2/22/19

2019 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts



It is often the case that the animated shorts are among the more interesting Oscar nominations. I wouldn't say that's the case this year, but there are certainly a few that deserve to be seen. The Academy has made a big deal out of the fact that there are more Asians, Asian Americans, and women represented. It might want to pay more attention to quality rather than ticking PC boxes; none of the 2019 films are path breaking.

As is customary, the five nominees are packaged with a few also-rans for theater release. If you poke about you can also see most of them online. My order of preference:

Late Afternoon, Directed by Louise Bagnall, 10 minutes (Ireland)

My favorite is this poignant little film from Ireland. An old woman—who bears the director's first name of Louise, though Bagnall is not elderly—sits in an arm chair as her daughter wraps her belongings for what we infer is a move to assisted living. As she sips a cup of tea, her biscuit breaks off and falls into the cup. This is the device through which Louise accesses youthful memories and flies through time, her red tresses flowing behind her. Bagnall uses watercolor imagery and leading lines to take us back and forward chronologically. Her film is sweet, poignant, and moving. ★★★★

Animal Behaviour, Directed by David Fine, Alison Snowden, 14 minutes (Canada)

Objectively speaking, the device of animals in a therapy session has been done before—many times. Nor is the straight cartoon animation likely to impress Oscar voters. That said, this one is the most fun of all the nominees. The shrink in command of this gaggle of emotionally wrought critters is Dr. Clement, a pit bull in touch with his inner Shih Tzu. All is fine until the session is forced to confront the gorilla in the room. Delightful chaos ensues. ★★★ ½

One Small Step, Directed by Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Ponitllas, 8 minutes (US/China)

This one is also sweet, though most of the buzz has been over the fact that it's thought to be the first American/Chinese joint animated venture. Luna is an Asian girl being raised by a single-parent dad. She dreams of being an astronaut; her cobbler father is content to play shoemaker to she who years for the stars. Do dreams come true? Exactly as we would have them play out? This one also tugs at the heart strings.★★★

Weekends, Directed by Trevor Jimenez, 16 minutes, (USA/Canada)

This is probably the dark horse candidate to win as it sports the most creative use of animation: shake effects applied to sketchy drawings that evoke atmosphere rather than aiming for realism. It features a little boy from a broken family who shuffles back and forth between his mother and his samurai-loving father. He is also a vivid dreamer. This one has attracted notice because several of its reviewers haven't done their homework and have tried to connect it to US policies on immigrants. Not only is that a stretch, it ignores the fact that the "space needle" seen in backdrops is from Toronto, not Seattle. Canadians have appropriately cried foul over such ethnocentric assumptions. ★★★

Bao, Directed by Domee Shi, 8 minutes, (USA)

Here's the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar and it's a piece of sentimental rubbish! Why is it favored? Two words: Disney/Pixar. An empty nester woman makes the film's namesake steamed dumpling, when one of them pops to life. She raises the little bao to fill the space in her heart vacated by her absent son. Oh, for Pete's sake! What a bunch of essentialist twaddle. Not to mention that we've seen this sort of dough figure (pun intended) animation from Pixar over and over and over. You might also recognize that this film is a boring and insipid spin on Pinocchio. Hand me the Pepto-Bismol.

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Wishing Box, Directed by Wenli Zhang, 6 minutes (USA)

Speaking of derivative, Wishing Box is a swashbuckling take on King Midas. A disappointed pirate opens a treasure chest and finds it empty. His pet monkey, however, manages to pull all manner of things from the box, especially bananas. If only the pirate could get the monkey to shift his focus from fruit to doubloons…  This is slight, but funny enough to keep your interest. (It is technically a 2017 film.) ★★★

Tweet-Tweet, Directed by Zhanna Bekmambetova, 11 minutes, (Russia)

Call this one the we-wuz-robbed pick. This Russian film has a precious animated sparrow as its only recognizable character, but more is afoot (another pun) than cuddly cuteness. Our little bird on a clothesline sees only pins, snow, and a pair of legs and shoes that balance upon the rope. Those legs and feet change and we soon learn that this is not the sort of rope we had imagined. Had this been a nominee, it would have been my choice as best in show. Note: The director's father, Timur, is also a noted name in film. ★★★★

2/20/19

Turner and Constable at the Clark a Mild Disappointment


Turner and Constable
Clark Museum of Art  (Williamstown, MA)
Through March 10, 2019


John Constable

JMW Turner
  
Few 18th century British artists have gained as much fame–much of it posthumous–as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. They are displayed side by side in a current exhibit at the Clark Museum of Art. Alas, the artists' reputations exceed the merits of the show.

Constable


Of the two, John Constable (1776-1837) was the more conventional in both his painting and in his private life. (He did go through a reckless spending spree around the time his beloved wife Maria died in 1828.) Constable is known for his genre landscapes and dramatic skies. Depending on how you feel about depictions of wind in the trees, Constable is either the master of that technique or Marcel Marceau with a paintbrush.

I confess that Constable is not among my favorite artists. Too much of his work is of grand houses in sylvan settings that look like treatments for a Downton Abbey spinoff. Constable also romanticized the British countryside. For me, his watercolors are more inspiring that his oils. In the Clark show, his small studies and downsized oils intrigue more than his larger canvases.

J(oseph) M(allard) William Turner (1775-1851) was, simply, a weird individual who was short on social graces. Call him the enfant terrible of his generation. His mother was mentally ill and many have speculated that "William," his chosen name of address, may have inherited some of her instability. He was a loner who never married, though he did father two children by his housekeeper. Turner was constantly short of money and often lived amidst hand-to-mouth grime. He also shocked his contemporaries with his crude behavior.

There was no doubting his talent and he gained entry into the Royal Academy of Arts, his personal quirks notwithstanding. If you see a conventional-looking Turner, chances are good it was painted for a Royal Academy show. My favorite works of his are his moody oils and his loose and gauzy watercolors. Turner's signature works often sport low contrast tones that jump to life because of a splash of contrasting hue–a red smudge or bright side lighting in a dark room, for instance. Turner may have been mad or eccentric, but he left behind an astonishing number off canvasses.

That last remark is the foundation for my summary of the Clark show: too many Constables and not enough Turners. The lack of Turners makes the overall show feel as if it is cut from the same monochromatic cloth. The opening display is an unintended metaphor for the show's deficiencies. The first is a beach scene from Constable titled "Yarmouth Jetty." (See above) It is splendid in all the ways Constable tends to be. As is often the case, he violated the rule of thirds by making a dramatic sky dominate two-thirds of the frame. Sailing ships lean into the picture and the red-capped draughtsman draws the eye to the left foreground. 

Contrast this with a Turner beach scene, "View off Margate, Evening." (See above). The two approaches to ships on the horizon couldn't be more different. Notice the red and black tones in the lower right that look as if Turner was attacking his canvas rather than painting it. Notice also the orange sail leaning right and wispy figures on the beach leaning left. On the other side of the canvas we see what appears to be a cargo ship, but you have to look closely or you might see it as a ghost image. Turner laid on paint thickly in some parts of the image and barely skimmed the surface with color on other parts. Constable pictures always look complete; Turner's look as if he has just stepped back to contemplate what comes next. They also move, whereas most Constables are more static.

Constable

Turner
Would that there were more side-by-side moments in the Clark show. It's a small exhibit that takes up just two rooms and oddly enough, it makes the absence of diversity more noticeable. It's as if one could exit after seeing the first two paintings, as they vividly highlight the differences between Constable and Turner. I will credit the Clark for choosing some smaller Constables to contemplate. I was drawn to his "Sketch for the Opening of Waterloo Bridge," probably because its energy and disorder reminded me more of Turner. Even then, I preferred Turner's "Tummel Bridge, Perthshire." Okay, I admit that might be personal, as I've crossed that Scottish bridge. (I assume/hope it has had structural improvements since Turner visited in 1801!)

I would not call the current Clark exhibit a failure. It's more like a much anticipated restaurant meal that turns out to fine, but not special.

Rob Weir

2/18/19

Steve Winston, Steven Kellogg, RAM7, Timo Brandt, Sunset Avenue Sessions


Steve Winston, Unresolved


I wondered what happened to Steve Winston. I really liked his 2014 album Grayling, but then he dropped out of sight. Unresolved is a perfect title for his comeback project. It turns out he had some serious family issues to deal with and some­–like the loss of one’s parents–are not the kind that are easily fixed. He almost lost his grandson as well, so when he sings of him, the sun lights up like the Fourth of July, it’s easy to embrace his relief and joy. Flutes and strings that supplement his sensitive piano adorn this song, and it’s ultimately a very emotional song that’s honest and moving. There are lighthearted moments as well, such as his purposeful take on Neil Young on “Maidens.” It's at once a tribute–it seriously could have come from Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere–but it’s also tongue in cheek. On the country rock “Talk of the Town,” Winston uses a catchy little melody, but the song is really about rumors and how it leads to sniping at each other. It too is very Neil Young-like. Welcome back, Steve. ★★★★

Steven Kellogg, Objects on the Mirror

Another Steve I wondered about is Steven Kellogg, who got his musical start in a rock band–Steven Kellogg and the Sixers–right here in Northampton, MA where I live. Kellogg is mainly a solo folk artist on the country end of the scale these days. (He has also done a TED talk!) On “High Highs, Low Lows,” we hear some spit and husk in his throat in a song that takes down fairy tales. In its place we explore life’s peaks and pits. I can easily imagine this one being picked up by a CMT star with a whiskey-soaked voice. But Kellogg is actually a pretty happy guy these days. “Love of My Life” is about his wife, his high school squeeze. “Symphony of Joy” celebrates her and their four daughters. Here’s another thing about Kellogg. He enjoys performing before military troops. He’s a poster child for progressives who don’t concede family values and Americanism to the right. ★★★★

RAM7, August 1791

If August 1791 rings no bells, you’re not Haitian. That was the year thathe George Washington of Haiti, Toussaint L’Overture, launched a rebellion against France that was ultimately the world’s first successful nationalist slave rebellion. RAM7 is a band that honors the multiple threads that are woven into modern-day Haiti: West African, French, Creole, Christian, and vodou. It’s a post-punk-meets-funk outfit in part, but also one that combines history, ceremonies, and the creative energies of an eight-member ensemble. Richard and Chenel Morse are the paternal and maternal center of RAM7. Drums and clicking percussion frame big band style brass on “Dawomen Dak√≤," which is a ceremonial song but one with the pulse of rock n’ roll and the vocal treatments of African music. “St Jak” is also ceremonial, but its slow build makes it feel like a gentle pop-rock ballad.  Toussaint is honored on “Badji Feray O,” which is something between funk, reggae, and folk. Not much of this album would qualify as traditional music, but it’s a really fine introduction to Haiti’s multi-hued creative talents. You’ll even hear a few blasts from the rara, a strident one-note horn often used to announce street parades. ★★★★

Timo Brandt, Grounded

Let’s stay abroad for a moment. Timo Brandt is a German folk singer who sings in English. In his case, “grounded” means the music of the 1990s that shaped him: David Gray, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and a hot of other Anglophones. Like most folk singers, he tries to strike universal chords whenever he can. On “Solid Ground” he asks a poignant question: They say you as young as you feel/And they say you have to find yourself/But what if are getting older/And still not the one you try to be? I always like people willing to be self-deprecating. Brandt puts a sunny indie pop slant to “Thanks, I’m Fine” and sings of how people tell him his songs are too slow and melancholy. I suppose one could say that, but I really like the way he compliments his light tenor with bright acoustic tuning that manages to communicate emotion without banging us over the head with them. Besides, I’m not sure what’s melancholic about a sweet song like the title track, which says that love is the thing that truly grounds us. Beats the hell out of angst and anger, yeah? If you’re wondering, I doubt you’d ever know this guy was German if I hadn’t told you. ★★★★

Jesse Terry, Lizanne Knott, and Michael Logen, Sunset Avenue Sessions

 Jesse Terry is a fine songwriter in his own right, but he’s also a chameleon who covers songs written by friends and strangers he admires. You’ll find treatments  of Johnny Cash (“Ring of Fire”) and Buffalo Springfield (“For What It’s Worth”) on   Sunset Avenue Sessions, plus some Terry originals that will immediately put you in mind of others. “Dance in Our Old Shoes” has Paul Simon’s pawmarks all over it, and John Lennon’s ghost haunts “Kaleidoscope (The latter is on a promo sampler, but not the CD.) Lizanne Knott was once a rocker, but she’s now Nashville. “Why You Wanna Break My Heart” is smoky and evocative of something a small jazz combo might bust out around midnight. She goes mountain chanteuse on “Wildflowers.” Michael Logen is also a Nashville staple from the Americana stable. His “Already Home” unfolds to a steady foot tap that’s the pad from which he launches the falsetto built into the swelling refrain. “Ocean Floor” is quiet and introspective. These three artists harmonize with each other nicely (as does Dar Williams on Terry’s “Stargazer”). When you add up the covers and the previously recorded material, this album won’t win originality awards, but its gentle spirit might help you get through the winter more easily. ★★★

Rob Weir
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