History can unfold in a lot of different ways. So too, how filmmakers choose to uncover, reveal and tell it in films for audiences. This week’s selection of films through the alphabet of 2022 titles that were eligible for the 95th Academy Awards (parts one to four available in the archives) show this off to great effect (even if the movies themselves don’t always succeed).
One uses comedy to explain how a man hoodwinked his way through one of the more baffling true crimes (if you can call it that) in modern history. Another takes a brief snippet of archival war footage to unravel a hidden queer love story at a time where such things weren’t to be spoken about. Another is more traditional, detailing an incredible story from the annals of cinema history that could very easily have been ignored.
And at least in the first one—we get to see Alan Cumming lip syncing for his life.
A great urban mystery can often make a great movie. My Old School is not one of those great movies. And despite its best efforts, I’m not even sure it is one of the great urban mysteries. Despite being a story that captivated the public, particularly in Scotland and the broader Great Britain, I’m afraid that director Jono McLeod hasn’t figured out an appropriate way to tell the story in a way that is dramatically satisfying while also humming with the light-hearted quirkiness that he has clearly aimed for. Sometimes it’s okay to admit you don’t have enough for a feature film. And unfortunately, this debut feature does not.
The mystery of the central hoax in My Old School is revealed fairly early. There aren’t enough layers to its story to place reveal upon reveal in a satisfying way (although that isn’t to say there are not surprising moments that are played very effectively). In the 1990s, a fully grown man named Brandon was determined to make it into medical school despite being over the general admissions age (of 30 years old). So, what he did was fake a back story and hoodwinked an entire school into believing he was a teenager. Crude and rather ugly 2D animation that looks a bit like Daria meets Flash animation fill in much of the flashback blanks; talking heads with the Glaswegian locals of this town do the rest. The latter is much more entertaining than the former.
There are story moments of genuine awe—particularly once it moves into its superior third act. I wish McLeod had interrogated them more. Once it ditches the animation and actually focuses on being a documentary (crazy, I know!), I was more on board. A performance in a high school play, for instance, is the stuff that creepy nightmares are made of. And the sheer audacity of his plan, and how successful it was, propels more of the narrative than its lesser elements would suggest as revelations come out in the climax. It’s just that the movie feels only half-there. Stretched out in ways that are confounding, while morsels of moments are left hanging probably because there just wasn’t enough footage or information to sustain them.
In it all is Alan Cumming portraying Brandon, lip-syncing to a recorded interview. And, it must be said, doing such an impeccable job of it that it becomes very easy to forget this is Alan bloody Cumming, and not the high school con artist sitting in front of us. It is symbolic of its unevenness, though. Would’ve made a great short film.
Release: Streaming on Hulu and available to rent at Amazon, Vudu, Apple, Youtube and so forth.
Nelly and Nadine on the other hand is a documentary that takes a short film (of sorts; actually a strip of archival World War II refugee footage) as the launching pad for a much bigger story of unspoken queer history that I found ultimately quite affecting. When director Magnus Gertten let it be, I should add. In lieu of its subjects being able to speak to us as they have since passed away, the Swedish filmmaker relies on their living relatives to help tell the story of this Holocaust romance. But for Gertten’s storytelling, it becomes something of a crutch with far too much time spent observing Nelly’s granddaughter in her (yes, beautiful) French provincial cottage as she does the gardening and cooks the dinner. The rest of the time she looks at boxes, expressing the regret she feels for not having been able to get over her grief sooner in order to peer inside. I don’t want to say they’re unnecessary, but I would have liked more time spent on what is inside the boxes than what she’s growing in the fields.
It’s a shame, but not one that derails the ultimate effect of the movie. The story of Nelly Mousset-Vos met Nadine Hwang is a lovely one, and too much so to get entirely overtaken by odd directorial choices. Even if it was born out of their times in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, Gertten is able to push the delicate nature of their romance to the forefront when it matters. The audience becomes privy to the special moments (predominantly captured via 8mm film footage shot during their time together in Argentina), and through historians and librarians we learn in particular about Nadine’s time in the pre-war literary circles (which, honestly, we need a full feature about). Nelly and Nadine captures a lesbian couple’s domestic life in a way that we’re rarely offered the chance to witness and with an honesty that would likely be lost in a dramatic film.
Release: Still in limited theatrical release.
The last history lesson is that of Soviet film-star Oleg Vidov. He may not be a household name beyond his homeland, but this film from Nadia Tass (an Australian director best known for 1980s comedies Malcolm and The Big Steal, both recommended) suggests he should be. To call Oleg a very straight down the middle, traditional style of documentary in both filmmaking style and in its storytelling rhythms doesn’t even really begin to cover it. In many ways, it reminded me similar biography docs from the 1980s—but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as I sometimes feel the need to be modern can distract from otherwise very interesting stories! I found it quite charming to not be suffocated by unnecessary bells and whistles.
Tass, alongside her editors Leonard Feinstein and Cory Taylor, have plenty of interesting stories to work with. And they do a lovely job of weaving film clips in with archival footage, historic recreations and contemporary interviews. Brian Cox is also on hand to lend his voice to the narration. I can’t explain it, but it just feels right, you know? Vidov’s story is a fascinating one. From impoverished child living in squalor to the “Robert Redford of Russia”, his highly successful film career swerved into that of political football, particularly as regards to the content he was allowed to make and the fallout from his divorce from a woman with high profile connections to the political ruling class. He later went to make American action movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Thirteen Days with Kevin Costner. Sure, its uncomplicated, but it’s never dull. And like many documentaries about this era of Soviet cinema, it will make you wish for a retrospective at your local cinema. I guess we can call that a success.