. It would be difficult to know her, but you can’t help having that feeling you do.

It’s an easy thing to use babies in film as a melodramatic thrust to gloss over the flaws in a story, but Cretton has sneakily thrown his middle finger in the air made the entire film about this decision. In a twist, he leverages Grace’s fear of her abusive childhood — and seeing all of the hurt in her kids’ eyes ever day at the home — against her in this decision. In a way, the film is set up as a test of Grace’s faith in humanity, even in herself. It’s more of a question if she will even look for not, not whether she will find it. It is, basically, a feature length trust fall. Mason will be there, but will she fall?

In Your Queue: This [stuff] ain’t checkers (“Brooklyn Castle”, “Computer Chess”, “Zero Charisma”)

Computer Chess (3)

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Gaming is often serious business, one that can either end in elation or with the board being hurled furiously across the room, sometimes both at the same time. There have been three films released this year that capture that all-or-nothing soul-lifting/crushing addiction to outmaneuvering your friends in the world of small pieces, and don’t require a spec of knowledge about chess or RPGs to enjoy.

In Brooklyn Castle, a public junior high school in New York runs riot over the competitive chess world, winning tournament after tournament, team and individual. But now budget cuts threaten the existence of the school’s chess program and its incredible 10 year run. Chess is usually used as a metaphor for life in film, and it is here to a degree, but it’s also a something of a MacGuffin: chess is the door that lets us into this world filled with special kids who are all playing chess for different reasons, whether it be to help with ADD or to help get into a good college. Getting to know these kids — and the school’s chess coach Elizabeth Vicary, who emerges as a star — even for a minute, even through video, is an enriching life experience on its own, one that puts back a little bit of the hope that Teen Mom and Jersey Shore sucked out the world.

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess takes a slightly different route with its chess story. In this early-80s-set faux documentary, computer programmers take up battle against each other in a depressing roadside hotel ballroom in Texas to see who has the superior machine. Peter (Patrick Riester), of the returning champion Cal Tech team, discovers a flaw in the latest version of their software: it would rather play against humans than computers, and nerdy sexual tension begins to pull at the story when he asks the only girl at the tournament, Shelly (Robin Schwartz) from the MIT team, to help him figure it out. The theories range from programming error to government involvement in this deadpan, quirky comedy. The film was shot in black and white with an early vacuum tube video camera. It’s a strange flourish, one that could have been a distraction, but actually ends up helping sustain the film’s warped sense of atmosphere. As the Dissolve’s Matt Singer put it, “every color of the autism spectrum in muddy black and white.”

In Zero Charisma, a charming, nerdy hipster joins a long running D&D-type tabletop role playing game and butts heads with the surly, overweight cartoon character of a Game Master who has sucked all the fun out of the proceedings. The Game Master, Scott (Sam Edison), is the that guy, the geek who lives in his high school bedroom and works in a donut shop. He is the living embodiment of the quote, “Yeah dating is cool but have you ever had stuffed crust pizza?” The lack of life comes out in Scott’s intricate RPG writing, but the thin structure it provides him shatters easily when things stop going his way for a second. He ends up losing his game to Miles (Garrett Graham), the nerdy hipster, and his friends along with it. The film trades on long held stereotypes about geeks and cool kids, and why they don’t necessarily mix, but directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham paint an enchanting, realistic story with their limited palette. The lows are quite low and the victories are very small, but that’s how real life tends to work.

The Hunt – Thomas Vinterberg (2013)

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When we’re kids, we’re lucky if we have people in our lives who encourage and support our imaginations. They play games with us and share stories, and along the way we learn these skills from them. But the power of what a fully developed imagination can be, and what it can do, comes later.

Sometimes too late.

In The Hunt, a small town in Denmark is torn asunder by the imagination of a little girl, Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who hasn’t learned the weight of her words yet.

Klara’s imagination is fostered by a small cluster of teachers, like the handsome Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), who work at the small nursery school she attends. Lucas is a family friend sympathetic to the dreamy problems she faces, like not being able to step over lines (think of the children’s game “hot lava”:

Don’t step on the lava!) and constantly losing her way home. He often goes out of his way to help her find her way back or walk her to school. Eventually, Klara develops a crush on him.

That crush goes too far, though, when she gives Lucas an innocent kiss on the lips during playtime and he reprimands her for it. It’s a gentle reprimand, but she is hurt and upset over the incident. Guided by an overprotective administrator, Klara eventually accuses Lucas of showing her his privates. The incident unleashes a maelstrom of outrage and panic in the town.

As the harsh Danish winter sets in around Lucas, so do the harsh realities of the accusation made against him. People turn from him and try to harm him; his ex-wife tries to stop him from seeing their son; stores refuse to serve him; and other children, coached with details from parents eager to see Lucas punished, begin to accuse him too.

At the beginning of the movie, it’s hard to imagine such a young guy as a nursery school teacher, but Lucas’ ease and natural ability to level with the children without infantilizing them makes it feel less odd. He’s good with kids, maybe better than anyone else at the school, but there is a slight nag that it’s a narrative setup the whole time. It’s the one flaw in an otherwise strong, if a little familiar, story.

The film would be nothing without its actors, though. There is not a single poor performance to be found, from Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen (who plays Klara’s father) all the way down to the day players – like the bulky Oyvind Hagen-Traberg, who plays a butcher who goes to brutish lengths to refuse Lucas’ business. But it’s the young, quixotic Wedderkopp who leaves everyone in her shadow. When the film is with her, it makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall of her playroom – as if she conjured the set walls, characters and film edits straight from her imagination and asked everyone to play along.

Escape From Tomorrow – Randy Moore (2013)

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Since it first premiered at Sundance in February, Randy Moore’s subversive stab at Disney has been in the spotlight for its secretive, guerilla filmmaking style. Moore and his crew shot the film at Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in California, posing as tourists, using Park Hopper passes as their only credentials. Though the early speculation was that Disney would throw a fit and have the film shelved, they’ve remained quiet on the subject. Shooting inside the theme parks was a clever way to build hype around the film, but now that the film hits VOD this weekend, can it live up to that hype?

It’s the classic American family vacation that brings us here. Emily and Jim (Elena Schuber and Roy Abramsohn) and their two young children, Elliot and Sara (Jack Dalton and Katelynn Rodriguez), are on the last day of their trip to Disney World when everything begins to go wrong. Informed over the phone that he doesn’t have a job to come home to, the Happiest Place on Earth becomes Jim’s personal hell through the course of the day as they hop between the MagicKingdom, Epcot and the Contemporary Resort. As they queue for rides, Jim is able to sweet talk the sensitive Sara out of being scared of the Evil Witch and the ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, but he himself begins hallucinating the fears she held in his own head. People are beheaded on rides, characters come alive as evil puppets that only he can see, and even Emily and the kids seem out to get him at certain points, their eyes rolling over black, taunting him.

As his family starts to pull apart under the weight of the Epcot ball, the only salvation from the misery that the pasty, pudgy, mid-40s Jim can find is leering at, and eventually following, a pair of young, pretty — possibly underage? — French girls (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) who don’t seem to mind his attention. If the hallucinations weren’t enough to tell you we’re in Jim’s head the whole time, that should certainly do it.

While the pre-release buzz seemed to point towards a camp-horror descent into madness that any midnight movie palace would be proud to run, I found most of the film plays more as an well measured take on a bored father’s fever dreams rather than a trip down the psycho rabbit hole. The film tends to spend most of its time painting the entire Disney entity itself as the real psychosis, preying on the American mind, leading us around on a leash of desire pointed at unattainable fairy tale icons to get us to buy turkey legs and Mickey Mouse hats.

Though the film does finally run off of the rails in a third act where Moore seemed to run out of ideas — rolling out the kind of Mad Scientist/Evil Witch yarn that even Scooby Doo would have blushed over — the deconstruction of the family unit in its most awkward, isolated state, where there is an immediate juxtaposition of the other awkward, isolated family surrounding them, helps Escape from Tomorrow succeed by presenting a surprisingly interesting, occasionally funny take on the usually blunt idea that Disney is everything that ails us.

The hype around the film seems to be a furious reply to that idea more than anything the film does or doesn’t accomplish. The hype was about the victory of getting one over on the ubiquitous Disney Machine, shooting an entire film under their nose and getting away with it — and now, in the most Disney way possible, exploiting that hype to extract every dollar from the marketplace that they can.

Book: The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz (2013)

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The first time I saw Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I experienced what I’d been told it would feel like to read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time: a personal revelation, like someone was inside my head scooping everything out. I’d read Catcher by then, but Holden had already been ruined for me by old phonies and the Board of Ed who went and made it schoolwork. He was a character who already belonged wholly to people I wanted nothing to do with. At 18, I thought I’d missed the window to find my character – but then I sawRushmore. Max Fischer was not an exact personality match for me, but he made up for it by being a dead-on fantasy-world match. In my head I could solve MIT-level math problems, win over the beautiful teacher and direct a hit play. In my head I could save Latin. But only in my head. Just like Max.

Reading The Wes Anderson Collection (which comes out Tuesday, Oct. 8), you find that growing up, that was true for Wes Anderson as well. The slender, unassuming Texan has made a strong career out of sharing his rich fantasy life. His childhood crushes became the adventure-romance Moonrise Kingdom; his high-school awkwardness became Rushmore; his parents’ divorce became The Royal Tenenbaums; his father’s death, The Darjeeling Limited.

Author Matt Zoller Seitz takes his cue from books like François Truffaut’s Hitchcock/Truffaut and Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Wilder, giving the reader a pure submersion in the dream world Anderson has created. He connects the bridges and underground networks of trauma, pathos and charm that link each of Anderson’s seven films together, whether obvious or coded. This book lacks the outright charm of Crowe and Wilder’s conversations, and there isn’t nearly as much actual work to consider as in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s, but these old friends cover significant ground in 300-plus pages. The discussions that anchor the book are occasionally awkward, with Seitz doing much of the talking for long periods, and sometimes the human behind the art goes missing. But for fans of the films, it is a fantastic work, stuffed with hundreds of full-color stills from the movies, storyboards and layouts designed under the sharp eye of Martin Venezky, and original artwork by Max Dalton.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terrence Nance (2013)

2013-10-04 16_06_36-Romance - An Oversimplification of Her Beauty - Trailer - YouTube

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In a way, there is nothing concrete to find within the framework of Terrence Nance’s freefalling kaleidoscopic take on the inner workings of the (often stupid) male brain. Told in flurry of live action, hand drawn animation and stop motion animation, the film is a half art piece/half documentary soap bubble of complexities, encapsulating the emotions and, at times, self-sabotage a young man of a certain lovesick, melancholy demeanor goes through, or as is the case, puts himself through. In that way, though, it’s possibly the most intuitive, perceptive and maybe even informative film about the inner workings the male brain (especially the pettiness and unintentional selfishness that hold us back).

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (produced by Jay Z and Wyatt Cenac) is built around the foundation of a short film called How Would You Feel which Nance made to about a young lady (Namik Minter) that he liked, who maybe maybe liked him too. It’s a love letter of sorts, an attempt to add enough perspective to his feelings as to make her suitably impressed with their size and scope. The self-made trap is his own perspective though. She is not impressed with his film. It makes her uncomfortable, especially that he’s shown it to people. It’s not how she sees their relationship, which was from a completely different perspective, from different eyes, with different wants and needs. To him, she only existed within his context, as the focal point of his desire. To her, she exists within her own context, with her own desires. It’s hard to overcome that. Nance moves on and flirts with the idea of loving others as he travels around the world (Paris, NY, South Africa) while continuing to work on the film, but always comes back to Minter, who at times may or may not actually reciprocate his feelings. The timeline becomes fuzzy at a certain point and it’s hard to find the line where documentary ends and the art project begins, or whether maybe the whole thing is an art project. But if it is, if it’s not half documentary, I don’t want to know.

It’s got to be said, of course, that not everyone would care to see a film about why the male brain makes males do the unquestionably strange things we do. I can only say that the film hit me square in the chest with a weight equivalent to a sack full of bowling balls and left me staring dumbly in the dark at the TV after it concluded. In a way, maybe in a completely unintentional way, it exposes flaws in thought that most, if not all, males are guilty of. It’s emotional secret-telling in the same way Girls is emotional secret-telling. Nance doesn’t cut the emotion with baby laxatives and corn starch here; it’s pure, and that makes it sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes entertaining, sometimes maddening and sometimes enlightening.