Movie Review ~ The 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT

Edith + Eddie (Dir. by Laura Checkoway & Thomas Lee Wrights, USA, 29 mins.)
Synopsis: Edith and Eddie, ages 96 and 95, are America’s oldest interracial newlyweds. Their love story is disrupted by a family feud that threatens to tear the couple apart.
Review: Watching the credits of Edith + Eddie you’re going to see a name listed as executive producer that may surprise you: Cher. Yep, the famous singer attached herself to this documentary after becoming personally involved in the story of an elderly couple that found eachother late in life and became unfortunate pawns at the center of a family dispute. There’s a frustrating sense of injustice permeating the proceedings and it becomes difficult to watch, especially in its final act. I wish there was more focus on the couple in their daily lives leading up to the event which changed their lives forever, too often situations are glossed over without much explanation. Still, the unconditional devotion shown by the two is the stuff of a sweet love story…even though the last chapter may not be what either expected.
Wanting to watch Edith + Eddie? You can check it out right here:

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Dir. by Frank Stiefel, USA, 40 mins.)
Synopsis: Mindy Alper is a tortured and brilliant 56-year-old artist who is represented by one of Los Angeles’ top galleries. Acute anxiety, mental disorder and devastating depression have caused her to be committed to mental institutions undergo electro shock therapy and survive a 10-year period without the ability to speak. Her hyper self-awareness has allowed her to produce a lifelong body of work that expresses her emotional state with powerful psychological precision.
Review: By far the most emotionally satisfying documentary short nominated this year, Heaven in a Traffic Jam on the 405 introduces audiences to Mindy Alper, a genius artist struggling with mental illness. Hearing from Alper herself and often illustrated by her own detailed pieces, there’s a ring of authenticity here that makes it almost immediately unforgettable. Suffering brain damage after a round of electro convulsive therapy, Alper’s speech is simple and often broken into individual syllables (instead of saying four-oh-five she says four-circle-five, instead of saying SQUEE-ze, she says SUH-QUIZE). Other people in Alper’s life are featured but the camera is almost squarely on Alper as she opens up about her life and lets us into her process as she readies a gallery display of her work. I was truly knocked out by this one, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Wanting to watch Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405? You can check it out right here:

Heroin(e) (Dir. by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, USA, 39 mins., Not Rated)
Synopsis: Once a bustling industrial town, Huntington, West Virginia has become the epicenter of America’s modern opioid epidemic, with an overdose rate 10 times the national average. This flood of heroin now threatens this Appalachian city with a cycle of generational addiction, lawlessness, and poverty. But within this distressed landscape, Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon shows a different side of the fight against drugs; one of hope.
Review: Huntington, West Virginia has a huge problem and it’s only getting worse. The town with the most overdoses in America, there’s no plateau in sight for the drug epidemic that has infested the blue collar town. Following three women (a deputy fire chief, a drug court judge, and a missionary that drives around at night distributing meals to prostitutes), this impressively absorbing documentary feels far too short for the magnitude of the story it’s trying to tell. I would have watched this for another three hours if I could have. I’d seen Heron(e) in my Netflix queue for a while but held back watching it because I had an inkling it would find its way an Oscar nomination. Now I’m glad I’m able to have easy access to watch it again. Here’s hoping the filmmakers revisit Huntington sometime in the near future and the brave women and men who are trying to figure out a solution for its continuing drug infestation.
Wanting to watch Heroin(e)? It’s available via Netflix streaming

Knife Skills (Dir. by Thomas Lennon, USA, 40 mins.)
Synopsis: What does it take to build a world-class French restaurant? What if the staff is almost entirely men and women just out of prison? What if most have never cooked or served before, and have barely two months to learn their trade? We follow the hectic launch of Edwins restaurant in Cleveland.
Review: This was the final film on the roster in the Documentary Shorts program and it leaves audiences with a pleasant, if slightly bitter, taste in their mouth.  Going behind the scenes at the launch of Edwins in Cleveland, Knife Skills gives you small bites into the lives of its staff, comprised almost entirely of convicted criminals. An initiative led by Brandon Edwin Chrostowski invited over 80 men and women who had served jail time to learn a trade, be it hosting or serving in the front of house, curating the wine and cheese for the restaurant, or acquiring cooking skills from a master chef in the kitchen. In his youth, Chrostowski also had his own troubles with the law and he is now a tough leader, foul-mouthed and hot tempered…but his passion for the restaurant and empathy for his staff comes through clearly. While we get to know select members of the staff and chart their journey, the film feels a bit too fragmented and the timeline isn’t always clear. This is one of the few films on the roster I would have preferred to be longer, filling in some important gaps that left me hungry for more.
Wanting to watch Knife Skills? You can check it out right here:

Traffic Stop (Dir. by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, USA, 30 mins.)
Synopsis: Traffic Stop tells the story of Breaion King, a 26-year-old African-American school teacher from Austin, Texas, who was stopped for a routine traffic violation that escalated into a dramatic arrest.
Review: Released as a part of HBO’s series of documentaries in 2017, Traffic Stop is another film about injustice designed to make your blood boil. And watching the dash-cam footage of a young black school teacher pulled over for a speeding ticket that led to a violent confrontation will definitely have you wincing in horror. I just wish the film had dug a bit deeper into the system that failed this bright woman instead of focusing so much on illustrating what kind of person she is. In scenes showing her feeling free in her body in a dance class and serving as a mentor to eight children in her classroom, the message that she was wronged is drilled home over and over. The problem is that we already can clearly see this from the get-go. We already like her, we already are on her side. Not shining a light (even a small one) on a dark failure in law enforcement feels like a missed opportunity and leaves the film feeling half-finished.
Wanting to watch Traffic Stop? Check out HBO for more details.

Final Thoughts: I can’t remember the last time all five documentary short nominees were from the USA and this is a fairly strong year for this category. I’d put Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 heads and tails above the rest with Heroin(e) an impressive, but distant, second. Knife Skills is a thoughtful piece that could have been served with a bigger helping of personality while Edith + Eddie felt a bit unfinished. Traffic Stop was my least favorite, only because it felt like an extended news piece instead of a deep dive documentary the subject deserved.

 

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