Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oscar short docs: art blooms from adversity

The problem I have with this year’s list of Oscar nominated short documentaries is the same I have with the short live action nominations – they’re pretty much all-too-serious and kind of downers to boot. And why, pray tell, are they all from the US?…..First up is Edith & Eddie (Laura Checkoway, USA, 29 mins), a film about an unlikely pair of ninety-something newlyweds, who get along blissfully as if they were spring chickens. Until, that is, family members intervene, and supposedly for the good of the couple’s psychic and physical health, separate them by moving Edith, her protests notwithstanding, hundreds of miles away, never to see her husband again. The story is heartfelt, disturbing and tragic …... Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Frank Stiefel, USA, 40 mins; pictured) is my pick for best film. And only because of its revelation of a scarcely known but absolutely outstanding artist, Mindy Alper. Working in an array of media, Alper’s sculptures amazingly capture the complex personalities of her subjects. Yet there is a downside to the movie: Alper’s lifelong battle with mental illness. There are times viewers may wonder whether they should be celebrating the woman’s artistic brilliance or crying over her tormented background …... Heroin(e) (Elaine McMillion Sheldon, USA, 39 mins) is a peek into the city of Huntington, West Virginia, which happens to have the highest rate of drug overdoses in the US. The film depicts three people who are trying to break the pattern – the fire chief (Jan Rader), Patricia Keller (the drug court judge) and Necia Freeman, who brings meals to female addicts. Each is tough, committed, and especially in Judge Keller’s court, brings innovative solutions to curb the opioid epidemic in a deindustrialized Appalachian town …... Knife Skills (Thomas Lennon, USA, 40 mins) is another film that looks at the underside of society, in this case Ohio ex-convicts employed by the owner of an upscale Cleveland French restaurant, to be retrained in culinary arts. Most but not all find themselves rather transformed by their new careers, providing not just fulfillment but a sense of creativity. Restaurant owner Brandon Chrostowski himself is no stranger to having a long ago run-in with the law. ….. Traffic Stop (Kate Davis, USA, 31 mins) juxtaposes the serene, smart educator Breaion King, a dedicated professional in her classroom, with videotape of a police stop of her for speeding in Austin, Tx, in which the police wrestle King to the ground and arrest her. (She’s suing one officer.) The film obviously references the numerous controversial police arrests and real or alleged violence perpetuated by officers against black people, giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the dash cam video, while King is mildly uncooperative with police, there's no reason for the officer’s excessive force. But it also seems difficult to prove a racist motive: this could have happened to anyone regardless of skin color. However, there are a couple of moments when an officer’s squad car comments about the black community do have racist overtures.

(Oscar-nominated short documentary films will be screened again this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Oscar Animation shorts: croak in more ways than one

Dear Basketball, Kobe Bryant’s ode to his basketball career, appears an odds-on fave for the Oscar best animated film. It is a sweet serenade to the game, with ex-Disney artist Glen Keane as director (Bryant is a producer) doing the visual honors over five minutes. I’m not quite sure why it’s an odds-on favorite, other than to honor an obvious US sports megastar (well, duh!). Sure, the film is poetic but, in grayish watercolor type drawings, hardly the most inventive, let alone interesting, animation, on offer this year …... That would be the next film, Garden Party, from France (helmed by Florian Babiklan) closing in on seven minutes, though it seems delightfully longer, and which has already won almost 25 awards at various film festivals. In the film, frogs have taken over a sumptuous mansion and are having a grand old time, tumbling into a jar of macaroons or hoping on to the controls of a hi-tech entertainment system, blasting sound throughout. But the mansion is abandoned, its interior disheveled as if after a week-long debauchery…or something else. We finally find out what it is in the final scene, which is a grand play on an underworld crime stereotype. This film deserves to win because of its sheer juxtaposition of lovable amphibians against malevolent squalor. ….. Lou (David Mullins, United States, 7 mins), by a veteran Pixar animator, serves up an inventive story about a kind of ghost – Lou – who hangs out in a school yard lost and found box, and is really the kids’ best friend against the, well, school yard bully. Cute, enjoyable, but not the strongest flic in the roster…… Negative Space (Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata, France, 6 minutes) takes a peculiar obsession and builds a whole story around it. Yes, you all know of the experts who tell of the most efficient ways to pack your travel bags (roll those socks up!). In this film, the directors have fun with the concept to the nth degree. Sure, this short puts a smile on your face. But an award for such a trivial subject? ..... Revolting Rhymes (Jakob Schuh & Jan Lachauer, UK) is the lengthiest of the nominations at 29 minutes, basing its intertwining fairy tales on the spins that diabolical children’s author Roald Dahl had given them. This flic is certainly well made in its multidimensionality, with plenty of whim and chuckles as fairy tale characters come to bizarre and unseemly life. But it’s length is also its undoing – there’s just too much to chew on to maintain impact.

(Oscar nominations for Animation short films will again be screened this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Oscar Live Action: whimsy over message, please

This year’s offering of Oscar Short Live Action films suffers from one big word: four of the five are MESSAGE films. Whatever happened to comedy, whimsy or indeed straight narrative about someone or something, without the drift into moral statement? Methinks the crop of young filmmakers has grown up believing the only way to make films is with a message. Of course, I imagine few people (necessarily) dislike messages, but after a while, like anything else, the brain tunes out. Moreover, this year’s crop of films has messages with an obvious down or depressing quality.…. After the terrible Parkland Fla. school shooting last week one wonders if the first of these films, Reed Van Dyk’s Dekalb Elementary’s (USA, 20 mins), chances of winning will rise. The film is based on a true incident that took place in Atlanta. A youth with mental issues walks into the school carrying an assault rifle. The school secretary tries to calm him. No bullets are fired inside the school, but a few shots are directed at police. Yet there are a couple of scenes that don’t seem believable – when he leaves the office and the secretary doesn’t run for help, and the length of time it takes for police to reach the office after the attacker given up…….Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett (USA, 20 mins), tells the story of the well-known 1950s death of Emmett Till, the Chicago teen who is visiting his family in the South, flirts with a white woman, and pays the consequences by being murdered. The acting is good with slowly and subtly rising drama. The film also tells the “inside” story from Till’s family’s perspective. But this is a message movie in a year when the genre is overdone……The Eleven O’clock (Derin Seale, Australia, 13 mins, pictured) is my choice for Oscar. Why? Because it departs so refreshingly from the other entries. It’s not just a comedy but, in the best shorts tradition, deftly constructs a mind-bending plot twist that will make you rethink your previous judgements…..The Silent Child (Chris Overton, UK, 20 mins) is a very well-acted film that, while carrying a message, is heartfelt and broaches a subject that receives not enough attention – deaf children and how they should be properly educated, apparently as overwhelming form of neglect. Rachel Shenton, who wrote the screen play, is especially good as a caring but astute social worker……Finally, Watu Wote/All of Us (Katja Benrath, Germany & Kenya, 23 mins), is the most on-the-edge-of-your-seat drama of all the films. It depicts an almost day long bus ride through some of Kenya’s most remote and terrorist-infested areas. The story culminates in an event after which one of the passengers, skeptical of another religion, is protected by those religion’s adherents. Despite the film’s obvious acting and directing merits, the message is ultimately predictable.

(Oscar nominations for Short Live Action films will again be screened this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.)

Friday, February 16, 2018

Now there's scientific proof

With the Detroit Pistons recently acquiring NBA all-star Blake Griffin, that might be reason alone to see another side of the Slam Dunk Champion’s skills – comedy acting. Because Griffin happens to star in The Female Brain (opening today at the AMC Star Southfield 20), a satirical look at, yes, male-female relationships, but from an utterly different point of view. Don’t be put off by the early didactic tones of our neurological professor (the versatile director Whitney Cummings, co-creator of 2 Broke Girls), who explains that centuries of study provide scientific clues as to why women and men act the way they do. When one of those “ah ha” moments in the interactions of the three couples portrayed in the film rear its head (women are “neurotic”, “seek consensus” or lack “spatial orientation”, or he’s a “cave man”, controlling, etc.) the frame freezes and there’s an overlaid visual effect that accurately describes what the brain is responding to and brief scientific description of why she – or he – predictably acts the way they do, laughingly reduced to current slang. The film is based on the book by Louann Brizendine. The film's three couples are composed of characters you may know from TV and film including Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Beanie Feldstein (Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird) and Cecila Strong (SNL). Marlo Thomas also has a small role. And, of course, our NBA and Pistons champ, if he can only bring the team alive! They all have problems or issues and, yes, the female-male dynamic raises its head throughout, mostly in humorous ways. Griffin’s Greg must assert his domestic manliness as a bumbling do-it-yourselfer. Vergara’s Lisa can’t figure out why there’s not much emotional, let alone sexual, response, in her marriage. The film might be criticized for playing, ironically, on stereotypes, though the filmmakers would argue they’re all scientifically-based. But there are twists. James Marsden’s Adam hates the way GF Lexi (Lucy Punch) is trying to change him. And, delicious irony of all, Toby Kebbell’s Kevin wants to go slow with the straight-laced professor and part-narrator Julia (Cummings), a ball of scientific and feminist contradictions.