The Beguiled.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes festival for The Beguiled, making her just the second woman ever to win that honor (which is sort of an ‘honorable mention’ next to the Palme d’Or, which has only gone to a woman once in 70 years) and I would expect making her a very likely nominee for the same Oscar category. The film didn’t quite live up to that kind of billing for me, but is still very good, a thought-provoking, moody, well-shot and extremely well-acted movie that suffers just slightly from a thin and not entirely credible plot.

The story takes place in 1863 at a Virginia ‘seminary’ for girls, really more of a boarding and finishing school, run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with help from teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), with five pupils remaining after others’ parents have pulled them out. The girls are also the school’s staff, as the slaves also fled the fighting in the area, with troops passing by the large estate that houses the school regularly over the course of the film’s 94 minutes. As the story opens, one of the youngest students finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier unable to walk, and brings him back to the house, where Martha decides to take him in and help him recover from a bullet wound to his leg before turning him over to Confederate troops or even passing Union soldiers. The introduction of a male contaminant into the all-female household has some predictable results, as sexual tensions and internecine rivalries spring up between the women, with the younger girls all flirting or just plain acting silly while the oldest three – Martha, Edwina, and Alicia – show signs of real attraction to the convalescent, who, by the way, isn’t real keen to get back to the front himself. Of course, this can’t abide, and eventually the pot simmers over and someone gets hurt, which turns the movie from a genteel and often funny look at gender dynamics into a dark, psychological thriller that pits the Corporal against the women and flips the power balance back and forth in the last half-hour of the film.

The performances sell this movie more than the story does; I am no expert at spotting movie twists, but the moment the key element in the story’s resolution appeared on screen, I knew what Coppola was showing us. But the three main women and Farrell all deliver right-tail level performances in their roles, especially Kidman and Dunst, whose characters have more nuance than Fanning, who is just frighteningly seductive despite rarely doing anything beyond looking at McBurney or the camera. (It kills me that the voice of Mei from My Neighbor Totoro is now making sexy eyes in grown-up movies.) Martha is the head of the school and the house, a woman in control who confesses to the corporal how exhausted she is by the role and, I presume, by the lack of anyone else in whom she might confide. Her attraction to the patient is slower to build and more reluctant, while Edwina exposes herself as the more miserable character, one whose romantic innocence doesn’t line up with her worldly upbringing. Both Kidman and Dunst fill out the corners of these characters with little aspects like Kidman’s clipped speech or Dunst’s mournful, almost haggard expressions, communicating their attractions to McBurney almost entirely through non-verbal and still era-appropriate body language and gestures.

Farrell’s character is less nuanced – it becomes clear after a bit that he’s playing the women individually, altering his language and tone to flatter each of them, even the children who are just mesmerized by the presence of a man, but it’s only after the major plot event around the two-thirds mark that Farrell gets to do something more than turning on the charm. This character has been deeply affected by what he’s seen and suffered at the front, but none of that surfaces until it’s provoked. Between In Bruges, The Lobster, and now The Beguiled, Farrell’s certainly shown remarkable acting prowess along with a willingness to take on some unconventional roles.

The Beguiled is also remarkable to look at, with lush sets and hazy, dark lighting that accentuates the moody nature of the script and its characters. The house is dim in the daytime and forbidding at night, while the characters are often surrounded by a slight fog or smoke that might be coming from nearby battles (we frequently hear gun and cannon fire in the distance). There are some exceptional close shots showing detail in the dresses and jewelry worn by the women, as well as some tremendous shots outside the house in the garden and the nearby forest. The two large scenes at the dinner table are incredibly evocative between the candlelight, the details of the table itself – even something as simple as one of the girls pouring wine from a decanter – and the visual transformation of the girls as they all get dressed up to impress their guest.

The story itself is based on a novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) by Thomas Cullinan and was previously filmed in 1971, and while Coppola has made a film that puts the women more at the center of the story, the plot remains a little thin. I mentioned the predictable ending above, and there’s also a gun that disappears and suddenly reappears as needed in a different character’s possession later in the film, with no explanation of how that happened other than that it was necessary for the plot. Edwina’s actions in the final third of the film also seem to come out of nowhere, or at least to be incongruous with what happened before in a way that I don’t think gives her character enough emotional consistency to seem real.

The Beguiled works because of the performances and the visual style, enough that I’d recommend it if you can enjoy a movie that brings you something beyond plot. If your tastes in movies are story-driven, this one just didn’t hold me; it feels like a short story stretched into 94 minutes rather than a novel condensed into that window. It lurches too much from A to B to C for me to give it a full recommendation, perhaps a result of my own obsession with plot constructions in literature, so that I left feeling like I would praise the actors involved for weeks but could give the entire plot with spoilers on one side of a 3×5 index card.

Lion.

Lion (now out on amazon and iTunes) was the last of the 2016 Best Picture nominees I needed to see (I’ve said before I’m skipping the anti-Semite’s film) and just never got around to it while it was in theaters because I saw a bunch of other movies I thought would be more interesting and then hit draft season. It turns out that I’d shortchanged the movie, which is based on a true story, largely because the commercials and trailer made it look like a much more sentimental, cloying film than it actually was. It’s still driven more by great performances – Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman both earned well-deserved Oscar nominations – than by a great script, but Lion still delivers a compelling story without resorting to too much claptrap.

The movie follows Saroo from age four to adulthood on a story that would be hard to believe if it wasn’t true. Saroo becomes separated from his brother in a train station in northern India while they’re begging for money, falls asleep on a train, and ends up over a thousand miles away, in Kolkata, where he doesn’t speak the language (Bengali) and can’t help anyone find his family because he mispronounces the name of his village and doesn’t know his mother’s name (he tells a police officer her name is “Mum”). He’s then adopted by an Australian family and seems to assimilate well into the new culture, but as a young adult, is spurred by a handful of fairly minor events and a diverse circle of friends to try to find out where he came from, a quest that relies heavily on Google Earth and eventually gets him back to the village of his birth.

What truly surprised me about Lion was how thoroughly it affected me. I’m used to mainstream films (and TV) trying to manipulate my emotions, and I’m largely immune to it at this point, because I see it coming and often find it hackneyed. Lion certainly cranks up the intensity of some of its emotional payoffs, but they’re grounded in reality, and many of those moments rely on universal sentiments – especially the scene where Saroo returns to the village of his birth for a reunion with his family that comes with a heartbreaking corollary. There’s a bit of that scene that feels very Hollywoodized, where the women of the village come around a corner, almost marching, in a stunning array of colors (thanks to their saris, which can really put Western fashions to shame), to come meet Saroo … but it’s trivial, and it’s over in a flash, after which you get the moment you’ve waited 100 minutes to see.

That’s not to excuse the numerous tweaks to the true story that did detract from the film’s impact. Saroo has another (biological) sibling who’s simply erased from the film. The beautiful woman who seems to be trying to kidnap or sell the young Saroo was a man in reality. And Saroo’s girlfriend is a total cipher of a character – I forgot her name (Lucy) because the character was so utterly bereft of any defining qualities, and is played by Rooney Mara, who has always struck me as a fairly bland actress, which compounds the problem. Lucy is a plot device, not a character, and it’s hard to understand why Saroo, depicted here as a sensitive adult who starts to lash out at loved ones because he’s struggling with his identity, would be attracted to her in the first place.

The critical consensus around Lion seemed to be that it was a good film kept from being great by slow pacing, especially in the second half, where Saroo distances himself from family and friends while immersing himself in the needle-in-a-haystack quest on Google Earth to find his village. I actually appreciated the reduced pace, in part because so much is thrown at the viewer in the first 45 minutes, but also because … that’s how it would have been, right? This had to have taken hundreds of hours over a period of weeks or months, with lots of dead ends and a sense of futility. It’s the one big element in this film that felt anti-commercial, and I think it ended up a strength rather than a weakness.

Toni Erdmann.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now!

The German film Toni Erdmann (amazoniTunes) was critically acclaimed all over Europe and here when it first appeared last year, winning the German equivalent of the Oscar for Best Picture and earning a nomination here for Best Foreign Language Film (which it lost to The Salesman). The 165-minute movie has been widely described as a comedy, but it is anything but. It is a truly unpleasant movie to watch, an extended, pointless exercise in misanthropy and the humiliation of its characters.

Winifred is a divorced and apparently retired German man, probably around 70, who appears to be unable to stop himself from playing juvenile pranks on people, most of which involve the use of a set of false teeth. His daughter, Ines, is an ambitious, hard-working management consultant who is working in Bucharest on a difficult project involving a Romanian oil company. Winifred tries to connect with her for some quality time, showing up in Bucharest unannounced for a weekend, but the effort fails as she prioritizes work over her father. As a result, he decides to play a huge prank, posing as Toni Erdmann, a life coach to the oil company’s CEO, with an utterly ridiculous shaggy wig of black hair and those same false teeth. Every plot description says he’s doing this to spend time near his daughter, but I think he does it because he’s a giant asshole who doesn’t care what damage he does to anyone else as long as he gets a laugh.

I said as long as he gets a laugh, because we don’t. This movie isn’t funny, and I don’t think the script was trying to be funny most of the time. I suppose the brunch scene at the end may have been intended as humor, but it is so unrealistic that it doesn’t even get the cringe comic effect of the excruciatingly awkward. If Toni Erdmann had some charisma – say, as a platitude-spouting new age thinker, or a parody of the consultant who borrows your watch to tell you the time – he could have been hilarious. Instead, he’s just constantly in the way, and the script is totally unable to achieve the comic effect of the bumbler or the walking satire.

It doesn’t help that neither Winifred (outside of Toni) nor Ines is a particularly sympathetic character. We’re almost forced to believe that Winifred misses his daughter, but without any context for their past relationship, it’s hard to imagine why she’d suddenly want to be closer to him when he’s still unapproachable. Ines’ character is written as the woman who has to work twice as hard as the men around her to get the same respect, and has the awful habit of deferring to men in meetings even when they’ve disagreed with her or even undercut her points, but the script gives us nothing to hang on to in support of her character – no evidence of inner strength, or even something to explain her sheer competence, some reason to root for her against the dimwits and chauvinists around her.

(I also felt that the look of Ines, played by Sandra Hüller, didn’t work. Here’s a character who, again, we’re supposed to accept as a strong, hard-working, sharp woman in a male-dominated workplace. Yet she’s almost sickly looking at times – her hair, makeup, even her clothing all work against the character, and Hüller being so pale unfortunately plays into it as well. It was a chance to reveal something more about Ines by exaggerating her physical appearance. Perhaps this is a woman unconcerned with her appearance, but that would contradict a scene near the end where she seems overly concerned with it instead.)

So much of this movie just does not work on screen, in ways it’s hard to fathom would have worked on the page. What begins as an unconvincing sex scene between Ines and the coworker she’s sleeping with turns into an utterly gross non-joke, as if she’s playing a bizarre prank on her partner (who may have had it coming – but I liked almost no one in this movie anyway). Somehow Ines and Winifred end up at a Romanian family’s Easter dinner, where Winifred volunteers Ines to sing a song, which she does, and then runs off, after which the whole event is simply forgotten by all participants. At one point, a few of the characters, including Ines, do lines of coke, which seems completely out of character for her given everything that came before. And the brunch scene … well, without spoiling it, I’ll just say the whole thing was so preposterous I couldn’t buy into any aspect of it.

I tend to think that English-language remakes of foreign films always lose something from the original. But with word coming that there’s an American version of Toni Erdmann in the works starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig, I wonder if it could be any worse than the German film; if nothing else, it will at least be shorter, as there’s no way they could expect American audiences to endure nearly three hours of this. And Wiig is truly too funny for the original script. I can only hope they rework it from scratch and see if there’s actually something good to be found in this premise.

Christine.

The 2016 film Christine is a good movie, not a great one, that gives some life and depth to a real person who’s only remembered today because she committed suicide on live television. The script itself plays pretty loose with the facts and fails to stick the landing, but succeeds at humanizing its subject and is bolstered by several extremely strong performances, notably that of its lead, Rebecca Hall. The movie is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old reporter for a local TV news program in Sarasota at the time she took her own life, a decision that seems to have come at the end of a series of personal and professional setbacks as well as the reemergence of an undertreated case of mental illness. Christine delves into those setbacks while also giving some depth to her character, but without romanticizing either her or her decision. She’s sympathetic despite obvious flaws here, without becoming just an object of curiosity for the ending we all know is coming.

Most of the film compresses Chubbuck’s professional and personal problems into a period of a few days or weeks prior to her suicide. Her station manager, Michael Nelson (played by Tracy Letts), is pushing everyone to chase more salacious stories, citing the “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim, to boost ratings, which shifts the kind of longform news pieces that Chubbuck wants to do on to the back burner, increasing her conflicts with Nelson, who is depicted here as anti-feminist but who understands that Chubbuck has untapped talent. She also has an unrequited crush on the show’s lead anchor, George Peter Ryan (a charismatic Michael C. Hall), and discovers that she has to have an ovary removed, reducing her chances of ever getting pregnant. (She really did have that operation, but it was a year before her suicide.)

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck as permanently tightly wound, regardless of mood, giving the impression that she’s bipolar rather than simply depressed, which fits her brother’s recollections of her rather than her diagnosis at the time. Hall’s Chubbuck is always in fourth gear, which makes her difficult to work with, but never a caricature of a “crazy” person; when the script calls for her to be erratic, Hall portrays her with self-control, like someone who’s internalizing the pain of her mental illness.

I had less issue with the film’s bending or fabricating of details – for example, the character Jean (Maria Dizzia, who is just waiting for her part in a Gilda Radner biopic) doesn’t seem to have existed, but here plays Christine’s closest friend at the station instead of sportscaster Andrea Kirby – than the film’s mawkish ending and cloying use of details to tie parts of the movie together. The movie doesn’t shy away from Chubbuck’s suicide, showing the shot from a distance but otherwise playing it straight, including the disbelieving reactions from coworkers who thought it was a prank at first. But it overdoes the aftermath by showing us Chubbuck’s mother watching the program (probably not true) and then a fabricated ending with Jean that serves no purpose but to tie back to a conversation the two women had earlier in the film. This last scene undermines the dramatic effects of the suicide and the seriousness of the portrayal of Chubbuck’s personal problems, but provides zero benefit in exchange.

Rebecca Hall’s performance here would be, at the moment, the second-best by a lead actress that I’ve seen in any 2016 film, just a shade behind Natalie Portman for Jackie and ahead of Oscar winner Emma Stone. She delivered nuance to a script that gave her enough latitude to play Chubbuck as unhinged or unlikable, even when working against a stock character like her mother (played by J. Smith Cameron, who, I just discovered, is married to Kenneth Lonergan). Hall hits this specific note of internal tension and holds it for almost the entire film, only letting it go briefly in scenes where Chubbuck goes to the local children’s hospital to do puppet shows for the kids (something Chubbuck did in real life). In a highly fictionalized biopic like Christine, a sloppy or bombastic lead performance would destroy the film, but Hall truly carries the picture and helps gloss over some of the script’s missteps.

Michael C. Hall is also surprisingly effective as the insecure, dumb-jock type who’s found his star on the ascendant because of his good looks and on-camera charm, while Letts is his usual workmanlike self, infusing a little depth to a character who’s largely one-note because he’s only seen when interacting with and usually just reacting to Christine. Dizzia probably has to do the most work with the least help, as her character is the hackneyed “best friend with no life of her own” type, stripping some character traits from Kirby (played by Kim Shaw), who is instead just the pretty face who gets the job and the guy that Chubbuck wanted.
I wish Christine had spent a little more time explaining the character’s struggles with mental illness, and hadn’t made her so dismissive of the topic in the one scene where it’s explicitly discussed; Chubbuck’s brother has said she was in treatment at the time of her suicide, which this film seems to contradict. But bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) wasn’t in the DSM until after Chubbuck’s death, so she was only diagnosed with depression and thus was probably undertreated rather than untreated when she killed herself. The script instead focuses on her unhappiness in her love life and at work as the primary drivers of her suicide, backburnering the depression, when that was almost certainly the main cause.

Watch Christine for its strong lead performance, for the solid supporting actors, and for the film’s effort to fill out the story of a real person whose legacy has been limited to its shock value. The script has its flaws, but does manage to give the viewer a picture of Christine Chubbuck as a real person, and the decision not to sensationalize the suicide itself, instead making her character the center of the film, saved the movie from its handful of missteps.

Captain Fantastic.

I hadn’t even heard of Captain Fantastic until Viggo Mortensen grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance here, but when it popped up on Amazon Prime this month and a couple of you recommended it, I figured I’d give it a shot, even though the reviews I’d seen before watching it were all pretty lukewarm. It’s really not a good movie at all, thanks to a mawkish, preachy script, saved in parts by some good performances and a lot of very funny quips that still aren’t enough to justify this movie’s one-sided existence. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six who lives in an isolated cabin in the Pacific Northwest with his family, where he and his wife have home-schooled the kids and raised them off the grid, rearing a bunch of child prodigies with distinctly anti-capitalist, anti-religious, socially progressive views. When their mom, who is absent in the early parts of the film because she’s been hospitalized, kills herself, the brood end up taking a road trip south to New Mexico to attend her funeral, fight with her father, and engage in the obvious comedy of having the kids see American consumer culture for the first time.

It’s a cliche-ridden mess as a script, as a story, and in most of the things the family does outside of itself, which is to say that the only parts of the script that work are the interactions between Ned and his kids, or among the kids themselves. With six of them, there isn’t enough screen time to develop their individual characters, so five of them are cut from the same cloth and seem to represent different stages of development, with the oldest, Bo, the one who gets some depth, although the two sisters, Kielyr and Vespyr, have their moments. The actors playing the children are all quite good, and I would bet this film will one day be a novelty for the fact that a bunch of good actors were all in this as kids, but they don’t have a ton to work with.

The hippie material here provides a few good laughs, although some of them were easy targets, and the film overplays the humorous aspects of having a five-year-old spout Marxist ideology or Bo indignantly inform his father than he’s no longer a Trotskyist but a Maoist. But once the film puts them in direct contact with mainstream kids and adults, like Ben’s sister (played by Kathryn Hahn, who shows how great she can be even in a serious role) and her family, the film just goes for low-hanging fruit, and never recovers the energy it showed in spurts earlier in the film.

The ending is where the wheels truly come off the bus, pun intended; the story jumps too fast, spares us a lot of explanation we need for decisions the characters (mostly the kids) make, and gives us way too much of a feel-good ending for a setup that should give us something very ambiguous. This is a movie about parenting, about the choices we make as parents, about what it might be like to be there every minute of the day with your kids, and how we might raise children to be better humans, better aware of their effects on the environment and on others, more concerned about injustice and less concerned about material wealth. But parenting is hard, and raising kids with values like those, so far out of the mainstream of our culture, is extremely difficult, so giving us a pat ending where everything’s just fine – and, by the way, who’s paying for Bo’s choice at the film’s end – is inauthentic.

Mortensen’s very good in the film, but I would have given Joel Edgerton the nomination for Loving or even Michael Shannon for Midnight Special before him. Heck, even Rolf Lassgård, without whom A Man Called Ove would have failed completely as a film, was better.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Michael Solomonov is an Israeli-born chef who was raised in Pittsburgh and now owns Philadelphia’s Zahav, consistently rated among the best restaurants in the United States, as well as the hummus-focused spinoff Dizengoff, which I can vouch makes some of the best hummus I have ever had. Solomonov only switched his culinary focus to Israeli cuisine around 2008, and in a new documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, he goes back to his motherland to explore the roots and evolution of a cuisine that, by definition, only goes back about 70 years. The film, directed by Roger Sherman, opens this weekend in New York, in Philadelphia and several California cities on the 31st, and rolls out nationwide over the month of April.

In Search of Israeli Cuisine is less documentary than travelogue; Solomonov is an explorer, and the film doesn’t try to give the viewer an encyclopedic look at the cuisine of his home country, in part because simply defining the cuisine of Israel is itself a thorny question. Solomonov bounces around the country, from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to the fishing town of Acre in the north, to the Golan region near the border with Lebanon, and to the desert south, visiting Israeli and Arab chefs who are pushing the boundaries of local cuisine as well as farmers, vintners, and other vendors contributing to the country’s vibrant culinary scene.

The film runs past the debate of the definition of Israeli cuisine somewhat quickly, with authors and chefs offering widely divergent opinions, some saying it’s ridiculous to say a country so young has its own cuisine, others pointing out that the cuisine exists because it’s in front of you. Based on what we see in the film, I’d argue with the latter group: This mélange of dishes, ingredients, and traditions comes from such a broad range of countries and cultures that it clearly forms its own cuisine. The film opens with Solomonov going into a small counter-service restaurant and asking for something small from the grill. He gets eighteen small plates, and proceeds to list their countries of origin, getting through about a dozen (not including the one where he just says “no idea”) before he’s even had anything we might call a main dish. Yogurts, salads, breads, and pickles dominate the counter in an array of colors, and it’s the combination of influences that makes this a unique cuisine.

Color is huge in In Search of Israeli Cuisine; since we can’t taste or smell the food, we’re relying on our eyes and Solomonov’s reactions (spoiler: he loves everything) to get a sense of what it’s like. The colors of the produce are eye-popping, as are the various sauces and purees smeared on every fine-dining plate we see in the film. The home-cooking Solomonov experiences is just as appealing, albeit sometimes less colorful because the dishes are slow-cooked and heavier on spices and meats; the scene where one of the chefs Solomonovs interviews (in the man’s apartment) picks up the Dutch oven full of maqluba, a Levantine stew with rice, and inverts it on to a giant metal dish, is mesmerizing and slightly terrifying to watch.

Within Solomonov’s travels, he gets at some of the questions of where Israeli cuisine came from. One controversial topic is how much of it was borrowed – or “stolen” – from Palestinian cuisine, one of many places here where food and politics intersect. Another is the influence of Sephardic Jews on the new cuisine, which some of the chefs in the film fear will mean the end of the cuisine of Ashkenazi Jews, who primarily come from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia. (Sephardic Jews come from around the Mediterranean, including Spain and North Africa.) I found the premise a little tough to swallow, pun intended, because cuisines don’t disappear if they have followers. If people like this food, then someone will find it profitable to keep making it. Cuisines only disappear if no one wants to eat them, or if the ingredients required for the cuisine themselves disappear or become too expensive. It doesn’t seem like either is the case here.

One of the chefs in the film says that the tomato doesn’t care if the person cutting it is Jew or Arab. The Palestinian chef Solomonov ends up hugging (because the food is so good) says that most of the time his clientele is largely Jewish, dipping in the wake of an attack. Several chefs here see food as a way to build bridges between communities, especially between Jews and Palestinians living together in Israel. (Broader issues like Jewish settlements or the occupations of the Golan Heights and West Bank are not mentioned, nor should they be given the focus on food, but it’s hard to forget them while you watch and see the map of places Solomonov visits.)

The star of the show is truly the food, though. The thoughts of the various chefs, farmers, authors, and grandmothers whom Solomonov meets are interesting, certainly, but the food grabs your attention and usually doesn’t let go. There’s something a little primal about the way the chefs eat so much of the food on the screen – just grabbing with their fingers, or picking them up with a hunk of bread. (note: I love bread.) If anything, I wanted more details on what we were seeing on the various plates – those purees, for example, often dashes on the plate before five other ingredients were added. What were they made of? Solomonov tastes one lamb dish by picking up a slice with his fingers and dredging it in at least two of the sauces on the plate – what were they? Other than the noodle kugel he tries in one Ashkenazi man’s house, what did he learn on the trip that might influence the menu at Zahav? And how soon can I eat them?

The film ends with clips of many of the chefs and writers who’ve appeared giving their geographical backgrounds, a parallel to the opening scene of the film where we hear how many different countries contributed to the array of meze (small plates) in front of Solomonov. If the film provides any answer to the question of what “Israeli cuisine” is, that’s it: Israeli cuisine is the sum of everything the people of Israel have brought to it.

Jackie.

Here are my abbreviated thoughts on Jackie, one of two movies released in 2016 from Chilean director Pablo Larraín:

1. Jackie isn’t that good of a film.
2. Natalie Portman deserved the Best Actress Oscar more than Emma Stone did.
3. And if Portman had won, the Best Picture screw-up would never have happened.

I might also add a 2a, that if this were a better movie she would have won, although I’m not entirely sure of the politics that go into who wins what award. But I do feel pretty strongly about her deserving the nod, even though I sort of argued against her winning when she did win (for Black Swan, beating out Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone). This movie sinks or swims with Portman’s performance, and she commits to it in every possible way, including mimicking Jackie Kennedy’s unique accent and intonation, taking us through the range of emotions that the widow of JFK faced in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s shocking death right next to her. (It’s on amazon and iTunes.)

Loosely based on an interview the former First Lady did with LIFE magazine a week after the murder, Jackie follows her in non-chronological fashion from the motorcade to the funeral, with very occasional flashbacks to prior events. It is a portrait of a woman in totally unexpected grief who also finds herself in front of the nation and yet about to be cast out of the White House with two young children in tow. JFK only appears briefly. No other character gets a fraction of the screen time Portman does. This script is trying to explore the nature of the response one of the most famous women in the world had to having her husband assassinated beside her, especially the public face she gave in the days that followed and in that interview.

That made it all the more shocking to me that the movie is so bland. Portman is superb, but the script itself feels incredibly cold toward its subject. This is a movie about a personal tragedy that was simultaneously a national one, but the script seems to treat it, and Jackie Kennedy’s response to it, as some sort of public policy question. I don’t think Jackie Kennedy comes off well or poorly in the film, but I also think we could have learned a lot more about her character than we did from this script. For example, there are hints of a divide between her and her husband’s family, but those lines are thrown in and never explored any futher. And if the goal was to present her as scheming for trying to ensure that the only major press coverage of her in her widowhood was positive, well, that’s hardly a character flaw.

Portman owns, though. Jackie Kennedy’s weird patrician Long Island accent is tough to listen to, and other than overdoing the breathiness, Portman nails it. She’s also effective at everything she needs to convey through tone, words, and gestures – the grief, the shock, the denial, the attention to trivial details, all come across as incredibly real, and the only emotion anyone shows in this film comes from Portman herself, not from her words but from how she grips and delivers them.

Some of the supporting performances are fine, although they exist in the shadow of the lead. John Hurt, in one of his last filmed performances, is typically wonderful as the Kennedy family priest Jackie consults on the day of the funeral. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Robert F. Kennedy, looking quite a bit like a young Kenneth Branagh, infusing some humanity into the character who is at once grieving for his own loss and providing the only measure of stability for the main character. Billy Beane … er, Crudup is playing an entirely fictional, unnamed reporter, giving some restraint and a little humor to a role that was written a bit too much like a giant blank. I also loved seeing Jack Valenti, who later headed the MPAA for three decades and fought to extend copyright law way beyond what such laws are supposed to protect and encourage, come off as an ambitious, smarmy jackass.

I’m looking forward to seeing Larraín’s other film from 2016, the Spanish-language Neruda, which was Chile’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but didn’t even make the nine-title shortlist. It will be released in digital format later this month.

My Life as a Zucchini.

My Life as a Zucchini (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) was one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the shortest of the nominated movies at just 66 minutes. It’s a stop-motion animation film with exaggerated, absurd-looking characters, boasting a wonderful story that strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and the sad reality beneath. (I saw the film in French, with English subtitles, but there is now an English version in theaters too, with Ron Swanson providing the voice of Raymond.)

Zucchini is the nickname of the main character, the orphan Icare, whom we meet at the beginning of the film in awful circumstances: He’s the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, apparently friendless, with only a kite and his collection of his mother’s discarded beer cans to keep him company. She sits in her living room all day, drinking and yelling at the television, but dies a few minutes into the film in an accident that Zucchini caused, which sends him to the orphanage by way of the cop Raymond’s office. At the orphanage, he meets the other kids who’ll soon become his friends, including Simon, the bully with a good heart beneath his exterior, and eventually Camille, the new girl with whom Zucchini falls in love.

Every one of these kids is there for some awful reason. Alice is there because her father molested her and is in jail. Bea is there because her mother was deported to Africa while Bea was in school. (Sound familiar?) Simon’s parents are drug addicts. There’s so much sadness underneath this story that it’s remarkable the film feels so light, but the script gives us everything through the eyes of the children, and it’s a world in which I wanted to spend so much more time. And how could you not care about these kids? The characters are all realistic – not in appearance, with their gigantic heads and arms that nearly reach the floor, but in conception and in their reactions to their circumstances. Even the rough stuff is played for laughs without diminishing the harsh reality beneath; for example, Simon is the only one who knows anything about sex (referred to just as “the thing”), but it’s because he saw pornographic films his parents would watch. It’s awful on its face, but his child’s understanding of what happened on screen is written so perfectly.

Squad goals
Zucchini’s motley crew.

While My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film, it’s not for kids. My daughter is ten, and I’m glad she passed on going with me, because I think the reasons the kids are in the orphanage would have upset her. (The sex talk would have just embarrassed her.) And while I smiled and laughed through most of the film, I was always aware of the sadness beneath the surface. Even the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s a happy one, still reminds you of the bleak situation these kids – who are in what I can only assume is the greatest orphan home in the world – face. They will always feel, as Simon said, that there was no one left to love them. Mining heart and humor from such fearsome material, based on a French-language book by Gilles Paris, is an impressive reminder of the power of a great work of fiction, whether book or movie, live-action or animated. My Life as a Zucchini can’t match the technical mastery of Oscar winner Zootopia, but its story is far more powerful.

Quick endnotes: If you see the movie, look for an homage to Spirited Away in the graffiti on the wall around the Les Fontaines orphanage very early in the film. Also, be sure to stay through the end credits (at least in the French version) for an absolutely precious vignette from the audition of the child who voiced Zucchini.

Long Way North.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t release a shortlist of nominees for Best Animated Feature, instead simply listing all eligible films for a given year, with the 2016 list comprising 22 titles, five of which were eventually nominated. That’s how I stumbled on Long Way North, which is free to stream via Amazon Prime; directed by one of the assistants from the amazing 2009 film The Secret of Kells, Long Way North is a very old-fashioned sort of animated film, made in 2D Flash with a traditional feel and a strong, simple story for all ages. (You can also buy/rent it on iTunes).

Sasha is our heroine, the headstrong daughter of an ambitious Russian diplomat in the late 19th century, but after making a rather poor impression at her debutante ball, she chooses to run away from home to find out what happened to her adventurer grandfather, whose supposedly unsinkable ship never returned from an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage by way of the North Pole. She ends up on a merchant ship of tough guys who agree to search for her grandfather’s ship in hopes of collecting the enormous reward out for it, and, of course, she has to save the day through her courage and cleverness in figuring out where to look.

The movie succeeds on two core levels – the look and the story. The 2D rendering gives the movie a real old-school, almost comic-book feel, enhanced by the lack of contour lines in the film, giving the images a layered look, like paper or fabric pasted on backgrounds. In an era where we expect to be dazzled by animation – look at this year’s Oscar winner Zootopia, with its absurdly realistic rendering of animal fur, or Best Animated Short winner Piper‘s rendering of water – Long Way North delights with its minimalism. It’s a throwback in a good way, with an animation ethos like that of The Triplets of Belleville, where simplicity is given to us as an alternative to the near-perfection of Pixar. Once Sasha gets out of her parents’ dank mansion and into the world, the pictures explode with vibrant colors and sweeping fills that look painted on canvas.

The story is the real selling point in Long Way North, as it takes the coming-of-age framework and gives it a few more adult twists, even darker ones as Sasha and the crew face real life-or-death struggles as they approach the North Pole. Sasha is the center of the entire story and the only fully-realized character in the film, but her arc is more than just “spoiled kid meets adversity” or “child never gives up on dreams.” You know she’s not going to die in the Arctic, but the writers succeed in making her path from home to the Pole and back again matter in a way that gives us drama and tension without feeling forced, while also striking the right balance between rewarding Sasha’s blind faith in her grandfather and making her feel the consequences of the risks she’s taken.

The script itself has some really silly, avoidable mistakes in it. After an accident aboard the ship, one of the sailors rues the loss of all of their penicillin … which wasn’t discovered until about forty years after the time of this film. One scene has a character giving Sasha CPR, even though that technique was also decades away from invention. The Northeast Passage itself had already been sailed before the time of the story as well, by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after several partial expeditions by Russian sailors. There’s even a glitch where the title of a book that’s part of the plot changes (by one word). It’s all rather sloppy, which is jarring in a film that looks so clean.

My daughter is a fan of any film that has a female protagonist, especially one who saves the day through cleverness or perseverance, and she loved Long Way North even though the opening exposition is a little confusing. I was more drawn in by the lush feel of the film at first, and didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as she was until the first third or so was over, and Sasha was in the small port town where she boards the mercenary ship. I would probably still recommend this over The Red Turtle, which was nominated for the Oscar over Long Way North, because it’s so much more accessible, with a better literal story (instead of TRT‘s more metaphorical one), and a brighter feast for the eyes as well. And in a related story, I’m hoping to catch My Life as a Zucchini, the only one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year I haven’t seen yet, when it plays here in Wilmington this weekend.

I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore.

So I’m told that the new movie I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore isn’t technically a movie, because Netflix bought the film at January’s Sundance Festival and released it directly to its streaming service, bypassing a theatrical release entirely. That means it’s ineligible for annual movie awards and (most) critics’ lists. I don’t think the movie was going to end up earning Oscar nods, but it might have been on some top ten lists given its indie cred and noir-farcical feel, along with a pretty great performance by Elijah Wood.

Melanie Lynskey plays the protagonist, Ruth, a frumpy, meek post-op nurse who lives alone, is constantly put-upon or merely stepped-on, and comes home from the Worst Day Ever to find that someone broke into her house and stole her laptop and her grandmother’s silver. The police are indifferent and even blame her* a bit for the break-in, giving zero reason for her to expect to ever see her stuff again. She had location-tracking software on her laptop, however, and when her phone tells her the laptop has been turned on and is located about a ten-minute drive away, she recruits her martial arts-obsessed neighbor, Tony, to go get it back … which leads them into one semi-incompetent escapade after another until people start getting shot.

* Unrelated: last year, we had a false alarm at our house for unknown reasons, but the police ended up getting to the house before we could return and call them off. The officer who went through the house was really unpleasant to us after, saying we’d left “every door unlocked,” and all but calling us idiots. While we have certainly made the mistake of leaving one door unlocked, there’s one door that we never open and that is always locked, one he claimed was left unlocked … which it wasn’t. So I probably related to Ruth a little more than usual when the cop was talking down to her.

I keep seeing references to this film as “neo-noir,” but it’s noirish, at best, and is too comical, with protagonists and antagonists too inept, to really qualify as noir. Ruth and Tony are just amateurs, and they get drunk on the success of the laptop retrieval mission. When they get closer to the bumbling, violent idiots behind the burglary, things get more serious, except that the gang literally can’t shoot straight, and we get a Fargo-esque screwup that leaves a few people dead and Ruth running for her life from the big baddie, played by David Yow (lead singer of the Jesus Lizard). The tone definitely gets darker as the film goes on, but less in a Touch of Evil sort of way, more in a Pulp Fiction holy-shit-people-are-dying-horrible-deaths way.

There is a broader theme underlying I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore that takes it beyond mere indie black-comedy territory – that people today are losing their empathy. Ruth views the burglary as the greatest violation in a day of minor violations, and thinks the problem is just that people are assholes (her word for it, not that I disagree). And when she confronts some of the people who were assholes to her, only one, Tony, actually sets about proving her wrong. There’s no answer to the questions of where our empathy went, or how to get it back, but as the foundational observation for an inept crime caper film, it works quite well.

By the way, Lynskey’s first major role in anything was in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, where she played Pauline Parker, who murdered her mother with the help of her friend Juliet Hulme. The director of that film was Peter Jackson, who later directed the Lord of the Rings films, starring … Elijah Wood. Hulme was played by another then-unknown actress, Kate Winslet. And you probably know who Juliet Hulme is, but not by that name: She was released from prison after serving her five-year term, changed her name to Anne Perry, and became a best-selling author of historical detective fiction.