Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscar nominated documentary shorts

Now it’s time for reviews of the Oscar nominated documentary shorts, being shown for public viewing this weekend and next at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT). Let’s say right off the bat that someone could be excused for thinking there was a definite political or “message” being sent with this crop of nominees. There are five films altogether, three of which deal with the Middle Eastern migrant crisis. Each of course has merits as does the issue generally. But with the vast array of documentary selections to choose from, when does Hollywood stop being political and start showing movies for movies sake?

Joe’s Violin (USA – Kahane Cooperman) This is a story about a violin that has been the possession of a World War II Holocaust survivor, Joseph Feingold, and how he came to own it (in exchange for a pack of cigarettes) in a displaced refugee camp. Now in his Nineties, Feingeld decided to donate the instrument to a public school musical arts class in the Bronx. We witness how one of its young students embraces the violin, and how happy she is to meet the donor. It’s a sweet story with some flashback poignancy, but doesn’t rise beyond a straightforward narrative.

Extremis (USA – Dan Krauss) This is film which may be difficult to watch, as it deals with two patients in an intensive care unit in an Oakland, California hospital. It’s an up-close portrayal of medical staff – one doctor in particular – as they assist the patients and their families in end of life care. The film is a sensitive depiction of the interaction among staff, the patients, and patients’ loved ones, but again, is solely a straightforward narrative.

4.1 Miles (USA/Greece – Daphne Matziaraki). This is the first of the migrant crisis films and follows the crew of a small Greek Coast Guard boat off the coast of the island of Lesbos, as it tries to save refugees on flimsy boats crossing the short distance from Turkey. For those who have just scanned the headlines or caught video clips of this humanitarian disaster, the film is an upfront, searing portrayal of the human aspect of this “issue.”

Watani: My Homeland (UK – Marcel Mettelsiefen) A family in the middle, of a warring neighbourhood in the Syrian city of Aleppo tries to survive amidst the daily shelling. When the father, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army, is captured by ISIS, the mother and her four children seek refugee asylum in Germany. The film follows their travels and new life in Europe. Again, as with 4.1 Miles, the close-up of the human impact of war is heart wrenching.

The White Helmets (USA – Orlando von Einsiedel) (photo above) This film is about a group of Syrian emergency workers who rescue people who may be trapped after a bombing during the current Syrian civil war. The group puts their lives in extreme danger – indeed, dozens have bene killed – as they climb through rubble and try to extricate victims. Like Watani: My Homeland, the filmmaker is present among the rescuers capturing scenes that show what, on a human level, is going on behind the headlines.

What film should win the Oscar: The White Helmets; what will win: The White Helmets.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oscar nominated shorts - animation & live action

This wasn’t the best crop of Oscar animation and live action shorts. But a weekend viewing at the Detroit Film Theatre (with Oscar nominated documentary shorts coming up next weekend) winnows the better from the just okay. I didn’t see anything bad but nothing spectacular either. 


Borrowed Time (USA - Andrew Coats & Kou Hamou-Lhadj) This Old Western story is about a sheriff and his underling who come under attack and must fend for themselves, with mixed results. Years later the boy is now the sheriff but has never gotten over the trauma. I’ll give the film an A for emotion but C for leaving the viewer confused about the disconnect between a long-ago event and a now grown man’s continuing grief. (Two out of five stars)

Pearl (USA – Patrick Osborne) Many of us of a certain age can remember growing up with tape decks and driving around the country, hitting the open road and letting our freak flags fly. But maturity settles us as a next generation has its own lifestyle and music totems, though sometimes there’s a connection between the generations. (Three out of five stars)

Piper (USA – Alan Barillaro) Leave it to Pixar and Disney to come up with a lifelike imitation of a sandpiper chick’s first tentative moments into the world of scavenging for food, and being bashed by tsunami type waves that get more than its feet wet. This film is charming of course but doesn’t transcend beyond that. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Blind Vaysha (Canada – Theodore Ushev) This National Film Board short has all the earmarks of the thousands of others you’ve seen – and likely dismissed out of boredom – for years. The story is commendable – about a woman who sees both the past and the future – but fails to hold one’s attention and delivers a not unsurprising message. (Two out of five stars)

Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada – Robert Valley) (photo above) This, the longest of the five, is also the best. Most of us have grown up with a charismatic friend and this story is about one such individual who descends into a miasma of self-abuse. The film is accompanied by offhand sometimes comic narration and realistic visual evocations. (Four out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Pear Cider and Cigarettes; what will win: Piper


Sing (Hungary – Kristóf Deák). A new girl in school wants to be part of the award-winning choir. But when she’s told she can’t sing a rebellion ensues in this allegory of corruption and resulting justice. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Silent Nights (Denmark – Aske Bang) Here is a contemporary story of the clash between African migrants and Western society. But the film eschews clichés and informs that prejudice, and immoral choices, are not the monopoly of any particular race. (Three and a half out of five stars)

Timecode (Spain -  Juanjo Giménez Peña) This won Cannes’s Palme d’Or for best short film. It’s delightful and takes you to a story you weren’t expecting. But its whimsy is just a little too pat. (Two and a half out of five stars)

Enemies Within (France - Sélim Azzazi) (photo above) This is a taut, well-acted mini drama of a police interrogation of a man who may have terrorist ties. (Four out of five stars)

La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland – Timo von Gunten) Based on a true story, British actress Jane Birkin plays a woman who’s fixated on waving every day to a passing high-speed train, eventually developing a relationship with the engineer. It’s whimsical, charming and perhaps most likely to appeal to, shall we say, certain people of a certain age. (Two and a half out of five stars)

What should win the Oscar: Enemies Within; what will win: La femme et le TGV  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Longing for mother, longing for daughter

Lion, the feature film directorial debut of Australian Garth Davis, has been nominated for six Academy Awards. This seems a little much and I will argue that it’s because of the emotional impact of the film. I felt that too. I’m not one who easily tears up yet the tears were quite spontaneous at Lion’s end. This really is a very humane heartfelt story, based on true events. It’s about a destitute child in India who, one day, out with his brother, loses his way and finds himself eventually on the streets of Calcutta. He’s rounded-up and put in an orphanage, later adopted by a good-hearted Australian couple (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). As an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) seeks to return to India and find his mother but can’t remember where he came from. The movie from here puts a tormented Saroo, who now feels more Australian than Indian, on a quest to seek “closure” by finding his family. The film’s direction is good, the scenes of Saroo’s poverty-stricken childhood amidst the detritus and streets of his rural Indian home are well paced. And Saroo as a child (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are well played. This is a film that pulls at your heartstrings not just for the characters but for any kids in these circumstances, and the film invites you to join the cause of vanquishing such conditions.

Meanwhile, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest, Julieta, based on three of Canadian writer Alice Munro’s stories, features Emma Suárez in the lead role as a bereft mother whose daughter Antia (played at different stages of life by Blanca Parés (older) and Priscilla Delgado (younger)) has run away. The movie traces Julieta from a young woman (played by Adriana Ugarte) and her growing estrangement from her rebellious daughter. This is a movie that keeps circling in on itself. There is an early scene where Julieta blames herself for a fellow train passenger’s death, and where she also blames herself for the death at sea of her lover and Antia’s dad, Xoan, a fisherman. In fact, Julieta keeps blaming herself, in a downward spiral, even for her daughter’s separation. The acting is all-around good. It’s the story I found incomplete. I didn’t understand how these disparate events added up to such profound mother-daughter strife and mother guilt. I’ll conclude this is because of an underdeveloped script or the inadequate merging of Munro’s three stories. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Captivated by nature

Seasons, which screened late last month at the Detroit Film Theatre (DFT), is an extraordinary film. The cinematography is fantastic, the kind of film that makes you ask, “how did they get those shots?” The film was made by a couple of France’s most esteemed filmmakers, Jacques Perrin, whose bio includes acting in films by Vittorio De Seta and Costa-Gavras, and Jacques Cluzaud, who has directed special format productions, also related to nature. Seasons tells the story of the evolution of Europe’s forests, from their “golden age” before humans descended on the scene, to their eventual thinning out and marginalization by agriculture and urban development. Most of the scenes, which are shot in a very still and studied way, nevertheless captivate the viewer as they depict myriad animal species – from waterfowl to reptiles to wild boars and moose - in their natural pristine habitat, eking out an existence or in fact preying or being preyed upon. There are scenes of cougars chasing horses, with the filmmakers tracking them right alongside at ferocious speed.  There is a shot from within a wolf den, and of chicks falling dozens of meters from the top of trees to the ground before they can fly, and of grizzly bears battling it out on hind legs with one another. The film looks at the forest in its four-season splendor but not chronologically, flipping back and forth among different times of the year. Gradually, humans appear, first as cave people, then as medieval knights, rapidly cutting down trees and turning lands into vast agricultural panoramas. Some of the shots, particularly of birds flying high above, must have been shot by drones or mini-cameras embedded on the birds. Still, the shots are remarkable and seemingly done in an incomprehensible way. Yes, this film is a paean to nature and there’s a subtle political message about preserving forests as much as possible rather than laying waste and creating urban sprawl. But the nice thing is the filmmakers don’t bat you over the head with it. The film is primarily about nature (as in a National Geographic special) and for the viewer to assimilate the splendors before them. What you conclude from that and what you do with that information is up to you.