Birdboy: The Forgotten Children [2015] – The Quest for Freedom in a Strangely Horrifying World


Pedro Rivera and Alberto Vazquez’s Spanish animated feature Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (‘Pscionautas, los ninos olvidados’, 2015) is a gloomy yet beautiful impressionistic parable of survival in an unrelentingly cruel world. Based on the graphic novel by Vazquez, the film revolves around a group of emotionally damaged anthropomorphic animals living in an isolated island-town, which has lost much of its residents to an explosion at the toxic industrial plant. Hordes of surviving ‘rats’ form their own kingdom amidst the industrial trash-heap, calling themselves ‘The Forgotten Children’




The scruffy rats live by a creed, spelled out by their leader: “The future is past. Garbage is the present. Blood is our law.” The other titular character ‘Birdboy’ has clearly become a recluse after the industrial disaster, pursued by a demonic force and also by the fascist police chief. The rest of the well-to-do talking animals of the town suffer from existential crisis and talks of moving away without actually doing it.


Birdboy’s slight story-line is told in the form of complex vignettes as each characters’ emotional journey is loosely interconnected. But what makes the film remarkable is its smorgasbord of hauntingly surreal imagery. Although the character drawing - often placed before muted backgrounds - and the realization of ecologically damaged town looks hand-drawn, the simplicity somehow works in bringing depth to the striking visuals. The story is largely centered on three teenage friends, hoping to escape the rubbish-scape and seek a better life in the big city. 


Dinky, the smart white mouse, remains nonchalant towards her devoutly religious parents, who intend to crush her ambitions. Sandra is a bunny, who hears evil-voices. Then there’s Zorrito, a compassionate little fox always stereotyped as cunning and thief. Dinky is in love with the elusive and secretive Birdboy. Unbeknownst to the otherworldly terrors and authoritarian police chief (a straight-faced, sadistic canine), Birdboy, a sort of besmirched super-hero devotes himself to finish the task of his dead-father: to restore life in the island. Rounding up this array of colorful characters is a pig fisherman/drug-dealer whose mother's dying body hosts a hideous spider-creature. 


Birdboy_The Forgotten Children


In ‘Birdboy’, the existential ennui boosted by the environmental decline, drug culture, depression, and vapid life-style, is not only directed towards the anthropomorphic characters. The residents also possess sentient objects like a time-obssessed walking-alarm clock, a lonely piggy bank, and an obnoxious yellow inflatable raft shaped like a duck. These designs of ‘objects with feelings’ inject a tone of comic absurdism that matches well with the directors’ uncanny visual ad thematic preoccupations. 


Elsewhere, Rivera and Vazquez imbues a darkly surrealistic tone into the fantastical world that’s remniscent of the works of Jan Svankmejer, Priit Parn, Guillermo del Toro, and Tim Burton. Moroever, the realization of Birdboy’s secret natural paradise (a giant tree nesting countless number of birds) contains the warmth of Hayao Miyazaki’s drawings. Although ‘Birdboy’ is stuffed with outre elements, the characters do confront much of the real-world problems: drugs, violence, ostracism, bullying, and police brutality.


There are few outlandish features, conjured just for the sake of it: for example, a Little Baby Jesus squeeze toy that bleeds from eyes or Jonathan, a dog dressed to look like a boy or the glue-sniffing, copper-searching rat scavenger. Such array of oddness thrown within the vignettes threatens to make ‘Birdboy’ either disconnected or overstuffed. But thankfully, the medley of hallucinatory and expressionistic visuals keeps us consistently captivated. Serene as well as intense, Rivera & Vazquez’s compositions of watercolor-style skies, nightmarish macabre interior structures, and endearing character designs stand as a testament to their superme animation artistry. 


Keeping in line with the dystopian atmosphere, many of the wide-shots has blank spaces or colorless gaps, which duly accentuates the bleakness. The relentless suffering and violence heaped upon the characters may seem exhausting from a storytelling standpoint. Nevertheless, the distinctly diabolical imagery makes ‘Birdboy: The Forgotten Children’ (76 minutes) a truly unforgettable animated feature of recent times.



Glory [2016] – A Universal and Timeless Tale of Bureaucratic Nightmare


East European cinema possesses the knack for offering subtle and powerful tales about people getting thrown under the wheels of apathetic bureaucracy system. Their film-makers (especially the auteurs of the Romanian New Wave) simultaneously employ rough-hewn naturalism and a methodical narrative with preordained gallows humor and well-engineered symbolism. Bulgarian directing duo – Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva’s – second feature film Glory (Slava, 2016) is one such mordantly funny and deeply heart-wrenching tale of systemic corruption and injustice. 


Glory (2016)

Tons of literature and movies may have persistently warned us on how the modern bureaucratic and economic systems are inhumane to the extent that they privilege the nonhuman traits over the human. But still, when a movie gets the grimy realism right, filled with small details and nuanced observations, as in Glory, it happens to be more than a bland recitation of bureaucracy’s long list of negative atttributes. It provokes us to willingly see things from the vantage point of the besmirched protagonist and furthermore to fully grasp the complexness of political/bureaucratic power.


Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov have shot together several short films, which were screened at different international film festival. Particularly, the duo’s 2012 short Jump was nominated at the European Film Awards. Their first feature film The Lesson (Urok, 2014) was inspired from a newspaper story and made on shoe-string budget without any state funding. The Lesson revolves around a strict school teacher who wants to teach a lesson to the unknown student, stealing money from classmates during the break. 


But a large, unforeseen personal debt bestows a hard-to-digest lesson upon the teacher herself. What ensues is a stark examination of the enduring immoralities in the post-communist Bulgaria. Glory follows an entirely different story but deals with similar themes, and also developed from a small news story. In fact, the directing duo have been planning a third film to once again explore the grim lives of working-class people, which is being dubbed as the ‘Newspaper Clippings’ trilogy.


The protagonist of Glory is much-less privileged and more ostracized than the female teacher character in The Lesson. Middle-aged Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a railroad linesman. His dishelved looks, stuttering, and hermit-like living draws lot of ridicules in his immediate circle. But Tzanko is content with living in an isolated, dilapidated house with his pet rabbits. Apart from the rabbits, Tzanko feels deep connection with his analog watch (made by Russian company Slava aka Glory), a gift from his deceased father. During working hours, he carries six kilo-heavy wrench to tap and turn the bolts in the railway tracks. He silently passes fellow workers siphoning gas from a railcar. His routine patrol is disrupted when he discovers millions of euros scattered across the tracks. Tzanko honestly reports the money to the authorities, but as they say, ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.


The transport ministry is already facing tons of problems. The minister is accused of financial improprieties by a tenacious investigative reporter. So the minister’s PR hotshot Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) sees Tzanko’s honest act a god-given opportunity. To distract people’s attention from the financial scandal, she and her heartless cronies, decide to exploit Tzanko’s noble gesture. The railroad worker takes a day off and arrives in time for a pretentious ceremony, where he would be valorized by the minister himself. Tzanko’s cheap suit and temperament evokes lot of condescending comments from Julia and her cohorts. 


Right before the ceremony, Julia removes the man’s own watch in order to receive the new one provided by the minister. Tzanko finds that the new watch is a cheap digital one, which runs slowly. To make things worse, Julia misplaces the guy’s keepsake inherited from his father. Frustrated by the bogus gift and Julia’s hostile reaction, Tzankov’s quest for ‘Glory’ only seems destined to turn more ominous.



Played by the brilliant Margita Gosheva (protagonist in ‘The Lesson’), Julia Staykova is a much complicated antagonist than what the plot-line may make it sound. In a darkly humorous subplot, we see Julia and her compassionate husband Valeri (Kitodar Todorov) attempting to attain embryonic fertilization. The scenes of Julia undergoing fertilization treatment while being constantly distracted by work-related rapid-fire phone calls, goes for a deliberately symbolic touch. Yet watching Julia in her frenzied, chaotic reality kind of stops her from becoming a cartoonish bad girl. The character is very much grounded in reality, which makes her wilfulness to duplicate and manipulate events more distressful. 


Directors Kristina and Peter ably suggest the Tzanko and Julia’s polar opposite nature, by encompassing one in cocoon of silence and natural sounds, while the other is incorporated within noisy, manic atmosphere. The directors metaphorical tools like the wrench, watch, rabbits and the symbolism involved in using a European flag (in the scene Valeri forces Julia to inject herself in the office) may feel pat and transparent. Nevertheless, the methodical precision with which the duo stages these scenes and the superb performances manages to absolutely capture our attention.


In the end, Glory (101 minutes) is an irresistibly powerful commentary on the class inequalities and chaotic bureaucracy.



Manic [2001] – Troubled Youths and Unforgiving Environment


Jordan Melamed’s indie-feature Manic (2001) is a well-intentioned drama on young damaged souls who have no hope whatsover to win over their inner demons. Although, it’s not a very memorable or piercing portrayal of troubled teens, the chief drawing factor is the presence of now-familiar cast members – Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, and Don Cheadle. Manic is also known for its hand-held, Dogme-95 style camerawork, which actually becomes the film’s liability rather than just boost its naturalism. The shaky camerawork tries to be close and intimate to the characters, capturing all their self-inflicted physical wounds and emotional bruises beneath. While this choice provides an immediacy to the proceedings (especially in the group therapy sessions), it is ultimately annoying and ends up distancing the characters from us. 



Brad Anderson’s horror movie set in an old, abandoned mental institution, Session 9 was also made on Digital Video in the same year. But Anderson’s hand-held technique was mostly effective because he used it in moderation (without causing motion sickness). Manic's script written by Michael Bacall & Blayne Weaver at times embraces conventions and cliches of movies set in mental asylum. However, the writers don’t shy away from hard truth and remains ambiguous when it comes to dealing with mental illness and the promised recuperation.  


Manic has an unusual setting: juvenile wing of a mental institution. Here there are no standard cinematic tropes: punishing therapy sessions, sadistic nurses and guards. The institution is run by an idealistic, perceptive, and calm counselor Dr. Monroe (Don Cheadle). The narrative simply delves straight into the adolescent problems or anxiety in all its complexity. It’s hinted early that the only thing which might impede the recovery is their relapse into destructive habits. Dr. Monroe clearly confers that no pat resolutions are waiting these teens, if they stay few weeks in the institution. He suggests no can quite escape from their destructive temperaments, but can learn to control them.


High school kid Lyle (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is there because he has a penchant for flying into rages and beating people up. He has exploded recently and nearly beat a kid to death with a baseball bat. The rage is may be something genetic or it’s caused by his father’s physical abuse. Lyle mostly stays guarded and when forced to talk he is vague and inarticulate, but still his intelligence and empathic feelings are intact so as to know the difference between good and bad.


Manic Zooey

Lyle’s peers includes a shy Native American teen with a history of sexual abuse (Cody Lightning), a bully (Elden Henson), a wannabe intellectual with uncontrolled mood-swings (Michael Bacall), a non-conforming Goth girl (Sara Rivas), and a fragile wallflower Tracey (Zooey Deschanel) who is tormented by nightmares. Barring the familiar plot trajectories, and uninspired exchanges, the movie’s soul lays in the group sessions scenes, where Dr. Monroe carefully and compassionately initiates deep conversations and referees growing hostilities. The doctor’s questions are very basic: “What gives your life meaning?” But it makes the tough-shelled teenagers to open up and understand their own vulnerability.


Movies on disaffected American youth has increased sharpy in the recent years – It’s A Kind of Funny Story, Short Term 12, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Wrist Cutters, To the Bone, etc. And, some of the films get past the indie-film cliches and fires up narrative full of substance and heart. Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12 is thematically and structurally similar to Manic, which was written based on Destin’s own experience of working in a similar facility. Freed from stylistic obsession and strengthened by brilliantly fleshed-out characters, Short Term 12’ focus was more sensitive and profound than Manic. Nevertheless, Jordan Melamed’s depiction of disaffected youth is not entirely robbed off its heart and profundity.


The problem with Melamed’s approach and screen-writing duo’s textured writing is the way it resorts to blatant symbolism (a Van Gogh’s painting serves as the most unsubtle symbol) or sentimental reactions, treating the characters as mere ciphers (which is ironic since camerawork seeks absolute realism). Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel does a marvelous job in underplaying their agitated characters, plus the chemistry between them is well observed. Yet Melamed often breaks up good rhythm in a scene for unncessary cutaway shots, avoiding the space to build up a character. The characters’ spiralling down also becomes all too familiar. 


Don Cheadle

The vital aspect of Manic which makes it heartwarming is the presence of Don Cheadle as Dr. Monroe. Cheadle gets the chance to play the narrative’s most fantastic moment: the occasion when the doctor cracks up in the group session and starts throwing furnitures around. The actor makes Monroe’s pain and weariness very genuine and his sequences don’t suffer much from the editing choices. Of the minor teen characters in the institution, I liked Cody Lightning’s Kenny the most. He doesn’t say much but piercingly conveys his dread and feelings of uncertainty.


Eventually, if you get past the jerky cinematography and familiar, unsubtle plot devices, you could discover the Manic’s compelling, slightly ambiguous view of troubled youth. It’s not a break-out feature, but not a strictly mediocre work too.


Young Mr. Lincoln [1939] – A Visually Eloquent & Lionized Portrayal of the Formidable Political Icon


The year 1939 was pivotal period in the film-making career of the America’s greatest director John Ford. By this time, Mr. Ford had been making movies for more than two decades, yet the works that cemented his place among the pantheon of great film-makers started to flow from 1939. Prior to that year, John Ford directed multiple films a year, gaining few Oscar nominations, although those films didn’t make any long-lasting impact on the movie-going public. Teaming up with yesteryear Western icon John Wayne, whose career by then was riddled with minor roles, Mr. Ford made the first of his many monumental works, titled ‘Stage Coach’. This famous Western continues to gain cinephiles’ rapt attention due to Ford’s exemplary focus on action and visual detail. Orson Welles had supposedly watched it close to 40 times. 


Young Mr. Lincoln

Politically or culturally, Stagecoach is as problematic as the director’s later-era Westerns, often depicting Native Americans from the myopic or prejudiced view of White Americans. In many ways, Stage Coach is eulogized as the birth of John Ford the auteur. But at the same time, the director also made a fascinating movie in the same year, which received lukewarm response, both critically and financially. In retrospect, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) maynot be to be as remarkable as Stagecoach, but intriguing for many of its Ford-ian thematic preoccupations – for instance, the perpetual conflict between free will and constrained society.


Young Mr. Lincoln chronicles a decade in the life of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda), from the time he was a simple storekeeper to becoming a considerate lawyer, after arriving at Springfield, Illinois in the year 1837. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”, says the famous line in Ford’s classic Western ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962). In the similar vein, the young Lincoln in Ford’s movie confirms to the folkloric or mythologized versions of the historical persona. It uses a sentimental fable to try and get to the heart of a true American hero. 


Although historical truth is replaced with fictional heroism, the movie remains rousing and captivating due to Henry Fonda’s precise, well-grounded portrayal of Lincoln. John Ford near perfectly balances his story, alternately confirming to the perspective of Lincoln as the agent of history, and Lincoln as the skepticism-free individual. Ford employs a fictionalized event to mine Lincoln’s unfaltering wisdom to almost ascend him to the mythic stature. He also simultaneously visualizes Lincoln, who is persistently haunted by the past (the loss of his beloved friend Ann Rutledge and his nomadic, near homeless state) and an uncertain present. Even though Ford’s vision ultimately gives way to overt sentimentalization, Fonda’s genuine attempt at depicting the rough edges and vulnerabilities of the great leader actually precedes the subtly complex performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012).


Young Lincoln

Young Mr.Lincoln was written by America’s prolific and respected screenwriter Lamar Trotti (The Ox-Bow Incident, The Razor’s Edge, etc). The film opens with the kind, young Lincoln, listening to a farmer’s needs in small-town Salem. He vows to take up their problems in the State Legislature as an elected representative and gives one of his soothing speeches from a cabin porch. One day, a poor family after receiving Lincoln’s help pays him in the form of law books, which seals the lonely man’s fate. Encouraged by the books and soulful exchanges with his (doomed) first love Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore), Lincoln decides to take over the lawyer profession. 


Years later, after Ann’s sad death, he opens a law office in the Illinois state capital of Springfield. Lincoln, an inexperienced lawyer but a man of action, stumbles upon his first major criminal case. The two young brothers of the Clay family – Matt and Adam -- accidentally kill a local thug, who beleaguers their family’s women. After subtly censuring the drunken, lynch mob that tries to string the boys, Lincoln takes upon the case. Considering the experience of state prosectutor and his amenability with the judge, the boys surely appear to be headed to the gallows. Of course, the mob of racuous, uncivilized forces are pinned down by the then-defense lawyer’s idealized stand.


Young Mr. Lincoln is mostly a standard courtroom drama than a well-rounded biopic. Its power and effectiveness largely lies in Ford’s heightened sense of style and his penchant for adeptly construing the environment to play pivotal part in the proceedings. Although Ford’s trademark shots of vast outdoor landscapes are very few in here, he makes good use of studio sets to capture the emblematic maturation of Lincoln. Trotti’s script is filled with earthy, nostalgic notions of old Americana, which Ford embraces it with a sense of exaltation, especially in the noisily playful ‘fair’ scene and the bit mawkish conversation between Lincoln and the women of Clays’ family. 


Fonda Lincoln

Ford’s signature thematic notions are all here: representation of human resolve, individual power, staunch nationalism plus the venality and hypocrisies in a class-conscious society. The myth of Lincoln in the narrative definitely controls the character from being thorougly multi-facted. Yet Fonda braves the onerous task and brings an extraordinary sense of intimacy in playing the political icon. Thanks to Fonda’s suave performance, the conventional mythic elements don’t threaten to drown the real, human nature of Lincoln. There are few moments where on-screen Lincoln is: ignoble - his casual ruthelessness towards two farmer plaintiffs; awkward - his acquaintance with fickle Mary Todd, the future wife; and rascally - there’s a minor moment when Lincoln ties a rope to a wagon to win the tug of war.


Intertwined with moments of folksy humor and linguistic maneuvers, the courtroom scenes unfurl in a brilliant manner. The only sizeable flaw in the trial happens to be overly idealized characters of the accused young brothers. Eventually, Young Mr. Lincoln (100 minutes) happens to be one of the best, earlier works of John Ford to deeply understand the metamorphosing power of myth.