Friday, January 30, 2015

More Oscar-nominated Short Films: This time it's the five live-action narratives


As critic A.O. Scott points out in today's NY Times, the nominees for best short films -- animated, live action and documentary -- often avoid the more mainstream "Oscar bait" predilections of their longer-form brethren. So it is again this year. I covered the animated films yesterday; today it's the live-action narratives and tomorrow I'll hope to finished with the live-action documentaries. All three series are being shown theatrically around the country, beginning today, and you can find the theater closest to you by clicking here and following the instructions.


LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM NOMINEES 

AYA,  Directors: Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis 
Synopsis: A young woman waiting at an airport has an unexpected encounter with an arriving passenger.
Countries of origin: France, Israel;  40 minutes; Lang: English, Hebrew

An airport mix-up that jumps off from all those times you've seen people holding up a sign at the arrival gate that reads, Mr. ______, waiting for folk they don't know, Aya combines coincidence with a sudden deliberate action by our title character that results in a lengthy getting-to-know-you conversation in an automobile. Splendidly acted by Israeli Sarah Adler and Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, and equally well written and directed, this is a stunning little film about connection and roads taken or not. (Among its odd joys is probably the first piano concerto played on a woman's hand and thigh.)


BOOGALOO AND GRAHAM  
Directors: Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
Synopsis: Jamesy and Malachy are presented with two baby chicks to raise by their soft-hearted father. Country of origin: UK; 14 minutes, Language: English

A dip into the past and charm galore is provided by this short that takes place in Belfast, 1978, but instead of tackling the Brits vs the IRA, the movie uses that as a mere backdrop to a story of a kindly dad and the little chicks he gives his two sons. Think of this one as a kind of coming-of-age tale featuring poultry protagonists.


BUTTER LAMP (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak) 
Directors: Hu Wei and Julien Féret
Synopsis: A photographer and his assistant photograph the inhabitants of a remote Tibetan village.
Countries of origin: France, China; 16 minutes; Language: Tibetan

Probably designed to make us forget about China's disgusting incursion into and take-over of Tibet, this odd and funny little film nonetheless works its wonders, as we see a photographer and assistant take various kinds of family photos by changing the backdrop. In the process all kinds of cultural mores surface, while the finale provides a fabulously funny and silent visual joke.


PARVANEH 
Directors: Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger 
Synopsis: An Afghan teenager living in a refugee center in Switzerland encounters difficulties wiring money to her family and asks a young Swiss woman for help.
Country of origin: Switzerland; 25 minutes; Language: German

Immigration is as hot-button an issue in Switzerland as anywhere else, so this little short is a welcome reminder of both that subject and also the ever-present one of feminism. A young Afghan, not quite old enough to have a legal ID must get help in order to send off the money she earns to her family. How she does this proves an eye-opening, surprising, and of course moving fable of sisterhood.


THE PHONE CALL 
Directors: Mat Kirkby and James Lucas
Synopsis: A woman working for a crisis center phone line receives a call from a suicidal older man.
Country of origin: UK; 21 minutes; Language: English

The documentary short section, to be covered tomorrow, offers a look a crisis call center for possible suicides, U.S.-veteran variety. This narrative film does something similar -- in a very small British crisis center. But with Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent and Edward Hogg in the lead roles, along with a fine script that mixes reality with a final bit of fantasy (or perhaps just drug-induced imagination), this little movie proves exceptionally moving and real. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Short Film Oscar Nominees, 2015: The five animated short films open theatrically tomorrow


It's always a treat to see the short films -- animated, live-action narrative and live-action documentary -- that have garnered Oscar nominations, and this year is no different. Featuring the best in short films from around the world, these three programs offer a quality level that is almost always top-notch. For the past decade, these shorts have been receiving a theatrical release prior to the Oscars ceremony, and this year they open tomorrow, January 30, in theaters across the country (click here to see the complete list of cities and theaters).

Below are the five nominees for the short animated film award, with their statistics and content information followed by TrustMovies' brief opinion in italics. I'll finish watching the complete three series soon, and my take on the other two -- live action narrative and documentary shorts -- will quickly follow.



A SINGLE LIFE,   The Netherlands / 2 mins.  
Production: Job, Joris & Marieke 
When playing a mysterious vinyl single, Pia is suddenly able to travel through her life.

Brevity is not just the soul of wit; here it's the soul of animation, too. In just a couple of minutes, this Dutch wonder packs in an entire life and a ton of humor -- even if it is a bit dark. A Single Life is a sensational treat: fast, funny and amazing. That it is so brief, as well, just makes it all the more wonderful.


FEAST,  USA / 6 mins.  
Director: Patrick Osborne;  Producer: Kristina Reed 
A new short from first-time director Patrick Osborne (Head of Animation, “PAPERMAN”) and Walt Disney Animation Studios, Feast is the story of one man’s love life as seen through the eyes of his best friend and dog, Winston, and revealed bite by bite through the meals they share.

Disney's latest tackles the eating habits of a new puppy in a manner that is by now standard for this acclaimed studio. In other words it's a sentimental delight -- full of the usual anthropomorphization of animals, some first-rate animation, a ton of charm and, yes, just a little predictability, too.


ME AND MY MOULTON,  Canada & Norway / 14 mins.  
Director: Torill Kove;  Producers: Lise Fearnley, Marcy Page;  
Production: Mikrofilm AS, in co-production with 
the National Film Board of Canada
One summer in mid-’60s Norway, a seven-year-old girl asks her parents if she and her sisters can have a bicycle. Me and My Moulton provides a glimpse of its young protagonist’s thoughts as she struggles with her sense that her family is a little out of sync with what she perceives as “normal”.

Normality, and the need for this among children, is front and center in this Norwegian/Canadian co-production. Narrated by a "middle child," the short is full of envy and "otherness" and is probably the deepest of all the films, if not the lengthiest. It's bright and smart and funny, as it takes us to a place that most of us have been -- but probably not in such an intelligent and clever fashion.  


THE BIGGER PICTURE,  UK / 7 mins. 
Director: Daisy Jacobs;  Producer: Christopher Hees
'You want to put her in a home; you tell her. Tell her now!' hisses one brother to the other. But Mother won't go, and their own lives unravel as she clings on. Innovative life-size animated characters tell the stark and darkly humorous tale of caring for an elderly parent.

The darkest of the animated shorts, The Bigger Picture also offers the most innovative blend of animation, as well as the angriest of protagonists. These brothers have (and want to continue) their own lives despite their mother's progress toward dementia and death. It's all told with black humor, anger, and not a little sadness. Excellent.


THE DAM KEEPER,  USA / 18 mins.  
Directors: Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi;  
Production: Tonko House
Telling the tale of a young pig encumbered with an important job, and the meeting of a new classmate who changes everything, The Dam Keeper is a first-time collaboration between some of the most talented artists in animation and made its world premiere as an official selection at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival and is slated to make its US premiere at The New York International Children's Film Festival this spring. Made up of over 8,000 paintings, the film blends traditional hand-drawn animation with lush brush strokes. Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen of television's Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and BBC's Sherlock, narrates.

The most painterly of all the shorts film, this little gem stars a pig as its somewhat compromised hero, with a menagerie of other animals in the supporting roles. The theme here is -- among other things -- bullying, and how the filmmakers combine this with their tale of an unexpected friendship leads to something quite different. As lovely as the film is, an ineffable sadness seems to hang over it. Expect to talk to your children for awhile, post viewing.  

Because the program of these five nominated films is so short (around 48 minutes), I believe that the program will include a few other of the shortlisted shorts, bring the total running time to around 75 minutes. In any case, I've seen the other shorts, and while they, too, are good, I think the Academy, in this case, chose wisely regarding these five nominees.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Autism Media Channel's WHO KILLED ALEX SPOURDALAKIS? raises some ugly questions


Having now seen a number of documentaries dealing with autism and its discontents, TrustMovies can vouch that the new one titled WHO KILLED ALEX SPOURDALAKIS? is one of the most disturbing of all. A horror story about the kind of medical care dished out by major hospitals and their doctors to patients afflicted with a disease like autism, the movie is less a mystery -- we know from the start who killed the boy in question: his mother (shown below) and his godmother -- than a history, both narrative and visual, of what led up to this murder.

The movie has made that point -- about ignorance and indifference in our medical establishment -- so quietly and effectively that it does not need its ram-the-point-down-our-throats finale. This is unfortunate because the movie will have by that time convinced most of its audience, so going over the top may well undo the good already accomplished. This aside, Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? is a remarkable document about the lengths a loving mother and godmother will go to save their son (below is the photo of the two at the time of their arrest), and the stupidity of some -- not all -- of the doctors supposedly helping the boy.

Early on, after the onset of autism was diagnosed, Alex's mom placed him on a recommended diet that helped his symptoms enormously. (We've seen this same treatment shown in other documentaries, as well.) Why Alex was ever taken off that diet is not explained to a good enough degree, but once the symptoms began again, there would seem to be no excuse for not putting the boy back on the healthier regimen.

Alex's allergic reactions and inability to handle many of the drugs given him would underscore once again our over-reliance on drug use. In Alex's case, the film soon becomes the anti-prescription-drug movie of all time. Much of the science shown us here is fascinating, as is the degree of connection between autisim and intestinal damage.

The movie points a justified finger in the director of a certain Dr. Berman, chief of Loyola Hospital's pediatric gastroenterology -- who stupidly and heartlessly put psychiatry above the management of Alex's physical pain. When at last, we see a doctor who does the right thing -- and view the results of this -- it's a wonderful respite from the continuing hell-on-earth that Alex and his two moms have suffered.

Other than Alex's mom and godmother, there are other heroes in the movie, too: an autism advocate (above) who come to the defense of the threesome, and doctors (below) who actually know what they are doing and care enough to consequently do the right thing for the boy.

Unfortunately, by the time we reach the end of the story, Alex's mom has grown so weakened in mind and spirit that she appears to be unable to any longer make intelligent decisions. (The doctor she agrees to go with toward the end is clearly the wrong one.) But after seeing what the woman and her son have been through, I doubt you will believe that you could have done much better by the boy.

Who Killed Alex Spourdalakis? -- from disinformation, running only a bit over one hour, and packed with anger-making information and history -- is now available on DVD and VOD. Click here to learn how you can obtain the DVD. For VOD, consult your local cable provider.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

GIRLHOOD: Céline Sciamma's splendid look at a French girl at an important crossroad in her life


By this time we expect very good things from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma: the good Water Lilies, the better Tomboy, and now her best, GIRLHOOD (Bande de filles). This latest tale -- of a high-school beauty named Marieme (who will soon enough be going by the alias of Vic, for victory) and her family and friends -- is filled with life, surprise and the kind of on-screen reality that is difficult to fake. This comes, I think, from a genuine and deep understanding of its protagonists. From first frame to last, the movie barrels ahead and takes you with it.

Ms Sciamma, shown at right, is simply terrific at capturing the moment without making it seem overly fraught. Time and again her usual cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, catches those on-the-fly happenings that count for something at the time and in retrospect keep us thoughtfully musing, while her editor Julien Lacheray pieces it all together for maximum effect and enjoyment. It is as writer and director, however, that the filmmaker really shines. Her conception-- noticeably lacking in either sentimentality or gloss -- is nothing less that bringing to us the life of her heroine in such real and complete form -- good, bad and most often in between -- that we can only follow along and finally marvel at how complete the movie seems, even as it leaves us and Marieme up in the air -- but aware!

The filmmaker has found one of the most beautiful, alive and glowing young performers I have seen in a long while to play her lead. Karidja Touré (above and below) is a real "find," someone whom we will surely see again and again -- unless this young woman opts for some other career and life. Ms Touré, working from Sciamma's script, is able to let us enter her character so fully that we understand her thought processes, her needs and desires, her joys and disappointments.

The film opens with a football game, the likes of which you have probably never witnessed, and then moves to a family scene that ends with a nasty thwack! When, soon enough, our heroine learns that she cannot progress to the kind of schooling she wants, a "girl group" beckons, and almost on a dare, she joins it. These girls are sassy and then some, and Marieme must prove her bona fides to fit in.

Yet as we more fully understand these other girls, they too become rounded characters so that, though Marieme is always front and center, we know and care for all of them. The men and boys we meet are something else. Sciamma's interest lies more with the females, but she gives the males, at least partially, their due. Marieme's brother is a bully, but he is the man of the family and expects obeisance from his crew. Her boyfriend is kinder, gentler, though he, too, must somehow fit into the macho mold. The film's interesting sex scene objectifies the male for a change; later we see a little lesbianism sprouting from good, French immigrant soil.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is how Marieme herself learns the value of the use of force and what it can achieve within the society she must inhabit. But Sciamma also shows us the girl's need to both conquer and protect. And when, at last, she is faced with some important and meaningful choices, we can understand how she so easily feels that those choices are too limited. They may not be, after all, and to the film's great credit, Marieme and we begin finally to understand this.

As often as I poo-poo the idea of making yet another movie sequel, this film and its wonderful lead character almost demand one. I'd line up to see it, and I'll bet, after watching Girlhood, you would, too.

The movie -- from Strand Releasing, in French with English subtitles, and running 112 minutes, opens this Friday, January 30, in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. In the Los Angeles area, look for it at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena on February 6, and then elsewhere across the country in the weeks to come.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Here's an odd one, just making its DVDebut: PLATO'S REALITY MACHINE via Myles Sorensen


New filmmakers get points for simply trying something new, even if things don't pan out quite as well as they might have preferred. Or maybe, I should say, as some of us viewers might have preferred. First-time full-length filmmaker Myles Sorensen has his movie opening theatrically this week, and it's an interesting mix of animation (in the form of a video game), live-action narrative and occasional "interviews" with the characters we're watching. The film is titled PLATO'S REALITY MACHINE and although it doesn't quite work overall, it is certainly watchable and sometimes, thanks to the actors on view, even more than that.

What is actually going on in the movie is initially up for grabs, as we're thrust into some futuristic animation (shown below) in which our hero is given a task to perform, along with the order, Don't Trust Anyone. Mr. Sorensen (pictured at left), who wrote and directed the film, offers up a good rendition of a video game (via his animator James Martin), in which our hero joins up with a young woman he has just freed from prison in order to get the bad guys.

Later we see one of his half-dozen actors, the cute and talented Doug Roland, below, whom we just saw recently in Wet Behind the Ears, actually playing that video game. Those "interviews," in which the characters tell us something about themselves and their lives, alternate with scenes of hook-ups (or would-be hook-ups) in which our six lead characters (this is definitely an ensemble piece) attempt to form some sort of connection with the opposite sex.

This is not easy, given the kind of characters we have here. The men all seem to follow that initial Trust no one dictum, while the women are of the needy variety whose method is either to immediately embrace and capture her man via feminine wiles that include good sex and better cooking, or keep him forever off-balance and confused. Neither works very well.

So what we have here in a movie about male/female relationships and trust -- put together in a weird but not impossible-to-master puzzle. That the men have "trust" issues -- inspired no doubt by that video game, which like so many video games, has its share of misogyny -- is no surprise.

The manner in which the scenes alternate is interesting for awhile, but this would have been more so were the characters and situations better imagined and written. The acting is fine, but there is not enough ammunition given the actors for them -- or the movie -- to really score.

Also, that video game is simply abandoned around halfway along. It returns for a moment or two at the film's conclusion, as if to remind us that it was there earlier. The good cast also includes Carolina Bartczak, Trieste Kelly Dunn (above and below) and Heather Shisler in the leading female roles, and Ed Renninger (above, right) and Nathan Spiteri (below, right), along with the aforementioned Mr. Roland.

Plato's Reality Machine, running a relatively fast 79 minutes, opens this Friday exclusively in Los Angeles at the little Arena Cinema in Hollywood. It hit nationwide VOD last week, so you can probably catch it in your own territory. And if you want to stream it instantly, just click here.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

One-half of a German lesbian couple pines for a baby in Anne Zohra Berrached's TWO MOTHERS


If only both partners were as eager to have that child mentioned in the headline above, things might have gone differently than they do for the smart and likeable pair of women we meet in TWO MOTHERS (Zwei Mütter), the intelligent, fragmented, but deeply-felt German movie from Anne Zohra Berrached (shown below). Using a documentary style to view her protagonists and their somewhat circumscribed world, Ms Berrached, as director and writer (with some help from Michael Glasauer's script consulting), has come up with a very involving look at a lesbian relationship in the process of growing and perhaps foundering, as one of the two young women finds herself more and more drawn to the idea of having a baby. By any means possible.

Though the film takes place in Germany, a country most of us probably consider relatively progressive (nowhere near the Scandinavian level, however), it seems that -- when it comes to providing lesbian couples state-supported help, financial and/or otherwise -- this country has some learning left to do. The kind of obstacles the couple encounters are surprising -- for one thing fertility clinics that do not, under German law, offer treatment to non-heterosexuals -- and they impact everything from these women's well-being to their pocketbooks.

After exhausting all other avenues, the pair decides to try a sperm donor -- but one who will not insist on being both donor and father. This takes the film into yet further realms of surprise and even a little humor. While the women are played by two fine actresses -- Karina Plachetka (at left, above and below) and Sabine Wolf (at right, above and below) -- the other performers, at least according to what we find on the IMDB, appear to be playing themselves as doctors, donors, and people on the subway and/or street. This certainly adds to the verité quality of the film.

The dialog here seems particularly on the mark -- genuine without ever being "writerly" or overly sophisticated. As much as the movie documents the trials and the time these take before something actually happens, the filmmaker keeps the focus on our two women. This works well because they are at the heart of the drama, and it is their relationship we're rooting for -- at least until it becomes more and more clear that one woman wants what the other does not.

Along the way we meet a number of interesting people who figure into the tale, and as months and more months pass, tension builds and alternatives seems to disappear, while insemination after insemination goes by with nothing to show for them, other than reduced finances. There's a lovely little scene in which Ms Wolf meets, but briefly, an adorable little boy in the library, and we imagine that she may be changing her mind about chil-dren. Finally there's a fellow named Flo who applies as the possible donor, and things take a turn for better or worse, depending on your perspective.

The risks to a relationship when a surrogate is used is shown here to quite believable effect, and while the movie stops short of any actual closure, it is pretty clear where it -- and the relationship -- is headed. Two Mothers, from TLA Releasing under the Canteen Outlaws banner and running a very brief 75 minutes, hit the streets on DVD this past January 13.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Best Foreign Language Film nominee (and maybe winner?) -- Abderrahmane Sissako's TIMBUKTU


TrustMovies hasn't yet seen Estonia's Tangerines nor Argentina's Wild Tales, but of the three BFLF Oscar nominees he has seen -- including the beautifully photographed but terribly obvious Ida and the tell-us-again-how-corrupt-and-bullying-modern-Russia can-be Leviathan -- Mauritania's small-scale but gorgeous and engrossing TIMBUKTU by veteran director Abderrahmane Sissako is by far the best. It shows us things we have not previously seen, especially what the incursion of Islam fundamentalists into a town in Africa means to its inhabitants (rather than what this kind of fundamentalism might do to our own western sensibility), and it does this in a manner that is thought-provoking, comic, sad and, yes, frustrating. This film is also remarkably beautiful to watch.

Mr. Sissako, shown at left, is able to weave several stories together loosely but mindfully, so that we follow both the "soldiers of god" and the inhabitants they seek to control. We see the lives of these people as they were but may be no more, and view the innate beauty of both place and person, while also noticing some of the flaws that even the dearest of the inhabi-tants possess. There is no doubt with whom the filmmaker sympathizes but he's too smart a guy to pretend that one side is perfect and the other perfectly awful. He allows us to view and even under-stand every character's viewpoint -- as ridiculous as this sometimes can be.

In the opening scene what looks to me like a gazelle races gracefully across the African plain pursued by soldiers shooting at it in an open jeep. We fear for that gazelle, but then a commanding voice says, "Don't kill it, just tire it out." (Isn't this the goal of fundamentalism?) And then we meet various characters at work and at leisure -- both of which will very soon change by becoming "against god" and therefore suddenly illegal.

A man who owns some cattle relaxes in a tent with wife and daughter. When he must leave for awhile, one of those soldiers drives up and clearly has intentions toward the wife. "Why do you only come here when my husband is gone?" she asks, and he is shamed into leaving.

In the craziest/silliest bit of religious nonsense, a woman selling fish is told she must wear gloves, while men must roll up their pant-legs. A mosque is visited while celebrants are at prayer, and the soldiers are reminded that they are in a house of god. Of course, they know this and so back off -- at least for a bit.

But then, in Sissako's boldest and smartest movie, a collision occurs that the soldiers have nothing to do with. While slaking their thirst in the river, the cattle of our very contented fellow break into the nets of a local fisherman, who has previously warned the young boy who tends those cattle. A spear is thrown and suddenly everything changes.

More than anything else, Timbuktu is about justice -- and its quicksilver elusivity. It is also about how we try so hard to get around whatever stands in the way of what we imagine to be that justice, whether this means playing football, which has now been banned, with an imaginary ball, or singing songs that may possibly squeak by because they have a religious meaning, after music, too, has been outlawed.

If I'm not mistaken, I believe I noticed in the thank-you's a nod to Elia Suleiman. This shouldn't be surprising, as the two filmmakers have subtlety, style and an inquiring mind in common. Both hope to understand conflicting viewpoints while already understanding how difficult this can be.

But it is the attempt that counts -- particularly when that attempt is so utterly beautiful to view and finally so sorrowful to contemplate. Sissako's finale is a continuous piece of filmmaking that holds you breathless -- until it suddenly leaves you lost in media res.

Timbuktu -- from Cohen Media Group, running just 97 vital minutes and spoken in five different languages, including English (with subtitles when not) -- opens this coming Wednesday, January 28, in New York City (at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) on Friday, January 30, and then at other Laemmle theaters in the weeks following.