Short Term 12

Before you can be their friend…

Still of Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in "Short Term 12."I don’t know what I can say about Brie Larson that doesn’t sound like the words of a Benevolent Blurbster on a DVD sleeve (check out Rampart for a taste test).  But I’ll try again.  Somehow, she’s managed to pop up as one of the most endearing guest characters in the five-year run of Community while also doing films like Rampart, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, which may just render mainstream my routine gushing about her.

Short Term 12, written and directed by Hawaiian filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, is what should be considered the quintessential American film over glitzy, self-congratulatory Hollywood love letters like Argo and Hugo.  Here, we have a film that tells an honest story about foster homes for “underprivileged” kids, and moreover, about the people who work at those homes (or one, at least).  The film never attempts to send a thematic message about foster care, save that those who have positive experiences growing up in foster homes may have a better awareness of their inner workings as adults (and thus may be more likely to succeed in working at a care facility, while others may come in with unrealistic expectations or ulterior goals).

Grace (Brie Larson) works as a supervisor at Short Term 12, a care facility for “underprivileged” kids of varying ages.  The story begins with Grace and her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), who works alongside her, telling foster-care fish stories to greenhorn Nate (Rami Malek), who is about to work his first day on the job.  Just as they’re getting to the best part, an alarm goes off, and Sammy (Alex Calloway) bursts out the door in his underwear, screaming and charging across the field.  Grace and Mason tell Nate to hold that thought, and the trio chase Sammy down.  It’s a big, nearly comical moment until we wonder how often this happens and why Sammy might keep trying to escape.

We’re soon introduced to the rest of the kids, including Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the latter of whom is approaching his 18th birthday and will soon be leaving.  Nate makes the mistake of introducing himself with the line, “I’ve always wanted to work with underprivileged kids,” not realizing that these kids do not define themselves by pigeonholey government jargon, and is appropriately reprimanded by Marcus, who asks, pretty honestly, “What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Grace provides the film’s eyes.  Layer after layer of her character is revealed, and it’s done as naturally as if we’d befriended a real person.  During foreplay with Mason, she suddenly slaps him across the face and tells him to stop.  We later learn that she was sexually abused by her father, who once made her pregnant and is now in prison.  A new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever),well-documented as a “cutter,” is brought in to the facility, and Grace immediately bonds with her due to similar habits when she was younger.  They compare scars, but not in a macho way.

The film, much like life, follows a non-pattern of events that do not seem to be working in any particular harmony.  Story beats have only to do with revelations about Grace, and her decisions that stem from them.  Early on, she becomes pregnant by Mason, and they must decide what to do (she makes an appointment to get an abortion, but tells Mason that she wants to keep the child, and things stay up in the air until later).  She finds out that her father is being released from prison, and even though it’s not likely that she’ll ever see him, she knows what it’s like to feel that he’s always watching her, and she vents all of this by trying to befriend Jayden, who has similar problems at home and reveals it only to Grace (who cannot do anything about it due to Jayden’s lack of directness).

Grace’s interactions with the kids, much like our interactions (as audience) with her, follow very organic threads.  She’s an expert in her field, but can still make missteps in getting to know the kids, because everyone needs something unique.  What calms Jayden down pisses Marcus off, and sometimes Jayden doesn’t want to interact with anyone at all.  When she tries to escape the facility (and later, when she goes to stay with her abusive father), Grace cannot be an observer any longer.  She makes her case to her supervisor (Frantz Turner) in a scene that puts the screws to every emotion, and brings back adrenaline-filled memories of Jessica Chastain shouting at Kyle Chandler in Zero Dark Thirty a couple of years ago.

And much like Jessica Chastain in any of her movies, Brie Larson carries nearly every scene of this character-centric piece.  Grace is equal parts introspective and outwardly strong-willed when she needs to be.  She’s hardened herself to her duties – able to withstand being spat upon, smacked, verbally abused, and even having a cupcake smashed into her face – but is genuinely sympathetic to the needs of the kids due to her own experiences.  Brie Larson plays every line, movement, and facial expression with the utmost passion, carefully chosen mannerisms, and an evident understanding of the character.  The rawest care is all over this film, a film that could have easily been the story of Nate, a goofy middle-class kid who works at a foster facility for an extra credit, but learns to love the kooky kids through a series of humorous, anecdotal misadventures.  No.  No room for that here.  Everything is honest; nothing is too precious.

Besides Grace herself, the other most interesting character (as wonderfully acted as everyone is, including Mason), is Marcus, who tries out some of his hip-hop lyrics on Mason, who reacts as anyone with a heart and an ounce of common sense would when Marcus comes out with a full-on rap (filmed in a single shot) about his traumatic childhood, his mother, and the fact that he will never know what a “normal life” is like.  He asks Grace to shave his head, and sheds very real tears when he sees that he has no lumps or scars beneath his once-ample hair.

This film drives in the fact that the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press are fading from relevance and simply becoming avenues for celebrities and old white folks to congratulate one another, while the best films are being screened at non-televised festivals and ceremonies where all that matters is the art.  With the near-complete snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis and other great films, the continued snubbing of Community, and the complete ignoring of Short Term 12 – which picked up incredible honors at the Athens Film Festival, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, the SXSW Film Festival (Grand Jury Narrative and Narrative Audience Award!) and many others, including actress awards for Brie Larson – the process of finding the real material might become, if it hasn’t already, as precise as finding good books: ignore what’s on the shelves at the front.

Short Term 12 (2013); written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield. 

 

 

2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

———

Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Zero Dark Thirty

Assault & vinegar

JessicaChastainMayaI don’t need the Academy to tell me.  I’ve been saying it for two years: Jessica Chastain is the Best Actress.  I’ve gushed enough about her prolificness, her unrivaled collection of characters, and her steadfast dedication to the craft (which has, as far as what I can gather from her own words, taken precedent over anything worldly, including personal relationships and romance).  Here is an actress who believes in the importance of empowered women in the movies, and in powerful characters to be played by them (not to mention a cultivated understanding of what “strong” means in that context).  Here is an actress who can be interviewed on television and say insightful things you haven’t heard before.  Here is someone who radiates originality, maturity, and independence every step of the way.  A year ago, she wasn’t recognized in public.  Look at her now.  If we need role models from our visual entertainment industry, I’ve got one for you.

“This is a very rare lead role in cinema,” she said to Time about the role of Maya in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. “Women, I find, we’re defined a lot by men and thus defined by our gender, who we are through our relationship with men, be it as a victim or a love relationship. The idea that this is a woman who defines herself by her work and by her brain and doesn’t try to sleep with her superiors, that to me is really inspiring. I’m in a very different business. As an actor, there are a lot of women around. Not as many women as men, but there are more women around than in a field like the CIA. I don’t experience that [numbers difference], but I do experience that in our society we are still labeled by our gender.”

Isn’t it the truth?  Just look at the filmmaker.  How many viewers and interviewers define Bigelow by the fact that she was married to James Cameron, a far inferior filmmaker?  Add the fact that the couple were only married for two years (’89-’91), long before Bigelow was a juggernaut on the directing scene, and long before she trounced him for Best Picture (2008), an accomplishment in itself, since only four female directors including Bigelow have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and only three for Best Director.

Zero Dark Thirty, a sort of spiritual successor to The Hurt Locker, is introduced with the promise that the story we’re about to see is based upon true events.  Which events?  We are left to judge and believe as we will.  The protagonist, played by Jessica Chastain, goes only by the name Maya; whether or not this is her real name (most characters in the film go by first name only) is also left to us.  Maya is based upon a real person, labeled in the news as the “Girl Who Got bin Laden,” a CIA officer with incredible confidence.  This introduces a conundrum in the process of storytelling: Maya, just like her real-life CIA counterpart, has little or no personal life.  Every bit of her time is dedicated to her work.  In the movie, we watch her chase down leads on Osama bin Laden over the course of several years, and her unbridled drive is something we are never allowed to understand.  We get tidbits of her old life in the background of shots (a screensaver and so on), but if you take your eyes away from Maya while watching this film for the first time, your scrutiny is misplaced.

Jason Clarke appears as Dan, a CIA muscleman who tortures prisoners for info.  There’s plenty of onscreen waterboarding.  Maya observes and even assists with Dan’s torture operations in the beginning, appearing slightly disgusted at the idea but not quite feeling sorry for the people who aided in the murder of thousands of American people.  As in The Big Lebowski, a film to which I never expected to compare this one, there is a pattern of dialogue repetition.  As the Dude more or less plagiarizes other people’s pearls of wisdom for the sake of sounding smarter, characters in ZDT take what they can from each other and pass on ideas.  Maya takes the torch from Dan when the job becomes too much for him (“I’ve seen too many guys naked,” he says), and introduces herself to prisoners in the same intimidating way he once did.  Once she gives some great advice to CIA Director George (Mark Strong), he repeats some of her terminology to his superiors.

I’ve had some trouble deciding whether the characterization of Maya works.  In a traditional sense, it doesn’t, because we know nothing of her personal life, whether she has friends and family, what she thinks of being unable to tell anyone what she does, what she feels at any given time.  She is propelled only by the action of the narrative.  However, the evolution of the parts of her personality we see, which essentially amount to two versions of her work personality, are handled in a very interesting way.  When she interrogates someone (post-Dan), she wears a dark wig.  At first, this seems like an understandable precaution: you don’t want too many enemies of America to be able to identify someone with starkly unique characteristics (bright red hair, for one) by memory, or to be able to figure out who she is on sight.  But consider the garb she wears when speaking to prisoners in daylight and when convincing them to give in with words instead of torture: a white headscarf.  The dark wig enables Maya, who doesn’t truly believe torture is the best way, to play a character, a woman who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and ordering brutish goons to beat the hell out of a defenseless person.  Every time she peels the wig off at the end of the workday, she absolves herself of the fact that she’s skirting war crimes – granted, her most effective methods are verbal, and she doesn’t go halfway to where Dan went.  He even seemed to enjoy it before losing the stomach.

Over the years, Maya finds leads, and several quiet (and some unintentionally explosive) operations are undertaken in order to find bin Laden.  She gains a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient and always spot-on in her hunches and assessments.  She works in Pakistan with Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA’s Station Chief in Islamabad, until his identity is compromised and he is replaced by a relaxed boss who lets Maya do what she wants.  Jessica Chastain’s scenes with Chandler are her best opportunities to let loose her intensity, and will certainly be the ones shown in every reel meant to convince viewers that she deserves this year’s biggest performance awards.

Eventually, Maya’s exploits lead to the discovery of bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, and she is able to convince everyone, even President Obama (not played by anyone in the film), to 100% certainty that bin Laden is there.  A squadron of Navy SEALs led by Justin (Chris Pratt) and Patrick (Joel Edgerton), unremarkable bearded goofballs who could be anyone (maybe a wise move since the identities of the actual SEALs who performed the operation cannot be released), raid the compound and take down bin Laden in a scene that takes, perhaps, as long as the real-life operation did (a far too long stretch of time without Maya onscreen, one of the film’s only structural missteps).

The film features an interesting slew of bit parts, but the characters are utilized much better than those of The Hurt Locker, which often jarred me not with its tense bomb-diffusing scenes, but with its striking misuse of Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly.  James Gandolfini appears as Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense, who has a bit of a Jabba-the-Hutt vibe when trying to verbally intimidate Maya.  Jennifer Ehle is Jessica, a fellow CIA officer and friend of Maya’s who has un-spoilable involvement in the 2009 Camp Chapman Attack.  Stephen Dillane, Harold Perrineau, and Mark Duplass also appear here and there, and their time is well-used.  Mark Strong plays a convincing American (not to mention an effective possessor of hair).

The film has been accused by Those Who Want Attention as being pro-torture.  I can’t agree.  In fact, a film with so many opportunities to be as red-white-and-blue as Argo almost completely forgoes them. The film does not ignore the fact that war crimes, including vicious torture, were implemented in order to get information (although the people at the top swear up and down that good results were never obtained through waterboarding, which is somewhat reflected in the film).  Also note that Maya does not think torture is the key to finding bin Laden, and must play a role that disgusts her in order to do what she thinks is right.  We also see the SEAL team kill unarmed people, including women, in the raid: Bigelow chooses not to give into the “we can never be anything but good guys” myths involving bin Laden firing upon the SEALs before they killed him.  She even chooses to show a news clip of President Obama (the only time he is seen in the entire film) denying that the United States uses/condones torture, immediately after a scene of Dan brutalizing a prisoner.  None of this is presented with bias or deliberate irony; it’s all very matter-of-fact, and for that, I have to concede some artistic respect.

The film also has two image patterns: one is Maya’s Converse shoe (watch how it’s used each time it’s onscreen), and the other, also touched upon twice, is a tear rolling from someone’s left eye.  This is first seen when Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being tortured despite supposedly not knowing anything, and once again at the very end when Maya is all alone on a plane home.  Could this be read, maybe, as a comment on the commonalities between people (and their reactions to figurative solitude), regardless of alignment?  Maya, after all of her work, after she was right, is relieved to finally leave this behind her, and we are relieved for her.  A step towards a normal life, maybe?  But there’s something that stings – she’s still referred to as “the girl” in a radio transmission asking for confirmation that bin Laden (“Geronimo”) is dead.  Will Bigelow receive the same label within the mix of filmmakers up for Best Picture at the Oscars this year (all of whom are male)?  If she snags Best Picture a second time (and even if not, considering this film and its lead actress’s accomplishments, and overall, how little award ceremonies mean in regards to art), I think she’ll have given a good start to shedding a long-standing stigma concerning women in movies.  We’ll have gotten to a good area, maybe, and as Jessica Chastain’s Maya says as she speaks out in a room full of all-important men, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place.”

Zero Dark Thirty (2012); written by Mark Boal; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Jessica Chastain.