Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Film Review: This Year’s Oscar-Nominated Films, Part 2: "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” “All That Breathes” and “EO”

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (c) A24

Catching up on some more Oscar-nominated films (this one focusing on human/animal relations) before the big night (Sunday, March 12). 

Film: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On 
In Cinemas, Steaming On-demand and on Showtime 

I was unaware of the phenomenon that is “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” from the many shorts of YouTube to its cult following that led to its big screen debut in the early to mid-aughts. So, when a feature film was released, I was resistant to seeing any movie in which we follow the misadventures of a sentient shell named Marcel (voiced by co-creator Jenny Slate) living a carefree life in an Airbnb. Why would I care about this oddly shaped creature with one eye and shoes? Thankfully, I finally caught the film months after its release and it’s as charming as its reputation promised. Marcel’s daily life is similar to Pee Wee Herman’s at the start of his “Big Adventure” – Marcel has devised Rube Goldberg contraptions to help him get around the proportionally huge house and garden. The garden is where Marcel’s only relative lives, his nana Connie, played by the invaluable Isabella Rossellini. The latest resident of the Airbnb is Dean (played by co-creator and the film’s director Dean Fleischer-Camp), who just happens to be a filmmaker and decides to make a documentary about Marcel. The best things about the film, in addition to the wonderful voice work by Slate and Rossellini, as well as the astonishing animation, has to be the script (co-written by the creators with Nick Paley). Marcel is such an innocent soul, and his inquisitiveness as well as his interpretation of the world is just irresistible and hysterical, with wonderful observations about life, dogs and Leslie Stahl. The plot, when it finally arrives, surrounds the fate of the rest of Marcel’s family who disappeared when…well, I won’t spoil that. With Dean and (again) Leslie Stahl’s help, Marcel begins his search, which gives the movie its shape, but it really is unnecessary. I would have been happy just watching Marcel read the yellow pages and hearing whatever thoughts pop into his head. While I admire the front-runner for Best Animated Feature, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” my vote has to go to this undermollusk with a heart of gold. 

All that Breathes (c) HBO Documentary Films

Film: All That Breathes 
Streaming On-demand and on HBO Max 

“All that Breathes,” one of the 2022 documentaries that consistently gets nominated for awards but rarely wins, is one of my favorite films (not just doc) of the year. I am not a big fan of documentaries, which, as part of their mandate, always have an agenda that is rarely impartial. This, of course, is even true of recent docs I have loved, including “Flee” and “Welcome to Chechnya.” “All that Breathes” indeed takes sides, and that side is the fate of the world, or specifically, in the case of the brothers who are the subject of the doc, New Delhi, India. Nadeem Shehzad and Mohammad Saud are brothers, and they along with their apprentice Salik Rehman, run Wildlife Rescue, an animal sanctuary mainly for black kites, scavenger birds that are important to India’s ecosystem and have been adversely affected by India’s air quality. Director Shaunak Sen rarely overtly editorializes as he lets the very act of rehabilitating the black kites speak for itself. And while we do see Nadeem and Saud’s struggle in getting funding and food for the birds, it is Salik who sort of steals focus as the guy who bonds with birds on a day-to-day basis, providing a lot of the comic relief in a movie that desperately needs it. Along with the environmental catastrophe implications of their work, there are also scenes of daily Indian life that include the occasional flood and religious rioting, which Sen doesn’t comment on, but shows us how these events affect the brothers and their family. The cinematography is also a highlight as it captures the squalor (the first few minutes of the movie should especially turn Western audience’s stomach) and the beauty of the landscape. The film does end happily, with the clinic receiving much notice for their efforts, but their little corner of India is just that, and this clinic is only a tiny band-aid for the mortal wound that is the country’s dire environmental circumstance. 

EO (c) Janus Films

Film: EO 
In Cinemas, Streaming On-demand and on The Criterion Channel 

One of the most head-scratching critical darlings of the 2022 award season is the lionizing of Jerzy Skolimowski's "EO," the donkey movie from Poland in which we follow the title character (so named for the sound a donkey makes, the silliest aspect of the film) through his many adventures, not of his own making, but by the human world around him. Unlike “Babe,” EO doesn’t suddenly gain sentience or talk in a “Doctor Doolittle” way. Instead, EO is more of a hybrid of “War Horse” and “Forrest Gump” in that he witnesses a lot of events but is neither changed nor taught lessons by them. EO is not different at the end of the movie from how he is at the beginning. What does carry the film along is how the humans who encounter EO treat him and control his destiny by taking him with them on their own adventures, be they circus performers, farmers, school kids or (in the film’s harrowing and most likely to give nightmare sequence) fútbol players. Essentially, this is a road movie with no destination, just the endless journey called life. Many young donkeys were utilized to play EO and Skolimowski does a lot with just having EO standing in a field or on the side of the road. Unfortunately, he undermines his own thesis by sometimes giving EO agency over certain situations, with extreme close-ups of EO’s eye as if he understands what’s going on. Still, only the most hard-hearted human would not feel for EO’s story. Some vignettes work better than others, my favorite being one towards the end of the movie involving a cameo by a legendary French actress. A lot of comparison has been made to another donkey tale from 1966, Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar," which I haven’t seen so I can’t tell if Skolimowski’s film pays homage to or uses the earlier film as his starting point. Regardless, it’s perfectly fine on its own (please note: this is not a family film), but is it awardworthy? I say “Naaay.”

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