tolkien

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by/nicholas leon
Fox Searchlight Pictures/112 min.

Coming on the fleeting heels of a certain TV fantasy adaptation for the ages, Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Nicholas Hoult as the titular character, is the type of film that, while I certainly like, stops just short of being something I can love.

Following the misadventures of the writer from his younger years through his twenties, it’s a biopic that focuses on the influence of Tolkien’s close relations on him as a person and to some extent as a writer. The shadow of his Lord of the Rings looms over the entire film, but strangely, it’s never more than alluded to, both visually and verbally.

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The film starts off strong enough. Beginning Tolkien as a young boy uprooted from his friends after his father’s death. Viewers are then taken through various introductions to people who will become Tolkien’s primary friends into adulthood. There’s his future wife Edith Bratt, and his friends Geoffrey, Robert, and Christopher. There’s definitely a sense to each of the characters, and enough time is given to Tolkien’s relationship to each that, when it comes time to pull the heartstrings on viewers’ ability to care about them, the setup turns into a payoff, even if it stumbles along the way.

The thing that sticks out the most to me, in a positive light, is the filmmaking. Both director Dome Karukoski and cinematographer Lasse Frank are adept at crafting clear, excellently lit shots. What I admire the most though is the stark contrast between the two distinct settings depicted in the film.

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It should be common knowledge to Tolkien fans that he served in World War I. It should also be common knowledge that he detested allegory in all its makings, and that he rejected the notion that his books were about his experiences, but I’ll get into what the film makes of that later. Visually, the depiction of Tolkien’s experience, compacted in the film to show a bit of the Battle of the Somme, is breathtaking. The director and DP trade the sunshine-clarity of Tolkien’s time in England for a still clear but drab-gray and shaky battlefield. Although viewers are only dropped into this sequence bit by bit, it being more an interruption to the main story of Tolkien and his friends, it’s the one that sticks out the most, because of the searing emotional intensity of it all.

I don’t want to go too in-depth on the details of the sequence, but there is a part of it that evokes the best type of symbolism and visual communication that a film like this could achieve. The scene finds Tolkien resting at the edge of a trench, away from the battle, but the area he rests in is surrounded by the dead bodies of his comrades-in-arms. Formed in piles ten bodies deep, their blood seeps into a pool in the shape of a ring.

The symbolism of this hit me much later, however, because even though that image is so strong, it is clouded by cliché character interactions (there is a scene between Tolkien and Edith that, while earned, is something straight out of romantic comedy) and clunky, in-your-face imagery that never achieves the subtle meaning of that prior shot.

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What I find confusing about Tolkien is its focus. The shadow of Lord of the Rings looms large over this, and it is the flitting references to it that stick out to me the most as a sign of this film’s conflict with itself. Although I get a sense of Tolkien’s friends and what they mean to him, I don’t think I get a sense of who he is as a person. He seems to struggle, even though his family had enough money to live a colonial life in South Africa, not to mention how he also is able to study at Oxford. He’s earnest about learning languages, and wants to create his own, even though the references to this language don’t go beyond pictures on his dorm room wall.

So it is left to that amazing World War I sequence for the visuals to play out their hand, and how clunky it ends up being. The aforementioned shadow of Lord of the Rings plays out literally, with shadows of the Black Riders, Sauron, and even the dragon Smaug appearing as puffs of poison gas and fire from a flamethrower. These images are all well and good, but I don’t know whether this is meant for Tolkien’s or the audience’s vision.

Diehard Tolkien fans will probably dig most of this. Film nerds not so much. But it is a competently made picture, if feeling incomplete in some aspects.

peterloo

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by/nicholas leon
Amazon Studios/154 min.

In what must be the cinematic equivalent of beating around the bush, director Mike Leigh gives viewers of his new film Peterloo not something to be in awe of, or something to be compelled by, but really just drivel to snore at. Packing an abundance of characters, dangling plot threads, and a creative voice that, while striking a convincingly authentic tone, ultimately fails to create anything short of uninteresting, self-important droning.

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I was excited for this movie. Based on the previews, it looked like an historical epic that, along with capturing a striking if not very well known moment in history, might be innovative in various cinematic aspects. The movie does that, but not in as many spades as expected.

In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to interact with a true film snob, the type of person who sticks their nose up at a movie if it doesn’t fit their taste of genre or execution. Watching Peterloo, I feel like I’ve come a few steps closer to actually becoming that type of film snob.

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Following an assortment of characters, from a working class family to a range of working and upper class reformers, and also magistrates, it’s hard to tell who I need to care about, mostly because writer and director Mike Leigh has a habit of hopping between them so many times.

We first start out with (checks IMDb because I can’t remember the guy’s name) Joshua, a recent veteran of Waterloo, returning home in a questionable sequence because it doesn’t make sense how he could walk all the way back. But no matter, because he is soon back home with his large working class family. His father and I assume brother, who work in textiles, and his mother and sisters, who presumably stay at home, because they are not shown doing anything else.

It’s clear that Joshua and his family are the people viewers are supposed to sympathize with, at least initially. His father works at a textile mill, and it’s evident that, by the way the machines threaten to slam their hinges down on his fingers, that it is a potentially dangerous place to work.

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Although the toils of laboring people is certainly of tremendous interest to Leigh, viewers are soon hopped around to the multiple characters, all of which are central to the plot, but don’t really matter to the story in any personal way. Really, there are too many characters for me to recount.

It’s difficult to parse an understanding for the placement of so many characters, other than to show off the amount of research that probably went into the production. The accents, sets, and costumes are perfect, but it all becomes drowned out by the non-events of the narrative. The magistrates and reformers that viewers are soon subjected to just stand around and talk, and that’s what they do for almost the entirety of the film’s runtime. To borrow a quote from Alfred Hitchcock: “When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”

Much of the plot has to do with the struggle of working classes in England, and their quest for more rights. Some reformers, especially the laborers, hearken back to the French Revolution, while those of the upper classes are much more moderate.

The magistrates, comprised of five stuffy guys in wigs, spend their time in the film sitting around and plotting the downfall of the rising working class. They send a couple goons over to reformer meetings, where viewers are subjected to long political speeches that is more likely to impress a (rather stuffy) professor of political science or history than the average moviegoer, and then those goons report back to the magistrates, where viewers listen to more talk, for the rest of the movie.

My main issue with this film is that nothing of huge importance happens in it, at least until the end. It starts off well enough, with shots both sweeping and intimate, with plenty of importance based on Joshua and his family, but the narrative hops around so much that I forget who I should care about and, more importantly, why I should. I don’t go to the movies to watch people talk, I go to the movies to watch something interesting, and even if the subject matter of this particular film is interesting, it’s what’s done with it that makes it such a letdown.

us

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by/nicholas leon
Universal Pictures/116 min.

Combine the severity of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games with the slasher hit The Strangers, add in a sprinkle of They Live, and you get something like Jordan Peele’s Us, the actor-turned-director’s latest dip into the horror genre. Tense, exciting, funny, it is a horror film of a mostly balanced tone and wit, with solid characters and, importantly, some excellent shot composition.

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Starring Lupita Nyong’o as mom Adelaide, Winston Duke as goofy dad Gabriel, Shahadi Wright Joseph as teenage daughter Zora, and Evan Alex as Jason (he has a great line that might as well serve as his introduction but I would rather not reproduce it here), Peele’s writing and their acting let viewers get to know the characters in ways run-of-the-mill horror never does. They are characters that viewers grow to care about through their own merits, rather than through the use of general archetypes.

It’s good that Peele goes to that length, because in turn, it makes for a tension that just keeps going. Using a combination if lighting, blocking, and direction, he draws things out, making viewers wait until he just lets go with a severe sort of violence that just as terrifying as the buildup. It is that potential for the central characters to succumb to grisly fates that keep viewers invested, but it is the characters’ ability to learn and survive that make it the experience rewarding.

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I think a lot of this has to do with Peele’s subversion of the genre with respect to the people he’s writing about. With the exception of George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead and other films like Tales From The Hood, black characters seldom take center stage in these stories that often treat their bodies like scraps to be thrown in the trash. That is not so here, in fact, it is the complete opposite. I don’t like to write spoilers in my reviews, but is the fate of another family, complementary to our protagonists, that make this clear. However, the theme of race, in my opinion, is secondary to the film as a whole. Peele’s primary objective is to tell a story, and he executes that with a plan that is mostly spot-on, but not exactly a bullseye.

Central to the plot is Adelaide’s own personal relation to the doppelgangers. That much is made clear from beginning to end, and it makes the story all the more interesting. However, I’m at issue with his decision to make a sociopolitical theme out of a fairly straightforward genre thriller. To keep things vague, one major theme has to do with American identity, but that particular shoe drops early in the film and then is only referenced visually towards the end. It’s an easy enough aspect to ignore, because it’s not something Peele wants viewers to think about, at least in relation to the main story, but if you are going to write a line like that, I would prefer that you follow through on it clearly, rather than just stating something and then never going back to it.

But the thing is, that’s the only part about it that I take issue with. The visuals, characters, humor, and approach more than make up for a thrilling time. What’s better is that it’s scary, and it is that visceral objective that Peele seeks to achieve, and he does it.

 

birds of passage

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by/nicholas leon
The Orchard/125 min.

Releasing four years after their debut film, Abrazo de la Serpiente (English title: Embrace of the Serpent) the Colombian filmmaking duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina de Gallego are back for another look at their country’s indigenous population, this time with a twist to the traditional gangster film.

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Focusing on the Wayuu people of the Guajira region, the story is set in the burgeoning years of the illicit drug trade in Colombia. But whereas an American audience might only know of or be interested in the exploits of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, the filmmakers take a look at how a Wayuu family gets involved and even on top, if only for a time. Told over the course of five chapters, in total spanning about a decade, the film chronicles the story of Rapayet, a Wayuu man with ambition than spans outside of his familial tradition, in the drug trade.

It’s hard not to compare debut filmmakers’ sophomore work to their debut, and I only do so now because I view these particular filmmakers as ones who are much more unique in terms of who they choose to focus their work on, compared to some of their contemporaries.

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Whereas Abrazo had a clear definition of what its characters were after and effectively showed how the characters’ journeys affected them, Pajaros (from the film’s Spanish title: Pajaros de Verano) takes a different tact. Time skips between chapters, visuals and dialogue which allude to things audiences are not entirely privy to, and other aspects make the film a bit more of a challenge than the previous one. I don’t think this is necessarily a detriment to the movie, but, at least in the early parts of the film, it was slightly puzzling, having to piece together how the characters made a small drug empire after selling only a couple thousand pounds of weed. Of course, through visuals and dialogue, the pieces are there, and I am glad that the filmmakers trust the audiences enough to be able to think on their own, but a little bit more connection would have helped to clarify what happened during that particular time skip from the first couple chapters. As the film progresses, however, it’s clear that the directors took that path in order to get the characters where they need to be for the latter parts. Even though it doesn’t trip the film up, it still comes across as a slight misstep.

But the filmmakers more than make up for this early stumbling block with stellar filmmaking and writing. Supporting characters like Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cote), and the friend-turned-enemy Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez) supply the story with its tension, as each tries to help or hinder Rapayet in his climb. Of important mention is the role of Moises, played by Jhon Narvaez, who plays a pivotal role in the beginning turns of the plot. Each character has their own unique personality. Ursula is calculating, willing to take risks as long as it furthers her clan’s prosperity. Peregrino is the cool uncle who wants the best for his nephew, Rapayet. Anibal is reluctant to join in on the trade, but once he gets a whiff of the money, it all changes. And lastly, there’s Moises, who is Rapayet’s catalyst for entering the illicit trade. An alijuna (outsider in the film’s presentation of the Wayuu language), Rapayet’s involvement with Moises greatly impacts the way of life for his clan, and it is in this way that the film most prominently subverts the gangster genre.

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Great focus is placed on the Wayuu way of life. From courtship, to the power of dreams, to the importance of staying within the culture. As the power of money and illicit substances take hold on the various characters, we see respect for culture break down, and that becomes the continuous driving force of the conflict, up to the very last bullets that are fired. It’s refreshing that, in an Oscars year when the Mexican indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio almost cinched Best Actress, that more filmmakers are getting in on these untold stories.

 

the competition (le concours)

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by/chris stevens
Metrograph Pictures/121 min.

Writing about a movie that opens with 1000 people writing about a movie makes you terribly self-aware of writing about movies. But that’s a perfect microcosm for the overall effect of Claire Simon’s The Competition, a documentary that follows the application process for hundreds of French students eager to study at La Femis, one of the most prestigious film schools in the world, but also one of the most selective in their admissions. The movie obviously revolves around film; film school, filmmakers, the film industry, etc. Movies about movies can easily breach aggravation thresholds, but that doesn’t really happen here because the impact and intention of the film has much less to do with cinema than it does with people, competition, and conversations that happen behind closed doors.

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Claire Simon and her team take a Wiseman-esque approach to shooting the documentary, acting as flies on the walls that have clearly gathered an extreme amount of footage, cutting it down into a smooth and well-paced 2 hours. She has an eye (truly, as she’s also the Director of Photography) for capturing conversation in visually stimulating ways, so despite technically being a talking heads piece, it never has the sedated energy those are known for, instead feeling consistently engaging. The structure is objective and detached, dropping the viewer into unknown stages of the application process — often times in the middle of interviews — without any idea of how far along in the process we are, who the person being interviewed is, what department they’re interviewing for, or how the interviewers feel about them. This means that we have to piece the information together ourselves and garner our own opinion on these applicants, rather than the movie guiding us into how it wants us to feel. This is a refreshing, liberating approach to documentary filmmaking that works particularly well with this subject matter.

 

What’s most interesting here is definitely the dialogue between the interviewers as they evaluate the prospective students. They are ruthless. The moment that the doors close behind these kids, they tear into them with deep, cutting critiques. Most of them are well thought out and well argued, but sometimes these criticisms can cross into morally iffy territories, mocking some of them for being “autistic,” or poor, or making bizarre racial comments. The interviewers can also fall into petty arguments at times, which adds a layer of skepticism for the audience, questioning how qualified these people really are to be making these decisions. Regardless, seeing their conversations and critiques grow increasingly heated and high stakes the farther along they get in the process is genuinely dramatic, tense, and just fun to watch.

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The major thing that The Competition lacks is a unique emotional weight. Not to say it’s devoid of emotion. It’s sad to see applicants call the school and learn that they haven’t been accepted, and there’s a really lovely sense of victory in seeing certain students make it into the program near the end. But since the movie doesn’t focus on any central applicants (we do see a few of them more than once, but never in a way that’s particularly emphasized), it limits the emotional impact. It might be a sacrifice worth making, as it also frees up the structure to be more interesting, but there are ways to do both. Something like Wiseman’s High School works in a similar structure about a variety of nonspecific students in educational institutions, but it uses that structural freedom to make a larger comment about the impact that these institutions have on individuals. It’s that broad, abstract commentary that leads us to a really palpable emotional place. But where this is so dedicated to its objective style, it can’t really make those comments either.

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But also this piece isn’t really operating all that much on emotional significance so much as intellectual significance. This sets out to be compelling in an academic regard, getting the audience to think about questions of criticism, art, artistic validity, and the challenges artists everywhere will face on the road to success. Whether or not they always overcome those challenges isn’t really the issue, the issue is just seeing how arduous it is to even try in a field as particular, unforgiving, and competitive as the film industry, or any artistic industry. This depicts that strikingly well. It manages to do what it’s striving to do through strong technical achievement, great pacing, and a fascinating structure, without being onanistic or falling into obnoxious film worship. Even though it lacks a fully realized emotional texture, this is still an effective film that gets you talking and thinking about questions that are complex, but worth the thought.

they shall not grow old

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by/nicholas leon
Warner Bros./95 min.

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They Shall Not Grow Old, the latest feature by Peter Jackson is a World War I documentary that changes a critical aspect of the footage it uses to bring one hundred year old stories to life. While there are certainly some other war documentaries on television that have performed similar techniques, none have done so with the personal care and attention to storytelling that Jackson employs in this film. Neither jingoistic nor judgmental, They Shall Not Grow Old takes a sort of fly on the wall approach in which viewers are constantly accompanied by the interviews of war veterans archived by the Imperial War Museum, which also provided the footage Jackson uses for the film. There are no talking heads discussing the physical or mental toll on the soldiers, or the overlying causes of the war, just the men who fought it, speaking frankly of why they went, or who they killed, or who they watched die. I say “the men who fought it” because the interviews seemed only to be comprised of male veterans.

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There is no chronological through line with which the film progresses. It begins with a veteran remembering that a fella in Austria got shot, and that’s how the war started. Then, with the accompanying narration, viewers are taken through the process of enlisting, training, getting more men to enlist, and then going to Europe. If you’ve seen the previews, then you’ll know that the hook of this film is Jackson’s conversion of archived, black-and-white film footage to color. Besides the fact that it was about World War I, a topic I am passionate about, this is probably the element that I found myself most excited for. But it is something that viewers, and in a way the soldiers as well, have to wait for. I wasn’t keeping time, but I would guess that the film spends something around twenty minutes, maybe more, during the preparation to go to Europe, only transitioning to color once the soldiers are in Europe.

It’s something to say about Jackson’s pacing that it feels so long for the film to get to what some may call the action. The black and white civilian life is contrasted to the horrors—and, what some of the veterans call—and adventures of warfare in ways both visual and not. Jackson provides the most direct visual allusion to transformation in the ways that he transitions from older aspect ratios to current ones, in the way that the images within the frame start small, but slowly the frame (and the images within) draws out to envelop the entire screen. The transition to color is mostly smooth, but there are occasional hiccups that should be expected when it comes to such a conversion. Depending on the discrepancy of frame rates, certain elements of the picture might move too fast, while others will move too slow. Faces sometimes morph expressions, rather than change naturally. But luckily these are few and far between, and the scenes are a wonder to look at. Additional audio is provided by voice actors and sound that replicates anything from tanks and artillery the sound of men treading muddy trenches.

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They Shall Not Grow Old does not lack for much. Being a first of its kind, it makes for a tremendous standard bearer for these types of documentaries. Prior to the start of the film, Jackson states that it only uses footage archived by the Imperial War Museum, so viewers know that they’re in for a documentary showing the hardship of the Great War from the mainland Britisher’s perspective. There is a scene however, towards the back half of the film, which depicts a battle. Going with the film’s vague approach, viewers do not know what specific battle they are about to go into (at least, in the way it was told, I know I didn’t). What follows is an arrangement of battle footage mixed with propaganda posters. It should be completely understandable that cameramen probably were not very keen on getting their large cameras set up with the very real possibility of getting torn to bits by machine guns, but I am sure that, with the amount of archive footage Jackson had at his disposal, that we probably could have gotten some more, rather than having to put up with vintage posters shouting jingoistic slogans. I understand the irony at work, but the film’s power lies in the authenticity of the experience it portrays.

They Shall Not Grow Old is something of a masterpiece. Combining modern conventions such as zooms condensing frame rates, and just adding humanity to something that seems so far removed from modern life is nothing short of astounding, just like the film itself.

2019 oscar nominated shorts – documentary

by/nicholas leon
Shorts International/137 min.

A word on ratings –

If you’ve been keeping up with my reviews of the Oscar-nominated shorts, then you have probably noticed that I have not been issuing ratings. Frankly, the reason for this is because I don’t think that I can properly give a numbered review to these shorts because, although they all have their own merits and shortcomings, they shouldn’t be overly discounted or praised based on a number.

A Night at the Garden – In 1939 a pro-Nazi rally took place in Madison Square Garden. Attendance was high, and white nationalist jingoism was the talk of the session. A Night at the Garden, in approximately seven minutes, shows, with non-diegetic sound, that Nazis infiltrated America a long time ago. Tense and foreboding, the piece is powerful, but is absent a few characteristics such as specific names of the speaker and perhaps some of the attendees. It is a tiny thing that I noticed, but I think it is more a jibe of personal taste than any mark on the artistic merit of the short.

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Period. End Of Sentence – An examination of individuals affiliated with an organization in India that seeks to educate women—and also men—on menstruation, which is taboo in certain cultures. In the beginning of the film there are a few question and answer sessions with Indian citizens over the topic of periods. Many do not know what they are, and although this may come across as tragic, to me it seemed as if the filmmakers were exerting a patronizing view over the perceived Western audience’s knowledge and privilege over these people who perhaps do not receive the same sort of sex education as the viewers do. But this quickly transitions to an actual story of a group of women who try to find distribution for a more secure type of menstrual pad, which is homemade, thanks to an invention by an Indian scientist. It is a small but triumphant snippet of those trying to educate people about matters of the body who otherwise would not get the chance. It does not examine lack of education in a broad context, but it is clear that viewers are meant to think about it. The film’s most powerful element is the awkward but true portrayal of family members speaking to each other about menstruation and then coming to an understanding of it, which elicits a raw emotion of understanding across the individual’s faces.

Black Sheep – Perhaps the most unique of all the documentaries, in which star Cornelius Walker speaks to the camera, and therefore the audience, about his experience growing up as the sole black member of a group of Neo Nazis while growing up in Essex. Spliced with dramatic reenactments, it is a human tale of someone doing something they shouldn’t for the sole purpose of surviving and searching for an environment that will take them in. This, along with the following doc, is my favorite among the selections, because it is so personal, and in a way oddly relatable in its more human aspects, specifically Cornelius’s relation to his father.

Lifeboat – A documentary chronicling the activities of a group called Seawatch, which facilitates rescues of migrants traveling across the Mediterranean towards Europe. The main rescue showcased, of two rubber boats and one wooden boat, is tense and dangerous. The rescue boat, crewed mostly by Europeans, is packed to the brim with hundreds of migrants. The documentary is brimming with the human element, showing interviews with crewmembers and migrants about why they make their respective journeys. Among the migrants’ stories are numerous accounts of slavery, incarceration, and violence. It is stark, frank, and devastatingly emotional. The smaller—and depressing—parts of the documentary are bookends showing searchers on the coast of North Africa finding and recovering drowned bodies of migrants who fell off the boat. It is a complement showing the risks that these people undertake in their journey for a better life.

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End Game – The last documentary I viewed shows the dilemma of patients and their families dealing with the end-of-life process. Touching on a number of families but focusing on one in particular, it is very much touch-and-go on the topics it explores. What ties the patients together is that they are dying, and a few are in palliative care, which is intensive attention by medical professionals to patients during their final days. It is ironic then, that the main patient the documentary focuses on chooses not to go into palliative care for the entirety of the short. This confused me, as the documentary gave me one topic at the beginning, but shifted throughout its runtime. The number of personal stories explored provides some relief from the narrative confusion, but in the end, the short doesn’t do enough to explore some patients beyond even one scene, making for an ending that, while certainly sad, doesn’t do anything to set up any emotional connection beyond the fact that people dying is an unfortunate thing.