The 2016 Oscar Nominated Shorts: Animated

We didn’t go see last year’s Oscar-nominated animated shorts; I couldn’t get The Boy interested. This year, however, he lead the way, suggesting that, perhaps, his schedule had something to do with his reluctance last year. (Last year we only saw 13 movies in January and February!) This year’s schedule consisted of ten shorts that, overall, range from the not very bad to the not very good. Well, okay, that’s not entirely fair: Let me say that while they were generally entertaining, there wasn’t a lot of what we would call great work—but neither was much of it awful. In other words, we found ourselves neither “blown away” by any of it (with perhaps one exception), nor grossly put-off by any of it.

Damning with faint praise out of the way, there were ten films, all of which were basically appropriate for children, except for one which was shown last so you could vacate the theater, as needed.

The ten shorts were:

Hindusim is interesting.
This isn’t sacrilegious, I hope.

“Sanjay’s Super Team”: A cute short found at the front of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, which we had just seen. I thought it was a charming story—about an Americanized east Indian Boy who swaps in his father’s dieties for his favorite superheroes—and the stylized animation was effective and appropriate. This was The Flower’s favorite, she said, due to the colors used which were extremely vivid. (There may have been some Pixar bias involved.)

Funny short, though.
The world of tomorrow will be full of poorly-drawn wonders.

“The World of Tomorrow”: Reminding me of nothing so much as 2014’s “The Missing Scarf”, this is a simple stick-figure drawn sci-fi story that is weirdly dark. In it, a little girl is confronted by herself from the future. Not even herself, but the nth clone of herself, who details the weird direction the world has taken in terms of cloning, consciousness, and time travel in the future—to a child who seems to be about five years old.

Poignant.
The bear story inside the Bear Story.

“Bear Story”: One of The Boy’s favorites, done in a deceptively crude stop-motion style, then in a more sophisticated story-within-a-story stop-motion style. This is about a (anthropomorphized) bear who has constructed a marvellous nickelodeon-type device that he lets people on the street peep through for change. The story-within-a-story is about a bear who’s living his (anthropomorphized) life in an apartment with his family until he’s dragged off by circus goons.

Great stuff.
Brostronauts.

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos”: A story that was the favorite of both myself and The Boy, and sort of surprisingly sentimental for something coming from Russia. Two pals, excelling in the space program, have nothing but absolute love of space and the space program—and each other. It was almost weird to see something so pure, so genuinely good-natured and so philanthropic (in the sense of “loving man”) in a movie theater.

Yowch.
Disemboweling is involved. Not at this exact moment, mind you.

“Prologue”: The final of the five nominated films, and the last one shown, this is the story of, as The Boy put it, some guys who decide to conquer the world by stripping down naked and walking in opposite directions until they’ve attacked everything in their path. This is not an accurate summary, but it’s a funny one. It is, essentially, six minutes of four soldiers murdering each other. Two of the soldiers are naked—presumably the Spartans (who are fighting Athenians) but of course they didn’t actually fight naked. (I’ve heard some groups fought naked, but I would need severe convincing of this. I have heard—and I find it plausible—that people are very averse to being stabbed, even more than being shot, which makes fighting naked something it’d be hard to find volunteers for.)

I suspect “Prologue” will win. It’s very dramatically animated by the mad genius who has been struggling with the “unfinished classic” The Thief and The Cobbler for over fifty years. It’s also gross and violent while being anti-war—and has penises and entrails. (I guess you could say I don’t think much of the Academy.)

The “honorable mention” five:

Grammatically speaking.
You mean you “If you WERE God”.

“If I Was God”: This was weird, both in its uneven animation and its sort of banal story. A kid fantasizes in junior high school biology about—honestly, I forget what. There was a mean girl, a girl he liked, frog entrails. I don’t know.

Must've been the first one. No trailers at the front of these things.
Looks cute.

“Taking Flight”: I think we just flat out missed this one.

Anthropomorphization is tricky.
Owls are villainous, potentially.

“The Short Story of a Fox and a Mouse”: A fable about saving your food rather than eating it, I guess. The kids were rather underwhelmed with the quality of the animation on this one. It looked like it had the potential to be good but was perhaps too low-budget. For me, though, the point of a fable is the moral of the story, which should be clever, or at least comprehensible, where this one really wasn’t.

Better than you'd expect a story about a traffic light to be.
The Loneliest Stoplight: The Salad Days

“The Loneliest Stoplight”: A Plymptoon! You gotta admire a guy like Bill Plympton, who turned down Disney’s Aladdin. Well, I don’t know, maybe you don’t: He turned down a multi-million dollar deal because he didn’t want Disney to own his ideas. I think it’s fair to say, though, that Disney wasn’t going to be using many of the ideas he’s made his career on, like infidelity, smoking LOTS of cigarettes, or even (as in this case) Patton Oswalt as a traffic light in the middle of nowhere. This is the sort of thing where you see it and go “OK, I don’t think I care where this is going.” But the guy knows what he’s doing and by the end, you find yourself rooting for the little stoplight and his well-meaning ambitions. (The Flower said, “That’s Ratatouille!”)

It’s interesting to note that Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which Plympton did a segment of, was completely snubbed this year. I guess I’m not surprised, especially from the organization that nominated Anomalisa.

Weak year.
Same guys who did the fox and mouse thing.

The last film (before “Prologue”) was “Catch It”, which was also rather weak. It was basically a variation on Blue Sky’s Scrat (not nominated or even short-listed) which itself is just a variant of the Coyote and Road Runner .

So, I think we’d at least agree that of the ten films they were considering, the nominated five were the best. But there wasn’t a lot here to knock our socks off.

The Good Dinosaur

It was The Barbarienne’s birthday—she turned ten—and she leapt at the opportunity to see the latest Pixar flick, The Good Dinosaur. The Boy and I had been wary because—while the movie has good reviews (77/68) RT, they’re not great reviews and certainly not Pixar level reviews. (Inside Out, for example, has a whopping 98/89.) This produced a great deal of anxiety for The Flower, for whom Pixar has been a Great Golden God all her life, up until Cars 2. For her, a so-so movie would be a terrible blow.

Well, The Barbariennte loved it (but she also loved Cars 2), and The Boy actually liked it better than Inside Out, which doesn’t surprise me. (I couldn’t have related to Inside Out as a 20-year-old childless young man.) And The Flower? Well, she was relieved; for her, the magic was back.

I sure don't remember it.
I don’t think this scene is actually in the movie.

That said, to the extent that it was gone, the magic isn’t really back. The Good Dinosaur is a rather less artistically successful, sparser Finding Nemo.

Almost all Pixar movies are basically a house of cards: The implications of Toy Story, for example, are quite horrifying, from the immortality of toys to the notion that Sid’s creative destruction makes him a bad person with poor future prospects. Cars, Wall-E, A Bug’s Life—all of these universes work in spite of (rather than because of) the premises of their construction. The combination of attention to detail, steady introduction of vibrant characters, and general cleverness has allowed them to get away with it.

But not here, at least not for me (and increasingly, The Boy, over time). The basic premise is lovely: The comet that wiped out the meteors, instead misses, and a few million years later our heroes are dinosaurs who are essentially farmers in the Old West. Our hero, Arlo, is the runtiest apatosaurus, having trouble making his mark in the family when a blunder gets his father killed, Lion King-style. Another mishap throws Arlo far away from home with his bete noir—which as it turns out is a human boy (who acts like a dog)—and there’s your picture.

So. Yeah. It’s a road picture, where Arlo meets people on his journey homes, and learns to love his little human fido.

Look at the horrified look on the dinosaur's face.
Does this seem…odd…to anyone else?

It’s enjoyable. If it were a Blue Sky picture, I’d have been pleasantly surprised, I suppose. But certain things really didn’t work for me.

First, the terrain is photoreal. Which is fine, but the dinosaur were very cartoonish, and the two mixed (I thought) poorly. You can judge for yourself from the above still, although it’s worse in motion. I don’t have a good solution for this problem, mind you: They managed in Nemo by backing off the realism a little bit, I think. Whatever, this looked fake. Which is a weird thing to say about a wholly CGI movie, I guess.

Second, the dinosaurs are farmers. Which, okay. But they’re dinosaurs. They didn’t evolve into bipedal reptilian humanoids. They’re still quadrupeds. But somehow they’re making bricks and building silos.

Get it? 'cause it's not popped?
Here, Arlo enjoys some primitive popcorn.

Third, humans are not dogs. I totally get what they were going for here: In this dinosaur-dominated story, humans never had the chance to evolve, or haven’t evolved yet, so they’re sorta dogs. But they’re dogs with opposable thumbs, the superiority of which is demonstrated on a number of occasions. Yet our heroes basically have hooves.

Fourth, Finding Nemo was about a neurotic who was worried about the world, and his journey to discover the world isn’t quite as dangerous as he thought, and also (of course) his son’s journey toward self-sufficiency. This is sort of about the latter, but it’s much less convincingly told.

Fifth, the nature of the story is to be rather violent, but the limitations of the genre and the PG-rating requires the violent to be rather…non-violent. So the fighting is bloodless, yet involves punctured wings and tyrannosaurus teeth. It was rather weird. There’s one point where Arlo saves a creature after a storm, and it’s immediately eaten by evil predatory pteranodons, and I thought to myself, “Wait, did we just witness a murder?” The Boy also commented on that scene.

Again, I didn’t hate it. But the delicate balancing act that typifies Pixar’s best work is missing here. The Boy’s opinion of it started high, but dropped rapidly over a few days. The Flower and The Barb enjoyed it, however, so I count that as a good thing.

I’m just not interested in seeing it again.

Dude.
I did enjoy Sam Elliot as The Stranger ‘saurus, who narrates the whole thing.

Boy and the World

What we have in this animated Brazilian Oscar nominee is a really dumb, typical environmental, somebody-do-something tirade wrapped in a very aesthetic, worthwhile story of a boy searching for his father in a hostile world that is populated by friendly people. The director has stated that he was making a documentary and it turned into an animated sci-fi cartoon just sorta natural-like, which is almost good news, because as an odd, dystopic sci-fi it works really well. The bad news aspect is about five minutes or so of live-action footage of industrial goings-on on earth which is badly misplaced and ridiculously trite to boot.

But that’s only five minutes, so let’s talk about the good stuff.

Part Blade Runner, part your 8 year old's art project.
Like this dystopic, but not far off, view of a Brazilian city.

Mom, Dad and Boy live on the farm. Things get rough (as they will, on the farm) so Dad goes to the big city to get a factory job. But Boy misses Dad, so he goes on a quest to find him, starting with a cotton farm. This is where I began to think this was sci-fi, since cotton farms don’t work that way, as far as I know, with giant trees cotton gets plucked from. (Cotton plants are low; that’s why picking cotton is so horrible. But maybe they gots different cotton down Brasil way.) From the cotton farm, he finds his way into the city and, I guess to what you’d call a cotton mill. His quest continues from there, taking some dark turns.

There were two dumb aspects to this: First, every person Boy runs into is good, unless they’re part of The System, which is, I don’t know, a thing full of riot cops (who, I guess, are not people) and movie stars (who make you want stuff you can’t afford, maybe). I didn’t mind this part of it: As science-fiction it works.

There's just no pleasing some people.
Though, how can you not love modern shipping? It’s AMAZING!

Then there’s the aforementioned dumb stuff, with actual “documentary” footage woven into the movie that includes real factories, American money, and other unrelated material. Being an artist of course means never having to explain this progression:

“Life is so horrible on the farm we gotta go get horrible factory jobs.”
“Our horrible factory jobs are so horrible.”
“Oh, no, we’re losing our horrible factory jobs!”

Nor even trying to understand it or apportion responsibility. There are faceless villains—people with money—and good-hearted peasants.

But, set that aside, and you have an interesting and entertaining movie that makes good use of its primitive aesthetic. The characters are largely stick figures. The landscapes take the simple line drawings to interesting places, however. There’s no real dialog: When words are spoken, they’re in Portuguese, but backwards, as I had to inform a few somewhat disgruntled moviegoers. There were signs in the movie, too, also in Portuguese, but upside-down mirror-image Portuguese.

Can't buy a good aesthetic.
Isn’t that nice? OK, I might be a little pissed if I were one of the 40,000 people who worked on “Inside Out”, but still.

I can’t imagine actual dialogue would’ve helped this movie in the least. It works, to the extent that it works, as an emotional cri de coeur. If it’s not obvious from what I’ve written so far, this isn’t really a kid’s movie. It’s melancholy and dark, with a sort of existential ennui pervading. There were some kids in the audience; they seemed restless and a little confused. I would’ve liked to take The Flower but she was busy starting a new art project, and those generally take precedence for her.

But The Boy and I liked it—just keep it in the sci-fi/fantasy realm in your head, and you’ll be fine.

NOTE: These guys aren't happy.
Watch some TV, maybe. It’ll make you happy, like these guys.

The Big Lebowski (Again!)

Maybe it’s because I was under the weather, having picked up this deadly virus from The Boy after sharing popcorn with him at Mockingjay—because, honestly, I’m so used to my kid drooling and wiping their noses on me when they’re sick, I figure I’m immune—or maybe it’s because it’s the 40th time I’ve seen it, but in this latest showing of The Big Lebowski I took The Flower to, I found myself noticing the seams and contrivances a lot.

I’ll probably only watch it 20 or 30 more times before I get tired of it. Heh.

It was especially cool to have seen this just before seeing The Maltese Falcon in the TCM series, as Lebowski is a ’40s film noir transported to the L.A. of the ’90s.

But apart from that, I don’t actually have a lot to say.

Careful, man, there's a beverage here!
Except: Yeah, well, that’s, like, your opinion, man.

 

The Lady in a Van

I had some serious reservations going into this Maggie Smith vehicle (heh), looking as it does like the most Oscar-bait-y of Oscar-bait films, and probably the sort of thing that trots out tired old British class warfare tropes and maybe even some typical anti-religious stuff. And, well, it sort of does all that, but not as much as you might think, and it manages to succeed because it so carefully treads the line between sentimentalism and cynicism, while giving us characters who are somehow relatable despite the severity of their flaws.

Our two principles are, of course, Dame Maggie Smith as “Miss Shepard”, the Lady who inconveniences the nouveau-bourgeoise by parking her shabby van in front of their houses, and Alex Jennings as modestly successful playwright Alan Bennett who finds his living space increasingly encroached upon by the itinerant ex-nun.

Really, they don't have much fun.
This picture could give you the completely wrong idea about the film.

The movie wisely never tries to give us a “And that’s why the Lady is a tramp” moment. We instead get moments of pointillism, her history revealed in fragments that in turn reveal a character who is abused by life in some ways, and who abuses life in her own fashion. The trigger moment happens in the film’s opening, when a (younger) Shepard is driving and gets into an accident. She then, apparently, lives the rest of her life incognito, on the run from the law.

Which is, of course, ridiculous, but apparently happened.

The movie uses a couple of fairly effective conceits: Bennett talks to himself, with Jennings literally appearing on screen in two places to represent the living Bennett vs. the writing Bennett; Also, the living Bennett will break the fourth wall to chide the writing Bennett for taking liberties with the story. The actual Bennett, who worked with director Nicholas Hytner on The Madness of King George and The History Boys, even makes a very meta-appearance at the end, watching as they film the final scene.

Hayley Mills
The actor and the playwright. Through the power of movie magic not seen since “The Parent Trap”, Jennings plays two aspects of the playwright’s personality.

There can be no doubts where the actual Bennett stands, of course, as he suggests that the poor were neglected in the ’70s and England—but even more now, somehow, proving, I guess, that no matter how much money is spent, it’s in no ways remediating of the populace in general, who are to be pilloried and shamed for not doing enough. However, Bennett is good enough a writer to leave those comments for interviews outside the movie.

There’s also no great self-congratulatory talk here. We don’t get any idea that Bennett likes Shepard, nor even that his actions are done out of anything more noble than severe English diffidence, bordering on cowardice. He comes into conflict with the social welfare system, and clearly doesn’t think much of it—which puts the actual Bennett in the awkward position of just bitching that we should “do more” about the poor, without any real concept of what that should be. And he particularly rejects the system’s notion of him as the “primary caregiver” of this woman.

In America, she’d probably have sued him (or some activists would have sued him on her behalf) after a few weeks in the driveway. Eminent domain and all.

Fabulous, Spectacular, Truly Classy Van
In America, every homeless person has an inner Trump.

Anyway, point is, Bennett has a lot of misanthropy to go around, from her, to his neighbors, to himself, and to the blackmailer (played by Jim Broadbent) that he changed from a vagrant to a cop—a change he didn’t break the fourth wall to tell us about. But he has a fair amount for himself as well, which somehow endeared him to me, just as Maggie Smith’s relentless lack of concern for whether people liked her, and her absolute rejection of the notion she was being helped by Bennett, made her more endearing.

At the same time, I can see why that might push the Rotten Tomatoes down into the 70s for audiences, where critics rate it in the 90s. I don’t know: I guess I felt the story worked hard to portray difficult people unapologetically and with dignity. That grants a lot of points in my book.

The Boy, however, also liked it quite a bit, and was also pleasantly surprised, so you might check it out.

Alas.
No Oscar for Dame Maggie, though.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

We dragged our butts to the discount theater to finally catch this final Hunger Games movie, finally laying to rest the ghost of Philip Seymour Hoffman. And by “we”, I mean The Boy and I, as The Flower could not be less concerned about the fate of Katniss and Co. She had dragged us to the previous premiere, but this was primarily due to wanting to see it with her friends, who are fans of the book. For her own tastes, she lost interest after the kids stopped killing each other.

Ok, honey, stare blankly into the camera for 5 minutes.
Good times.

I guess I don’t blame her much, although I’m not a fan of the plot, generally, and don’t think it makes much sense. The characters aren’t really great, though we can’t lay too much of that at the feet of the late Mr. Hoffman, the second anniversary of whose death we have just passed. Woody Harrelson (as Hamish) is required to read lines that were obviously Plutarch’s, so that’s weird. But the whole thing feels hollow, somehow.  Julianne Moore takes on a more sinister cast in this one, but it’s mostly due to assertions—there’s not a lot of time for the characters to breathe generally. In fact, everyone seems to have very little screen time here, as the main action takes place as an invasion of the Capital District, with a bunch of often previously unknown characters.

This is doubtless “realistic” relative to having the same troupe of people go through wildly divergent roles they’re not really suited for, but it doesn’t make for great dramatic weight.

Elizabeth Banks once again turns in a stellar job, though, even with the minimal amount of screen time she has. Her character, rather unexpectedly, evolves into one of the most memorable and deep characters in the four movies.

Way low key for Effie.
I don’t remember her dressing this conservatively, though.

And there’s not a lot unexpected here, down to the movie’s final “twist” and 30-minute overlong ending.

As much as I like Ms. Lawrence as an actress, Katniss herself is rather unpleasant. She’s a reluctant hero, which is fine, but everything she does is with this grim “let’s get it over with” attitude. Again, maybe that’s some sort of realism, but there’s no fun to be had. I also kept looking for some drama out of the love triangle, so central to the story, but it almost came out like The Notebook, where the character’s choice—the Big Choice of Her Life Which Should Be Validated—doesn’t seem to hinge on anything in particular.

It’s not even that we didn’t like it. The Boy liked it more than I, and felt that the action was reasonably competently done (though he doesn’t expect genuine competence out of Hollywood action scenes), but I’m really just sort of grousing about the story as they chose to portray it. I think—and the box office seems to agree—that the series peaked with the second film. And maybe they shouldn’t have made a fourth one.

But you’ll probably want to watch it if you’ve seen the first three. It’s not the deadly grind that Return of the King and especially Revenge of the Sith were. It just seems to plod along in its inevitability and offer little in the way of redemption or joy for our characters.

Wheee!
Archery is fun. Not that you’d know that from this.