Movie Review – 2012 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts

While I would have also liked to have seen the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts and Live Action Shorts, I decided instead to focus on the Documentary Shorts.  I’m a huge documentary fan (any suggestions on your favorites?) and seem to gravitate toward these first if my Oscar viewing gets down to the wire.

Showing 4 of the 5 nominees (one wasn’t available due to licensing issues), this was 130 minutes of good viewing entertainment.  Some will be shown on HBO in March and April or you can see them all now OnDemand or via iTunes.

Here are my capsule reviews…in the order they were shown.

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Incident in New Baghdad

I must admit, I’ve about had all I can with movies/documentaries/news reports on the war in Iraq.  Yes, there are important stories to tell and we must never forget those that fought and are fighting for our country.  I just am finding the constant retelling of the same variation of story to be exhausting to watch.  Last year three of the five nominees were on the topic of the war and this year we only have one entry.

This is a story of a returning war vet with PTSD that is thrust back into his memories when a video is released via WikiLeaks that exposed an incident the army would have liked to keep under wraps.  Were the rules of engagement followed?  The film isn’t long enough to really dig deep into these issues and it wisely focuses on the man and not on uncovering new truths.  The shortest of the nominees, it was also the least memorable when all was said and done.

Saving Face

Soon to be broadcast on HBO, Saving Face tunes its lens on Pakistan and the women who have been horribly disfigured when acid has been thrown in their faces.  We follow two women as they recount how they came to be the victims of these deplorable crimes, the doctor who has come back to his hometown to help them, and the politicians that are fighting to pass a law ensuring that the persons responsible for these crimes are punished to the full extent of the law.

Far less gruesome than it sounds (the previous film, Incident in New Baghdad has some nearly gag inducing photos of carnage in war), the film is ultimately uplifting when focused on the courage and pride of these women.  The plastic surgeon storyline drops off for a bit but comes back in a big way by the end to cap off an inspiring journey.

The Tsunami and The Cherry Blossom

No big budgeted special effects summer blockbuster could ever duplicate the opening shot that stretches on in this nominee.  Helpless residents watch in horror as their town is literally washed away in front of their eyes by the massive waters raised by the 2011 hurricane and subsequent Tsunami that ravaged Japan’s coast. It’s a gut-wrenching few minutes watching houses, debris, and people being taken away in an instant.

The focus soon moves from destruction to rebirth of the town and rebirth of the cherry blossoms that play such an important role in Japanese culture.  Attempts to link the mythology of the popular blossom to the lives of the people affected by the disaster never feel forced or false. Told through the faces and voices of the Japanese people and fully subtitled, this doc felt the most well produced and complete.  A narrative is established that I responded to making the longest of the docs feel the shortest to me, there were great interviews and it was well made.

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement

The most light-hearted of the group of documentary shorts, though I’d bet that God Is the Bigger Elvis would have been equally as genial (the fifth nominee wasn’t shown due to licensing issues…it too is coming to HBO in April).  I enjoyed this short and sweet look at the life of Mr. Armstrong, a Birmingham barber that was a ‘foot soldier’ in the civil rights movement.  With the inauguration of our country’s first black president, Mr. Armstrong mediates on the changes he’s seen over the years.  His two boys were the first to be integrated in the Birmingham school district and he was a part of the Bloody Sunday march.

Through historical footage we get a brief history lesson of the times the town has seen.  While it could have been a bit more in depth with a goldmine topic and central character, it’s easy to see why this was a selection that made the short list of the Academy.

Down From the Shelf ~ In the Heat of the Night


The Facts:

Synopsis: An African American detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racist southern town.

Stars: Rod Steiger, Sidney Poitier, Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Beah Richards

Director: Norman Jewison

Rated: Approved (back  in the days before the rating system)

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The first movie I’m reviewing as part of my “What Movie Should Joe See?” poll where I put it to you, my readers, to tell me which movie I should be seeing.  I’m finding these movies from my list of films I’ve never seen or don’t remember seeing.  A multiple Oscar winner (Best Picture, Actor, Director to name a few), In the Heat of the Night was one of the movies I’d never gotten around to seeing, much to my chagrin.  To my great pleasure, I was totally knocked out by this picture which was very much ahead of its time. It’s the kind of movie you don’t want to start late at night because you’ll be up past your bedtime, fully involved with the characters and invested in the story.

Poitier and Steiger are perfectly cast and deliver well rounded performances in this murder mystery crime drama that pushes boundaries on the topic of race relations.  Steiger deservedly took home the Oscar for his role as a relatively new to town Sheriff that is still finding his way around the politics of town.  When a prominent local businessman is murdered, Poitier is the main suspect and jailed simply because of the color of his skin and being in the right place at the wrong time.  When its revealed that he’s a West Coast detective passing through town, Steiger is forced to confront his own prejudicial first judgments and Poitier must put aside his own personal beliefs to see eye to eye with Steiger.

When they are forced to work together by a plot device that actually works and feels honest, the two make for an unlikely pair of sleuths.  Poitier brings his detective eye to the investigation while Steiger brings his cool reserve and slowly begins to trust the man he originally threw behind bars.  This isn’t a film where everyone has a change of heart and sees the error in their ways and that’s why it holds up so well these many years later.   A bonus: the mystery to solve isn’t just a plot device used to shake a disapproving finger at racism – it’s actually a well constructed crime that I was genuinely interested in seeing a resolution to.

Along the road to discovering “who done it” the director Jewison gives us some classic moments that I rewound several times to watch over.  This is the film where Poitier delivers the classic line, “They call me MISTER Tibbs!”  and where he also delivers a well deserved slap to an unsuspecting character that I’m sure had audiences both shocked and cheering.

Opening and closing with Ray Charles singing the title song, this was one movie I was so glad I finally discovered.  Days later I found myself still remembering moments and characters  — wondering what ended up happening to them.  As much of a perfect slice of life film this was, Poitier reprised his role in two more features with Detective TIbbs, They Call Me Mister Tibbs and The Organization.  I have both of these sequels queued up, though I doubt they could live up to the knockout original.  If you were like me and hadn’t seen this, do yourself a favor and get to it!