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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

The natural inclination after watching the Oscar-nominated, timeless, and slightly surrealistic THE RED TURTLE is to wonder what centuries-old mythology serves as its source material. In truth, this wordless story of a castaway on a deserted island came from the mind of the director, Michael Dudok de Wit, who won an Academy Award for his charcoal-drawn, 2000 animated short FATHER AND DAUGHTER. Turned into a screenplay by Pacale Ferran, THE RED TURTLE (Dudok de Wit’s first feature) has the feel of a plainly told, ancient fable that combines very human feelings of isolation, love and despair with more fantastical elements, including one involving a massive red turtle that turns into a female companion for our unnamed protagonist.

Since there is no dialogue, the story gives us almost no background on how this man ended up on the sea in the first place, or who he was and what sort of life he lived before that. We’re shown a small handful of nightmarish sequences involving things he may have seen on his vessel, but we have no way of knowing if these are memories or warped distortions of a life that he will likely never see again. Dudok de Wit manages to find wonderful drama and humor in the island’s smallest details, including interactions with small hermit crabs, birds, coconut trees, and most significantly, in the man’s building of a series of rafts and his repeated failed attempts to get off the island.

With each trip beyond the sand bars surrounding the island, something under the water attacks his raft, destroying it and forcing him to swim back to the island. Eventually he discovers that the cause of his anguish is the titular animal, and he takes his frustrations out on the creature by flipping it onto its back and beating it with a stick. Instantly regretting this, the man attempts to revive the turtle, which leads to its shell cracking, and eventually it transforms into a woman (as all giant red turtles do?).

THE RED TURTLE is the first non-Japanese work to be co-produced by legendary animation house Studio Ghibli, and while this film pushes the limits of the studio’s mostly kid-friendly offerings, it’s still safe for most ages as long as you aren’t easily offended or confused by the implications of a man and a woman (who used to be a turtle) having a child. But the tale’s more far-reaching implications are infinitely more interesting. Is this Dudok de Wit’s reworking of the Adam and Eve story? In the end, it doesn’t actually matter because, in its current form, it allows audiences to interpret this modern myth however they choose, using whatever baggage and beliefs they bring to the table. This could be a religious allegory, or a tribute to the endless possibilities of nature, or fantasy for fantasy’s sake. Knowing the director to be an expert craftsman and sublime storyteller, it’s likely a little of each…or none of the above.

The animation style of THE RED TURTLE clearly wishes to emphasize the natural world over the humans present in it. The character designs are so simple as to reduce their faces to two dots for eyes, a V-shaped nose, and a simple line for a mouth. While the surroundings—the sky, ocean, plant life, even the sand—are given depth and brought to life with warm colors. The artistry at work is undeniable, and never more spectacular than during a world-leveling tsunami sequence in the final third of the film. Dudok de Wit and his small army of European-based animators make utter destruction look as awe-inspiring as it is devastating.

THE RED TURTLE’s deliberate pacing might test the limits of restless younger children, but with a brisk 80-minute running time, it’s unlikely anyone’s patience will be tested. If anything, the film’s lack of concrete explanations for some of its stranger elements may result in a barrage of questions from younger viewers (after the film, preferably), to which any right-thinking adult should respond “Well, what do you think it meant?” Dudok de Wit is an intelligent enough filmmaker to understand that by giving viewers as little information as possible about how and why his story unfolds, he’s encouraging people (in particular, families) to engage, question, project upon, and converse about this magnificently realized work.

Some of the finest directors working today cut their teeth on (and occasionally return to) short films. Look at any Pixar film today, and I promise you whoever directed it, made shorts for the animation house first to prove their merit. It’s now become a regular part of Oscar season that a couple of weeks after the nominees are released, three programs of shorts are released in theaters (technically four, since the Documentary Shorts are usually divided into two parts). Although I didn’t get a chance to watch the doc shorts this year, I have gone through all of the animated and live action offerings, and am happy to share with you a few highlights.

Of the Animated Shorts nominees, odds are you’ve already seen the Pixar work PIPER, one of their all-time cutest and most photorealistic, from director Alan Barillaro, concerning a sandpiper chick who learns to leave the nest and brave the shoreline in search of food buried under the sand and protected to a degree by terrifying and unpredictable waves.

The other animated short I’d already seen was BORROWED TIME, a dark and moving story of a worn out sheriff who is on the verge of ending his life, still reeling from the guilt of his father’s death years earlier. This film made the rounds online late last year because it was made by two Pixar animators as a side project, and it’s probably my favorite of the nominees.

Rounding out the five entries (which are supplemented by a few additional shorts that were in in contention for the awards) are the music-centric PEARL, told entirely from the inside of a car that a guitar-playing father and his daughter live in, until he realizes that living in a car is no good for a kid, so he gets a job and makes it possible for her to live out her rock star dreams. It’s probably noteworthy to mention that PEARL is the first virtual reality project to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Those first three entries are all from the United States, with the remaining two coming from Canada: BLIND VAYSHA, about a girl who can only see the past in one eye and the future in the other, making it impossible to function normally in the world; and the 35-minute PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES, from writer-director Robert Valley, a sort of animated graphic novel about the narrator’s troubled friendship with a thrill junkie named Techno Stypes, whose failing liver sets the two off on an adventure in China that doesn’t end well for either.

While the Animated works run just under 90 minutes, the Live Action shorts program goes a bit over two hours and features an international array of filmmakers (as in, none from America).

From Hungary, SING tells the story of a young, shy girl named Zsofi, who is beginning a new school and wants to get involved with the award-winning choir, but when the teacher in charge of choir privately asks her to only mime the words because her voice isn’t strong, it disheartens her and leads to a wonderful, small act of rebellion in all the students. This film is all about the payoff, but it’s a hell of a payoff and the two young lead actresses are quite good.

Denmark’s SILENT NIGHTS is a heartbreaking love story about an immigrant from Ghana who has moved to Denmark to make money to send back to his wife and three children. He meets a volunteer at the local Salvation Army and homeless shelter, and the two fall in love, with him moving in with her. The longer things go without him telling her the truth about his life in Ghana, the worse things get. The film also does a nice job of illustrating the underlying racism surrounding any area of the world where a large influx of immigrants is happening. Strong stuff, even if the love story borders on soap opera-ish at times.

TIMECODE from Spain is the charming and mysterious story of two parking lot security guards who work opposite shifts but communicate with each other through a series of “messages” left on the security cameras of the previous shifts. This is a wonderful experience.

My favorite of the Live Action shorts is France’s ENNEMIS INTERIEURS (ENEMIES WITHIN), an intense, 25-minute interrogation sequence set in mid-1990s France between an French-Algerian man applying for citizenship and an immigration official who is attempting to see if he has any connections to terror groups. Using every underhanded, indefensible trick in the book, the interrogator pressures the poor man who has lived in France or Algeria (a French colony when he was born) his entire life, so the idea of wanting to hurt this country he loves is inconceivable, which makes no difference to his inquisitor, who also happens to be of Middle Eastern descent. It’s a brutal and paranoid journey the two men go on together, but the acting is note perfect and the lessons learned are about as contemporary as you could ask for.

Finally, there is LA FEMME ET LA TGV, from Switzerland, which is said to be inspired by true events. Jane Birkin plays Elise, an elderly woman who begins and ends each day waving to the passing train that goes right by her house to and from its destination. One day, she finds a letter from the driver in her yard, thanking her for being the highlight of his day, and thus begins a sweet correspondence between the two that alters Elise’s sense of purpose. She runs a bakery in town and has a grown son who wants to put her in an old folks home, but these letters have energized her and given her a new outlook on life’s possibilities. The film is dripping with lightweight dramatics, but it certain leaves us with a warm feeling inside. Plus the Swiss countryside is shot beautifully.

The 1947 novel “Every Man Dies Alone,” by author Hans Fallada, is best known for being one of the first anti-Nazi books published by a German writer after World War II. Based on a true story (that became a global bestseller after it was translated in English in 2009 and retitled “Alone In Berlin”), the book told the story of working-class couple Otto and Anna Quangel (Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson) whose only son is killed in combat, triggering in them the burning desire to undermine the Nazi party in any way they can.

Driven by nothing more than a father’s pain and the urge to encourage even the smallest amount of descent and resistance, Otto begins writing messages on postcards, encouraging citizens to push back and even overthrow the party. The pair leave the cards all over the city and almost inadvertently, without telling anyone else what they are doing, become major players in the German Resistance and a major thorn in the side of the Nazis.

Perhaps best known as an actor, director Vincent Perez (THE SECRET, ONCE UPON AN ANGEL) co-wrote the screenplay with Achim von Borries, and the two have done a remarkable job capturing the quiet, pent-up suffering of this couple who seem almost compelled to carry out these inspiring acts of civil disobedience in the face of certain death if they are caught. Gleeson and Thompson are perfectly suited to embody these middle-aged citizens, effectively faceless in the eyes of the Nazi, despite their son’s sacrifice. In the end, they ended up leaving hundreds of these notes, giving the more up-front Resistance a certain amount of encouragement.

The full-blown investigation to find whoever is leaving these cards in public places is led by Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), who becomes almost in awe at the determination of these enemies of his party. He himself is bullied and humiliated by his superior officer (Mikael Persbrandt), and as a result, a small piece of his spirit is on the side of his unknown targets. 

The period details in the production design coupled with the steely cinematography by Christophe Beaucarne combine to place us in the largely hopeless, joyless world of this couple, whose lives have been largely ruined by the Nazis. In many ways, it becomes clear that the Quangel might have initially began this endeavor because they felt they had nothing more to lose. In reality, of course, they had everything to lose, which makes their actions all the more heroic. ALONE IN BERLIN serves as a much-needed reminder of how small acts of defiance have meaning and weight in the face of a soul-crushing force in power.

-- Steve Prokopy
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