CAPTIVE STATE

Directing: C
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: C+
Special Effects: C

Usually when a movie is getting mixed reviews, I can pretty easily tell what it is the people who liked it saw in it. Not so with Captive State, which certainly made me feel like a captive, and that’s about as effective as I can call it. Is it possible half the people who saw this movie liked it on some level just because they have no taste? Or brains? Some people are happy to be entertained by anything that happens to move on a screen, after all.

This movie is all setup, and then . . . the end. Spoiler alert: after one hundred nine minutes, there is no payoff whatsoever. It’s the story of an insurgency of inner city human captives to an invading alien race, nine years after first contact, preparing to make their move. A move gets made, and then you find out that wasn’t really the move. Something much deeper and more intricate is going on! Before we get to see that, though — the credits roll.

I’d say that I have a lot of questions, except that I left this movie relieved that it was over and preferring not to keep thinking about it. It was just so boring. But, I suppose I have some space to fill here. I’ll share some of my questions.

What’s the point of this alien race only taking over all the major cities in the world? I mean, I know the global population is more and more urbanized as time goes on, but rural populations still exist. What are those people doing? Are they just living peaceful lives, but for an inability to contact family in the cities? Also, what about the farming infrastructure that feeds those in the cities? How do goods come and go?

Don’t get me wrong — plenty of movies are great even with massive plot holes. It’s rare that plot holes don’t exist. But the point of making the audience overlook them is to offer a story so compelling that you don’t care. Captive State is so tedious that I had no choice but to spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

During the opening credits, white text on black computer screen tells us what’s going on, the way society has been affected by this alien race taking over any and all government functions. “The gap between rich and poor has never been wider,” it says. How original.

Writer-director Rupert Wyatt, who brought us the objectively superior (but still just . . . fine) Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, seems to be going for some kind of subtle social commentary here. He aims and misses. Hell, he barely aims. Only in very occasional moments does something relevant to such a concept get said or done. For instance, a detained teenager (Ashton Sanders, the best thing in this movie) tells a Chicago police officer (John Goodman, plainly just getting a paycheck) he wants a lawyer. The response is, “You and I both know those days are gone.” This exchange is in the trailer, clearly to suggest there is something more to this. Turns out there isn’t.

I went into Captive State knowing it woudn’t be great, but thinking I might still be entertained. I wanted it to have more thrills. It has none. It makes an extended attempt at suspense, which ultimately falls flat. I wanted to see more of the aliens, which have a pseudo-humanoid shape which can turn into countless spikes at will. The screen time of these creatures — or “roaches,” as the humans call them — clocks in easily under five minutes. The rare times they do appear onscreen, the lighting is always incredibly dim and the special effects are still noticeably substandard.

There’s a couple wide shots of downtown Chicago, downtown being the “zone” where humans aren’t allowed at all, only the aliens. No explanation for this is ever given, and it kind of defies logic. We are told humans are subjected to indentured servitude to help construct an “underground habitat” for them, but that’s it. The objective of the humans is always to “regroup” and “fight back.” It would be a lot easier to root for them if the impetus for this entire scenario actually made sense.

In short: I don’t get it. And I don’t care to.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

This kid deserves to be in a better movie.

Overall: C

GIANT LITTLE ONES

Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

The more I think about Giant Little Ones, the more I decide I loved it. It’s the kind of movie that takes a minute to sink in, how pitch-perfect it was. It doesn’t exactly crackle with urgent energy onscreen; its sensibility is much more subtle than that. Its many nuances are what make it work so well.

I kind of wonder what the thought process was behind that title: Giant Little Ones — it tells you literally nothing. This is an incredibly fine-tuned story about confused responses to an innocent sexual act by adolescents, and some heavy consequences to those responses. All the kids are sixteen years old, by definition neither giant nor little. They’re young, sure; but hardly “little ones,” although the emotions they are dealing with are, certainly, giant to them.

The sexual act in question is pretty minor, and occurs between Franky and Ballas, who have been best friends since they were little. The scene is perfectly tasteful, showing nothing explicit whatsoever: for a few brief moments, after the boys have gone to bed together in a drunken stupor, quiet gasps and moans are heard from beneath a blanket, the top of which is all that’s seen onscreen. But this is a deliberate part of writer-director Keith Behrman’s narrative choices: when Ballas suddenly leaves Franky’s bedroom in a panic and Franky tries to convince him to stay, we have no idea what precisely happened. And in fact, word gets out about the incident, only it’s converted into a rumor that is ultimately untrue, and the truth of the matter effectively becomes a minor plot twist.

But it’s an effective one. There are also other characters that complicate matters, most of them other kids in Franky and Ballas’s lives. First there is Franky’s girlfriend Jess (Hailey Kittle), who serves an admittedly somewhat pointless plot distraction early on, as she complains about whether Franky is actually interested in her. But then, even after the incident between Franky and Ballas, Franky forges a connection, at least partly sexual, with Ballas’s sister Tash, who is in a fragile state as she still recovers a specific trauma all her own. All of this is not even to mention Franky’s divorced parents, played by a lovely Maria Bello as his mom and Twin Peaks’s Kyle McLachlan as his semi-estranged, gay dad.

All these details make Giant Little Ones sound inevitably over-complicated and heavy-handed, but with Behrman’s steady hand, all such pitfalls are seamlessly avoided, and the story unfolds organically, all of the characters coming across as authentically multi-dimensional characters. A huge amount of the credit there should be afforded the wonderfully expressive Josh Wiggins as the lead character of Franky — but a great deal also to Darren Mann as the tortured Ballas, and Taylor Hickson as his sister.

The greatness of Giant Little Ones is in its concurrent uniqueness and absolute relatability to contemporary audiences. This movie contains no cliché moments, no emotional “coming out” scenes; in fact, it’s relatively pointed in its refusal to define any character’s sexuality. Within the dialogue comes this great pearl of wisdom: “It sounds like you had a sexual experience with someone you really loved. It may be as simple as that.”

Furthermore, the as both Franky and Tash understand a specific truth Ballas is terrified to come to grips with, even though it would make things easier for themselves, they endure certain hardships just because they clearly understand that this truth is still not theirs to tell. It’s rare to see a depiction of teenagers, with all their inherent messiness, with such inherent integrity. There’s no question that at least some such kids exist, and it’s wonderful to see them get their due.

None of this is made explicit in the film, mind you — these are simply the conclusions I came to. Perhaps someone else would settle on a different point of view. That, really, is the beauty of such delicately executed nuance.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

A close friendship complicated by ultimately normal adolescence.

Overall: A-

APOLLO 11

Directing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A
Special Effects: A

It’s not often that I say a documentary should be seen in the theatre, and here I have my second one to recommend in as many months: Apollo 11 consists almost entirely of footage and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, but that by definition means there are shots — from both space and the ground on Earth — that are a wonder to behold, and can only be best appreciated on the big screen.

There are only two exceptions to this apparent rule of showing only live footage of the mission itself, and they are brief and used very effectively. The first instance, very early on in the film, features three quick archival photo montages of the lives led previously by the first three astronauts who went to the moon: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; and Michael Collins. The whole point of this film is its immediacy — in spite of it all having actually happened fifty years ago this year — and director Todd Douglas Miller wisely breezes past it quickly.

The second instance is of footage taken of a tape recorder flipping around in zero gravity, on the return trip to Earth, playing John Stewart’s “Mother Country.” In just one of countless instances of this film’s impeccable editing, we see the original footage, along with the echoing audio from the recorder, and then the film’s sound cuts to the direct sound of the song’s original recording.

The album the song is from was originally released on New Year’s Day 1969; the aforementioned photos were all taken prior to that — so, literally nothing seen or heard in Apollo 11 comes from any time after the mission itself. There are are no interviews, no narration — only the audio from the original footage itself, or from communication recordings. The opening shot is an indelible one: a man walking along a street, dwarfed by the massive, tank-like wheels behind him, which themselves fill the screen — until a cut to a wider shot reveals the rocket itself being transferred to its launch point. How many people even know such a vehicle even exists? I suppose all this time I never thought to consider how they got it there.

There is no narrative arc to Apollo 11 — in fact, this is the first documentary I have ever seen not to give any writing credit at all — and that turns out to be one of its many strengths. Todd Douglas Miller, who also did the editing, lets all the footage simply speak for itself. It’s a document of a particular moment in time, with unparalleled historic import, condensed down to 93 minutes. There is not a single moment wasted, not a lull to be found. This jaw-dropping feat of humanity is enough on its own to be mesmerizing from beginning to end — with particularly thrilling moments, of course: the successful rocket launch; the literal landing on the moon; the safe return to Earth eight days later.

I found myself thinking a lot about the incredible mathematical precision that would have to have gone into all of this. But if you want an “inspiring,” fictionalized version of that angle, just go and watch Hidden Figures. Or if you want rumination on the personal costs of participating in this endeavor — with, granted, Oscar-winning special effects — see First Man. Apollo 11 is not concerned with dictates of emotional responses. Those are left for you to discover on your own, just as they were for the live witnesses to the occasion — of which there are just a few brief shots: crowds camped out to watch the rocket launch, or palpable relief among NASA personnel with each step successfully completed.

Speaking pf special effects, Apollo 11 credits one visual effects artist (Ben Kiviat) and one person with “additional visual effects” (Kevin Allen Caby). There are no discernible effects shots in this film, although I did wonder if there was some restoration work done on some of the never-before-seen footage, much of which is amazingly crisp. There are, however, a few brief interludes of graphics depicting the direction and motion of the spacecraft. They are always simple, straightforward, look precisely like you would expect them to if made by someone in 1969, and are seamlessly integrated into the sequence of events.

Apollo 11 is that rare film where you already know how it ends, and everything that unfolds onscreen is gripping nonetheless. The significance of this event — even by today’s standards but especially those of fifty years ago — truly cannot be overstated, and there may never have been any other film that better illustrates that fact. You leave the theatre marveling at the potential of human ingenuity,

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

You may think you already know how amazing this really was, but you don’t.

Overall: A

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Original comic books are one thing — I can’t speak to those because I never read them. But in cinema, Captain Marvel is clearly Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Womanand, honestly, the two films average out to being roughly equal quality. Where Wonder Woman faltered is in the areas where Captain Marvel excels, and vice versa. For instance: the opening sequence of Wonder Woman actually was wonderful, and made us all wish the entire story could have taken place on that island of Themyscira. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is quite deliberately incomprehensible in its opening sequences, the puzzle pieces only coming together for the viewer at the same time they do for the title character.

But! Wonder Woman’s fatal flaw — and this is hardly specific to that movie; it’s a flaw of far too many superhero movies — is the so-called “climactic” battle between hero and villain causing untold collateral damage at the end. Humor, used consistently and effectively, is arguably Captain Marvel, and it very nearly turns that particular trope into a punch line.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this to Wonder Woman so much, except for the unfortunate thing they both have in common that sets it apart from other films: not only is the superhero at its center a woman, but in both cases they were subject to ridiculously overt, sexist backlash. Well, I am happy to report that both movies are laughing all the way to the bank.

That said, Captain Marvel has less to say about so-called “girl power,” the character’s womanhood being comparatively incidental. Now, to be sure, there are feminist nods here and there: a brief scene in which some schmo on a motorcycle suggests our hero “give me a smile”; a supporting character bristling at being called “young lady”; the 90s-rock-heavy soundtrack featuring No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a pivotal fight scene. But nods is all they are, and they are seamlessly woven into the narrative.

Captain Marvel does have a bit of magic to it, in that it’s open to meaning whatever audiences want it to mean to them. Maybe I’m just a big softy, but I actually got slightly teary at a montage of Captain Marvel’s alter ego Carol Danvers (a well cast Brie Larson) getting up after being nearly defeated by challenges throughout her childhood and young adulthood. It was a rare moment for a superhero movie, in which it offers something truly inspiring. Few others outside of Wonder Woman or (the admittedly far superior) Black Panther have managed such a thing.

As for the actual story here — it’s . . . fine. There are no particularly huge faults within the context of what this movie is, but neither does it stand out from most vantage points. There is a fun bit of cleverness, with its setting in the mid-nineties, and thereby serving as a sort of prequel to everything we have seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We get to find out how Nick Fury got that eye patch, for example.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the special effects, which are actually pretty impressive. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are both digitally de-aged for this movie, and that particular effect is uncanny. Some have said too much so — getting into pseudo-creepy “uncanny valley” territory — but I kept paying close attention to Samuel L. Jackson’s face in particular, the texture of his skin and how it shone in different shades of life, and found myself consistently impressed. There are other moments when characters are clearly being animated by CGI, so the overall effects job is not exactly perfect. But it veers between serviceable to amazing at times.

The same goes for Goose the cat, by far my favorite character in this movie — in fact, I would say he’s worth the price of admission alone — given my doubts when I heard some shots of the animal are CGI and in some cases it’s even a “realistic” puppet cat. Well, guess what? I could not readily see when a puppet cat was being used. And when CGI is detectable, it’s understandable, and often in service of well-used humor. And just trust me on this one: that cat has brings some delightful surprises. Especially at the end of the credits.

Getting back to the Wonder Woman parallels, there is even one for the Robin Wright role: in this movie, the “mentor woman” role is filled by Annette Bening. She is always a delight to see, although she is given so little meat to chew on here that it’s clearly just a paycheck job for her. When it comes to true nuance in performance, that pretty much all falls to Larson, although a sliver of it also goes to another character with shifting position in her life, played by a buffed up Jude Law.

Fundamentally, as in all superhero moves, it’s all just completely ridiculous, and Captain Marvel could have gone for, but has only a fraction of the deliberate cultural import of Black Panther. We’re getting to a point where even the movies that five years ago would have truly stood out for their casting and storytelling choices, are now becoming routine and less exceptional. We shan’t forget Goose the cat, however! Captain Marvel would still have been fun without him, but nowhere near as much so.

Goose is  my  Captain Marvel!

Goose is my Captain Marvel!

Overall: B

SHARKWATER EXTINCTION

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Spoiler alert! Rob Stewart, the Canadian conservationist, shark activist, writer and director of Sharkwater Extinction died during the making of this film, in Florida during an attempt to get footage of a rare species of shark. This might seem a strange thing to lead with, except that it’s a pretty useful thing to know before going in to see this film — and I did not. As a result, I spent a lot of time unfairly judging the movie, wondering why this guy seemed so self-involved. Is this about the sharks he’s trying to save or is it about him?

Then the point of his untimely death arrives in the narrative of the film and I was like, …Oh. Also, there’s a second thing particularly useful to know about Sharkwater Extinction: Stewart had already made a 2006 documentary called simply Sharkwater, to which this was always intended as a sequel. The footage in this film was shot in 2016 and 2017, early on featuring Stewart talking in Costa Rica about shooting “Sharkwater 2.” I had never heard of the initial documentary, but judging by what’s presented here, watching only this film is likely just as effective whether you’ve seen the first film or not.

Curiously, even though obviously Sharkwater Extinction would have had to be finished up by someone else, Rob Stewart still receives sole credit as director and writer. It seems apropos to mention the editor, Nick Hector, who has a long resume of having edited documentary films and television shows as far back as 1986. At a lean 88 minutes, indeed this film is very well edited; with a team of five different videographers, it also features some fantastic underwater footage of wild sharks.

I just found myself wondering, naively, why there was also so much footage of Stewart himself. This film sure makes it clear how fit and healthy he was, much of his time onscreen spent shirtless, sometimes appropriately (he was a diver, after all), sometimes seemingly unnecessarily. I still find myself somewhat cynically suspecting he had a thing for being the center of attention. That said, were he still alive, perhaps he would not have made the choice himself to feature exclusively footage of himself swimming underwater — no sharks — before the title card came onscreen.

It’s admittedly an interesting experience to discover the narrator of the story was dead all along, when the film is a documentary. Stewart was clearly passionate about the issues at stake here — namely, the near-eradication of the planet’s millennia-old apex predators in a matter of decades. As I watched each chapter unfold with Stewart and his crews traveling from Florida to Central America to Africa to Southern California, working to expose illegal fishing practices the world over, I wondered about the efficacy of combining his methods with film making.

The methods themselves, to be fair, do seem to make a difference — albeit to varying degrees: part of the point here is that his work focused on in the original Sharkwater helped make shark finning for shark fin soup illegal in most countries around the world, and yet the industry continues to boom due to criminals and massive legal loopholes. In one shot, we see a live shark’s fins get cut off before the shark is tossed back into the water to die. This is, of course, heartbreaking — and it’s a relief not a huge amount of such actions are seen live onscreen. Stewart later gets footage of sharks caught in drift nets near Catalina Island in California, which helps get the practice banned in that state.

The utility of Sharkwater Extinction as a film, when it comes to shark activism specifically, is a bit more of a mixed bag. This film will never see a huge audience, and many of those who do see it will fancy themselves making a difference by doing no more than simply seeing it. The film does serve well as a tribute to Rob Stewart’s unarguably important legacy, which no doubt is a comfort to the loved ones he leaves behind. With that in mind, it might have been useful to make it clearer earlier on that this was as much about him as it was about shark conservation.

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

I mean, sure, both hammerhead sharks and the film’s director were beautiful creatures, we get it!

Overall: B

THE WANDERING EARTH

Directing: C-
Acting: C
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: D+
Special Effects: C+

I don’t usually have much interest in Chinese films, and The Wandering Earth did nothing to remedy that. This is basically China’s answer to Geostorm, a special effects extravaganza offering occasionally compelling imagery, featuring an incomprehensible story. (More like The Wandering Script, amirite??)

Had bad the editing is in this film can’t really be overstated. Not one thing that happens — and far too many things are happening — is given any time whatsoever to breathe. This is basically a 125-minute music video, except instead of pop music, we’re subjected to an action-movie score pretty typical of western blockbuster disaster movies.

I guess I’ll give The Wandering Earth this much: it is better than Geostorm — barely. Its broad plot, involving an expanding sun necessitating the construction of worldwide propulsive engines to relocate the planet to a new solar system, might have been sort of compelling if it made any sense. Instead, the script is packed with incomprehensible techno-babble that’s rendered even more meaningless as it gets lost in the nonstop action.

The central conflict doesn’t even involve getting the Earth removed from orbit. Most of this story takes place well after that, after half the world has been annihilated by tsunamis caused by stopping the Earth’s rotation (how does one do that, exactly? — this movie fails to offer any real explanation) and the other half is forced to live in underground cities through the generations it will take before reaching this new location in another solar system more than four light years away. People go to the surface in “thermal suits” to work on maintaining this hundreds of giant engines that effectively turned the world into a planet-sized space ship.

The real problem is the gravitational pull of Jupiter as Earth passes by. Can humanity’s “United Earth Government” find a way to pull away and keep the planet on course? The suspense is killing me! I’m kidding about that suspense part; The Wandering Earth couldn’t manage suspense if its life depended on it. Which, really, it kind of does. Anyway I was thinking about how dreadfully bored I was before this movie was half over.

It’s all just so jaw-droppingly preposterous, there’s no reason to be emotionally invested in anything going on — not even the inter-generational conflicts of a middle-aged widower (Jing Wu) stationed on the Space Station serving as Earth’s navigation system and his family still on earth: his father (Man-tat Ng) and his young adult son (Chuxiao Qu) and teenage daughter (Jin Mai Jaho). And although these actors all appear competent generally speaking, this movie demands nothing more of them than to phone in their uniformly ridiculous lines. Many of the lines are distractingly obvious in their post-production over-dubbing. The line readings not syncing up with lip movements is obvious even to those of us who don’t speak Mandarin.

The special effects are all over the place. Many of the exterior shots in outer space, showing the Space Station or the planets, are actually pretty impressively rendered. But, those don’t require as much detail as exterior shots of the frozen surface of the planet, the sweeping camera movements making the images strangely jerky, as though someone did a half-assed job in their computer program. Very few of these surface shots are visually convincing in any way.

Not that it would matter much even if they were, the very concepts of this movie being as dumb as they are. And to make matters worse, our heroes make narrow escapes over and over again, constantly getting missed by, say, gigantic debris falling from cliffs in a huge earthquake as techtonic plates shift. It’s like watching the old G.I. Joe cartoons, except instead of villains with terminally terrible aim, it’s giant hunks of earth with terrible aim.

I do like the idea of giant cities like Beijing or Shanghai buried in ice, the tips of their skyscrapers poking out of the surface. That made for some kind of cool images. Such things get overshadowed by a complete disregard for basic physics, like when brother and sister are falling through the air and brother somehow catches up with her by falling faster. That is not how gravity works!

I mean, really, that’s not how anything works in this movie, which has the distinction of being easily the stupidest thing I have watched in at least two years.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Not even this picture makes any sense.

Overall: C-

FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Fighting with My Family opens by thrusting us into the local Norwich, England wrestling world of the Knight family, playing up how passionate this foursome is about the profession. It’s based on a true story, and the actual Knight family is from a town called Penzance in the southwest of England, but maybe the filmmakers thought that would remind too many people of Gilbert & Sullivan? Now I’m imagining the overlap in a Venn diagram of Gilbert & Sullivan fans and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. It’s probably at least a little wider among Brits.

Anyway, the family consists of middle-aged parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey, about as far from Game of Thrones’s Cersei as she could get), running a local business of small-time wrestling performances. With their eldest in prison, their star players are son Zak (Jack Lowden) and daughter Saraya (Florence Pugh). To a person, they are well cast, a playfully vulgar, tight-knit family with working-class charm to spare.

This movie does not shy away from the ins and outs of the wrestling industry, and early on Ricky finds himself explaining that “it’s not fake, it’s fixed,” and the job can result in serious injuries. Not since Darren Aronovsky’s gritty The Wrestler (2008) has anyone presented so honest a look at wrestling; the difference now is that writer-director Stephen Merchant moves away from self-destruction for a feel-good movie about triumph of will and moving beyond the limits of initial circumstances.

It’s a pretty standard Hollywood story arc, but you know what? Fighting with My Family works rather well on its own terms. I suspect at least one secret to its success is the British angle; Merchant himself is English, and thus offers a vital perspective. It seems less likely this movie’s sweet sincerity would play the same way in the hands of an American filmmaker.

And yet, it also stays true to the sensibilities of wrestling, and in particular wrestling fans. In spite of some subtle jabs here and there (“Our fans can’t read anyway”), this movie has no contempt or judgment of those who love and participate in wrestling. It gets a nice couple of scenes with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and a decent supporting performance by Vince Vaughn as an American wrestling coach.

The basic story focuses on young Zak and Saraya’s dream of becoming professional wrestlers — together, but difficulties must be overcome when only Saraya gets chosen to move on in the selection process. It’s relatively transparent how much of the story here is embellished for dramatic effect: Zak must deal with boiling resentment; Saraya must look past her own judgments of other, prettier women wrestlers and learn to make some friends.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie that I would not immediately expect to like, due to my own admittedly unfair biases. I was super into a movie like The Wrestler, but that was a movie about obsession and self-destruction in deeply nuanced ways, with wrestling as the backdrop. Fighting with My Family is a very different movie, the kind that is heartwarming by design, and is also clearly made by and for genuine fans of wrestling.

I’ve never been a fan of wrestling. I am, however, a fan of solid storytelling, and charismatic performers, both of which this movie has plenty of. It makes it the rare kind of movie that, for instance, both my more populist-leaning family members and I can enjoy. You could say this is a movie for everyone, a great choice for mixed company with people who can rarely agree on what to watch. At least, as conventional as its storytelling is, it has a subversive streak to it. I wouldn’t quite call it wholesome, but I would call it great entertainment for the whole family.

The family that body slams together stays together.

The family that body slams together stays together.

Overall: B+

ARCTIC

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Here is a movie so sparse, it can be difficult to gauge at a critical level — for me, at least. “Survival” movies can be tricky, and I spent a lot of time thinking as I watched Arctic whether I would like it better or worse if it truly ended on the bleak note it seemed to be headed toward.

It’s a little easier to imagine the response of the general movie-going public. This is no blockbuster. There are no hordes of people eager to see a film with all of two characters, one of them with no more than one or two lines beyond injury-inducing moans; the other himself spending most of the film with little to no dialogue. Whether the final shot of the film qualifies as pandering — after the film studiously avoids it up to that point — is up for debate.

I suppose you could call this Cast Away in the North, except that Tom Hanks was (and is) a bona fide movie star; Mads Mikkelsen is decidedly not. He is, on the other hand, a deservedly well-respected character actor, who spends the duration of Arctic with a grim determination. And, unlike a movie like Cast Away, Arctic neither has its character talking to keep himself company, nor includes any harrowing crash scenes to maximize the excitement factor.

That’s not to say nothing exciting happens in Arctic — a movie, which, curiously, first-time feature director Joe Penna (who also wrote the script) originally conceived of as set on Mars. But instead of forcing a lot of expositional context into the script, the story was stripped to its barest bones by switching it to a character stranded by a small plane crash in the Arctic. We are introduced to Overgard, in fact, in the middle of a daily routine that has clearly gotten mind numbingly repetitive for him. Catching a live fish from beneath the ice qualifies as a bit of excitement.

This is where patience is rewarded, though, because it’s this entry into the story that strengthens what exciting things do happen: an attempted rescue helicopter crashes nearby, leaving Overgard to find new purpose in nursing an injured woman back to health. Or at least, he’s trying. Days go on even after this, until he feels left with no choice but to walk the woman through the Arctic mountains to a seasonal outpost station.

Meanwhile, as he pulls this injured woman along on a sled, Overgard endures incredibly harsh weather, to the point of frostbite on many extremities; unfamiliar landscape that can be surprisingly dangerous; and a wandering polar bear that, in one scene, scared the living shit out of me. He sees that bear in the distance early on, and I was reminded of “Chekhov’s gun,” the idea that if you see a gun early on in the story, it best be part of the story later. I knew that bear would come back, and it was an effective tool for heightening tension.

And to be sure, Arctic is tense. It’s not especially exceptional as far as survivalist movies go, even if the shoot was apparently the most difficult of Mikkelsen’s career. It’s well constructed and stands up against most other films like it, but setting it in the Arctic still doesn’t make it special. This is simply a really good movie for people who enjoy movies of this sort.

I did wonder a lot about the production, which was shot on location in Iceland. What was it like working with that polar bear? How difficult was the whole shoot for the actors? Surely this was a physical challenge for everyone. The acting itself certainly commands attention — especially on the part of Mikkelsen, who is in every frame — but the characters here don’t exactly have wide emotional range. Mekkelsen does get a couple of chances to emote, at least.

I do keep thinking about the film’s parting shot — I can’t quite decide how I feel about it. It feels intended to allow the audience to decide whether or not it’s a happy ending. It’s ambiguous in a way more frustrating than compelling, a single second that perhaps changes everything. Or does it? If nothing else, a film this quiet holding interest from start to finish is an impressive feat.

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Well at least I won’t go thirsty!

Overall: B+

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: DOCUMENTARY

Black Sheep: B
End Game: B+
A Night at the Garden: B+
Life Boat: A-
Period. End of Sentence: A-

black sheep Black Sheep, the single nominated documentary short not from the U.S., is a 27-minute film from the UK with a sensibility all its own. This one examines racism and its effects one one young black man in a rural British context. Cornelius Walker, fantastically lit with his face against a backdrop as he speaks directly into the camera, relates his mother and father moving him to the country after another immigrant child was stabbed to death in their London neighborhood. Cornelius was immediately met with racist abuse in his new small town, until he goes out of his way to emulate and fit in with the very kids who initially tormented him -- right down to bleaching his skin to make it lighter, and purchasing blue contact lenses. Much of this is recreated with very well executed flashbacks, but what is most compelling is present-day Cornelius wrestling with the evolution of his identity. This is a truly unique perspective, albeit with a strangely abrupt ending.

end game End Game, as you might imagine is rather sad: it's a 40-minute Netflix documentary about palliative care for terminally ill patients at a fairly posh medical facility in San Francisco. The cameras focus on about five different patients and the imminent challenges they face, although particular focus is put on two of them. In its way, even as it slightly evades clearly important questions of class and access to care (even with a fairly diverse group of subjects, one Iranian and another Asian American), it's the most emotionally affecting of these five short films.

a night at the garden A Night at the Garden, at a mere 7 minutes, is by far the shortest, and arguably the most haunting, of this year's documentary short nominees. It's simply seven minutes of footage of a 1930 "pro-American rally" that occurred at New York City's Madison Square Garden. With 20,000 people cheering as police beat a man who attempts to protest, and a huge number of them engage in Nazi salutes, this might as well be called 1930 Trump Rally. It's hard to watch, but creepily illuminating -- a reminder of a dark history for our nation, which is clearly not relegated only to the distant past, and of the need to endless vigilance.

The 34-minute Life Boat both the longest and pehaps the best of this bunch: a look at rescue missions in the Mediterranean by Sea Watch, a European nonprofit that rescues as many refugees as they can as they flee persecution, war, and worse from their native African and Middle Eastern countries. I really waffled between whether I thought this or Period. End of Sentence was the best of these five films, and somewhat reluctantly settled on this one, which is very effective at putting human, individual faces on people far too easily generalized, stereotyped or outright ignored by the media and the rest of the world. These people appear to be doing incredible, heartbreaking work.

period. end of sentence And that leaves the cleverly titled Period. End of Sentence, the likely winner of the Academy Award in this category -- and it would not be undeserved. With the help of students in a school who helped fund the project, a group of women in a village outside Delhi, India utilize one man's invention to mass produce sanitary pads at low cost. They then sell them at local markets, to a rural population for whom menstruation is such a taboo (the "biggest tabboo in India," says one man) that they know very little about it. This is the seed of a quietly feminist revolution and it is undeniably exciting to witness.

lifeboat

Overall: B+

2019 OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: LIVE ACTION

Mother: B-
Fauve: B
Marguerite: A-
Detainment: B+
Skin: B

mother Mother is a 19-minute film from Spain that consists solely of a series of phone calls between a young mother, and the six-year-old son on the other line, whose dad has mysteriously left him alone on a beach in France. As it happens, this woman's own mother is in the apartment, so the two women are the only characters ever seen onscreen. (The boy is the only other voice heard.) The "story," such as it is, is simply this young woman becoming more and more hysterical as it becomes clear her son may have been abandoned and she cannot figure out exactly where he is. It ends with no resolution to speak of, leaving me to wonder what the point was -- to illustrate a typical mother's nightmare? Skilled performances notwithstanding, a short like this makes me wonder how slim the pickings are when film shorts are put up for Oscar consideration to begin with.

fauve Fauve is the second of two Canadian live action shorts up for contention this year, this one, at 16 minutes, the shortest of the bunch. A couple French-Canadian kids are just hanging out on abandoned railroad tracks, and, eventually, a surface mine. And basically, their youthful ignorance of nature and physics gets the best of them. I won't spoil what that means exactly, except to say that this one turns surprisingly dark. With again only three characters, though, this short does also illustrate how a little can go along way.

And then there's Marguerite, a 19-minute film, also French-Canadian, that gets my vote as the best of these nominees. Here we have only two characters: the title character, an elderly woman in need of daily in-home assistance, and her much younger woman caretaker. We see plenty of their routine before a phone call from her partner reveals the caretaker to be gay. The way Marguerite's face changes at this revelation made me slightly nervous, but it turned out to be something much more bittersweet than negative. Eventually, we learn what decades-old memories this triggers in Marguerite, and as she tentatively opens up to her caretaker, it becomes something quite moving -- and, in its way, a sad reminder of how different things were for people half a century ago.

detainment If you're looking for something truly disturbing, look no further than Detainment, a 30-minute film from Ireland about the youngest convicted murderers of the 21st century. Based on actual interrogation transcripts, two 10-year-old boys are interviewed separately about what they did with a random toddler they spontaneously decided to abduct from a shopping center and do heinous things to. Thankfully, none of the specific horrors are depicted onscreen; the story that unfolds here is how the two boys start off with total denials and conflicting accounts, until bit by bit, increasingly horrible truths come out. If nothing else, this one serves as a cautionary tale: never let your young child out of your sight for a second, no matter how harmless it may appear to be to do so.

skin Live-action shorts often have a "clever twist" at the end of them, especially American ones, and the 20-minute Skin is no exception. (To be fair, the real difference year is that only one of the shorts ends with such a twist.) When this one ended, foremost in my mind was to wonder whether the director was white or black: Guy Nattiv is a white guy. And, okay, it does seem difficult to imagine a black director creating a film this pointedly about a racist being taught a lesson. Skin has "white guilt" built into its DNA, albeit with more subtlety than usual. This film is generally competently made, although the final moment is about as predictable as it gets.

MARGUERITE

Overall: B