All posts by BS

Sing Street (2016)

What would you do to impress someone? For Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the answer to that question is basically anything. After being transferred to a new school, he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing across the road and goes up to talk to her. He finds out that she’s a model so he creates a relationship the only way he knows how: he asks her to be in a music video for his band. This would have been a good idea except he doesn’t actually have a band. Conor and his friend recruit band members and start writing songs and making music videos. His initial hope is just to find an excuse to talk to Raphina but eventually his musical ambitions grow to match and entwine with his romantic goals.

The film is set in the ’80s and is heavily influenced by the music of the era. Conor’s older brother hands out records like a teacher assigns homework to guide the musical progression of the band. Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, The Cure and more artists are the sonic inspiration for the developing group as well as the soundtrack to the film. The band’s original music begins spectacularly as each song is energetic, catchy, and sincerely adolescent. Despite the high production values added by the real songwriter and music producer, they feel honest to the characters’ age. These early tracks are so memorable that when the later songs are played, while still strong, they feel lackluster in comparison. Instead of steadily building to a showstopping number, the film’s final performance is overshadowed which detracts from the emotional climax that it is supposed coincide with.

The band clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing and they don’t care.

Director John Carney (Once) displays a deep affection for his characters. The story is the semi-autobiographical account of his own childhood and each of the band members, while clearly misfits, are endearing in their own way. The main cast had no prior acting experience and Carney is able bring out natural performances from them. The key instrumental talent Eamon (Mark McKenna) spends most of his time doing “rabbit stuff” and the pint-sized redhead Darren (Ben Carolan) is oblivious to his own limits as he signs up as the band’s manager, music video producer, and cinematographer. They’re also hilariously unaware of their mistakes. Conor’s attempts at acting cool in front of Raphina are endearing failures and the band’s attempts at creating a signature look fail miserably as each band member is limited to what he can find in his closet, This leads to a band with members dressed in a ’80s suede disco suit, a heavy trenchcoat, and even a cowboy.

It is this disregard for realities and probabilities that gives Sing Street its infectious charm. The characters are underdogs that don’t realize it and they take every challenge head on. Form a band? Ok. Write a song? Let’s get started. They never take a moment to examine their own abilities which fills the film with a sweet, naive optimism. And this applies to more than making music. The film compares music to love. Conor’s brother says “Rock and a roll is a risk…” and its clear throughout that this is the same risk Conor takes in pursuing Raphina. In pursuing his passion, he risks ridicule and failure, but, as Raphina puts it, “for [your] art [you] can never do anything by half.” Sing Street is a vivacious and endearing story of growing up through music and romance with an exceptional soundtrack that will be on many playlists for years to come.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Fireworks Wednesday (2016)

In 2011, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation. Despite being his 5th feature film, it was his first to play in the United States. Since then, distributors have been releasing his back catalog starting with About Elly last year and now Fireworks Wednesday, originally released in 2006. As with his previous films, this is a domestic drama. A young woman, Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti; About Elly), working as a maid through a temp agency goes to the apartment of a couple about to leave for vacation. Their home is a mess with broken glass from an argument the previous night. During the course of the day, Roohi becomes increasingly entangled in the potential infidelity that led to the fight and plays a vital role in alternatingly fanning and dousing the flames.

Fireworks Wednesday uses minute details to drive its tension. Farhadi’s other films also rely on this technique, but it is noticeably less effective here. The film has a much slower start because, unlike the movies that would follow, the main character is not central to the conflict – she is an outsider. The source of the central conflict is not revealed soon enough making the beginning of the film largely irrelevant as it only serves to introduce Roohi to the scenario. This breaks the sympathy found in Farhadi’s later works. Roohi does not need to be involved in the situation so the drama seems forced and avoidable. Her actions seem like the work of a well-intentioned busybody rather than the tragic, but understandable mistakes of the heartbreakingly human characters we have come to expect from the director.

Roohi becomes embedded in this couple’s troubles.

The film lacks the mystery needed to entice the viewer. Roohi’s actions are all shown on screen so instead of the startling revelations of Farhadi’s newest releases, the limited suspense can only be derived from waiting to see how other characters respond which is rarely a surprise. Furthermore, the key details that lead to conflicts are more blatantly telegraphed. Fireworks Wednesday was only the 3rd film from Farhadi so it is likely that he was still honing his craft here. It is also the last film of his to have a co-writer, which may have contributed to the lack of subtlety in the script.

The performances, however, are consistently strong. Even when the story approaches melodrama, the actors are always believable in their desperation. Characters can swing from innocent to guilty and back again without jarring shifts in tone. The young son of the couple is particularly effective during his brief screen time. Farhadi has had a trend of using children as the voice of reason during chaos. While the adults bend facts and focus on the drama from their perspective, the boy clearly articulates the situation in a sweet and tearful explanation to his confused uncle. The director’s strengths with actors are evident even early in his career.

It’s almost unfair to compare this film, or any other for that matter, to the high bar set by Farhadi’s last three projects. Most movies released would come up short because there are few filmmakers working today that can match his intricate plots and subtly escalating tension. Fireworks Wednesday does not have the precision of its successors, but it is a promising rough draft of the template Farhadi would later perfect.

3/5 stars.

Green Room (2016)

A lot of bands spend time living out of a van and traveling from gig to gig. For hardcore bands, the venues can range from heavy to dangerous. Green Room, the third film from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, follows a little known heavy metal band as they tour. Struggling to make ends meet after a canceled concert, a journalist friend gets them the chance to headline at a place his cousin knows. What he doesn’t tell the band is that this show is in the middle of nowhere at a bar filled with white supremacists. A normal person would immediately turn around and get the hell out of there, but this is an metal band. So what they do? They get on stage and open with a new song whose only lines are “Nazi Punks! Nazi Punks! FUCK OFF!!!”.

The bulk of the movie is about the aftermath of their concert. Surprisingly, it’s not the lyrics that get them in trouble but rather an event they mistakenly witness in the titular green room. Now a liability to the owner of the venue, the band is stuck in the middle of the woods locked in the green room unable to get help. What happens next? That is where Green Room separates itself from Saulnier’s previous film, Blue Ruin.

This band is hard, man.

Green Room has noticeably lesser ambitions than its predecessor. Blue Ruin was a taut deconstruction of its genre. The hero wasn’t a John Wayne-like badass. He was a regular person, unskilled in violence. It was the rare revenge movie where violence had consequences for everyone involved. While Green Room retains the high level of suspense, it chooses to stay within the confines of its genre – a slasher movie with a metal band and white supremacists instead of teenagers and a serial killer. The limited nature of the film does however lessen the overall impact when compared to Blue Ruin.

Saulnier again shows off his skills as a director. His visuals (he was also the cinematographer on Blue Ruin) continue to excel, using the serene forests to contrast with the dingy, propaganda-laden interiors. The film is well paced with tension built and released on point. The moments of violence, of which there are many, are visceral and significantly more explicit than most R-rated features. From hacked but not severed limbs to bullet-ridden heads, the gruesome details are happily displayed. Macon Blair (Blue Ruin) plays the role of the club manager and is again immediately sympathetic as the slightly incompetent everyman put in a difficult situation. Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the pragmatic owner who has to clean up the mess. Stewart’s performance is adequate, but he is perhaps miscast as he isn’t able to exhibit the degree of villainy needed for the role to be believable. Green Room has modest goals, but its creators have more than enough skill to achieve them. It won’t be acclaimed for its scope, but as a slasher film, it thrills and shocks with ruthless precision.

4/5 stars.

Eye in the Sky (2016)

What is the cost of fighting terrorism? That is the broader question looming over Eye in the Sky. Directed by Gavid Hood (TsotsiEnder’s Game), the film narrows this problem down to the scale of one single drone strike in Kenya. After trailing these terrorists on the East Africa Most Wanted list for years, Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) leads a mission to selectively bomb the house they are meeting in. Unfortunately, there are strict rules of engagement in this situation and before any strike can be launched she needs the permission of General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman, Harry Potter) and several politicians who have conflicting viewpoints.

Drone strikes and questions of their legality and morality have been highlighted in the news recently and Eye in the Sky displays the complexities and minutiae that are inherent in military missions. A major theme of the film is responsibility and blame. Who really makes a decision that, while killing terrorists, could risk harming innocents? Is it the pilot who pulls the trigger? The Colonel that gives the order to fire? The general or several politicians that defined their rules of engagement? The film implies that responsibility is held at each point in the chain of command and the aftermath of these decisions is felt by everyone. One of the most interesting points brought up in the ongoing discussion is about the larger implications of casualties. If they kill one child to save 80 people from a potential suicide bomber, will the British government become reviled? Is vilifying the terrorists in the media worth allowing a bombing to occur? Again, the movie smartly avoids providing direct answers to these questions and is impressively balanced in portraying each opinion.

Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.
Every factor, political, moral, or legal is scrutinized.

Furthermore, the film explores how political involvement in the military matters can undermine their efficacy. Beyond morality, each politician in the film considers the political impact of the bombing. How will this affect their career? Their party? In one case a ranking politician asks to a dissenting voice, “Will you be the one who has to go on morning news shows to explain this?”. The film shows how these considerations cripple the politicians with indecision as they continually “refer up” to avoid culpability, despite the time-sensitive nature of the operation. When they begin to rely on predictive damage models to make their decisions, the question of reliability of data is also raised. How much of these models are based on fact and can they change if a ranking military official wants them to? The films shows the desperation that can be created by indecision at a critical moment.

Eye in the Sky is primarily a film about these ideas but it does however have brief action scenes in Africa. Barkhad Abdi of Captain Phillips (He is not the Captain now) plays their man on the ground. Hood deftly uses these scenes to contrast the political risks with the dangers agents in that position take trying to fight terrorism everyday. For the the most part they are well staged. The only flaw is many of the effects are obviously computer generated and can break the otherwise successful immersion.

When decisions are finally made, the film avoids simple resolution. The actions taken – and the actions not taken – play out and the consequences are felt by all. Did someone “win” the arguments? Was the mission successful? What does “success” even mean in the this scenario? As the credits roll, these are the questions that linger over the characters and the audience. Eye in the Sky, succeeds by raising these questions and enforcing the uncertainty of any possible answer.

4/5 stars.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! can be seen as a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused or even a continuation of Boyhood. Like Dazed and Confused, the film is about someone starting school, only this time it’s a college freshman in the 1980’s rather than a high school freshman in the 70’s. Jake (Blake Jenner) plays the main character moving into the off-campus house exclusively for members of the baseball team and the movie shows the events that take place during the 3 days before school begins. Like most of Linklater’s films, there is no clear plot. Instead, the camera moves along with the characters as they go about their lives.

Linklater is known for producing naturalist performances. Each character feels believable but unfortunately not often likable. The director’s favorite archetype has always been the outsider artist who spends his time philosophizing about their true purpose in life, but most of the characters here don’t fit into that mold. All of the leads are Jake’s baseball teammates and their hyper-competitive nature turns their home into a fraternity house of concentrated testosterone. Many of the actors appear conspicuously old and there is even a Matthew Mcconaughey look-alike spouting lines similar to his famous role in Dazed and Confused. Actually, almost all of Jake’s teammates are mostly repulsive versions of that character. Predatory, egotistical, and creepy. The characters, though well realized, are shallow and their dialogue quickly devolves into what some may call “guy talk”. By that i mean each conversation is either about one-upping each other or objectifying women. The rest of their time is spent playing juvenile pranks on each other that, while occasionally funny, do nothing to grow the characters.

Lots of great songs come out of this convertible.

The period is well realized. It’s clear that Linklater knows this era (he was about the age of the characters during this time) and has lovingly reproduced it. The call-outs to Space Invaders, pinball, and vinyl records are appreciated but overabundant. The camera unnecessarily lingers too often on the titles of games, TV, or movies, overeager to mine nostalgia. The music is used similarly. Linklater has a great ear and assembled a soundtrack out of the best of the 80’s featuring The Knack, Blondie, and a particularly hilarious moment when the characters sing along to Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang. The only downside is that when the music – and the energy it brings – are missing, the scenes are are noticeably lacking. Its absence exposes a lack of compelling characters.

Despite these flaws it’s hard to fault the technical aspects of the film. The story, while aimless, is well paced and is never boring. When Linklater does finally choose to add depth to Blake’s teammates, they quickly show potentially redeeming qualities. It’s a shame that these instances are rare amidst their standard superficial pursuits. Linklater has never been a filmmaker to manipulate his characters. His camera observes rather than judges and in this way he has achieved his goal. He’s accurately and affectionately portrayed the characters that he was interested in. Unfortunately, to the rest of us these characters are more often grating than appealing and Linklater’s craft can’t overcome that hurdle.

3/5 stars.

Hardcore Henry (2016)

From B-movies in the 70’s to comic books in the present, blockbusters have always been influenced by the media their creators grew up with. Finally, enough time has passed that the generation that grew up playing video games is sitting behind the camera. Many films have played with flourishes that reference video game aesthetics (see any movie by Neil Blomkamp), but now we have the first film where the main inspiration in every feature, from craft to story, comes from interactive entertainment. Hardcore Henry, directed by Ilya Naishuller, is an action film shot entirely from the first person. Henry wakes up being literally put back together by his wife with no memory of his past. Before he can learn what has happened to him, they are attacked by a cartoonishly evil Kurt Cobain-esque villain who kidnaps Henry’s wife. The rest of the film is Henry trying to kill the bad guy and save his wife, aided by the help of a mysterious man (or men?) named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley; District 9).

And that is everything you need to know about the plot. Actually, it’s more of a setup than anything else. Taking a cue from many video games, Naishuller uses the barest of narratives because the film isn’t about the story, it’s about the spectacle. And that spectacle is fantastic. The first person perspective increases immersion and causes you to wince with each blow directed at the camera. It’s especially effective when Henry is getting thrown from planes, trains, and exploding automobiles. The stunts are always exhilarating even if they stretch believability. How does someone thrown off the roof of a moving van because it was blown up by a grenade fly through the air and land on the end of a motorcycle? Who cares. It looks cool.

Up close and personal.

This irreverent tone gives the film a winning playfulness except for the moments where it descends into juvenility. The film brands itself as “HARDCORE” and isn’t satisfied with just action in that regard. It has to be about hard guys doing hard guys things and it uses blatant misogyny to break up the adrenaline. Women in the film are relegated to being strippers, hyper-sexualized ninjas, or hollow plot devices sometimes literally used as props or background dressing. These instances aren’t frequent, but their casual nature is appalling. It’s a shame that the gleeful violence is tarnished by these adolescent male tendencies when the stunts are exceptional and deserve to be seen in theaters.

Many of the set pieces could be called direct adaptations of video games or video game trailers. The opening credits are played over a gruesome montage of slow motion kills bathed in red lighting that clearly imitates the initial Killzone 3 teaser. Later scenes pull from famous levels found in popular first person shooters. The sniper scene from the original Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is recreated here from the abandoned concrete building right down to the ghillie suit. The stunts only falter when rather than introduce a new set piece, the film just throws in more enemy henchmen (which ironically is a common complaint in video games). Even though these stunts are not always novel, the translation to a new medium creates a fresh, frenetic energy and the film happily revels in that chaos.

4/5 stars.

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature and his first attempt at a (comparatively) big budget film that might have some mainstream appeal. His previous films were small character dramas and that DNA is still present here. Like Take Shelter, the movie stars Michael Shannon dealing with a supernatural problem. This time however, the question isn’t “Is it real?” but rather “What does this mean?” and “How do we prevent others from destroying it?”. Shannon plays a dad hiding from the police with Joel Edgerton (The Gift) as he takes his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a special location. We soon learn that Alton has supernatural powers evidenced by the beams of blue light that shoot out of his eyes. He is able to tap into radio frequencies, pull down satellites, and cause earthquakes. Their mission is to get him to Florida before something happens and before the government, believing him to be a weapon, finds them.

The clear influence here is John Carpenter’s Starman. Like that movie, this is a chase that is more interested in sentiment than science. The film manages to convey the love Alton’s parents have for him by contrasting them with others who only view him as a messiah or future destruction. They care for Alton the boy, not the supernatural being. This also serves to increase the stakes and the tension throughout. Lieberher is particularly believable as Alton. He shows the unnaturally calm confidence of someone who fully understands the situation which makes his simple lines seem profound. Yet, he still betrays his youth in the way he needs his parents for support. The music also recalls Carpenter’s signature scores and a slow piano melody transitions the mood from frantic chase to solemn duty. Even the special effects are homage. The blue beams of light mimic the glows of the sliver spheres in Starman. This along with other flourishes are deliberately old fashioned but never become garish or distracting.

Family is at the heart of Midnight Special.

Nichols wisely chooses to obscure many details of the plot. Background information including how Alton was born, how he grew up, and the full scope of what his powers can do are either only hinted at or largely ignored. The audience, as well as the characters, are left wondering what led to his current state. The time period is muddled too. Shots prominently feature CRT televisions and few modern gadgets are shown to prevent dating the film. In doing so, Nichols has edited out the exposition that bogs down many other science fiction films (see Interstellar) and focuses on the heart of the story – a family trying to save their son. That is, until the ending.

How the film closes may leave viewers unsatisfied. Up to that point, the cryptic details heightened the intensity, but as the film reveals itself the suspense is quickly deflated. The ending may prove too literal for some wanting something closer to 2001 and noticeably undermines the mystery that preceded it. Still, the sense of wonder and hidden potential present in the film create ample tension and intrigue to entice.

4/5 stars.

Get a Job (2016)

Ah, the millennials. They just can’t seem to make it work, can they? Get a Job, directed by Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger), is a comedy about a group of young people trying to find their first jobs. The movie was apparently shot in 2012, but due to distribution issues was only released this weekend in very few theaters and on VOD rather than the wide release expected for a movie playing to this broad of an audience. Miles Teller plays Will, a recent grad who starts his first day doing video production at LA Weekly only to learn that his job as been eliminated. His girlfriend Jillian (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) asks him to “step up” and find a job. unlike his pot-smoking roommates, while his old fashioned “work your way to the top” dad (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad)  unexpectedly finds himself in a similar situation. The movie also features various subplots about Will’s roommates attempting to find their own first jobs and this is one of the reason the film falls apart.

The film feels overstuffed, despite its 82 minute runtime. It’s clear that this movie has gone through several overhauls in the editing room to create  something releasable, but their attempts have failed. None of the plot threads are given enough time to allow the characters to grow, so the climaxes have little effect. There is also dialogue referring to scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut which leads to a film that feels entirely jumbled together. Even with the 4 year wait, Get a Job still plays like an early version.

Making a good movie is the hard part.

The “comedy” script fails to produce any laughs. The writers were obviously targeting a Superbad-like movie, especially with their casting of Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but fail at creating both the likable characters and the humorous situations. The cast here is extremely talented and has done great work in other projects, but the script and editing don’t give them anything to work with. Cranston and Kendrick are the highlights, but even they can only do so much given their material and they aren’t featured enough to make an impact. Instead the jokes oscillate between trite and obscene and the language is both juvenile and crass. Alison Brie plays a hiring manager whose only lines are sexual advances that are both unwanted and unfunny. To put this in context, the film’s idea of comedy is her character trying to watch Will urinate for his drug test. Get a Job‘s humor never rises above a repulsively vulgar attempt at a Judd Apatow comedy.

Furthermore, the tone is absolutely inappropriate for the target audience. Starting right from the opening shot, Get a Job never loses its “kids these days” perspective. The film’s introductory montage posits that all of the characters’ problems are caused by their everyone-gets-a-trophy upbringing and that they can’t make it in the “real world” until they “toughen up”. Then, at the last minute, it doubles back and tries to claim, in a well delivered but unsubstantiated speech by Kendrick, that the younger generation doesn’t need the structure or direction of their parents to be happy. With no true, original, or even consistent insights to offer, the film fails at both skewering millennials and at uplifting them.

Totaling all these troubles, it’s clear that distribution issues were the least of the film’s problems. The 4 year wait apparently did not provide enough time construct a developed story and also outdated it as the economy has improved since filming. In retrospect, placing it on hold was actually the right decision because the movie has nothing to offer to any demographic. Get a Job is positioned as a film of and for the millennials but feels like a movie written by their disapproving grandparents with jokes by an obscene Seth Rogen knockoff.

1/5 stars.

Mo’ Malick Mo’ Problems

The recent release of another movie by Terrence Malick has had me thinking about his career progression. Let me preface all of this by saying that I am a huge fan and have tremendous respect for both his technical and emotional film-making talents. Soon after Malick graduated film school he made Badlands and followed it up five years later with Days of Heaven. Both of these films showcased his signature style, but were relatively disciplined compared to his later work. They featured the trademark narration and natural light cinematography, but had actual plotlines. After this period, he went off to Paris and escaped the public eye. It was 20 years later in 1998 that his next movie, The Thin Red Line, was released.

The 20 year gap had a profound impact on the films he would later produce. Because of the incredible critical success and originality of his first two films, he developed a cult-like following and because of his absence he became not only an auteur, but also a recluse. This only compounded his respect in the film world, so when he did finally return it was like a second coming. The great elusive filmmaker Terrence Malick came back to Hollywood to save cinema. Malick had access to a significantly larger budget and any actor he could ask for. He probably cut out more A-list actors than most films are able to cast.

While this would be a great boon to any director, it also came with an increased level of freedom. It’s easy to think that more freedom to a creative like Malick would lead to a better film, but it is my belief that great works are the result of creative tension. I don’t believe in the unfettered auteur, that if only people (studios, producers, actors, etc.) would just listen and do exactly what a director says, the film would turn out great. No, instead, it is the dissenting opinions that prevent originality from becoming excess and stylistic flair from becoming indulgence.

Fortunately, the real world events that inspired his first three films after the gap kept Malick on solid ground. The Thin Red LineThe New World, and The Tree of Life were all his interpretations of historical events namely the Battle of Mount Austen during WWII, the story of John Smith and Pocahantas, and Malick’s own childhood, respectively. There were stil some excesses as runtimes increased and actors became less and less important compared the natural imagery. Yet, the plotlines from these historical events focused the existentialism imparted by the characters. This is particularly true of The Tree of Life where the deeply personal story made the abstract structure more approachable.

“Can we get these people out of here so we can shoot those trees?”

However, starting with To the Wonder, Malick broke away from any sort of reality. Working again with same team as his previous film, he was given even more autonomy over the production and it shows. Neither To the Wonder nor Knight of Cups has a clear plot or theme. In The Tree of Life, the plot jumped from present day to the beginning of time to 1950’s Texas to the end of the world, but it was able to do so because these leaps had a purpose. They were all a part of the core emotion of the film: coping with the loss of a loved one – a very relatable and immediately sympathetic situation. What emotion was either of his past two films supposed to explore? Therein lies the problem. There was no main theme or contained set of emotions that they discussed. Instead they were collections of disparate, often fleeting feelings strung together.

Without something connecting these thoughts, his films have become meandering and ultimately meaningless. This is clearly evidenced by the staff needed to complete post-production. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven were edited by a single person, but his later films needed several editors (3, 4, 5, 5, and 3, respectively) to produce something releasable. He is allowed to continue shooting ungodly amounts of video and likely has to because he doesn’t have a plan for where his film is headed and doesn’t know what shots he actually needs. Then, he and his team of editors attempt to construct something out of the countless hours of footage, sometimes spending years doing so.

What this means is Malick needs to be reined in. He needs to take more time and find collaborators, not just co-workers. Being true collaborators means working both with and, equally importantly, against each other – regardless of any previous critical acclaim. A producer, writer, actor, or at least one out of his army of editors needs to set boundaries for Malick to force him to create some sort of structure or cohesive vision for his films. With the upcoming Weightless and Voyage of Time, Malick will likely release more films in this decade than the previous four. In the meantime, I hope that he and his team can be honest and critical of their recent releases to improve the quality of their next films. Terrence Malick will always be an amazing director, let’s just hope he can return to making amazing movies.

Son of Saul (2015)

Directed by first timer László Nemes, Son of Saul focuses on a subgroup of prisoners called Sonderkommando who were forced to help Nazis in their usage of gas chambers during WWII. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is one of these prisoners and during the first third of the film he performs his duties, including moving corpses and cleaning bloody gas chambers, without disdain or disgust. The single expression he shows is one of pragmatism, not horror. This continues until his priorities shift after he finds a certain body. Saul discovers his illegitimate son’s body and does everything he can to hide it from cremation so he can provide a proper burial.

The film focuses almost entirely on Saul. The camera closely follows him and there are very few cuts, similar to the shooting style of Birdman. Furthermore, Nemes chose to use the Academy ratio (not widescreen). Typically, using this technique in the modern era implies unnecessary nostalgia on the part of the filmmaker as was the case with The Artist, but here it is effective. Nemes uses the smaller area to create a strong sense of location. At any moment it feels like there is something chaotic occurring just off-screen, but we can’t tell because our focus is on Saul – literally. The backgrounds, particularly the most explicit ones, remain blurred and out of focus. These techniques successfully create a world beyond the frame of the film and show the banalization of tragedy. Dead bodies aren’t in focus because they’re not special and how can they be with so many around?

Yet the formal strengths of the film are undermined by its narrative turns. As Saul becomes increasingly desperate and endangers others to ensure the proper burial of his son, he becomes almost hypocritical. He takes risks that could potentially harm the escape plans his peers have worked so hard to execute just to save someone that has already been lost. And after sending hundreds of bodies to the incinerator, what makes his son’s body special? There is the famous quote by Joseph Stalin that “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” but here Saul’s actions only appear selfish, not tragic, and any small payoff that could have been produced is crippled by a cheap, cop-out of a conclusion.

Son of Saul recently picked up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Despite the Academy being averse to gruesome subjects, they have consistently shown they love movies about the Holocaust. Why? Maybe because it’s morally unambiguous. Maybe because it’s a time when the US was completely in the right and played the hero. Or maybe it’s just that people are too afraid of backlash to criticize a film based on the Holocaust, fearing that others will think they are belittling one of the greatest tragedies in history. It’s important to note that the film and its subject, no matter how important or sensitive, are separate from each other and criticizing one does not equal criticizing the other. Son of Saul is another example of a historical drama overrated by critics, likely due to its subject matter.

3/5 stars.