Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

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BEST SHORT FILM, LIVE ACTION

Aya
I was lucky enough to be able to watch these selections from the comfort of my own living room and Aya was the short I saved for last…mostly because of its running time (40 minutes).  This Israeli film (though most of it is in English) wasn’t quite what I expected it to be…and that’s a good thing.  I had heard that the movie was ponderous and ultimately of little substance but I thought it was a sweet tale of a woman who is mistaken for the chauffeur of a man traveling to Jerusalem for a music competition.  I could easily see the film, with its meet cute set-up and splendid performances being the basis for a rom-com remake in the U.S.

Boogaloo and Graham
Many a feature length film started off as a short (Oscar nominee Whiplash is a great example) and I always like to ponder which of the five nominees has the best shot of making a case for an expansion.  While Aya may have some legs as a remake, I’d say that as-is Boogaloo and Graham is the one film that I’d want to see more of as long as it brings along the same cast and director.  It’s the 70s in Belfast and two brothers are given baby chicks to care for by their farmhand father.  The mother is incredulous that the fowl are lavished with care while the father is happy that is boys are showing responsibility.  Played against the backdrop of the Troubles, the film feels like a chapter from a larger biographical conception.  A lovely film.

Butter Lamp
After watching Butter Lamp I can tell why it was included in the short list of nominees this year…and it’s for the last shot of the film.  Now, I’m not going to spoil it for you but it pivots around a reveal that’s meant to make a statement but actually feels like a sullying of the unique moments that came before it.  A photographer takes pictures of an array of nomadic Tibetans against a cornucopia of surreal backdrops.  I haven’t done enough research on this one to know how many actual actors were used but at times it felt like I was back watching the Documentary Short nominees and I had to remind myself that this was the Live Action Shorts.

Parvaneh
An immigrant girl from Afghanistan is working in Switzerland to make money that she can send back home to help with her ailing father.  Hearing of a place called Western Union that can easily transfer money to her home, she travels to Zurich where she encounters the good and bad that the city has to offer.  Rising above its standard-fare premise, the short is a pleasant and well-acted glimpse into 24 hours in the life of our titular character.

The Phone Call
This UK entry has two familiar names in its credits.  Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) plays a timid mouse of a woman that works at a grief center hotline.  She takes a call from a man (Jim Broadbent, Paddington) in great pain and their 20 minute discussion is the basis for this saccharine nominee.  Hawkins conveys a great deal of nuance as she converses with the suicidal man – you can tell that she’s dealing with her own social problems – and I liked that there was an unspoken internal dilemma of trying to do her job and understanding that perhaps she should just wait with him until the pills he’s taken have their effect.  The film mucks it up with a finale that feels safe and too eager to please.  Pity.

Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

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BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
The first nominee shown sets the bar so high that all of the others are already behind the eight ball before they even begin.  Following the men and women that answer the calls 24 hours a day at the Veterans Crisis Line, Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s documentary is a powerful glimpse into a workplace that is high tension and high stakes.  We only hear the side of the conversations from the workers and it’s incredible how, not ever hearing the voice on the other side of the line, we are brought right along as the staff goes above and beyond to make sure a veteran (or family of a veteran) in crisis knows they aren’t alone.  It’s a film that could easily have been politicized but instead lets the subjects speak for themselves.

Joanna
At times during Joanna’s 40 minute running length I forgot I was watching a documentary on a dying mother’s long good-bye to family…most especially her son.  The disease is rarely spoken of, instead the focus is on the conversations and experiences mother and son have, not all of them pretty but all resoundingly honest.  The cinematography is unexpectedly gorgeous and the construction is as good as any major motion picture I saw in 2014…though I did have a problem with the parts of the editing which seemed to jump back and forth in time without explanation.  Still, I can imagine when the young boy grows into a man he’ll feel blessed to have this film as a remembrance of his mother.

Our Curse
After Joanna, Our Curse is the second Polish film nominated for the Best Documentary Short and is director Tomasz Sliwinski’s personal account of the struggles he and his wife encountered after the birth of their son.  Diagnosed with Ondine’s Curse, the young baby stops breathing when he’s asleep…meaning that he’ll likely be on a ventilator his entire life.  Filmed by the parents, we bear witness to achingly private musings between the two on their hopes and dreams for their child as well as a harrowing sequence where they have to replace a tube to help him breathe.  That Sliwinski’s film ends on an uplifting note is one of the biggest surprises to come out of this batch of nominees.

The Reaper
Oh boy was I nervous about this one before going in.  Reading that this doc followed the life of a slaughterhouse employee in Mexico I was white knuckling it praying that they didn’t show death in graphic detail.  While the film goes to great lengths to show every grimy nook and cranny of the slaughterhouse, the actual shots of animals being slaughtered is brief and handled with respect.  While the film is made well, overall I was left cold by the subject.  A man of few words, his musings didn’t leave a lasting impression on me…it’s only when we see him at the end of the day that I felt any sort of connection between him and the material.

White Earth
The most puzzling inclusion (after The Reaper) is this documentary following families that relocate to the frozen tundra of North Dakota to work on the oil rigs.  It’s not about the men and women that toil away but the families (especially the children) that have to find their own path in a new environment.  The problem I had with White Earth was that it felt parsed down from a longer piece and I found myself missing the bigger picture details that seemingly were there but removed.  As it is, the stories and profiles offered are glorified nibbles of what could be a larger bite.

Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

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BEST SHORT FILM, ANIMATED

Feast
I first saw this short before Disney’s Big Hero 6 and was struck by how much it seemed to be Disney’s animated answer to Boyhood.  Following a dog from his days as a puppy relishing in the single life with his bachelor owner through marriages and children, there’s also an element of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree involved here as well.  The animation is swell (even if the 3D wasn’t working the first time I screened it and I ended up with a set of crossed-eyes) and who can resist an animated puppy?

The Dam Keeper
For my money, this is the short that felt the most complete to me and was delivered with the most heart.  Former PIXAR designers Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi helmed this tale of a pig that lives and works in a windmill that keeps a local town from the brink of darkness held back by a damn.  All alone in the world, the pig carries on the work of his family during the night but also has to go to school during the day.  With his smudged face and dirty clothes, he’s bullied and teased…until a new friend appears and offers him happiness like he’s never known.  With animation that looks like an oil painting, The Dam Keeper has beautiful images to go with a touching tale.

Me and My Moulton
Based on director Torill Kove’s life as a girl growing up in Norway, Me and My Moulton is an often humorous but ever so pedestrian take on the biographical narrative.  With animation that feels straight out of educational cartoons from the 80s, there’s a feeling that the short has sprung to life from the doodles the young girl made in a sketch pad – which serves the story well but didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  It’s fine…simple but fine.

A Single Life
The shortest of all nominees this year, A Single Life is a clever little morsel focused on time-travel at the hands of a mysterious record.  It’s fast and funny but lacking in the kind of overall substance that voters would look for in rewarding the creators.  Actually, it would be better off as an ad that played before a YouTube video…because it comes on so strong that you’d think twice before clicking “Skip Ad” to get to your clip of Ellen Degeneres scaring her audience with the help of Justin Bieber.

The Bigger Picture
With its blending of animation and still life scenes, The Bigger Picture may be the most innovative of the five nominees but it was also the only one that had me checking my watch to see how much of it was left.  The story of two brothers caring for their elderly mother (one’s devoted, one’s careless), it’s a chilly little film from the UK that’s notable for what director Daisy Jacobs was able to accomplish but rather dull when compared to its fellow nominees.

Movie Review ~ Nightcrawler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lou Bloom, a driven man desperate for work, muscles into the world of L.A. crime journalism, he blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story. Aiding him in his effort is Nina, a TV-news veteran.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmad

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The best horror film of 2014 wasn’t even marketed as a horror film at all…it’s this nail-biter of a tale from writer Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) who also makes his feature film directing debut.

Over the past decade I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal, turning up my nose at his more straight-forward/commercial fare (Love and Other Drugs) and having my socks knocked off at this recent penchant for flawed anti-heroes (End of Watch, Prisoners). With the arrival of Nightcrawler my cinematic romance with the star is in full bloom.

Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a nobody that happens upon a way to become a real somebody…at the high cost of life and livelihood of others that have the misfortune of being in his dangerous hemisphere.  Taking place in the seedy world of crime journalists/photographers, Nightcrawler documents how ever-the-opportunist Bloom moves quickly up the ranks from slimy outside observer of the crimes and accidents occurring in Los Angeles to orchestrator of the right angles that will help him advance his star and bank account.

He’s aided and abetted by hungry news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, Thor, also Gilroy’s spouse) who is also fighting to keep her head above the ever rising waters of crowded newsroom politics.  In many ways, Lou and Nina are the  perfect pair…he supplies what she needs to maintain her station while her willingness to buy what he’s selling only helps to encourage Lou to brush off any moral dilemmas the sleazy work could present.

What I’ve come to appreciate about Gyllenhaal’s movie choices is his willingness to take a character, craft a backstory, and then not let anyone else in to this knowledge he has.  Like his haunted detective in Prisoners, Gyllenhaal makes Bloom a fractured loner.  We don’t know where this guy came from or what troubles he’s had so far in life…making him all the more dangerous because we have no idea of what he stands to lose as he falls deeper and deeper under fame’s spell.

Equally outstanding is Russo in the best role she’s ever been given…no surprise that her husband wrote it specifically for her.  A female news director in a largely male climate, she’s desperate to hold on to her role and is willing to overlook some clear indicators that Bloom is off his rocker and may in fact be creating some of the crimes he’s delivering to her as news pieces.

In supporting roles, Bill Paxton (Million Dollar Arm) plays an old dog of a crime journalist that Lou first comes to for advice and Riz Ahmad (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) makes a strong showing as Lou’s dimbulb assistant.  Both men underestimate the length to which Lou will go to lock down his place in the food chain and Gilroy’s Oscar nominated script cleverly works out a doozy of a finale that is as frighteningly perfect as it is maddening.

Nightcrawler was an unexpected treat for me, I hadn’t planned on it being so skillfully constructed or so breathlessly paced.  It truly is a horror film masquerading as a psychological drama and one that should have gotten more love from The Academy when the nominations were announced.  Maybe it wouldn’t quite have made the cut for Best Picture but recognizing the work of Gyllenhaal or Russo would have been absolutely justified.

Movie Review ~ Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Sandra, a young Belgian mother, discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus, in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job.

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione

Director: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The morning that the Oscar nominations were announced, between the throngs of people crying their eyes out over The LEGO Movie being subbed for Best Animated Feature and conspiracy theorists writing manifestos over Selma’s exclusion in several key categories there was a small din over Marion Cotillard scoring her second Oscar nomination for this French language film that hardly anyone had seen.  Going into the day, the wise money was on Jennifer Aniston’s worthy turn in Cake to wind up as one of the four women that will lose to Julianne Moore come Oscar night but it just wasn’t Aniston’s year to be called up.

While Two Days, One Night may appear on the surface to be a rather mundane slice of life piece following a central character over a weekend of broken pride and humility, it’s Cotillard’s performance that adds tremendous weight to an otherwise ho-hum viewing experience.

Sandra (Cotillard, The Dark Knight Rises) is a wife and mother coming back from a leave of absence at her blue collar job.  Though it’s never clearly stated, depression or another mental illness has sidelined Sandra and right as she’s coming back to work she’s dealt a terrible blow – her employer has given the other members of the workforce a choice: take a pay bonus and Sandra loses her job, or allow Sandra to come back and forfeit the extra money.  While this offer sets off so many moral/ethical red flags in the eyes of the viewer, writer/directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne’s screenplay interestingly stays away from asking that outright question to the employer himself.

What we have here is a film that has Cotillard going from co-worker to co-worker reciting nearly the same plea to each one of her colleagues…some who are receptive and some who have already spent the money in their heads and can’t fathom turning that kind of money down.  Cotillard’s character, already in a fragile emotional state, has to endure not only gobbling down numerous slices of humble pie but has to appear sympathetic to the rationales of her workmates as to why they won’t vote to keep her.

As has been the case for most of her screen performances (including her devastating Oscar winning turn in La Vie En Rose), Cotillard delivers an unfussy yet deeply complicated character.  We don’t necessarily root for Sandra but I found myself waiting for the moment when she breaks apart and loses it on certain individuals who would fancy a new patio instead of letting her keep her job.

In a rather simple conclusion there’s a bevy of complexities, yet it’s a film that leaves you with most questions answered. Is her performance worthy to stand alongside her fellow Oscar nominees?  I’d say yes, there’s a lot of work going on here and Cotillard is able to let a wellspring of emotion rumble under the surface in ways few can.

 

Movie Review ~ Ida

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Anna, a young novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, is on the verge of taking her vows when she discovers a dark family secret dating back to the years of the Nazi occupation

Stars: Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza, Dawid Ogrodnik

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  At just 82 minutes, Ida is jam-packed with the kinds of images and ideas that many films twice its length and triple its budget could only hope to accomplish.  The Oscar nominated film from Poland is the gentlest of tales, even when it finds itself dealing with horrific situations indicative of the time and place where the action unfolds.

Young novice nun Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is getting ready to take her vows at the small convent in the outskirts of the Polish People’s Republic when her mother superior urges her to make a visit to her aunt before fully committing herself to the church.  Traveling to the city, she meets the aunt that is a stern judge by day and a haunted, promiscuous, addict by night.  Seeing Anna reignites decades of pain in the judge and the two travel together back to the place of Anna’s birth…and back in time to reveal key mysteries that will change the lives of both forever.

I’ll let you figure out what secrets are brought to light because to spoil these intricate developments would be to rob you of the opportunity to experience the film with as little knowledge as possible.  I went in with only that broad framework and my viewing was all the better for it.  Director Pawel Pawlikowski and his co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz have designed a road trip picture that seems to go back in time with each mile (kilometer, sorry) the two women travel.  There are moments of genuine surprise, with some critical developments that happen without any warning…making you give thanks for the rewind button on your streaming device.

Not only is Ida nominted (and favored to win) the Best Foreign Language Film award at The Academy Awards but it also snagged a nomination for Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s gorgeous black and white cinematography.  Even more impressive is that the camera never moves in any of the crisp shots…there’s no tracking shot as the characters walk down a street or a big sweeping rise of the camera to reveal the expanse of the area around them.  No, the camera is placed and the action happens…so we always feel like we’re on some bench watching the actors play in front of us.  It’s an unobtrusive approach that, paired with the colorless visuals, works to the great benefit of the film’s effect as a whole.