Movie Review ~ The 2014 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary


Oscar Nominated Short Films…anyone that has ever done an office Oscar pool is familiar with these categories.  These are the nominees with names of films you’ve never heard of and if you’re like me you usually pick the one that sounds the most Oscar-y or the one with the craziest title.  For the past few years, the Academy has been packaging these films and presenting them in theaters or for download online to give audiences a chance to see these and maybe make more than a blind guess.

Below are my mini reviews of the five documentary short film nominees for 2014.

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
A documentary that looks at the life of the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life may have a fascinating central character but sadly lacks the kind of narrative tenacity that her journey warrants.  109 year old Alice Herz Sommer’s (who passed away just a few weeks ago) survival tale may be extraordinary and inspiring but this documentary is not.  I was never quite sure what director Malcolm Clarke was going for because in 40 rather long minutes the focus shifts several times.  Adding in several other subjects with characters of their own makes it feel like Clarke either didn’t have enough material in Herz Sommer (highly unlikely) or just couldn’t settle on a point of view.  Though it may win points for sentimentality thanks to Herz Sommer’s genuine lust for life, the sum of its parts isn’t enough to make the kind of lasting impression intended.

Karama Has No Walls
Featuring first hand video of the 2011 uprising in Yemen, Karama Has No Walls feels more assembled than researched.  Though the video from two brave souls puts the audience front and center in a graphic, bloody war zone there never came a time when I felt a connection to the subject or understood the trajectory of what led to the senseless attacks on a mostly peaceful protest.  For the last decade there have been countless documentaries on the atrocities of war that have been selected for Oscar nomination by The Academy and at this point they are wearing a bit thin.  I look for documentaries that educate/illuminate and I’ll admit that war documentaries face an uphill battle with me.

Facing Fear
The weakest of the lot, Facing Fear comes across like a segment from a network news show like 48 Hours or Dateline.  When a former neo-Nazi meets a victim of one of his hate crimes merely by chance, the two have the opportunity to explore what brought them to this point in their lives.  Now, I don’t deny that there isn’t some meat to this story and perhaps in better hands it could have worked out to be an interesting exploration on the power of forgiveness.  The problem is that the two men aren’t good subjects, with interview segments that seem overly rehearsed it winds up robbing the audience of feeling the one emotion that documentaries should never shy away from: honesty.

If I had to select my favorite entry of the five nominees it would be CaveDigger which follows eccentric artist Ra Paulette as he carves out extraordinary designs in the sandstone caves of New Mexico.  Director Jeffrey Karoff wisely lets Paulette drive the narrative without much intrusion so we feel like we’re getting an unfiltered look at his art and what compels him to keep pushing his projects further and further.  Interviews with Paulette’s friends and exasperated clients are humorous, revealing people that have a high opinion of his creativity even though they recognize there is a little bit of madness in the man.  However, it’s in sequences involving Paulette and his wife in their humble home that gives you a glimpse of what life is like at the end of the day for a passionate artist.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
In 2013 Showtime rolled out an extraordinary series called Time of Death.  Though the limited series mainly followed the final months of a terminally ill mother of three, each episode also looked at the last days of a variety of others.  Watching Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall I couldn’t help but wonder if this would have fit in Time of Death better than standing on its own.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the film ends with Hall’s death but how we get there is a moving and mostly interesting look at a prison system that has made a space for convicts to receive hospice care from other prisoners and hospital staff.  Jack Hall isn’t the most sympathetic of subjects, which only serves to make the gentle care he receives from the convicted killers serving as hospice workers all the more impactful.

The Silver Bullet ~ “Queen of Versailles” Trailer

Synopsis:  A documentary that follows a billionaire couple who live in a 90,000-square-foot mansion inspired by Versailles, built on the success of the time-share industry.

Release Date:  July 20, 2012

Thoughts:   A good documentary on greed is appreciated by this reviewer and Queen of Versailles seems to fit the bill.  Then again, I’m also one of those people that watch too many Real Housewives and similar programs on people living the gold leaf and marble lives.  I’m more interested in seeing how this family parlayed a time share business into such a huge money maker than in how many rooms their mansion has.  Still…can you imagine how much money the upkeep on this place is?

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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.