Wednesday, October 12, 2022

"Inu-Oh" Review


On paper, a basic plot summary of Inu-Oh, the new anime film by Masaaki Yuasa, would make it sound like a completely different film than it actually is. Granted, the film does appear to be that at first. However, anyone who knows anything about Masaaki Yuasa’s work knows to expect the unexpected whenever possible, and this film is no different. Inspired by a legendary 14th-century Japanese performer about who little is known, and based on a novel that reimagined the legend as a tale of overcoming social prejudice, Inu-Oh is a gorgeously animated historical saga celebrating individuality and the power of storytelling. It’s a tale of political intrigue, disturbed spirits, and speaking truth to power through art. Also, it’s partially a rock opera.

Yes, you read that correctly.

In 14th-century Japan, Tomona is blind after a supernatural incident (linked to a civil war centuries earlier) that also killed his father. Now searching for answers and followed by his father’s spirit, he joins a group of blind biwa players telling stories. It isn’t long before he finds Inu-oh (“King of the Dogs”), a hideously deformed dancer wearing a gourd mask. Tomona and Inu-oh decide to join forces to create a revolutionary performing troupe that quickly brings them fame.

The film takes its time at first, developing the story, and there’s a lot of story here. Between the historical background and multiple plot threads being established, it at first seems on its way to being an animated historical epic. It’s also during this part that some of my favorite animated sequences occur, namely Tomona’s point of view. The feeling of being blind is portrayed through a painted style of animation, with only what can be deduced through the sound slowly being shown onscreen.

Around the halfway point, however, everything changes, and it doesn’t go back. The film goes full-on rock opera in what may be one of, if not the only animated films to contain a headbanging, toe-tapping musical number about the brutality of war. The animation goes into overdrive as well, ranging from spellbinding theatrics to psychedelic fantasy. It’s the kind of premise that could only work in animation. If this were live-action, the 14th century rock concert setup wouldn’t have the same impact. However, the film devotes a sizeable straight chunk of the running time to singing, and despite the plot relevancy, it may wear thin for some after a while as it did for me.

Is a film like this bizarre? Yes. Yes it is. However, there is a point. Without giving too much of the plot away, the rock music motif is fitting, as this is very much a film about the perils facing those who stand out. Despite the centuries-old setting involving Japanese history, the film’s messages are universally resonant, and the film’s final moments will likely leave you with a lot to think about. The film begins with a statement that it’s a story that has been taken, and this idea manifests itself in the story in multiple ways, both fantastical and devastatingly real.

Inu-Oh is both an effective history lesson and a musical, often-fantastical rockin’ tribute to art. It’s both funny and tragic, serious and over-the-top, and uses the medium of animation to great effect. You’re unlikely to see much else like it right now.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

"Medusa" Review


I’ve seen a lot of movies about repressive communities and the resulting urge to break free, but I’ve haven’t seen many like Medusa. I’ve heard it been described as a horror movie, and while I can sort of understand that, I find the label a tad questionable. However, it’s also one of the scariest films I’ve seen in recent memory, not the least because the film’s setting, an overtly-Christian community in Brazil, seems particularly resonant in today’s times. Yet, this is far from your average social issue movie, combining slick aesthetics with magical-realist, genre-film thrills.


Mariana has just moved to a new place, with the new school and friends that accompany it. We aren’t told much about where she’s from, but it was apparently a “dumpster”, unlike like her new school, where the girls are taught to uphold Christian moral values and to resist temptation. Mariana’s new circle of friends uphold these values by donning simple white masks and going around assaulting any woman they consider promiscuous and filming their atonement, while the men have a full-on vigilante squad who appear to go unchallenged. That’s not to say they can’t have any fun, of course. The young women also have a group singing catchy pop songs about the apocalypse and making videos on how to create the perfect Christian selfie (too low is a Hell view, too high is God’s domain).


The film works best in its treatment of the setting. It’s shot with stylish, often neon colors, and when combined with the film’s often brutal, darkly satirical tone, it strikes a good balance of exaggeration and surrealism with the concerning themes within. It’s made clear these people’s actions are borne not just out of religious devotion, but reactionary politics, and it’s not hard to imagine this being relevant outside of the country in which it was made.


That’s not to say this is entirely a political movie, however. As the story begins to unfold, the surreal and genre-bending aspects of the story start to become more apparent. It seems that the reason the clique wear masks is in tribute to a mysterious woman who set a local promiscuous celebrity in the town on fire. She survived, but became disfigured in the process. Mariana becomes interested in the story, and that’s really all I’ll say. The nature in which the plot of the film proceeds is one that’s best left experienced by the viewer.


The story is told through a slow burn. A very slow burn at times, in fact. This does a great job of making the viewer really feel the tension faced by the lead. It also works from a plot perspective as well, and keeps the viewer guessing as to where the story is going. However, the slow pacing is also the film’s biggest flaw. While the story merits it, the runtime doesn’t. The film is over two hours long, and while I remained intrigued, there simply isn’t enough plot to warrant that much time. There were moments where I started to become disengaged from the story simply because not much was happening for too long at a time. I definitely feel this could’ve been cleaned up.


While the pacing and length issues are a major problem, however, I’m still glad I watched this. Medusa is a fierce, angry, and sometimes even darkly funny film that I recommend to genre film fans. When the film’s main reveal occurs, the metaphor is one I could definitely relate to, and I hope others do as well. It’s a great example of how the fantastical can comment on the very, very real.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

"We Met in Virtual Reality" Review: Cinéma VR-ité


It’s December 2020, and Joe Hunting has started to film how young people are dealing with the pandemic. Thankfully, there’s no need to social distance, and from the footage he’s captured, it looks like life is going on as normal. Jenny is teaching a sign language class to students, including Kermit the Frog. DustBunny is teaching her dance class. Friends, be they animal or hot dog, are holding improv shows and going on dinosaur safaris. In Times Square, people, aliens, and robots celebrate the new year. All of this is documented by Joe with a handheld camera, in the standard style of cinema verité. Well, “handheld” may not be the right word here since he isn’t holding a camera. At least, not in real life. We Met in Virtual Reality was filmed entirely virtually in the video game VRChat, and it is one of the most unique cinematic experiences I’ve seen in recent memory.


    Watching We Met in Virtual Reality was an experience of what I like to refer to as “cinematic dissonance”, where basic classifications of cinema simply don’t apply. The film looks like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and it’s clearly set in real life. Yet, it’s also a documentary shot (yes, shot, with an in-game handheld camera) within a computer-generated environment, and with only a fraction of the participants being visibly human (if not sharing space with copyrighted characters). Animated documentaries and filmmaking in real-time environments have been done before, but the blend of real and virtual presented felt exciting.


    As for the film itself, it mainly focuses on six participants. Jenny and Ray_is_Deaf teach virtual sign language classes as part of an organization called Helping Hands. There’s also DustBunny, a dance instructor, and her partner, Toaster. Meanwhile, DragonHeart is in a relationship with IsYourBoi, an exotic dancer, and is planning to propose. The film goes back and forth between their stories, intercutting with other elements of the very massive world of VRChat.


    What really makes the film shine is how effective a lot of the movie is at conveying emotional experiences even within the bizarre setting the film inhabits. These are long-distance relationships by nature, and even when they do end up meeting in person, as DustBunny and Toaster recall at one point, they quickly have to deal with the closing of their respective borders due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the fantastical nature of the environment makes for some truly unique variants of otherwise grounded moments. For instance, once of my favorite scenes involves IsYourBoi preparing her outfit for her wedding with the help of her avatar creators. Not only do the “tailors” have incredibly wide, fanged mouths straight out of a horror film, but the actual dress is part of a completely new body IsYourBoi suddenly morphs into offscreen.


    Much of the documentary delves into what it’s like to interact with others in a world where you can be literally whoever you want, offering the opportunity to start over with people you don’t know. Despite some moments of comedy at the scenarios presented, there’s definitely a melancholy aspect to a lot of the film. For all the fun and games, there’s also a lot of talk about when the people appearing in the film will finally get to meet in person again. This is still during the first winter of the pandemic, and this is basically the closest a lot of them can get to social interaction at the moment. It may look bright and colorful, but the pain they go through is real, and if you think that a movie of people playing a video game won’t make you cry, think again.


    If I had one criticism, it’s that the experience is a bit too wholesome. It presents a bit of a utopian ideal that seems too detached from reality. While being anything you want with possible anonymity can be liberating, it can also be destructive, and it doesn’t take much research to find examples of this. I’m not saying that it needed to be in there, and the focus is certainly intended to be on the people who have had positive experiences, but it also feels a bit unrepresentative. It’s a minor criticism, though.


    Not only is We Met in Virtual Reality a heartfelt portrait of life in the virtual realm, it also hints at an exciting future for virtual filmmaking. The technology isn’t quite there yet (some scenes are noticeably laggy), but it’s still extremely impressive regardless. It’s a tribute to the internet’s ability to connect people from all walks of life and allowing yourself to be presented the way you want to, and if that’s a hot dog or a blue bunny singing pop songs, so be it.


Friday, April 29, 2022

"Petite Maman" Review


Eight-year-old Nelly is remarkably gifted for her age, but the death of her grandmother has left her with questions she can’t answer. Compounding things is that, while staying in her grandmother’s house while it’s being cleared out, her mother leaves her with her father with no real explanation. One day, while walking in the woods, she discovers a girl her age building a hut. It isn’t long before she befriends her, as they have a lot in common. Actually, they have a bit too much in common, and Nelly realizes this may be the kind of brief-but-meaningful friendship that will literally never happen again.

Sweet, funny, and quietly devastating, Céline Sciamma’s new film Petite Maman is one of the lighter art house films I’ve seen recently, but will no doubt still pack an emotional punch. The film’s effectiveness is even more impressive given the brevity and simplicity of its story (the film itself is only 72 minutes including credits). The two girls in the lead roles do an amazing job, and I really felt the emotion in their performances.

As the film goes on, the deeper elements of the story start to become more apparent. There are clearly things happening here beyond the scope of the film’s length and near the end of the film, they get addressed, leading to one of the most powerful conversation sequences I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory. In addition, the film’s ambiguity works to its advantage, presenting the story as it is seen through the eyes of its eight-year-old lead. Also impressive are the limited means on which the film is produced. There are only a scant few locations used and only a handful of actors in total.

Because of the limited material presented, I’d prefer to refrain from saying too much. Just know that this is a must-see film whether you’re interested in speculative fiction or looking for a good family drama, and you won’t need much time to watch it. It’s a film that tells a great and powerful story by making the impossible possible. Just bring a box of tissues. You might need them.


Tuesday, April 19, 2022

"RRR (Rise Roar Revolt)" Review


     The stories of the two legendary Indian revolutionaries at the the center of S.S. Rajamouli’s period action epic RRR (Rise Roar Revolt) would have made good material for biopics on their own. In fact, both have had movies made about them. However, RRR is definitely not a biopic by any stretch of the term. See, Rajamouli noticed that the stories of these two men were somewhat similar to each other and asked the question: what would’ve happened if they had crossed paths at some point in their lives? Many would merely fantasize or speculate, but Rajamouli made a movie about it, and not just any movie either. RRR is a cinematic tour-de-force that lures you in with promises of intense action and delivers an engaging story, before hitting you with some of the most massive spectacle I’ve seen in a movie. 

    In 1920s India, Malli, a girl from the Gond tribe, is taken from her home by British Governor Scott (a man so racist he won’t even shoot Indians because he thinks that would be a waste of bullets) and his wife. Komaram Bheem, the tribe’s protector, goes undercover in Delhi to track down the girl and bring her back. The government wants him captured, and A. Rama Raju, a tough-as-nails Indian cop working for the British, sets out to bring him in with the promise of a hefty promotion if he succeeds. During the search, Rama ends up saving a boy’s life with the help of another man who he subsequently befriends. What Rama doesn’t know is that the man is actually Bheem. Their friendship is intersected with Rama’s search for Bheem, and it isn’t long before the truth threatens to tear them apart. However, Rama is hiding something as well… 

    RRR is over three hours long, and while I’m certainly a sucker for cinematic insanity, the fact remains that at some point the novelty does usually wear off. Thankfully, there’s substance in addition to the style. The pacing in this film is well-done and even some of the longer scenes (such as an extended dance-off sequence) still kept me engaged with the story. Much of the first half is relatively low-key (with some very notable exceptions), focusing more on the friendship of these two men and the dramatic irony therein. The film lets the story build until the explosive midway point, with the second half adding considerably more to the narrative, including extended flashback sequences. This is a big story for a big movie and it doesn’t feel too padded. 

    When the action does start, it blindsides you with some of the most incredible set pieces I’ve seen in recent memory. This film has it all: guns, stunts, explosions, wild animals mauling people, kids with guns, crossbows, riots, brutal violence, and perhaps most notably, motorcycles used as weapons. Action scenes are frequently shown in slow-motion and sped-up. In the theater I saw it at, the start of the film’s outrageous and deeply satisfying climax made the audience burst into applause. This is a film you have to see to believe. The performances are great too. Most notably, Ray Stevenson and Alison Doody respectively portray the governor and his wife as not just racist, but cartoonishly evil. In a more serious film, this may have been detrimental, but here, it works. The film gets so over-the-top and is so unapologetically unsubtle at times that these performances work in the film’s favor. 

    Are there issues with using the stories of two real people who fought bravely for causes for the purposes of a film like this? Probably, and there has been controversy in India over that. However, the fact remains that RRR is one of the better action films I’ve seen recently at a time of spectacle saturation. Mixing unbelievable action with an engaging and heartfelt story, it truly stands out among other films in the genre, and with its period-colonialism-drama-meets-manly-bonkers-action-film premise, it’s also unlike anything else I’ve seen in recent memory.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Oscars 2022: Predictions and Pre-Show Thoughts

    The Oscars are on Sunday, so now is the time to give my predictions on what will win. In order to give a thorough assessment, I have watched all the films nominated in every category. This is not something I would advise and do not plan on doing again. Anyway, I’ve based my assessment on a number of factors, including the critics, audiences, and especially what has won awards at other events. I also had some friends help too. 


    I’ll start with the technical nominations. Despite the Academy’s decision to cut them presumably due to lack of interest, I want to give these the attention they deserve. It’s partially due the fact that these are the fields I may end up working in, but also it allows me to focus on specific aspects of films that I find interesting. First off, my big pick of the technical nominations, both in terms of predictions and personal taste, is Dune. Aside from being one of the most legitimately epic films I’ve seen in a theater in recent memory, it is an astoundingly beautiful and deeply atmospheric film. I expect it to sweep several of these nominations. 


    The cinematography nominations were particularly powerful this year. Dune’s desert landscapes brought to mind an earlier era of big-screen cinema epics, while also featuring hallucinatory visions and epic battle sequences. The Power of the Dog also earned its nomination for its beautiful depictions of rural environments and wide vistas. However, one of my favorite uses of cinematography this year came from Spielberg’s adaptation West Side Story. The film uses gritty, often handheld cinematography that not only helps with the tone but also adds to the film’s character. It was cinematography that I could really feel, and the animated camerawork certainly helped when used with the musical numbers.


The Tragedy of Macbeth


    The Tragedy of Macbeth and Nightmare Alley are also nominated for Cinematography, but my thoughts on those have more to do with production design. Quite notably, the nominations are exactly the same for both categories. Joel Coen’s Macbeth adaptation was a throwback to the likes of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, with black-and-white cinematography that often made great use of high-contrast filming. This was an incredible film to look at. Of particular mention were the witches, whose interpretation in this film absolutely stunned me and added to the trio’s unsettling mystique. Nightmare Alley was also a throwback, though in a different sense. The muted and/or limited color scheme and heavy use of sepia gave it the feel of something out of the early-to-mid 20th century when it took place. There was an unreality to it that added to the film’s premise. In both cases, the cinematography and production design complemented each other. Dune also scores high in production design, particularly with its use of ink-black environments. I’d say Dune is my pick for both cinematography and production design, though with the latter, it could also go to Nightmare Alley. Dune is also my pick for visual effects. In contrast to some of the other nominees, including Free Guy and two Marvel movies, Dune’s effects were sparer, but far more heavy on spectacle, and it worked. The scenes with the sandworms were among some of the most stunning I’d seen in theaters all year. 


    The biggest locks for Dune are the awards for Sound and Best Original Score. This is a score you don’t just hear, but feel. (I have the film playing on my TV as I’m writing this, and even now some of the music sends chills up my spine. Listening to it in a theater is something else entirely.) For editing, Dune is also a contender, and might possibly win, but I also want to give attention to one of the other nominees, Tick, Tick…Boom! Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film did a great job combining the adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s show with a dramatization of the show itself, while also using frequent stylization techniques (including a period-era rap music video and an elaborate number set during Sunday brunch), helping to bring us into Larson’s mind. Don’t Look Up’s editing, which made heavy use of montages, found footage, and often jarring cuts, was often heavy-handed but still seemed to accomplish what it was going for, for the most part. For Best Original Song, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell are likely to win for their theme to last year’s James Bond film No Time to Die.




    The nominees for Costumes and Makeup/Hairstyling are, by their nature, some of the most visually pleasing and impressive of the films nominated, but usually with not much else. For costumes there were two types of fashion: lavish or period-impressive, and overtly stylistic. For instance, Cyrano got nominated for lavish outfits overall, while Cruella got nominated with both its depiction of lavish fashion and its punk-rock aesthetic for the titular character. Cruella is my prediction for costumes. (By the way, Cruella was a bizarre watch. It felt like Disney’s safe, family-oriented version of an edgy cult appeal film.) For makeup, all the nominations were deserving, but two films in particular got buzz for makeup alone: House of Gucci and The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Jared Leto got attention for his transformation into Paolo Gucci, while Jessica Chastain’s Tammy Faye Bakker required so much makeup that the actress claims it caused permanent skin damage. I predict The Eyes of Tammy Faye will get the makeup award. For short films, my prediction is Bestia. If I’m correct, it will be notable in that it will be one of the few times a horror film has won an Oscar. For live-action, my pick is Ala Kachuu - Take and Run. For Best Documentary Short, I predict Three Songs for Benazir.


    One of the tightest races this year is the Best Documentary Feature race. My current pick is Summer of Soul, easily one of the best films of the year, period. Its competition, however, is Flee, which has been racking up awards and could easily beat it. While Flee is also nominated for the Best International and Animated Feature awards, I don’t see it winning either. My prediction for Best International Feature is Drive My Car, which definitely deserves it. For Best Animated Feature, my prediction is The Mitchells vs. the Machines, a heartfelt, inventive, and extremely funny film that takes full advantage of the animated medium, if not pushing the medium entirely.


    For original screenplay, my preferred pick would be The Worst Person in the World, but chances of that winning are low. Based on the competition (which inexplicably contains Don’t Look Up), I’d say Licorice Pizza has a far better chance. For the Best Adapted Screenplay award, many of the nominees have their own strengths, from CODA casting actual deaf actors where the film it’s based on didn’t, to Drive My Car turning a short story into a three-hour movie without going too far. I’d say The Power of the Dog is a likely win, though Drive My Car is a contender as well.


    Now onto the actors. For Best Supporting Actor, my favorites this year included Troy Kotsur in CODA. The first deaf actor to be nominated, Kotsur gave a performance that was equal parts funny and heartwarming. The Power of the Dog actually has two nominations, but the one I felt was stronger was Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon, who is also my prediction for the winner. For Best Supporting Actress, my pick is Ariana Debose’s performance as Anita in West Side Story. For actor in a leading role, my top pick is Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. A stunning depiction of masculinity (and its fragility), Cumberbatch plays the part with a subtlety that gave me such an imposing feeling of power that I got a sense of dread every time he appeared on screen. 


    As I said in my last blog, I felt that Jessica Chastain shined as Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which I felt was one of 2021’s most underrated films. She is certainly a contender for the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. However, she is not my pick. My prediction for the award, by a wide margin, is Kristen Stewart’s gut-wrenching performance as Princess Diana in Spencer. Stewart took what could’ve been a standard period drama and turned it into a psychological horror film, giving a performance that got under my skin so much that it rendered the film often hard to watch. For me, what takes a performance to the next level isn’t just believing the actors are the characters, but when you feel the characters as well. It didn’t matter if I knew Diana was Stewart, what I was feeling came from the character, not just the actor. I really hope she wins.


My prediction for Best Director is Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. Campion is the first woman to be nominated twice for Best Director, and boy, did she earn the nomination this year. I will point out, however, that I loved Steven Spielberg’s direction on West Side Story, a film that I did not in any way predict would succeed, but succeed it did. The Power of the Dog is also my prediction for Best Picture. This was indeed among my favorite films of 2021 and definitely deserves the award. If you haven’t seen the film by now, I predict that now’s the time. It’s been racking up a mountain awards and I expect it to get more at the Oscars. Now, we just have to see who wins. I’ll try to give my report on the ceremony after it airs.



Saturday, March 19, 2022

Oscars 2022: Hidden Gold Part 2




Following on my last blog, here are some of the Oscar nominated feature films you may have otherwise missed. As of this writing many of them are on demand or on streaming, and the ones that aren't should be soon. As is usually the case, many of these are among the year’s best in general and could easily compete with the likes of the Best Picture nominees. However, not only did a few of them manage to beat the odds and secure major nominations, but one of them actually did get nominated for Best Picture, which is all the more reason to see it. Now, I’d normally start with the International and Documentary nominations, but given the number of nominations some of these films have received, I’ve decided to spotlight them first.

The first film I’d like to bring up is Japan’s Best International Feature entry Drive My Car, which is not only nominated for Best International Feature Film, but also Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and even Best Picture, and I definitely think it deserves all those nominations and even possible wins. Don’t be intimidated by the film’s massive runtime. This is one of the best films of the year by far. A wrenching meditation on regret, the film follows stage actor and director Yusuke Kafuku, who attempts to direct a multilingual production of Uncle Vanya two years after his wife’s unexpected death. While he can drive, he is required to have a chauffeur, and so his car is driven by Misaki Watari. Due to the extended length of the film and where the story goes, I won’t reveal too much. This was an incredible work that in my opinion lived up to all the acclaim it had received. It’s very rare that a film can have scenes that run for more than ten minutes on end and still keep me captivated. You should definitely check this one out before the winners are announced, as it is a massive contender. 


I first saw Flee during its virtual Sundance premiere and spent the next year talking about it to everyone I knew and who would listen. Now, it’s made Oscar history by being nominated for Best Documentary, Best International, and Best Animated Feature all at the same time, and it deserves every nomination. It is an animated documentary about Amin, an Afghan refugee, as he shares his story. However, he prefers to keep his identity a secret. In order to address that, almost the entire movie is told though animation.  A wrenching and inspiring testament to the power of perseverance, and a reminder of what animation can accomplish, this was one of my absolute favorite things of this year. I’d predict it for a win, but I can’t because the competition is just too equally strong in all three categories to guarantee. However, I’ll save that for next week’s blog.


The Worst Person in the World

In The Worst Person in the World, Julie is wandering through potential life paths in Oslo when she meets Aksel, an older acclaimed comic artist. The two begin a relationship, but Julie is unsure of starting a family with him. When she meets Eivind, who is in a relationship of his own, her question of what to do with her life becomes even more complicated. I’ll leave the premise at that. This film gave me the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies recently while still managing to touch my heart. Some of the best material in the movie comes from the film’s more satirical elements, including an ongoing thread about how transgressive art is treated in today’s world. In addition, the movie is narratively playful, using an offbeat chapter-driven structure and occasionally mixing omniscient third-party narration. There are also some impressive setpieces, including a run through the streets of Oslo, frozen in time, and one sequence mixing in heavy practical effects and animation. In addition to receiving a nomination for Best International Feature Film, it is also deservedly nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

I saw Parallel Mothers as such an awards season juggernaut, and certainly a contender for the Best International Oscar, that I failed to even notice it wasn’t submitted for the awards in the first place. Nevertheless, it managed to still succeed in getting not one, but two nominations. The new movie by Pedro Almodóvar, the film is about Janis, a photographer who is working to excavate a mass grave containing her great-grandfather’s remains and ends up sleeping with Arturo, the man responsible for the excavation. Months later, she gives birth at the same time as Ana, a teen mother, and both raise their children as single mothers. To say more would be criminal, and the plot goes in several directions I did not expect in the slightest. What starts out as a seemingly innocent drama about motherhood becomes something darker and more poignant. Penelope Cruz is nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance as Janis, and I felt it was deserved, as was the nomination for Best Original Score.


Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

Now, I’d like to bring up the remainder of the specialty nominations. First, here are two other films nominated for Best International Feature. Every year, films get nominated that I initially miss under the assumption that the Academy will ignore them. Many of these end up being pleasant surprises. This year, Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, Bhutan’s International Oscar entry, beat several odds to get made. Shot on cameras charged with solar lamps on a shoestring budget, with the director unable to even review footage, in a village without electricity, and with nonprofessional actors who had never even seen a movie, the resulting film is something truly special. Ugyen is tired of his government mandated training to be a teacher, wishing to move to Australia to be a singer. When he’s assigned to the most remote school on the planet, he reluctantly heads from his life in Bhutan’s capital to the mountain village of Lunana (which requires an eight-day hike just to get to). Ugyen soon warms up to the idea of teaching the children of Lunana, finding inventive ways to educate them with limited means. Sweet and funny, this one was a pleasant surprise and I’m glad it got nominated. The characters are likable, the performances are great, and it carries a powerful message. One of the reasons I love cinema is to witness new perspectives I might not otherwise, and this was a great example of that. Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino returns to the Oscars with The Hand of God, a film based on his own youth and the sports event that literally changed (and saved) his life. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti, in an excellent breakout role) lives in Naples with his parents in the 1980s. However, a sudden family tragedy forces Fabietto into the start of his coming of age. I enjoyed this movie a lot and thought it was very funny and heartfelt. However, I don’t see this winning against the competition. It was a good movie, but not great.


Summer of Soul (or...When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Now, here are the other Best Documentary Feature films. In 1971, Woodstock won the Oscar for Best Documentary. This year, one of the biggest contenders examines a similar event from the same summer, and with similar attendance 100 miles away, that time unfortunately forgot. Summer of Soul (or…When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) is Questlove’s chronicle of the 1969 Harlem Culture Festival. Held in Mount Morris Park in Harlem over four weeks, it presented a wide range of black performers to an audience of nearly 300,000. The whole thing was filmed but sat shelved for over 50 years. If Questlove had merely presented the raw footage as is a la Amazing Grace, this would’ve been a great concert film. Instead, he went further and made one of the best films of this year, documentary or otherwise. Questlove deftly combines the performances with other footage of the period and new interviews, both with those who were there and those who came later (including fellow Oscar nominee Lin-Manuel Miranda, who delivers a lesson on Spanish Harlem with his father) to paint a powerful portrait of a period of immense social change. However, the real draw here is the music. This wasn’t referred to as the “Black Woodstock” for nothing, after all (including some intersection with that landmark festival). The shockingly well-preserved footage comprises a stunning lineup of African-American musical greats, including Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, and an immensely powerful appearance by Nina Simone. Above all, the film carries a message of the power of representation, both live and onscreen. This is an absolute must-see movie and may end up taking home the Best Documentary Oscar.




MTV returns to the Oscars with Ascension, a stunning and thought-provoking documentary dissection of the “Chinese Dream”. Told in three parts, this film goes from the bottom of the top of the social ladder, from factory workers to social media influencers to China’s leisure class. The promise of hard work leading to success, and the all-encompassing desire for consumption hovers over every frame. The film uses no narration and no interviews, with the only indication of a filmmaker’s point of view being through what is shown and how it is edited. The resulting material is breathtaking and sometimes harrowing, and may have you thinking about the world we live in as a whole. I will say that I typically don’t do well with impressionistic films like this, and this is definitely at the lower end of my predictions for the Best Documentary Oscar, but some of what I saw will definitely stay with me. I also have to mention Dan Deacon’s score for the film, which perfectly compliments the imagery onscreen.


Attica is Stanley Nelson’s chronicle of the infamous Attica prison riot, from the issues that led to it, to the long negotiation process, to the horrific conclusion. Featuring harrowing interviews from multiple sides and using a wealth of archival footage, the documentary is a scathing indictment of prisoner dehumanization and the consequences of pursuing law and order at any cost. Writing with Fire is a reminder of the power of journalism and a story of overcoming how others see you. The film follows reporters for India’s Khabar Lahariya. Initially the first newspaper in India to be started by Dalit women, the lowest members of India’s social structure, it has decided to evolve into YouTube journalism as well. The women of Khabar Lahariya brave many obstacles in their attempts to cover corruption and violence that others won’t address, eventually reporting against the backdrop of increased Hindu nationalism, while reflecting on the struggles they had to get through in their lives. An incredible story of journalistic perseverance that demonstrates the need for a free press.


The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Finally, I wanted to cover a film that received a lackluster reception but that I really enjoyed. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a film based on the documentary of the same name about televangelist Tammy Faye Baker. Now, I usually consider films based on documentaries redundant, especially since the best documentaries are the ones that would seem inconceivable as dramas. However, director Michael Showalter’s history in comedic works made me extremely interested in this film, and in my opinion, he did not disappoint. Showalter delivers a film that is simultaneously fittingly tongue in cheek while playing it as straight as possible. The movie avoids caricature, treating its subjects with respect. It would’ve been easy to paint controversial elements like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as villains, but instead they are given straightforward and non-condemning portrayals. (Although, nothing Showalter could’ve written would’ve been more over-the-top than some of what they’ve actually said in real life.) Jessica Chastain does an amazing job as Tammy, who is portrayed as someone who just wanted to use her faith to help people, even when her desire to help contradicted dogma. The performance earned Chastain a nomination for Best Lead Actress, and I’m so glad she received it. The film is also deservedly nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


Next week is the last week before the Oscars, and I’m going to give my predictions on all the categories.