Short Term 12 – Destin Cretton (2013)


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)

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)


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)


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.

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – Terrence Nance (2013)

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

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.

A Hijacking – Tobias Lindholm (2013)


When a Danish cargo ship is taken for ransom off of the coast of Somalia, the shipping company’s president, Peter (Søren Malling), begins a long, drawn out negotiation with the hijackers who are unimpressed when he lowballs their demands on the advice of a kidnapping expert. The film succeeds as an intense talking thriller, but it focuses on the negotiations and miscommunication so heavily that the larger stories of the sailors (spearheaded by Pilou Asbaek) and the kidnappers are never dipped into with any satisfaction. The high tension is enough to make the film worth your time, but there is little there to make you care about either the hostages or the hijackers, who we actually learn startlingly little about.

Dreams for Sale – Miwa Nishikawa (2013) (NYAFF ’13)


There is a point early on in Dreams for Sale, just as the story is beginning to find its way into a familiar destructive-depression groove, when every bit of logic in your brain tells you that A will happen to these characters as they move into the next act; or at least B will happen, certainly. Film being what it is these days, that’s usually the width of story options we’ve come to expect. So when Z happens instead, it takes moment to settle back down and readjust your brain.

The Z in question comes after an accidental fire burns down the sushi restaurant that husband and wife duo Kanya (Sadado Abe) and Satoko (Takako Matsu) have gone into serious debt to build and make a success. Though the customers all make it out alive, the only thing left from the fire is Kanya’s chef’s knife and the huge burden of the debt.

Kanya, depressed and feeling like he’s dragging everyone around him down with him, begins to withdraw from life, especially from Satoko, who offers him her meager life savings to help pay off their debt. In a final bout of blind self-harm, he finds himself alone in a hotel room with Rei, a friend who has just come into a thick envelope of money, a bribe so her paramour’s wife doesn’t find out. Initially upset over how he came into the money, Satoko decides against divorce and comes up with a different idea: to use Kanya’s charm on other women (women she thinks deserve it), for other thick envelopes of cash to pay off their debt, or better yet: to start up a new restaurant.

That sidestep of the obvious story path is down to the film’s writer-director, Miwa Nishikawa, who spent parts of her early career working as an assistant Hirokazu Koreeda, who gave her a boost when he produced her first film, another twisty family drama called Wild Berries. Like Koreeda himself, Nishikawa has a knack for taking a straightforward and giving it a little flip, creating a new and unexpected experience.

In Dreams for Sale, part of the drama comes from a little flip of Cyrano, with Satoko taking the behind the scenes role, puppeteering Kanya through some of the more emotionally manipulative moments of their con spree. Though he seems to take naturally to defrauding these women, Kanya ultimately struggles with his conscience in certain situations. This mark one of the few truly accessible emotional avenues for the audience to enter in and see through his eyes for a little.

As you watch it, the film does occasionally feel meandering as it delves into Satoko’s lonely everyday life while Kanya is off his other women, but in retrospect these are some of the more interesting moments that the film offers. They drive home Satoko’s disconnection, as if she herself doesn’t quite believe this is the life she’s living now and can’t find a comfortable position in it. Dreams for Sale is a pure character study. It’s a difficult film, with a difficult culmination, but it’s one made with a keen eye and a steady hand.

The Kirishima Thing – Daihachi Yoshida (2013) (NYAFF ’13)


Slow and strange, constantly doubling back on itself to broaden the scope of the story, The Kirishima Thing is something like a less socially-conscious Japanese version of My So-Called Life, where the ubiquitously absent Tino is cast as an all star volleyball player — the titular Kirishima — who is at the center of everyone’s lives.

Kirishima’s seemingly innocuous decision to quit the volleyball team sets off a chain of events that runs through the core of the painfully ordinary high school, causing a rift in the school’s social paradigm.

Though an odd choice to win the 2012 Japan Academy Prize, The Kirishima Thing is a well studied, subtle coming-of-age drama that reminisces about youth without idolizing or whitewashing it.

Hugo – Martin Scorsese (2011)


I have no idea how this fell through the cracks, but it’s been sitting here as a draft since November, 2011.

Late on in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley) stands upon the stage in his tuxedo, drenched in spotlight, a mix of nerves and excitement in his face and in his voice, and welcomes the wizards and magicians in the crowd.

Despite coming towards the end, it’s a fitting welcome to this film too. It’s a film which was seemingly handcrafted entirely by wizards and magicians, made for people in awe of the kind of magic and wizardry that the camera can be used to compose. The camera may not be made of gears and sprockets anymore, it may not print onto celluloid anymore, or even have the same dimensions that the original film magicians, but the spirit is the same, and so is the magic — especially from Scorsese and Bob Richardson’s hands.

Adapted from the children’s novel by Brian Selznick (grandson of the legendary David O. Selznick), Hugo tells the story of a little poor boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1920s Paris who goes to live in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station after the death of his father (Jude Law) in a fire. Barely more than an orphan, Hugo is stuck tending to and winding the station’s clocks for his Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), a drunk and a scoundrel who has been off on a bender for weeks by the time the film starts. Hugo has nothing left of his past life, except an old mechanical man that he and his father were trying to fix, his father’s notebook about how to do it.

When he is caught stealing parts in aid of that purpose by Papa Georges, an old toymaker who keeps a booth in the station, an adventure is set before Hugo and Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), the toymaker’s goddaughter who may literally hold the key to unravel the mystery behind the mechanical man. It’s an adventure that traces through the origins and history of the cinema as well both of their family histories, one that radically changes each of their lives, and maybe even the world as we know it today.

Early on, though, I had a tough time getting past the idea that Scorsese had decided to jump onto the bandwagon and make a 3D film — and a kids’ movie no less. How do you get blood and Catholic guilt into a kids’ movie, and why does it need to be in my face about it? But not only is Hugo enjoyable in 3D (and 2D as well), it turns out to be the best use of the format to date. It’s the first time that I’ve seen where 3D was used genuinely, not as a gimmick to pad the box office receipts like so many others.

Of course none of that would mean anything without the tender story to take a piggyback ride on. Selznik’s original, and John Logan’s adaptation are beautifully crafted and seemingly tailor made for Scorsese’s historian sensibilities. You can feel every bit of Scorsese the skinny, bed-ridden boy in the ragamuffin Hugo, who is so alone and afraid of being sent to the orphanage by the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) that he doesn’t know what to do when he is presented with a friendship. And Isabelle, the story’s quasi-narrator, doesn’t fall into the trap of Hugo’s information crutch, even though she starts out an expository character. Chole Moretz rescues her with grace and cunning. She’s a bookworm’s bookworm, tough and loyal with a lot more Francie Nolan to her than Hermoine Granger (who needed a fair bit of saving from Emma Watson herself). But it’s Sorsese who is the real wizard here, whipping this all together with a superb eye, a deft hand and a whole lot of heart.

Yi Yi: A One and a Two – Edward Yang (1990)


Let’s be upfront about this: Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two is a masterpiece. It was a masterpiece when it was released in 2001, it was a masterpiece when Criterion released it on DVD in 2005 and it’s a slightly prettier masterpiece now that they released it on Blu-Ray on March 15.

Yi Yi is Yang’s most beautiful and touching film, an emotionally complex visual poem of the struggles of a family in Taipei after Granny (Ru-Yun Tang) falls into a coma. “The spark that led me to make this film was I decided that I was going to make a film about life, from birth to death,” he told Michael Berry in 2002 for Berry’s book, Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers.

Breaking that lifespan down into three generations of a family allowed Yang to tell the story in a more manageable way, framing it around three family events, and allowed the normally conservative Yang to become the most playful he’s ever been with his cinematic space – a necessity for the film’s youngest star, the inquisitive, introspective eight-year-old son, Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), to 
come to life.

Unlike many other Taiwanese films, the narrative in Yi Yi is not bogged down by a deluge of Taiwan’s tumultuous political and cultural history. The characters live and breathe in their own time, in their own way, and get into their own trouble without the help of the Kuomintang. Yang’s teasing camera, along with the film’s universal themes of love, regret and death allow it to become Yang’s – and probably Taiwanese cinema’s – most accessible film. “It’s not death I’m interested in here, it is life,” he told Berry. “In life, you have to go through these things to test your own boundaries. Sometimes it is only when we are faced with loss that we truly appreciate how 
sacred life is.”

In some ways, it’s what Band of Outsiders is to the rest of Jean-Luc Godard’s work: A wonderful gateway drug that leads you to chase the sensation again, and the deeper you dig, the harder you have to work for it. But unlike some of Godard’s material, Yang’s work is always worth the doing.