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.


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:

 


THE BRIDE (2016, La Novia, Spain)

February 16, 2017

the-bride Greetings again from the darkness. The pitch for this movie might have come across as blending a Greek tragedy with a romance novel, and then adding a dash of revenge. Fortunately director Paula Ortiz’s vision for the Federico Garcia Lorca play “Bodas de sangre” is more poetic and lyrical than such an overview would suggest.

Love triangles are the core of many stories and movies, but it’s the opening sequence here that clues us in that the trouble has already occurred, and though it removes some of the suspense of “what”, it certainly sets the stage for an interesting “how” and “why”.

Inma Cuesta plays Novia (billed only as the titular bride) who is engaged to Asier Etxeandia (billed only as Novio, the groom). The abundance of family stress (on both sides) has little to do with the wedding plans, and more to do with Leonardo (Alex Garcia). Leonardo is more than the local hunk who is always lurking about on horseback; he’s also the third wheel who can’t let go of his desire for Novia … in spite of his young child and pregnant wife. To make things messier, Novia seems to answer his heightened desire for her with her own uncontrollable passion for him.

It’s Yin and Yang. Safe and Dangerous. The bride’s conflicted choice leads the groom’s mother (Goya winner Luisa Gavasa) to be a foreboding presence throughout, and keeps most of the village on edge. Additionally, there is an element of mysticism as Maria Alfonsa Rossa appears periodically as the figure of death – and we are never quite sure of the motivations behind her advice.

Goya winner Miguel Amoedo provides beautiful cinematography that balances between fantasy, harsh realities, and the romance of the moment. There are many intimate close-ups, as well as some stunning desert wide shots of Leonardo riding the horse. The score and soundtrack are terrific, including Soledad Velez with a haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”.

The concept of destiny vs. choice hovers over most scenes, and the twisted family and childhood histories give the film a Shakespearian feel. Last year, the film received numerous Goya nominations (including Ms. Cuesta, Ms. Ortiz, Mr. Garcia) are resulted in the wins for Ms. Gavasa and Mr. Amoedo. It may not make the best Valentine’s Day date movie, but it is an interesting watch from the romance-tragedy-revenge-horseback genre.

watch the trailer:


TONI ERDMANN (2016, Germany)

February 8, 2017

toni-erdmann Greetings again from the darkness. A list of the best German movies of all time would likely feature very few comedies. It’s not a country or culture that tends to laugh much at its history (for good reason) or itself. A case could be made that this latest little gem from writer/director Maren Ade belongs on such a list, and although it features several laugh out loud moments, whether it should be labeled a comedy is certainly worthy of debate.

Winfried (Peter Simonischeck) has been a mostly absentee dad, but now he is deservedly concerned about his daughter’s well being. He is intent on trying to get Ines (Sandra Huller) to let go of her uptight, high stress corporate persona and enjoy life a bit. It’s the kind of advice only those who have really lived can rightfully offer up … though you’ve likely never seen advice administered in such a creative and cringe-inducing manner.

Winfried’s alter-ego is Toni Erdman, a shaggy wig and false teeth wearing goofball who manages to insert himself into the most inconvenient and awkward moments for Ines and her business. His pranks are designed to illustrate just how ridiculous the workaholic treadmill is and how little joy accompanies such a work-a-day life.

Having been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, it’s easy to crown this as the frontrunner in the category. Ines’ birthday party shines a new light on the phrase “birthday suit”, and that sequence alone might have generated more laughter than I heard in a theatre all year. Yet despite the laughs and Toni’s shenanigans (and there are many), at its core, this is a film about loneliness and the emptiness of life without happiness. Perhaps you could call it a philosophical comedy, but it’s downright chilling to see the raw emotion of Ines as she belts out Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, or finally strips herself (literally) of all pretense.

NOTE: it was recently announced that Jack Nicholson will come out of retirement and join Kristen Wiig in an American remake. As exciting as that seems, don’t let it stop you from seeing this original.

watch the trailer:

 

 


JULIETA (2016, Spain)

January 26, 2017

julieta Greetings again from the darkness. Pedro Almodovar is a fascinating filmmaker and one that I’ve followed consistently since his 1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Over that almost 30 year period, I have rarely felt let down by his work, and have quite often walked out of the theatre in awe of his artistry, creativity and dedication to providing original cinematic viewing experiences.

The quite visually suggestive opening sets the stage for an Almodovar experience, only what follows is much different than what we have come to expect. It’s (somewhat) based on the short story trilogy of Alice Munro (Destino, Pronto, Silencio), and returns him again to his strength – telling the story of women. It may not be as flamboyant as some of his previous work, but rather it’s a pure and earnest emotional drama. It even has a bit of Hitchcockian flavor with the element of mystery playing a central role.

Emma Suarez and Adrian Ugarte alternate in the role of Julieta and both are excellent. Ms. Suarez plays the older Julieta looking back on her life, while Ms. Ugarte populates most of the memories being entered into the journal … a writing effort designed to fill in the life gaps for her long estranged daughter Antia.

We learn that Julieta fell in love with fisherman Xoan (Daniel Grao) while his wife was in a coma, and that Antia was conceived before the wife passed away. Xoan’s housekeeper Marian (played brilliantly by Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma) is one who knows a man has needs, but doesn’t always know when to speak and when to remain silent. One of her not so secret secrets is Xoan’s artist friend Ava (Imma Cuesta) who manages to get close to Xoan, Julieta and Antia. Ava is such an interesting character that a movie about her could have been equally entertaining. Other key players here are the older Julieta’s boyfriend Lorenzo (another Almodovar regular Dario Grandinetti) and Antia’s special childhood friend Bea (Sara Jimenez) who appears years later (as Michelle Jenner) in a quick appearance that rocks Julieta’s world.

Guilt, death, love, disappointment, and relationships are all significant pieces to this Almodovar puzzle. Spirituality even pops up when Antia attends a retreat and makes her life-altering decision … one spurred by youth and vulnerability, and possibly leading to regret later in life. As Julieta recounts her life, we understand her middle-aged whole in the heart. She has “lost” everyone she has ever loved – her husband, her daughter, her mother.

Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu experiments with camera angles and captures the beautiful vistas and landscapes, while never losing the intimacy required for such an emotional journey. The color red is all over the film and almost jumps off the screen at times, ensuring that the visual element never is far removed from the drama. The score from Alberto Iglesias is excellent and quite a complement to another master work from Almodovar.

watch the trailer:

 


ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

January 22, 2017

alone-in-berlin Greetings again from the darkness. When war hits close to home, the grieving of surviving family members never ends. At the end of World War II, author Hans Fallada was given access to the Gestapo file of Otto and Elise Hampel. Fallada wrote a 1947 novel based on their story, and in 2009 it was translated to English for his bestseller “Every Man Dies Alone”. Director Vincent Perez collaborated with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries to adapt the novel for the big screen.

Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Elise (Emma Thompson) play a mostly quiet, working class couple who pay the ultimate price for a cause in which they don’t believe. Their protest takes the form of a clandestine 2 person operation. They systematically distribute postcards with anti-Hitler messages … nearly 300 of the cards between 1940 and 1942. It’s a drip campaign that takes the form of non-violent political resistance, and certainly rankles those of the Third Reich.

Daniel Bruhl plays Escherich, the Nazi officer put in charge of the investigation (labeled Operation: Hobgoblin). He is charged with finding the source of the cards and punishing those responsible. As the hunt drags on, Escherich is presented as a Nazi with a conscience, and bears the brunt of his superior’s frustration, while living in as much fear as those he is chasing.

The film has a somber tone, and somehow never generates the tension or dread that this couple must have been dealing with on a daily basis for so long. In fact, Alexandre Desplat’s score seems to fit a movie much more intense than what we are watching on screen. Mr. Gleeson delivers his usual grounded and believable performance despite a script that could have used a bit more potency. The film does deliver the always powerful message of having no regrets when you are standing up for what’s right.

watch the trailer:

 


NERUDA (Chile, 2016)

January 19, 2017

neruda Greetings again from the darkness. There is little offered by the history of the country of Chile that would lead you to believe that some laughs, giggles and chuckles are in store if you watch director Pablo Larrain’s film about Pablo Neruda. But that’s exactly what happens as we watch a police inspector hunt down the Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet and Senator. While you would probably not describe it as an outright comedy, it’s a serio-comedy that will educate (a little) and entertain (a lot).

The opening scene takes place in the men’s room as a most serious Senate debate has flowed into an inappropriate locale. Apparently there is no relief during this time of relieving. It’s here that Neruda’s spoken words are as important as those he writes, and those spoken words lead directly to his need to go on the run. The poet/senator and his artist wife Delia del Carril become fugitives in their own country, and most of the film has them negotiating the Chilean underground.

Set in 1948, three years after the end of WWII, a fascinating game of cat and mouse between hunter and hunted evolves. Director Larrain and writer Guillermo Calderon employ a generously creative license, and play quite fast and loose with facts resulting in a delightfully complex quasi-detective story.

Luis Gnecco plays Pablo Neruda, and actually looks very much like the Chilean icon who was influential, but also a bit prickly and burdened with his own sense of entitlement. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Inspector Peluchonneau, who is charged by the President to hunt down and capture the now enemy of the state. It’s a wild chase that involves up to 300 policemen in support of the Inspector who romanticizes the chase. The filmmakers have more fun with traditional story structure as the Inspector’s internal dialogue questions whether he is the lead character … an idea that would never be considered by the man he is chasing.

The film has a retro look and feel, and borders on farcical at times – the shots inside a moving car appear right out of the old 1940’s detective movies. But the harsh realities of the times are never far removed. It could be a Picasso speech or a concentration camp director named Pinochet (soon to play a more important role in Chile). Neither the Inspector nor the fugitive make for a trustworthy narrator, but their different perspectives constantly provide us with more bits to consider.

Luis Gnecco, Gael Garcia Bernal and Mercedes Moran (as Delia del Carril) are all excellent in their roles, and the use of music is spot on … especially the score from Federico Justid (whose work I noted in Magallanes and The Secret in Their Eyes). Director Larrain also released the high profile Jackie (with Natalie Portman) over the holidays, and deserves to be discussed as one of the more creative filmmakers working today. It’s pretty tough to name another contemporary film that blends an oddball inspector, a tough woman losing touch, and a narcissistic fugitive – all with bases in reality, while never settling for something as mundane as the truth.

watch the trailer: