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Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Square (2017)

This is a movie that I found to be disturbing on a number of levels.  It demonstrates the value of seeking out the Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees, or finding the international film winners that never really get a staging in the United States.
The writer and director of this film,  Ruben Östlund seems fascinated by the life cycle of a bad decision. A well-to-do museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) who is handsome, successful, and likable is at the center of this movie, and the bad decision is his to make.  His cell phone is stolen and he takes it upon himself to get restitution.  He knows the building it is in, so he writes a threatening letter, and stuffs every mailbox in the building, thereby setting a ball of consequences in motion.
Then there is the question of what is art.  The “square” of the film’s title is a new art installation, a simple physical border (four meters by four meters) that’s etched in front of the museum and proclaimed to be “a sanctuary of trust and caring ... within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  The ramifications of Christian's distraction with his escalating mistake is to allow a number of future mistakes to occur, Why do people get away with behavior if it is thought to be art?  Why does no one act?  The movie is a bit of performance art itself, raising more questions than it answers.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Silent Child (2017)

This film is nominated in the Live Action Shorts category, which is one of my absolute favorite categories, that if you don't pay attention to finding these films you would almost never see otherwise.  They have the advantage of being able to tell the story that they want with actors, rather than being constrained by the actual people involved, as happens in a documentary.
This one may be a tad heavy handed, but I think it rings true.  A family has a deaf child, one who has gradually lost her hearing and it seems that no one really noticed until she did not comply with them.  The fact that she never talked seems to have eluded them, and continues to elude at least the mother.  She so desires a normal child that she is willing to let her deaf child be miserable.  And alone, completely alone.  It is so sad and so believable that this is my choice to win in this category.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

This Academy Award nominee is streaming on Netflix and is a really interesting story about the case of Abacus Federal Savings, a bank catering to New York’s Chinese immigrant community that became the only U.S. lender to face criminal charges stemming from the 2008 financial crisis. Large-scale institutions like Wells Fargo and JP Morgan Chase escaped criminal prosecution for their role in the nationwide mortgage meltdown, but with comparatively tiny Abacus it was another matter. Prosecutors, the film argues, unfairly chose to make an example out of it.
The film’s protagonists are Thomas Sung, his wife Hwei Lin and their four daughters—Vera, Jill, Chanterelle and Heather—owners of Abacus. Thomas, a Chinese immigrant himself, founded the bank in the 1980s to provide credit to fellow community members who struggled to obtain loans from traditional lenders.  It was a practice that made them vulnerable, but that also served their community in a way that traditional banks could not.
However, in 2009, by which time daughter Jill had taken over running Abacus from her father, the bank discovered one of its loan officers had been forging information on mortgage applications and sought kickbacks from a borrower. Instead of burying the misconduct, they brought it to the attention of regulators.  That was an error that came back to bite them.  Their culture dictated that when wronged, you fight for your honor, and so they spent a small fortune fighting the government.
 The film explores the why of it, as well as raising frank questions about fairness, and the prejudices that might have driven the prosecution.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Loveless (2017)

Let me start off by saying that this is an excellent movie that has so many great things to say about what happens when you do not put your children first in your life.  The cinematography is fantastic, and the state of modernity mixed with decay s so beautifully portrayed as to not be off putting.
However, if there was an award for the bleakest family depicted in an Oscar nominated movie, this would win.  That is saying something, because the competition in that category is remarkably stiff, what with I, Tonya and The Florida Project in the mix.  Frankly, Frances McDormand's character in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, who says angrily to her daughter "I hope you get raped" in response to her daughter saying that would happen to her if she could not get the car, and then it does actually happen isn't even in contention this year.  This is the worst.
It was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and it comes to us from Russia.  The reviews that I read ahead of time take a 10,000 foot view on how it reflects on the state of the modern Russian state and the culture therein.  That may well be the case, but for me it was hard to focus on that because of how completely horrible the two parents of this shy and awkward preteen.  What unfolds after they fight over who will take him in the divorce is both shocking and believable. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Internment of Japanese Americans, 1942

In an era where we have a president and a controlling party that are eager to take away our civil liberties, I want to reflect on the fact that we have not always done the right thing.  Do not reassure yourself with those thoughts.  This is such a horrible chapter in our history, and one to remember because amongst other things, the rights and privileges of people who have immigrated to this country are being called into question.  So best that we remember past mistakes in order to prevent them in the future.

The internment of Japanese Americans was one of the most blatant restrictions on civil liberties in our history.  Two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 ordering all Japanese-Americans to evacuate the West Coast. This resulted in the relocation of approximately 120,000 people, many of whom were American citizens, to one of 10 internment camps located across the country. Traditional family structure was upended within the camp, as American-born children were solely allowed to hold positions of authority. Some Japanese-American citizens of were allowed to return to the West Coast beginning in 1945, and the last camp closed in March 1946.  Ansel Adams, a Western photographer best known for his photos of national parks, provided some of the best lasting images of this time.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Washington's First Inaugural Address (1789)

This President's Day holiday falls exactly on George Washington's actual birthday, and I am going to take a page out of history in order to better reflect on the decay of a mission set by the Founding Fathers in our most modern age.  When a President has voiced the words of an oligarch to state that to disagree with him is treason.  They are largely all a disgrace to the men who set forth our fragile democracy.
From his first inaugural address:
By the article establishing the executive department it is made the duty of the President "to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is to be given. It will be more consistent with those circumstances, and far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me, to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them. In these honorable qualifications I behold the surest pledges that as on one side no local prejudices or attachments, no separate views nor party animosities, will misdirect the comprehensive and equal eye which ought to watch over this great assemblage of communities and interests, so, on another, that the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire, since there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Garden Party (2017)

I really loved this nominee for Best Short Animated film.  One of my sons thought it was just too crass, but I disagree completely.  Here is the scoop.
Frogs and toads abound in this remarkable short by six talented French artists,  all of whom are in touch with their playful side if the trailer is any indication. The film uses the amphibians as narrative devices for exploring a scene and creating a puzzle that hooks the viewer with a slowly unfolding story.  Impressive work has been dedicated to creating the external pool and shrubbery and the internal dining room and study. The quality of CG work is outstanding, including attention to materials, photorealism, lighting and physics simulations. Aesthetics and composition are a pleasure to watch.  The story is told wordlessly, as the toads and frogs hop through the indoors and outdoors.
What makes the film work so well? The unfolding surprises of the background story help create suspense, hooking the viewer and slowly changing the tone and theme of the film to a genre movie. They also create a contrast with the animal kingdom, which is completely oblivious to it, and continues on its own parallel narrative lines. An emphasis on irreverent humor and creativity adds a lot of spice to the short.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Post (2017)

This is specifically about the publication of information that was at the heart of the Pentagon Papers, the classified documents that were stolen and then published first by the New York Times, and then by a number of publications nationwide, including the Washington Post.
 The movie tells the story of the Pentagon Papers, choosing to focus on two key players in the unfolding battle between the free press and a White House that struggled to keep the secrets of how our government handled the Vietnam War under wraps.  The two central figures of this story are Kay Graham (Meryl Streep in a beautifully nuanced and decidedly unsexy performance.  She is breathtaking), the beleaguered publisher of the Post, doing a good job that too many men around her consider her incapable of doing, and Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor of the Post, and the man who never questions whether of not they should publish. The courts are used by the Nixon White House in an effort to shut down a press that is free and open.
Sound familiar?  The story is at once of a challenge to the free press in 1971 but also reflects on what is going on in 2017. As the President of the United States challenges different journalistic institutions, mostly through his Twitter feed, but also in speeches, and “truth” seems to have become a looser term than ever before, “The Post” is designed to be viewed as a commentary on today as much as yesterday, maybe even more. It’s fascinating to consider a film this well-constructed and packed with talented performers that would have played completely differently just two years ago.

Friday, February 16, 2018

DeKalb Elementary (2017)

If there is anything that can influence on public opinion about the need for a more rational approach to gun laws, I do not know what it is.  The number of children shot this year, 2018, across the country is staggering.  As of February 5th, when we were only 36 days into the new year, there have been 94 children shot in 57 separate incidents, and 30 children are dead.  Almost one a day.  Then there are those who do not get shot or killed, but watch someone shoot and kill people around them.  They fear for their lives, they question what they could have done, some will have survivor guilt, some will have lost friends or classmates.  The violence just ripples out across a school and a community.  But as far as I can tell, nothing changes that.  The singularly incorrect interpretation of what the 2nd amendment means just keeps on wrecking loss across our country and absolutely nothing changes that.  We as citizens do not demand a change, and our bought and paid for by special interest elected officials will certainly do nothing until their very jobs are at stake.  So we live with this as our unique reality in an otherwise first world country.
This film, nominated in the Short Action film category, is a reenactment of an averted school shooting.  It will not likely change any minds, but it is a powerful statement none-the-less.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Coco (2017)

Oh my goodness, this is maybe the best movie I have seen during this wild and wonderful season of watching all the Oscar nominated films.  I just loved it, and even though I have only seen one of the other nominees in the category of Best Animated film, it will be hard for something else to knock it off my choice it the category.  The story is that Miguel is growing up with his extended family in Santa Cecilia, Mexico.  His family us pathologically anti-music because Miguel's great great grandfather was a musician who went of to pursue his dreams with a band and never returned.  Miguel has inherited his passion for guitar, and he has been secretly practicing and plans to compete in a local contest on the eve of the Day of the Dead.  One thing leads to another, a little magic sweeps him up, and he finds himself on the other side, in the land of the dead, and has to work to get himself back to the land of the living.  There is a plot twist or two, nothing too outrageous, and the whole package is charming, uplifting, and will make you want to plan your next trip to Mexico as soon as possible in order to immerse yourself in it's rich culture.