OSCAR NOMINATED DOC SHORTS (2016)

February 21, 2017

OSCAR NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS 

Greetings again from the darkness. When the feel-good movie of the bunch revolves around a Holocaust survivor, you know there aren’t many chuckles to be had for this block of Oscar nominated Documentary Short Films. However, if you can deal with being ultra-serious and devastated for 2 ½ hours, you will find high quality filmmaking focused on topics that are not just timely, but exceedingly important and vital. Below, in order of personal preference, are the nominated 2016 releases.

4-1-miles 4.1 MILES (USA/Greece, 26 min)

From 2015 through 2016 more than one million people were desperate enough to flee Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-ravaged areas by risking their lives in small boats launched from Turkey. The 4.1 miles to Greece, and hopefully freedom, is fraught with danger (more than one thousand have drowned). Director Daphne Matziaraki introduces us to a Greece Coast Guard Captain from the small island of Lesbos, as the captain and his crew remain diligent and dedicated to rescuing mothers, children and others so desperate for a new life. The camera work is a bit rough, but that’s to be expected given the harsh conditions of wind, waves, rain and frantic actions … when every minute counts.

 

joes-violin JOE’S VIOLIN (USA, 24 min)

If anyone deserves to be a little bit selfish, it’s a Holocaust survivor. Instead, 91 year old Joseph Feingold donated his beloved violin to Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – an organization that distributes musical instruments to inner city schools. Mr. Feingold tells the story of “purchasing” the violin after the war in 1947. When 12 year old Brianna is selected to receive the gift, we learn her story and how the violin and Mr. Feingold’s history profoundly affects her. Director Kahane Cooperman ties together a Siberian labor camp, the dreams of a bright, enthusiastic young girl, and an appreciative elderly gentleman to remind us of the power of music and how it can transcend generations, race, economic status and culture. It’s an inspirational story from two quite different perspectives.

 

the-white-helmets THE WHITE HELMETS (UK, 41 min)

In what would be viewed as an inspirational story … if not for the tragically violent environment of Aleppo City … this film from director Orlando von Einsiedel takes us to the front line with the civilian volunteer group known as The White Helmets. Numbering 2900 strong, these brave folks run directly into the buildings that have been bombed mere minutes before. We get interviews and discussions with some of the volunteers, but the most awe-inspiring moments come during the rescue missions, as they comb through rubble looking for signs of life. One of the most amazing sequences you’ll ever see on screen occurs during the rescue of a one week old “miracle baby”. Up to 200 raids per day have resulted in more than 400,000 deaths over the past five years, yet the volunteers have sayings like “To save a life is to save all humanity”. They provide hope to a place that has little, and possess a human spirit dedicated to helping.

 

extremis EXTREMIS (USA, 24 min)

Highland Hospital in Oakland, California is the setting for a first-hand look at the emotional and ethical complexities involved in end of life decisions. We witness the perspective of dedicated ICU doctors, terminally ill and confused patients, and the emotional families often burdened with making the final call between hoping for a miracle and allowing their loved ones to die with dignity. Director Dan Krauss introduces Dr. Jessica Zitter who takes a compassionate yet direct approach in her discussions with patients and families. Her goal is to provide the information that helps them make the most difficult decisions they will ever be faced with.

 

watani WATANI: MY HOMELAND (UK, 39 min)

Is there anything more frighteningly surreal than watching kids playing with guns as actual bombs are going off in their neighborhood, tanks are rumbling down their streets, and the constant sound of gunfire is present? Welcome again to Aleppo City. Directed by Marcel Mattelsiefen, we meet the father of four kids who is working hard to protect his city. We then flash forward one year and learn that the father has been taken by ISIS and the family is headed to Germany, seeking a safer life … new home, new friends, and a new school. Though they long to return to their original home, it’s a reminder that home is really where you are, not where you are from.

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OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS (2016)

February 17, 2017

OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS (Animated and Live Action)

Shorts HD now sponsors the annual theatrical run for the block of Oscar nominated Short Films. For those of us who love movies, it’s a much appreciated opportunity to see what once were the most difficult categories of nominated films to watch prior to the awards ceremony. I would encourage everyone to make this an annual event, and experience a variety of stories and styles from filmmakers around the globe.

Below are my comments for this year’s nominees (released in 2016), and they are listed in order of personal preference for each category, Animated and Live Action.

ANIMATED

blind-vaysha BLIND VAYSHA (Canada) – Far from light-hearted and feel good, this one not only has the most substantial story, it also features the most original look and style of any in the category. It’s directed by Theodore Ushev and adapted from a short story by Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov. The story centers on “the blind girl”, who remarkably sees only the past through her brown left eye, and only the future through her red right eye. Through her eyes, no present exists. It’s a remarkable fable about how we look at the world, and one of the few short films that lends itself to a good debate.

piper PIPER (USA) – Pixar, through co-directors Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer, delivers what may be the most realistic CGI we’ve seen to date. Easily the most seen of all short films since it played in theatres with Finding Dory, it tells the story of a mother Sandpiper teaching her baby how to scavenge and feed itself. The baby is reluctant to give up being spoon-fed, but soon overcomes his fear of water and embraces life … thanks to the lessons of some local sand crabs.

borrowed-time BORROWED TIME (USA) – An old, weathered sheriff revisits the spot on the cliff where a tragic mistake changed the course of his life. The event has obviously haunted him ever since he was a kid. The animated pocket watch looks real at times, and ends up playing a vital role not once, but twice for the man. It’s a side project from Pixar animators Co-dir Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, with a score from two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla, and a reminder that living with regret is no way to live.

pearl PEARL (USA) – Playing like little more than an animated music video or commercial, this one nonetheless taps into the emotions of a father-daughter relationship over the years … and the role a car and tape recorder might play as they come full circle. “There’s no wrong way home” is a simple little song that works fine in this short from director Patrick Osborne (Feast).

 

pear PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES (Canada and UK) – By far the longest entry at 35 minutes, this one has the feel of an animated documentary or at least an animated diary. The narrator reminisces about his thrill-seeking friend Techno, and the difficult road travelled by the once care-free and talented youngster. Alcoholism, drug addiction, bad luck, poor health and poor decisions all play a role here, but it’s mostly about non-conditional friendship. Directed by Robert Valley, it’s quite a sad story, though not dissimilar to one many friends have experienced in real life.

LIVE ACTION

sing MINDENKI (“Sing”, Hungary) The new girl in school can barely control her excitement at joining the renowned school choir. Poof! Her joy is gone in a scene that proves just how quickly a teacher can destroy a child’s spirit. Directed by Kristof Deak, we see how misplaced priorities of those in charge, can drive the student to become the teacher. The philosophical aspect here is quite interesting … in order to remain part of the group, one must surrender the thing that motivated them to join the group in the first place.

la-femme LE FEMME ET LE TGV (“The Woman and the TGV”, Sweden) Jane Birkin adds stardom to an otherwise earthy story of a small town woman who, for 32 years, has been waving her flag at the high-speed train that blows past her window twice each day. A letter of appreciation from the train’s engineer arrives one day, and it inspires the woman to re-join life and stop living in the past. Ms. Birkin gives a nice performance in this commentary on growing old in a fast-changing world. Timo von Gunten directs this story inspired by true events (he actually interviewed the real flag-waving woman).

timecode TIMECODE (Spain) – In what is easily the best use of security cameras and dancing parking lot guards, director Juanjo Gimenez Pena delivers a very entertaining 15 minute film. With minimal dialogue, the day and night guards barely cross paths, but share a secret talent that’s exposed in a most humorous way with a killer punchline.

 

silent-nights SILENT NIGHTS (Denmark) – A good-hearted Salvation Army volunteer makes friends with a man from Ghana who has immigrated to Denmark, seeking a better life. She is kind to the man and a romantic attraction develops leading to a look at racism, desperation, and the ramifications of deceit. Directed by Aske Bang and produced by two-time Oscar winner Kim Magnusson, the film teases us with optimism, only to frustrate us before giving way to an unexpected life lesson.

ennemis ENNEMIS INTERIEURS (“Enemies Within”) – The most blatantly political of all entries, it’s also the most relevant. A man from Algeria is interrogated by a government official in hope of obtaining his French citizenship. Questioned on his religion and neighbors, we see how any situation can be twisted to seem suspicious … especially in this age of fear of terrorists. Directed by Selim Azzazzi, it seems to tell us that if we try to find something wrong, we likely will.

watch the Oscar shorts trailer:

 


OPHELIA (2016, short film)

September 16, 2016

ophelia Greetings again from the darkness. The best short films somehow find a way to connect with viewers and make us care about the story and character(s) – in just a few minutes and usually on a very limited budget. The first film from director (and writer) Anthony Garland expertly establishes atmosphere and tone, creates conflict and develops a character we care about … all in less than 8 minutes.

Garland seizes on one of the biggest emotional stressors for many people … the job interview. The opening scene has a well-dressed Ali Mueller slowly making her way through a dilapidated building while ominous music cues us that we are about to watch a horror film. This horror is psychological in nature and plays to the power of the mind, and the internal battles we fight when plopped into a stressful situation. Ms. Mueller faces a tribunal committee of interviewers (named in the credits as Grumpy, Sneezy, Doc) played by familiar actors whose faces you’ll likely recognize (Mary Pat Gleason, Larry Cedar, Allen Blumenfeld).

The film has a dream-like feel and often we aren’t sure what’s real. However, there are certain segments that are clear manifestations of Ms. Mueller’s insecurities and fears. There is a Black Swan nod with her younger self in the mirror, and a razor blade used to remove any doubt that her outward confidence often fails versus her internal struggles.

It’s a nifty little look at how we seek to control our fears and doubts, and fits nicely with Ophelia’s line from Hamlet: “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown”.

 


OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: Live Action and Animated (2015)

February 14, 2016

Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar night is rapidly approaching, which means my annual pilgrimage to see the Oscar nominated Short Film Showcase has taken place. It’s always one of my favorite movie events of the year, and if you’ve never experienced it, I highly recommend you give it a try. You are guaranteed 10 high quality short films from around the globe, and they usually throw in a few more “commended” ones to enhance your time at the theatre. Here is my recap of this year’s nominations:

LIVE ACTION (alphabetical order)

AVE MARIA (Palestine, France, Germany) – In a year when the other four nominees are pretty serious in tone, this jocular, slightly satirical jab at religious extremism from filmmaker Basil Khalil is quite stuttererwelcome. Set in the West Bank, Palestine, a quarrelsome Jewish family literally crashes into the sanctity of 5 cloistered nuns.

DAY ONE (USA) – set within the war in Afghanistan, director Henry Hughes’ film depicts the first day in the field for a rookie translator as she accompanies a squad in their capture of a suspected bomber. When the bomber’s wife is discovered to be pregnant, things take a wicked turn and spontaneous decisions must be made that rattle the religious, cultural and moral state of those involved.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Alles Wird Gut, Germany Austria) – I reviewed this one earlier in the year, and director Patrick Volrath’s film is just as gut-wrenching the second time. A desperate German father attempts to carry out an ill-conceived plan that will thwart his ex-wife’s attempts to prevent him from spending time with his young daughter. It’s well acted and emotional.

SHOK (Kosova, UK) – a bicycle stranded in the road brings back a flood of childhood memories from the Kosovo War for an adult man. Based on true events, this one from director Jamie Donoughue is a gut punch and reminder that nothing is as strong as the bond between friends.

STUTTERER (UK, Ireland) – my personal favorite of the Live Action nominees, this one will have you questioning how you view “disabilities” and your quick trigger on assumptions. Director Benjamin Cleary also provides insight into how insecurities play a role in the motives and actions of people.

 

ANIMATION (alphabetical order)

BEAR STORY (Historia de un Oso, Chile) – Director Gabriel Osorio Vargas offers up a very intricate and meticulous story of a former circus bear who tells his heart-breaking life story through a fascinating mechanical diorama. Along with the Russian entry, this is one of my two favorites in the category.

PROLOGUE (UK) – a beautifully drawn depiction of a brutal two-on-two battle between Spartan and bear storyAthenian soldiers from more than 2000 years ago. Director Richard Williams provides a taste of the violence and intimacy in hand to hand combat, and also the fallout from war regardless of the era.

SANJAY’S SUPER TEAM (USA) – Surely the most widely viewed of all nominees, as this Pixar production played before every showing of Pixar’s feature The Good Dinosaur. Director Sanjay Patel tells a semi-autobiographical tale of father, son and religion … complete with a real photo at the end.

WE CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT COSMOS (Russia) – The power of friendship and human bonding is on display as two cosmonauts train together for a trip into space. Director Konstantin Bronzit offers a no-holds-barred look at grief and the lack of understanding by others. The right stuff from a Russian perspective looks pretty similar to ours.

WORLD OF TOMORROW (USA) – I first saw this gem from director Don Hertzfeldt at the Dallas International Film Society, and the simple animation can’t mask the complexity of the cautionary tale. Technology and our desire for immortality may not provide the idyllic future we imagine. This one is both frightening and funny.


WAVES ’98 (animated short film, 2016)

January 21, 2016

waves 98 Greetings again from the darkness. With a prestigious award from Cannes, filmmaker Ely Dagher probably had hopes for an Oscar nomination in the animated short film category. The nomination didn’t happen, but that doesn’t diminish the fine work from the Beirut-born director, who also uses splashes of news reel footage to contrast with the animation.

A teenager in suburban post-war Beirut has become disillusioned with his days of school and mundane home life. He spends hours on a rooftop gazing at downtown Beirut and a world so close, of which he knows so little. One day he is drawn to the unfamiliar urban landscape by a light emanating from the tall buildings … a light encouraging the younger generation to cross the bitter lines of division that have been wrecking the city.

He soon enters a world of imagination and serenity, and finds his bond to his real life slipping away. It’s a reminder that change only occurs with action, not merely dreams of a better world. The recurring theme and the block in his mind are presented to us by these two lines: “I’m tired of hearing the same story over and over again”; and “It feels like everything is stuck.” These feelings are not uncommon in teenagers all over the globe, but especially poignant given this setting.

 


EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Alles Wird Gut, short, Germany 2015)

December 22, 2015

everything will be okay Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatic short films are challenged with generating an ultra-quick connection with viewers. German director Patrick Vollrath begins the film by showing a man anxiously pacing and buzzing the gate bell outside a suburban home. Our instincts that tell us he must be in some kind of trouble fade a bit when an 8 year old girl runs into his arms exclaiming “Daddy!”

Lea (newcomer Julia Pointer) clearly loves her father, and we quickly figure out this must be the scheduled every other weekend visit resulting from a recent divorce. Lea’s excitement is palpable as they stop off at a toy store where her dad tells her she can pick out any two items she wants. A simple gesture that’s probably repeated thousands of times each weekend, re-ignites the instincts we felt in the opening scene. Some “little” hints confirm our suspicion as the two hurriedly rush to an appointment at a government office and then on to the airport.

Simon Schwarz plays Michael Baumgartner, the dad who transitions from anxious to warm/loving to purely desperate. His performance, and that of young Ms. Pointer, are realistic and so spot on that we as viewers are sympathetic to both. It’s an exceptionally tense and dramatic half-hour reminding us that in a broken family, it’s rarely the case that “everything will be okay”, and sometimes things escalate into a literal tug-of-war that is heart-breaking. This is expert work from a filmmaker that understands the magic of short films, and it’s little wonder the film has been so well received at AFI, Cannes and numerous other festivals.

watch the trailer:

 


OUR DAILY DOSE (2015, doc short)

October 17, 2015

Greetings again from the darkness. Documentary director Jeremy Seifert made some noise in 2013 with his creatively titled GMO OMG, which along with his latest fit snugly into a sub-genre I call “Wake up, sheep!”  Mr. Seifert has a gentle approach in alerting us to topics which the general public mostly never even considers … at least until enough people are talking about it, and we are forced to learn something.

Since 1945, fluoridation of public water systems has been commonplace and widely accepted as a process that reduces dental breakdowns (cavities) by as much as 25% (roughly one cavity per person). It’s only recent scientific studies that have categorized fluoride as a “Developmental Neurotoxin” and “Endocrine Disruptor”.  In English, those two terms are defined respectively as a substance which negatively impacts brain development in children, and negatively impacts thyroid function. Mr. Seifert states that these studies prove that it’s time to re-think the national position on water fluoridation.

We learn that Grand Rapids, Michigan was the first city to add fluoride to its drinking water, but of course, one would be hard-pressed these days to find even a small scale municipality that provides un-fluorinated water to its populace. Scientists and doctors in the film (somewhat surprisingly) categorize fluoride as a poison rather than a nutrient, and that is certainly an attention-grabbing term. Their stance is that inclusion in our drinking water means it contradicts the “informed consent” doctrine that covers health care, and the real risk seems to be in dosage control. See, most water systems can’t even measure the amount of fluoride used, and there is no accurate way to track any person’s actual intake – given that water is used in so many food and drink products.

Asbestos, Lead, Arsenic, and Vioxx are all provided as examples of substances that were once deemed safe. Sure, Mr. Seifert’s approach might be considered a “scare tactic” or overreaction, but his point really is that it’s time to question the use and, if nothing else, allow consumers to make their own educated decisions. When he states 97% of Western European countries do not fluoridate water, many jokes on British dental work spring to mind … but this is also a pretty hearty statistic leading credence to Seifert’s call for more and better research.

The filmmaker even includes a Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb reference as acknowledgement that some will wave this off as just another conspiracy theory; however, if his 20 minute film can wake enough sleeping sheep, then perhaps some serious dialogue can be had.

http://www.ourdailydosefilm.com