You don't hear the name Oscar Romero much anymore. Time was, though, El Salvador's Archbishop was in the news both for being a good man and — as happens so often to religious men of conscience — a martyr. It was on the 24th of March, 1980, that Archbishop Romero was assassinated, causing a world-wide furor.
I've already argued that "Song of the Sea" was overlooked by the Motion Picture Academy, which awarded its Best Animated Feature Oscar to the Disney film "Big Hero 6." Following is a transcription of the "Song of the Sea" review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
When I was a kid, anything marked “Made in Japan” meant something cheaply made. Toy cars my naval officer father brought home from the Korean War ended up breaking within minutes – and not just because of my penchant for holding junior demolition derbies.
All that changed, of course. For the past several decades, Japanese cars and motorcycles have been among the world’s best. As have been televisions, DVD players and other assorted electronics.
In terms of movies, the Japanese still produce my favorite works of animation. Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003. Miyazaki and the production company he founded, Studio Ghibli, have given us a sterling collection of anime features bearing such titles as “Princess Mononoke,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Castle in the Sky.”
Miyazaki, in fact, is the standard I use to gauge animation greatness. And even by that high standard, Irish filmmaker Tomm Moore fares well. Moore’s latest offering, “Song of the Sea” – which opens today at the Magic Lantern – was nominated for an Oscar. Its loss, though, is more a sign of Hollywood provincialism than any lack of quality.
Based on a story dreamed up by Moore, and fleshed out both by Moore and writer Will Collins, “Song of the Sea” involves traditional Scottish and Irish folktales involving “selkies” – creatures that live as seals in the ocean but as humans on land. The central plot device of John Sayles’ memorable 1994 film “The Secret of Roan Inish” is a selkie.
In “Song of the Sea,” Moore’s plot revolves around the family of a lighthouse keeper (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). On the night the keeper’s wife gives birth to their second child, a daughter named Saoirse, the woman – a selkie – is called back to the sea. Six years later, the keeper is still in mourning, his son Ben is resentful of his younger sister, Saoirse has never spoken a word and their grandmother is determined to take the children with her to live in Dublin.
Granny does so just when Saoirse is beginning to discover her own ties to the sea. So when Ben decides to sneak back home, Saoirse insists on tagging along. And together, the two must overcome a gaggle of obstacles – not the least of which is a band of owls bent on kidnapping Saoirse and the witch to whom the owls owe allegiance. Things grow ever more complicated when the children encounter other strange creatures and when the sea begins calling Saoirse, too.
What underscores Moore’s story are the strong emotional ties, especially the link between the siblings that grows as Ben gradually begins to realize the love he feels for his sister. Add this to some of the most beautiful animated backdrops – of the Irish countryside, of the Irish coast and particularly of the Irish sea – and you have not just an animated movie but an actual moving work of art.
One that’s just as good as, if not better than, anything made in Hollywood – or in Japan.
One of the talented guys behind one my favorite web series, "Transolar Galactica," has a particularly twisted sense of humor. So twisted that it neatly matches mine. That's why I am offering the embed below, which is Adam Harum's mashup of movie trailers into something greater than both: "Fifty Shades of Gandalf the Grey." Enjoy.
Above: Co-director Nicholas Hudak films a scene for the documentary "Where God Likes to Be."
When you're part of an ongoing event that attempts to attract, not to mention engage, the public, it's seldom easy to figure out how you're doing. Say, you're a restaurant that nobody goes to: Is it because the food sucks, the service sucks, the decor sucks or any combination of the above (including all of them).
The easiest solution: Just ask those who do seem to appreciate what you have to offer.
This year's Spokane International Film Festival was one of the most successful on record. Oh, we may have offered better lineups (as one of the festival programmers, I'll accept part of the blame). But the strange thing is, overall reactions to the 2015 films — based on the scores that viewers gave to individual screenings — were the highest in history.
More telling, it was difficult to attend any of the Magic Lantern showings because with the theater's two smallish houses — 100 and 33 seats, respectively — most of the programs sold out. Even the shows at the 204-seat AMC River Park Square house were packed.
So, yes, SpIFF 2015 did pretty well. But the board of directors — on which I serve — want the event to get even better. That's why festival director Pete Porter is offering all who attended a chance to comment on their experience. Porter is looking not only for what fest-goers liked but what they didn't like — and what they'd like to see in 2016.
The Oscars are gone and done with for another year. The effect for area moviegoers will still be reverberating on Friday, though, with both Oscar nominees and winners playing at the Magic Lantern (see post immediately below) and a second run of the winning Oscar animated feature for mainstream audiences. Friday's mainstream openings are as follows:
"Focus" (IMAX but no 3D, regular): Will Smith plays a con man who loses his head over an attractive blond partner. Or … does he? Does anyone remember "The Sting"? Or is that expecting too much from a contemporary audience?
"Lazarus Effect": Olivia Wilde lives up to her surname by playing a medical student whose revival from certain death takes a toll on everyone around her. Where's an exorcist when we really need one?
"Big Hero 6": Disney's inflatable superhero robot returns for another run. How many Oscars has the studio that Walt built won now, anyway? More to the point, how many has it deserved?
If you watched the Oscars broadcast last night, and you managed to say awake through the whole thing, you probably noted some of the more obvious winners. Namely, that Disney swept the animation awards: best short and feature.
The short went to "Feast," which is about a cute little dog — a dog — whose gluttony is the thing that helps his master find, and refind, true love. The feature award, more surprisingly, went to "Big Hero 6," a film about an inflatable robot and the young boy who invented him.
"Feast" would not have been my choice. I would probably have voted for "Me and My Moulton." But none of the animated shorts really moved me all that much, so I'm not complaining.
But the feature? I've seen four of the five nominees, and my choice would have been "Song of the Sea," which opens Friday at the Magic Lantern (along with "What We Do in the Shadows" and a second run of the Oscar winner for Foreign Language Film, "Ida"). Furthermore, this needs to be said: Its not winning is a travesty on par with "Shakespeare in Love" winning over "Saving Private Ryan."
"Big Hero 6" is a standard Disney product, telling the story of a clever young boy, his invention and how the two — along with friends — become heroic crime-fighters. "Song of the Sea" tells the tale of a young boy whose mother — a "selkie," half human, half seal — disappears on the night his sister is born, which causes him to resent the younger girl until her own secret self is revealed.
What sets "Song of the Sea" apart from almost any other animated film outside of Japan is the quality of the visuals: Each individual frame is a virtual painting in and of itself. I haven't seen such animated beauty since, perhaps, "Spirited Away."
Don't believe me? Go to the Lantern on Friday and see for yourself.
Film festivals traditionally offer up juried awards, which are honors that reflect the opinions of designated festival representatives. The Spokane International Film Festival is no different.
In recent years, though, every festival from SpIFF to Sundance has offered audiences the opportunity to say what they like, too. Thus the era of the Audience Awards was born. The Audience Awards for SpIFF 2015, as determined by those little slips of paper festival attendees turned in, are as follows:
"Jupiter Ascending," the latest film by the Wachowski siblings, has been playing for a couple of weeks now. And the world-wide box-office take of a mere $97.2 million ($38.5 million domestic take) is a bit underwhelming — especially for a film boasting a reported $176 million production budget.
That disappointing news, though, is likely as much caused by expectations as by any real reaction to the film. That's a point I key on in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, a transcription of which follows:
Fame and fortune are not, it has been proven time and again, always a good thing. We hope for it, we dream of it and some of us even work for it. But sometimes, if it comes, it carries burdens and expectations we aren’t equipped to handle.
Take M. Night Shyamalan as an example. With his third film, “The Sixth Sense,” Shyamalan became a sensation – riding an intriguing storyline and pristine production values to both critical and popular success. But belying the mantle of genius that had been bestowed upon him, Shyamalan proved with his subsequent, less and less successful movies that he wore the filmmaking equivalence of the emperor’s new clothes.
Now, consider the Wachowski siblings, Lana (formerly Larry) and Andy Wachowski hit it big with their second film, 1999’s “The Matrix” – that rare-but-powerful Hollywood blend of imagination, originality and quality. Like Shyamalan, the Wachowskis’ two “Matrix” sequels and their stand-alone follow-ups – “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas” – proved disappointing both with critics and fans.
Unlike Shyamalan, though, whose filmmaking quiver seems empty, the Wachowskis are merely proving to be … well, if not great then at least better than average. The evidence: their latest big-screen offering “Jupiter Ascending.”
Firmly sci-fi, a genre the Wachowskis specialize in, “Jupiter Ascending” is nearly as political a statement as the 2005 movie they wrote and produced: “V for Vendetta.” It involves the Abrasax family, controlling partners in a galactic business empire that buys, develops and harvests planets for … well, let’s just say the Abrasaxes adhere to the “Soylent Green” business model.
The family, sister Kalique and brothers Titus and Balem – the latter played by Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne – place their business interests aside to vie over a seemingly ordinary Earthling named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis). Jupiter, we gradually learn, is more than she seems – which, in her daily life, involves working as a toilet-cleaner with her extended Russian-American family. She is, actually, galactic royalty, a fact she becomes aware of only after the alien Abrasaxes and their minions try either to kidnap or kill her.
Thanks to the fighting skills of Caine Wise – a genetically engineered ex-soldier played by Channing Tatum – Jupiter stays alive, giving her time to figure out what the Abrasaxes are up to. And, with the help of Caine and a force of galactic police, to try to foil their plans.
All of this plays out competently enough. The acting is better than average, with Kunis and Tatum doing the obligatory mismatched-lovers dance, and Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton outshining them as the gleefully duplicitous and murderous Abrasax siblings. If it were directed by anyone else – Zack Snyder, perhaps – “Jupiter Ascending” would likely be judged as a quick-moving and clever, CGI-smooth cinematic space opera.
But this is the Wachowskis, you see, the pair responsible for a film that one reviewer called a “genuinely original vision of our cyberfuture.” And we expect more from those who, even if only once, give us something that feels completely and utterly fresh.
As you can see from the all the Interwebs chatter out there, trouble seems to be brewing at the "Fifty Shades of Grey" worksite. Amazing the furor a $265 million world-wide box-office take can cause. I know that if I had made that much on a reported $40 million production budget, I'd be upset.
Tongue. Held firmly. In cheek.
Thing is, no one other wants to be laughed at, especially not pretentious panderers of the arts. Laughed with, yes. Laughed at? Even Jon Stewart has a famous breaking point. No, these people — Universal Pictures, director Sam Taylor-Johnson and especially writer Erika Leonard (aka E.L. James) — want to be taken seriously.
Yet how can we? I have not read the books, so I cannot judge. I will, however, let other critics have their say:
Jesse Kornbluth, The Huffington Post: "As a reading experience, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is a sad joke, puny of plot, padded with conversations that are repeated five or six times and email exchanges that are neither romantic nor witty."
Jessica Reeves, Chicago Tribune: "Put simply, author E L James — who is now officially invulnerable to criticism because she has more money than God — is not a very good writer. Her dialogue is stilted, the descriptions of place overwrought, and the characters and plot so predictable that a reader could theoretically skip over several dozen pages of text and still be utterly unsurprised by new developments."
I could go on. But you get the point. Besides, I did see the movie. And that is bad enough.
The advantage that books — even bad books — have over movies is that they leave so much to the imagination. Even a writer as presumably clumsy as Leonard/James can present scenes that readers (particularly the impressionable ones) can embellish with their own blends of memory and fantasy. The problem for any filmmaker is how to best try to recapture a book's, mmmm, scenario — including theme and tone — visually.
Point is, such cinematic explorations are difficult to pull off. Even for talented filmmakers, something that Taylor-Johnson isn't particularly. And so what we end up with is a bunch of nudity, all of which plays coyly with genital areas (male and female), some heavy breathing and a few slaps with a "flogger."
Along with an ending that is as blatant an announcement of a sequel as has ever been filmed. Which is where this blog post began. If the two "Fifty Shades of …" sequels do get made, they might follow in the path of another recent popular book-to-film series: "The Hunger Games." The producers may change directors in mid-creation.
Which might not be a bad thing. It certainly can't hurt.
AMC has announced an addition to its Friday openings lineup:
"Old Fashioned": An independent film starring little-known actors, this Ohio-shot movie details the burgeoning love affair between an adventurous woman and a cautious, chaste man. Says movie critic Glenn Kenny, "It’s incredibly rare to see an American movie with a Christian perspective that’s more invested in philosophizing and empathizing than in eschatological pandering, and for that alone 'Old Fashioned' deserves commendation." Call it the anti-"Fifty Shades of Grey."
"The DUFF": After discovering she has been labeled a group's "DUFF" (dumb, ugly, fat friend), a high school senior tries to figure out the source of the designation. Hmmmm, maybe it's time to rescreen "Heathers."
"Hot Tub Time Machine 2": The three buddies return to do a sequel to the most title-says-it-all hit of 2010. I imagine the pitch meeting for this one didn't take long.
"Interstellar" (IMAX): On 3 p.m. Saturday, AMC River Park Square will give fans another chance to see Christopher Nolan's sci-fi hit on the theater's BIG screen. Holy space travel, Batman.
"Timbuktu": A village in northern Mali is shaken when a group of jihadist extremists take control and attempt to enforce their own fundamentalist version of Sharia law. Mauritania's Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.
Above: A still shot from Anna and Nicholas Hudak's award-winning documentary feature "Where God Likes to Be."
And just that fast, the 2015 Spokane International Film Festival is over. Those who attended (and many did) had the opportunity to see 50-some films — shorts, features and documentaries — from more than 20 countries, giving new meaning to the annual event's international aura.
Everyone who did attend has, presumably, a favorite among the entries. And the SpIFF jury, made up from the board of directors (on which I serve), the programmers and various area film educators and professionals, is no different. Only difference? The jury's choices carry the weight of authority (and is something the filmmakers can pin on their pajamas).
The jury winners of SpIFF 2015 are as follows:
Best of the NW Feature: Gold SpIFFy: "Where God Likes to Be" (Anna Hudak, Nicolas Hudak, Germany/USA); Silver SpIFFy: "Wildlike" (Frank Hall Green, USA)
Best of the NW Short: Gold SpIFFy: "The Package" (Dave Kotlan, USA); Silver SpIFFy: "Serenade" (Kendra Ann Sherrill, USA)
Best Documentary: Gold SpIFFy: "Evaporating Borders" (Iva Radivojevic, USA/Cyprus); Silver SpIFFy: "Where God Likes to Be" (Anna Hudak, Nicolas Hudak, Germany/USA)
Best Mid-Length: Gold SpIFFy: "From the Sky" (Ian Ebright, USA); Silver SpIFFy: "People in the Trees" (Jonah Vigil, USA)
Most Promising Filmmaker: Ian Ebright ("From the Sky")
Personally, I would have given an extra award: Geena Pietromonaco, who was the sole actor in Jeff Rutherford's award-winning short "Still," is my choice as Best Actress. Unfortunately, SpIFF does not give out acting awards. But if anyone in SpIFF 2015 deserves it, Pietromonaco definitely does.
Just as soon as the balloting is done, we'll announce the Audience Award winners. And then it's on to SpIFF 2016.
8 p.m., "Charlie's Country" (1:48): Dutch filmmaker Rolf de Heer directed this look at an Aborigine fella who, chafing against Australian law, heads to the Outback to live life as he wants. Lessons will be learned. Hosted by SpIFF programmer Vaughn Overlie.
11:55 p.m., "Girl Walks Alone at Night" (1:39), preceded by the short film "People in the Trees": Shot in black and white, Iran-American filmmaker Lily Amirpour's film is a haunting look at a village preyed upon by a lonely vampire. Hosted by Adam Boyd, a SpIFF programmer and lecturer at Eastern Washington University. "People in the Trees" director Jonah Vigil is expected to attend.
Imagine you’ve been ill. Maybe it’s been a physical illness. Maybe emotional. Either way, you’ve had to take time off from work. Then one Friday afternoon you receive a phone call from a coworker, a friend, telling you that the owner of the company you work for has given her and the other 15 employees an option: to vote for a thousand-dollar bonus OR to retain your position.
And just that fast, you discover you’re out of a job.
Or are you? Your friend wants you to fight, to come to the office, talk to the boss and request that he hold another vote Monday morning. And when you ask “What would be the point?” your friend hatches a plan: Over the weekend, you’ll visit as many of your coworkers as you can. If you can convince nine of them to vote in your favor, your job is saved.
And so you face a choice: Stay in bed, down another pill – Xanax, maybe – and sleep away your disappointment. Or get up – and fight.
This, then, is the plot of the Dardenne brothers film “Two Days, One Night.” The Belgian-born brothers – Luc and Jean-Pierre – specialize in making films that explore the struggles associated with European working-class life. 1996’s “La Promesse,” for example, involves a father and son profiting from the exploitation of immigrant workers. 2005’s “L’enfant” introduces us to a barely-making-it couple who are desperate to find a new means of income, even if that involves using their newborn son as a cash cow.
What sets the Dardennes apart is that they focus their movie plots on matters of conscience. In “La Promesse,” the son must confront his own sense of morality. Same with the father in “L’enfant.”
In “Two Days, One Night,” Marion Cotillard, 2008 Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose” – and an Oscar nominee again this year – portrays Sandra, a wife and mother of two who is barely getting by. With her husband working as a kitchen helper, it’s only been because of her job at a solar-panel business that they’ve been able to get off the dole and out of public housing. Losing her job will mean a big step back.
But as she – and we – discover, Sandra and her family live and work alongside people who have similar problems. People to whom a thousand euros, or just over $1,100, might pay their rent for a year. Or help put their child through school. Or pay medical bills. All of which makes Sandra’s quest – to convince a majority to support her return to work – that much harder.
It isn’t so much Sandra’s conscience that the Dardennes examine; they merely require her to fight through a kind of depression that would drop Buddha to his knees. No, the sense of doing what’s right involves mostly her coworkers, each of whom – either because of necessity or mere greed – must figure out the right path to take.
And deciding what’s right is often not easy. In or out of the movies.