Category Archives: Highly Recommended

Thistles and Thorns (2018, Kalie Acheson)

Thistles and Thorns opens with a girl (Madison Vance) going into a forest preserve after school. Vance is practically beaming as she does, which doesn’t initially make sense—when she’s walking on the street—but does once she’s in the forest, looking around at all the nature. She goes to a rock formation and gets a storybook out of a hiding place. She starts reading the book (Thistles and Thorns) and the action moves into the book.

The lead of the fairy tale is Yazmin Monet Watkins, who’s on a hero’s quest. Watkins also narrates the short from this point, reading the fairy tale. Watkins’s reading style is storytelling, excited by the text, so even though Vance has disappeared from the screen, Thorns feels like someone is reading it to her, being told to her; the story has a life of its own. It takes a minute or two for Watkins’s narration to really sell that tone. The transition between Vance and the fairy tale she’s reading is pretty sudden, even with the visual cues.

And Watkins’s narration is somewhat detached from the onscreen action. There’s no dialogue from the characters on screen, just Watkins reading the dialogue from the fairy tale. It also takes the narration a moment to catch on because the direction of the fairy tale itself is so fantastic, there’s not room to think about anything else, especially after director Acheson starts moving the camera. When the fairy tale starts, it seems like Watkins is moving through a realistic forest. As real as the one Vance entered at the beginning, albeit a fairy tale one. But Thorns’s set design is expressionist and entirely shot in profile. Acheson will move the camera behind Watkins but it’s always temporary, it’s always going to move back to that profile shot, showing this imagined landscape. The way the camera is always in a tracking shot makes Thorns feel like a story book being read, the action always being revealed from the right side of the screen, which works really well juxtaposed with the narration.

Watkins’s quest has a nice moral and a suitably positive, expansive finish for the tale. The direction, Watkins’s two performances, and the production design make Thistles and Thorns something special.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Kalie Acheson; written by Yazmin Monet Wakins and David Vieux; director of photography, Kyle Stryker; edited by Ethan Coco and Charles Latham; music by Dre Babinski, Selina Carrera, and William Collela; production designers, Acheson and Latham; produced by Acheson and Latham for Animi.

Starring Yazmin Monet Watkins (Assata), Kelli Wheeler (Hummingbird), Himerria Wortham (Fox), and Madison Vance (school girl); narrated by Watkins.


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Two Cars, One Night (2004, Taika Waititi)

Trying to describe Two Cars, One Night without getting schmaltzy might be difficult. It’s sublime, gentle, tender, funny, brilliant, inspired, exceptional. Director Waititi’s just as phenomenal directing his young actors as he is at composing the shots to emphasize their experiences; specifically, how they perceive those experiences. The short starts with these two boys sitting in a car in front of a bar. They’re presumably waiting for a parent or two to get done hanging out in the bar. The little brother, Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards, is quietly reading a book in the passenger seat. The older brother, Rangi Ngamoki, is sitting behind the wheel and watching the adults outside the car.

Waititi does an amazing job subtly implying all these things going on around the boys, which they know are going on but don’t exactly understand. They also don’t understand they don’t exactly understand. Waititi sets up all these known unknowns before there’s the second car. Because amid this situation, where the boys are waiting outside a bar, in this isolated island surrounded by adults adulting, Waikato is going to unknowingly take the first steps towards adulthood.

And here’s why it’s hard to talk about the short without getting schmaltzy. While Waititi avoids sentimentality and instead focuses on his actors and how they convey the action, Two Cars, One Night is about Waikato teasing a girl, Rangi Ngamoki—who arrives in the second car, her parents also going in for drinks (there’s a whole other silent, subtle implication thing regarding the parents who come out first)—but it’s about these two adorable kids flirting. They go from tween and pre-tween (Ngamoki is nine, Waikato is twelve) fighting and teasing to—again—understanding their similar situations on a deeper level than they’re able to consciously recognize. Waititi’s real quiet about it too; he focuses on Ngamoki realizing he wants to talk to Waikato and not really understanding why. Because he’s nine. And she goes from being a grody girl to being worth trying to impress.

Little brother Ngamoki-Richards proves an intentionally bad, more intelligent and thoughtful, hilarious wingman.

Perfect performances from Waikato and Ngamoki. Waititi’s direction, on all levels, just gets more and more impressive throughout. The black and white photography, from Adam Clark, is great. So’s Owen Ferrier-Kerr’s editing. Both Clark and Ferrier-Kerr’s fine work contributes to the sublimeness.

It’s wondrous.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Taika Waititi; director of photography, Adam Clark; edited by Owen Ferrier-Kerr; music by Craig Sengelow; produced by Catherine Fitzgerald and Ainsley Gardiner; released by the New Zealand Film Commission.

Starring Rangi Ngamoki (Romeo), Hutini Waikato (Polly), and Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards (Ed).


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Dirty Computer (2018, Alan Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Andrew Donoho, Lacey Duke, and Chuck Lightning)

Dirty Computer is hard to explain. It’s fairly easy to describe—it’s a fifty-six minute short film (or “emotion picture” as creator Janelle Monáe describes it) compilation of Monáe’s music videos for her Dirty Computer album. There’s bridging footage to contextualize the videos. It’s a dystopian future where Monáe has finally gotten busted for being “dirty.” Dirty mostly seems to mean Black and queer, but only based on the people targeted. Anything Other is “dirty,” which is one of those things Dirty ought to just go ahead and make clear and get past instead of implying until a breaking point.

The contextualizing, bridging stuff is Dirty’s biggest problem. Directors Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning do fine setting it up with Monáe being brought through the sterile, future deprogramming center to the big room where they’re going to zap her memories, but then the music videos start and, by the second or third one, it’s real clear the music videos are directed much better. Worse, Donoho and Lightning stumble through the dialogue scenes. They leverage Tessa Thompson, who’s Monáe’s already brainwashed ex and the only actor who can make the direction and Lightning’s script actually work, but at Monáe’s expense. It’s all going to be okay, fine, but doesn’t get to okay because their handling gets better. In fact, the framing stuff only works because of the story and how effective the music videos (and Monáe in the music videos) become.

Dirty Computer’s first staggering success is in how it contextualizes music videos (and an album both as a single release and collection of songs) in a narrative. Then comes to second ending and it seems like it’s going to chuck all that success only for Dirty to surpass itself and contextualize itself—the music video collection, the emotional picture—both in terms of its narrative and its cultural reflectiveness. With a song. An accompanying song playing over the second finish, hash-tagging the movie itself before informing the first song, informing that song’s video, informing that video’s adjoining bridges, all over it. Had Dirty not been uneven, had Donoho and Lightning just been upfront, that second peak might seem like a plateaued victory lap but since it was uneven, it did meander away from Monáe, the second peak just keeps rising. It’s awesome.

The music videos have these familiar motifs. They’ve got Thompson, they’ve got Jayson Aaron, they’ve got this retro-cyber-punk early nineties thing going on with the production design. The future still has all the same iconography, it’s just a little fetishized, which makes sense given the mainstream sterility. So there’s clearly something going on with the videos and how they relate not just to their bridges but each other. And it’s not… obvious. It has a lot to do with how Monáe’s “character” develops through the songs. Because the about-to-be-brainwashed Monáe doesn’t have control over the songs, which are her memories. Instead it’s doofus white guys Dyson Posey and Jonah Lees; only Lees isn’t as much of a doofus and even he’s able to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, Lightning takes too long for him to catch on, which ends up wasting Lees, who’s the only other actor in the scripted bridges to succeed. Though Monáe does get better after her first big dialogue scene. And, by the end, you know that scene was the directors’ fault, not hers.

Dirty Computer talks about so much. Looks at so much. It’ll go from muted to loud with a snap. The songs are excellent, the music video editing by Deji LaRay is masterful, Monáe’s performance is magnificent. Peerless, actually. Without any victory lap ego. The Dirty Computer music videos are an object lesson in superior music videos; they’re exquisitely shot, edited, photographed, but Monáe’s performance is essential. It changes with every cut in the videos, without ever losing focus, always intensifying. She’s awesome.

Dirty goes from being a collection of great music videos to a great collection of great music videos to something even more layered. Emotion picture? Maybe; but it’s the only one for now, right? Is it a great emotion picture or are emotion pictures great by definition. Only Monáe knows.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; screenplay by Lightning, based on a story by Janelle Monáe, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Alan Ferguson; director of photography, Todd Banhazl; edited by Donoho and Taylor Brusky; music by Wonder and Wynne Bennett; production designer, Fernanda Guerrero; produced by Nicole Acacio and Ian Blair for Wondaland.

Music videos written and directed by Ferguson, Emma Westenberg, Donoho, and Lacey Duke; edited by Deji LaRay; produced by Justin Benoliel, Judy Craig, Melissa Ekholm, Maya Table, and Blair.

Starring Janelle Monáe (Jane 57821), Tessa Thompson (Zen), Jayson Aaron (Ché), Dyson Posey (Cleaner #1), Jonah Lees (Cleaner #2), and Michele Hart (Virgin Victoria).


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One Hundred a Day (1973, Gillian Armstrong)

One Hundred a Day is a terrifying eight minutes. Rosalie Fletcher is a factory girl in the thirties and she’s in trouble. Her more worldly friends, Jenee Welsh and Virginia Portingale, know where she can take care of it. Day’s this grainy, high contrast black and white. In the factory, where the short spends most of its minutes, director Armstrong and cinematographer Ross King focus tight on Fletcher and her experience. There are asides with other workers, but the camera is mostly fixed on Fletcher, charting each of her panicked—or medically related—drops of sweat.

With just eight minutes, Armstrong doesn’t have a lot of time for an epical structure, but there’s a first and second act at least. The third act is just really abbreviated. In the first act, Fletcher’s friends take her to the nurse’s. The nurse, Eve Wynne, is terrifying. But situationally. Her house is medically sterile (the friends sit around and complain about the smell). She’s curt because they’re all breaking the law. She’s the scary lady who’s going to take away naive Fletcher’s baby. And, if the gossiping friends are right, possibly cost Fletcher her job and her life in post-procedure complications.

We never find out what Fletcher’s thinking. She never says how she’s feeling. We see it, in tight close-up, every micro-emotion moving across Fletcher’s expression as she slowly loses her composure.

The film is really loud—the factory wails around Fletcher, the conditions—when she’s in this situation—even more inhumane. It ratchets up the tension, just like everything else. Fletcher lays some of the gossip over action, except the action is just Fletcher working, thinking, sweating, and the gossip is all about the terrible possibilities. The second act of Day is probably five minutes and it seems like ninety. Armstrong matches the film to Fletcher’s perception of time. It’s awesome.

Most of Armstrong’s successes are with showcasing Fletcher, with how she and King shoot it, how she and David Stiven edit it; there aren’t many complex shots… at least not until the end when Armstrong all of a sudden does a wow transition pan. It’s a show-off move, perfectly executed, and changes the narrative distance a bit. That removal also positions the film more firmly on being detached from the question of anti-choice, which certainly seems like where it’s going to end, then doesn’t.

The film, it turns out, is about empathizing without necessarily understanding how to sympathize. Fletcher gets a lot of sympathy throughout, but she never gets any empathy, which just adds another layer to her situation.

One Hundred a Day is great.

:3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Gillian Armstrong; screenplay by Armstrong, based in part on a novel by Alan Marshall; director of photography, Ross King; edited by David Stiven; produced by Storry Walton for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

Starring Rosalie Fletcher (Leilia), Jenee Welsh (Sadie), Virginia Portingale (Mabel), and Eve Wynne (Nurse).


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