a theatre, film & pop culture review
I did not even recognize Matthias Schoenaerts in Death of a Shadow. Did not even recognize him. The, shall we say, strapping young Belgian from last year’s Foreign Language nominee Bullhead, who also starred in this year’s acclaimed Rust and Bone, portrays a deceased WWII soldier who’s given a second chance at life by a creepy collector if he can “capture the shadows” of 1,000 people with a specially-constructed camera. Schoenaerts is typically winning as the bespectacled, tench-coated Nathan in this, the least conventional story by far of the nominees. It’s a bit schmaltzy-sentimental (there’s a love story of sorts that we could’ve done without), but the collector’s subterranean lair is beautifully and cleverly conceived: a candle-lit hallway shines a low warm light on variously posed and shaped shadows in a high brow-like Haunted Mansion. Its ingenuity feels a bit too calculated, but its light sci-fi/horror combo intrigues enough to make us wonder what else Tom Van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele may have up their sleeves.
This year, it’s the battle of little boys: there’s the Afghan orphan and son of a blacksmith who dream of rising above their lots in life to become Buzkashi riders (similar to Polo), and there’s the young Somali who, pondering a life of piracy, is persuaded to pursue fishing. The latter, Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura’s Asad, is the droll offering, ending in the boy’s discovery of a blood-splattered yacht (replete with a trashy bikini-clad corpse) where he “catches” a “Lionfish,” aka one of the ugliest, sour-mugged cats you ever did see. That a film about (and entirely casted with actual) refugees concludes with such irony is likely to baffle members of the Academy who will then be more inclined to the straightforward plight of the Afghans. Sam French and Ariel Nar’s Buskashi Boys is the The Shore of this year: it’s very much rooted in vivid visual detail, this time of the urban ruin that the boys run, ride, climb and explore. The more ambitious, and more earnest, film offers both a character and cultural study while cementing an affecting bond between the two boys.
But if you want earnest, look no further than Henry, the Amour (and Away from Her!)-doppelgänger — yes, there was one of these in the Animated Short category, too, but in this one the central couple are also musicians to boot! The titular gent has Alzheimer’s and sadly can’t remember that his wife passed away, so in sudden flashbacks, we see his fondest, most tender moments of their relationship. A far cry from Haneke’s starkness, Yan England’s melodramatic weepie is a Hallmark movie with a decent cast. A comparison to the masterful Amour is not going to do this doozie any favors.
The Curfew kills me. I’m not trying to be punny (the main character is suicidal): it literally pains me that this effortful hipster vanity project is going to win. I’m sad to report that this is the one American nominee, but really, who else but a writer-director-actor Brooklynite could’ve made this? (Ok, I don’t know for sure he’s from Brooklyn, but he went to Pratt and is in a band called Stellastarr, so… there’s that.) The story (penned by… Shawn Christensen) is about an estranged brother and sister who come together to care for one of those very adult-like little girls that wears sassy pants and self-importantly offers up life lessons to the irresponsibly helpless actual adult (played by a listlessly smug… Shawn Christensen). An overwhelming sense of arrogance pervades the film (directed by… Shawn Christensen) which inexplicably includes a synchronized bowling alley dance sequence a la (500) Days of Summer and not one, but two, interruptions of suicide via rotary phone. Because downtrodden hipster death is even sadder — or cooler, depending on your hipster cred — with a rotary phone.
So why will The Curfew win? It’s “relatable” in that it’s not only the sole American nominee, it’s also the sole English-language nom, and it boasts that kind of calculated quirk that made God of Love a winner two years ago (though that Brooklyn thesis film had a charm that is severely lacking here). Buzkashi Boys could spoil, but it’s too similar to Asad (oppressed little boys), so the votes will split. If the Academy is feeling really feisty this year — and they kind of are, aren’t they? — Death of a Shadow might take it home. But I still maintain it hasn’t a ghost of a chance. (Intended pun! Yeah!)