Reviews From Cinequest 2024

by on March 18, 2024

“Two One Two,” the odd title of Shira Avni’s charming animated short, makes a lot more sense once the viewer understands that the title is a metaphor for the early stages of the mother-child relationship.  The first “two” refers to the child’s birth, where there is now mother and child.  The “one” refers to the period when the mother carries the child on her back and essentially becomes one being.  The final “two” refers to the period where the mother encourages the child to become independent by learning how to stand on their own two feet.

 

Avni’s film is a collage rather than a short tale with a beginning, middle, and end.  Thrown into its mix are such elements as the child’s voice of Ari Avni Loomer, simple abstract drawings capturing such feelings as the love and dependence of a child next to their mother, and actual film footage of a woman who might be Avni herself carrying her child on her back.

 

Lack of a story does not make Avni’s film any less charming or involving.  “Two One Two” makes its empathetic connection by tapping into the little events and moments involved with raising a child.  Bending low enough at a water fountain so the water stream can reach the mouth of a child tied to the mother’s back isn’t exactly an outlier event in the childrearing process.

As mentioned above, the camera shows images of the actual mother and child referenced by the animated drawings.  But this is not a film of particularities, but one of empathy.  It’s a reminder of the joys of being in close contact with a new life being formed and born.

 

***

 

Remember when underhanded corporate advancement used to be a matter of  whispering a malicious rumor or quietly sabotaging a rival’s project?  Those meritocracy-era tactics have been supplemented in Jesus Magana Vazquez’ dark comedy “Human Resources” by eventful brothel visits, marital infidelity and even a strategic explosion or two.

 

Vazquez’ adaptation of Antonio Ortuno’s novel of the same name focuses on the underhanded activities of its antihero Gabriel Lynch.  Lynch himself is a Print Supervisor in a faceless corporation whose masters exist in a solarized world little different from classic Hollywood renditions of life in Heaven.  Despite Lynch’s semi-impressive sounding title, in practice he’s little better than a glorified middle manager.  Ultimate power in the Print Department resides in the Print Manager position, and that position has just become vacant.  Lynch’s dreams of assuming that position soon turn to hatred thanks to the awarding of the Print Manager job to the highly unqualified Mario Constantino Castaneda.  What truly pushes Gabriel to bring about Mario’s departure from the department is the rich man’s stealing the affections of Lynch’s lover, the new HR person Lizbeth Fernandez Ramirez Flores.

 

Ironically, the coke-snorting Mario didn’t even want the job.  But Mario’s father, the powerful Counselor Castaneda, asked the Ortuno Corporation’s owner aka Mario’s godfather to give Mario a job which would keep him out of trouble.

 

The viewer, at least initially, becomes Gabriel’s “confidante.” The film’s anti-hero frequently addresses the camera or shows his true feelings when Vazquez goes for a close-up of his face.  Sympathy for Gabriel’s career screwing comes from realizing classism (i.e. not going to the right upper-class school) foreclosed any opportunity for career advancement.

 

Yet “Human Resources”’ anti-hero is quite happy to accept the system when it works in his favor.  His skin’s white enough that the bosses easily gave him his current supervisory position.  Despite being a fan of a biography of Che Guevara, his professional sympathies only lie with making life at Otuno better for himself.

 

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the film’s opening credits are reminiscent of the upward credits crawl that opened Robert Aldrich’s “Kiss Me Deadly.”  Much as Aldrich’s film ripped the mask off 1950s American conformity, Vazquez’ film portrays a world where the surface geniality and glamor of corporate culture turns out to be the lid on a pit of writhing snakes.  Vero may be married, but she’s not above setting up an extramarital affair in the building’s glass-walled elevator.  Paruro, Gabriel’s sole friend at Otuno Corporation, has little hesitation about setting up Otuno’s unhappy wives with Gabriel or enjoying their sexual pleasures himself behind their husbands’ backs.

 

Part of the fun in watching “Human Resources” is watching the shifting loyalties and alliances Gabriel forms to advance his goals.  Gabriel turns Liz from a former sex partner into a tool for controlling someone higher up the corporate food chain.  Vero allies herself to Gabriel but is quite willing to pursue her own goals alone. Was she behind the dramatic event that closes out the film’s second chapter?

 

Whatever the truth behind that incident, what is true is the pettiness of Gabriel’s goals.  This film is far from a homicidal version of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” where Gabriel’s goal at the end of the career rainbow is ascension to the Otuno Corporation presidency.  If all goes as planned, Gabriel will advance a couple of rungs at best up the corporate ladder…assuming he doesn’t get busted first.

 

Late in “Human Resources,” its anti-heroic protagonist turns to the camera to ask if he should be wearing a leather jacket now.  It’s a cheeky recognition that he doesn’t care about losing the audience’s sympathy now that he’s this close to achieving his goal.

 

The credo behind Gabriel’s actions, that there are no princes coming to rescue him from his problems, might be called a sanction to take individual action to fulfill his ambitions.  Yet it could also be argued that this credo encourages different people to find common ground with each other to work together and achieve a common end.

 

***

 

George Linen Jr. and Jenelle Pearring’s animated short “Baby Bullet” turns Fresh Linen’s spoken word performance into a consideration of America’s fetishization of guns.  Pearring and Elena Stanley’s animation consists of simple line drawings, which spurs the viewer to focus on Fresh Linen’s words.

 

Two points pop out quickly in the flow of the performer’s words.  Women in America have less rights than guns nowadays.  Voting out the politicians happy to do the gun lobby’s bidding is difficult when there are more barriers to registering to vote than there is to buying a gun.

 

Fresh Linen doesn’t need to verbally embellish the depressing facts about the proliferation of guns in America.  Directing the listener’s attention to relevant if deplorable facts does the job.  For example, schools and churches can no longer be counted on to be safe gun-free zones.  The performance’s climax, which pairs “gun” in rapid rhythm with words associated with the use or possession of guns (e.g. safe, impact, and blood), captures the complicated relationship between Americans and this lethal weapon.  But the film’s most disturbing moment comes at the end, when the celebration of life that began this film gets turned into a ceremonial metaphorical empowerment of death.

 

***

Kaveh Tehrani’s comedy “Listen Up!” adapts Av Gubrayy Sharif’s novel “Hoc Her’a!”  It brings a lighthearted approach to such serious subjects as assimilation, racism, and transphobia.  For good measure, an additional prejudice (which will not be spoiled here) plays a big part in one character’s backstory,

 

Teenage Pakistani Mahmoud lives during what he calls his fubar summer in Oslo.  He’s broke, so he’s stuck hanging around the immigrant-heavy highrises.  Ji, his moocher of an uncle, is spending his summer with Mahmoud’s family..and the teen’s expected to act as his chaperone.  Most importantly, younger brother Ali feels that he’s actually a girl born by mistake in a boy’s body.

 

The film works because Mahmoud makes a hilariously entertaining narrator.  His amusing insights are accompanied by zippy animated titles.  For example, when the viewer learns about the Gorans (the Kurdish male teens), little Goran labels pop up as identifiers.  While Mahmoud’s well aware of the noticeable gap between the lifestyle his family leads and that of the native Norwegians, the boy’s never turned into a mouthpiece for leftist economic theory.

 

What is clear to many adult viewers, if not to Mahmoud, is the gap between Norwegians’ willingness to provide immigrants a place to live versus making opportunities to integrate into the larger society possible.  Arif, Mahmoud’s best friend, must resort to offering a more white-sounding name to be considered for employment.  While the highrises where the immigrants live definitely don’t look like the Norwegian version of the Cabrini Green apartment complexes, white Norwegians generally avoid the area.  Uncle Ji may naively romanticize Oslo as heaven compared to Pakistan, but Mahmoud easily imagines the serpent of racism slithering through this so-called heaven in such things as white Norwegians suspecting a trio of Somalian immigrants of talking about something more sinister than the weather.

 

Limiting the degree of Mahmoud’s awareness makes him a believable child character.  His attempts to understand Ali’s budding transgender identity are filled with confusion.  That confusion leads him to blame Arisha, the neighbor girl Mahmoud secretly likes, for supposedly turning Ali into Alia.  But at least the teen’s aware of how his father Shahbaz will react and that the type of resources available for approaching questions about transgender behavior generally aren’t available to “East side Blacks” such as them.  More importantly, the Pakistani teen is willing to have his younger sibling’s back, even if it means getting beaten up for his trouble.

 

The consequences of Shahbaz, Ji, and Zubaida finding out about Ali’s wanting to be referred to as Alia from now on proceed pretty much as viewers who have seen dozens of coming out stories expect.  One adult takes it well, another freaks out, and the last eventually listens to the better angels.  The plot’s not painful in its predictability, but neither is it terribly original.

 

Should the viewer thus give a pass to “Listen Up?”  Mahmoud generates a lot of viewer goodwill with his snark and his humanity.  For example, he could have humiliated Uncle Ji once he understands what his uncle does for a living, but he doesn’t.  The story’s setting definitely provides a change of pace for American viewers, but such viewers definitely shouldn’t expect anything groundbreaking.

 

***

Late journalist Jessica Mitford would likely be ruefully amused by Dev Pakman’s darkly comic short “Deal Of A Lifetime.”  The author of the famed muckraking book The American Way Of Death would have recognized the mentality behind the proposal of applying coupons to its central problem.  She’d also have sadly shaken her head at this new iteration of “The more things change…”

 

Pakman’s protagonist, Roland Murphy (David Cross), has a very big problem.  His parents have reached the age where planning their funerals is something that needs to happen sooner rather than later.  However, the price floor on professional funerals is $25,000 per person minimum, an amount of money that Roland definitely doesn’t have.  Yet the solution that he and his teenage son Beau devise might not be one that Roland’s parents will buy into.

 

Roland’s queries regarding the funeral home offering a 2-for-1 burial deal may sound absurd on its face.  Professional burial is the type of service the departed’s living relatives would use only once.  Yet once the viewer learns about Roland’s backstory concerning the absurdly extortionate cost of burying his wife, the viewer pities Roland for lacking the financial resources to honor his vow.

 

The resolution to Roland’s dilemma may seem at first glance to have come from the deus ex machina bureau.  His parents unknowingly endorse Roland’s and Beau’s idea with a generous amount of salty language.  Yet that endorsement makes sense given the father and son’s casual obsession with finding money saving deals probably came from Roland’s parents.  As Roland’s mother memorably puts it, “We didn’t raise you to be the family idiot.”

 

Viewers who prefer broader comedy will not find much to like in Pakman’s short.  Until the arrival of Roland’s parents, the short’s humor comes from a more restrained character-based approach.  However, it could also be argued that given the tension around its grim subject matter, broad humor is precisely what was needed at that moment in the story.

 

“Deal Of A Lifetime” turns out to be a lot more serious than its absurd plot device initially suggested.  And we viewers are the ultimate beneficiaries of the short’s unique approach.

 

(“Two One Two,” “Baby Bullet,” and “Deal of A Lifetime” will be screened as part of this year’s Cinejoy Film Festival, which runs online from March 21-31, 2024.)

Filed under: Arts & Entertainment