Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Oscar-Nominated Short Films from 2015 and 45 Years

                 Short Films and Long Marriages

                                       Comments and a Review by Ken Burke
 This posting takes a “shorter” approach than usual for my lengthy-diatribes (so let’s start with a celebration of that with the great 1958 "Short Shorts" song [Recording by The Royal Teens; while there’s no nudity in this video of images of well-filled-shortsjust celebrating fine female anatomy, though, so if any straight gals or gay guys out there were hoping for some relief from our standard-male-hetero-dominated-cultural-imagery {although lesbian ladies can probably get a decent thrill from this collection} you won't find any men's cheeks bulging out at this site, "but," so to speak, I’m sure there are other sources than YouTube where you can find such if you preferthat anatomy gets pretty visible at times so you do have to sign in to prove you’re over 18 to watch this—OK guys {and some gals}, do I have your attention now?], even though the shorts in this video are a lot briefer than was the "shocking" fashion of that long-ago-decade when this song first came out) by focusing on the Animated and Live Action nominees for the Oscar Short Film competition (there are also Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts but I haven’t had access to those yet), plus one of my Short Takes reviews of a current feature, 45 Years (featuring Charlotte Rampling’s well-deserved-nomination for Oscar’s Best Actress).  With the short films I won’t be offering actual reviews, just brief comments on what they’re about along with highlights regarding the impact I got from them.  You can possibly see these for yourself as they’re playing at various theaters around the U.S. (this link also gives you info about online and Video On Demand options, also more details than I've got at this point about the Documentary Shorts), which in my San Francisco area includes (sincere plugs, no payola) the Landmark Theaters’ Opera Plaza in SF and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.  (Please note that I’ll continue to use my usual Spoilers for the benefit of those who’ve already seen the films or who read my reviews as viewing-substitutes.)
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
(Entire program running time: 86 minutes, including 4 extras in addition to the official nominees)
Bear Story  (Gabriel Osorio, Chile, 11 minutes)
 In a world not unlike our own in which humans take dominion over our fellow creatures but then very different from our existence where those creatures also dwell in houses, have human traits, etc., an old male bear living alone makes a daily journey into town where other bears can pay a coin to look into a mechanical diorama he’s carefully constructed.  It’s a complicated layering of visuals that flow from one tableaux to another, wordlessly allowing us to see how he was captured by humans, taken away from his wife and child to perform in a circus; plotting his emancipation, one day he rode a bicycle down, then up a huge ramp that allowed him to escape by breaking through the top of the tent.  When he returned home his family was gone but later he found them again; however, that’s just the story shown in the box as we get the sense that he never saw his family after his escape so he subsists by showing these intricately-visualized-memories.  Every shot here is a rich overlay of elements, which helps soften the melancholy tone of this compelling work.

Prologue  (Richard Williams, United Kingdom, 6 minutes)
 With a sparse style using images that seem to be drawn with colored pencils—meticulously-rendered-figures but existing against empty backgrounds—we begin this film with peaceful images of flowers, bees, butterflies, birds, etc. in gentle motion, but then the tone shifts to brutality as we’re in the midst of the Sparta-Athens conflicts of 2,400 years ago where warriors brutally kill each other while a grieving woman and child are witness to the slaughter.  The flow of these images is amazingly fluid, quickly transitioning from one to another as we encounter this non-dialogue-account of how human needs for conquest destroy not only enemy soldiers but also the harmonious worlds of nature and family that are overcome by our seemingly innate desire for conquest and victory.  This beautifully-animated short is quietly-thought-provoking but may be a bit harsh for young children because of its graphic images of bodily-destruction in hand-to-hand-combat.  We can only dread what these actions are “prologue” to, as they continue up to today.
Sanjay’s Super Team  (Sanjay Patel, USA, 7 minutes)
 This one’s from Pixar (it accompanied the showings of The Good Dinosaur [Peter Sohn; review in our December 10, 2015 posting] but surpasses it in impact), based on the director’s own experience (“… a mostly true story’).  What we see on screen is a young Indian boy, Sanjay, who’s more interested in watching superhero cartoons on TV than joining his father in a religious meditation, offering prayers at their small family shrine to 3 Hindu gods.  Sanjay manages to find a compromise by imagining that these brightly-colored-deities function more as warriors battling a powerful, multi-bodied-demon.  At first the superhero/gods have the monster under control but then it’s on the verge of overcoming them when Sanjay sacrifices his little hero action figure on the altar, allowing the energy of his preferred-world to join with that of his father to bring about a result they can both appreciate, leading to a renewed parent-child-connection, the return of the TV remote to Sanjay, and a delightfully-energetic-viewing-experience for all of us.
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos 
(Konstantin Bronzit, Russia, 16 minutes)

 As with the others above this short film operates with a bare minimum of dialogue to tell us about a somewhat-sad-but-then-ultimately-uplifting story of 2 Russian cosmonauts who’ve been great friends since boyhood as they continue that connection with both of them easily excelling in all aspects of training for their space program.  When the big day comes for the launch, though, only 1 of them can be in the capsule so the other watches confidently with all of the engineers in the control room.  Suddenly tragedy strikes when the rocket explodes, leaving the left-behind-friend frozen in his grief in his space suit so that the rest of the crew can’t even remove his helmet.  Yet, his space superiors expect him to continue on in the cosmonaut program so they simply move a new male roommate into his quarters.  His heart’s no longer with the program, though, so in either a dream or a bit of magical realism he floats up through the roof of his building, finally joining his lost comrade in outer space.  The flat visuals are quite simple here but the emotional impact is very touching.
World of Tomorrow  (Don Hertzfeldt, USA, 17 minutes)
 Hertzfeldt's film is the most conceptually-different and visually-stylized of all, using an abundance of dialogue that gives us plenty to think about along with stylized 2-D graphics (like the 1950s anti-Disney backlash in some movie cartoons that carried over into Hanna-Barbera TV classics [devoid of the concepts presented here, however]) that tell the story of very-young-Emily being visited by her future-adult-self from a time when those who can afford it will clone themselves in order to live forever while poorer people will download their consciousnesses into digital devices.  Space travel will exist, along with experimental but dangerous time travel, just as the past can be seen on light waves, but none of this ultimately matters because the Earth will be destroyed by a meteor in 60 days (in future-Emily’s era) so this later-generation-self has come to tell Emily Prime to essentially “Live well, don’t dwell on pettiness,” as timeless advice.  This is a lovely, fascinating experience to watch while contemplating it, very different in tone from the others.

 From a more traditional, even sentimental perspective the most touching of these are Bear Story and Sanjay’s Super Team, while life-affirmation—with its attendant-tragedies that compromise life's very existence—is the purpose of the other 3, all of which are intriguing in their own unique ways.
LIVE ACTION SHORTS (Entire program running time: 107 minutes)
Ave Maria (Basil Khalil, Palestine/France/Germany, 15 minutes)
 The setting is a West Bank cloister where 5 Catholic (of Arab ancestry?) nuns live under a vow of silence which is interrupted one Friday night when a family of Jewish settlers trying to get home before Shabbat mistakenly drive into the nuns’ lives, crashing into their statue of the Virgin Mary, badly damaging the car in the process.  The limits of the nuns’ restrictive-religious-order clashes with the family’s Orthodox religious beliefs that prevent them from calling a cab to get come, a dilemma that’s finally resolved when all of them work together to fix up an old car that the nuns have so that the family can be on their way.  Initial suspicions and antagonisms (the young novice who isn’t a nun yet—like with Maria in The Sound of Music [Robert Wise, 1965]—sins by breaking her silence to say that “Jews have violated the Virgin”—a sly notation [intentional?] to the New Testament scriptures about the Annunciation where Jewish Mary is impregnated by the Holy Ghost, establishing the road to Christianity) are ultimately overcome in a charming manner.
Day One (Henry Hughes, USA, 25 minutes)
 This is based on a true story, where a recent divorcee, Feda, joins the U.S. Army as a translator in Afghanistan only to find herself in a very difficult position as she begins her new career.  Her unit’s in a village trying to find a bomber (one of his devices just went off very nearby) but as they’re questioning a man and his pregnant wife, the woman goes into labor.  Due to religious customs the local man who’s aiding the unit cannot touch the woman so Feda pretends to be a doctor, following the local’s instructions, so that the husband will let her examine and aid his wife.  Feda thinks the fetus is dead, therefore she wants to begin the dreaded task of dismembering the infant in order to save the mother’s life; instead, however, they manage to get the woman to a local doctor who finds the baby’s alive after all.  Delivery is finally accomplished, but the wife’s bleeding leads to her death, followed by the husband’s admission that he’s the bomber so he gives his daughter to Feda as he’s led away.  This is a very powerful film in all respects, traumatic to watch.
Everything Will Be Okay 
(Patrick Vollrath, Germany/Austria, 30 minutes)
 Here we have another story of escalating tension, beginning when a divorced German father picks up his little daughter for a normal weekend visit.  He takes her to a toy store to have her pick of a couple of gifts (he’s a bit distressed that she chooses large ones), then it’s off to an office where he gets some documents signed (turns out to be a passport for the girl).  For her pleasure they go to a fair but then they’re suddenly off to the airport, as the child becomes increasingly scared wanting to see her Mom.  His plan is to keep her away from the ex-wife for good so he’s booked a flight to Manila; because of delays, though, they have to stay a night in a Dubai hotel.  He gets increasingly testy with her, she cries but later sneaks a call to Mom who flies there immediately.  Soon she’s at his door with police who insist he open up; when the father (panicked) doesn’t, they break in to retrieve the child.  This story’s all about the abduction with little background on the family, nothing after the arrest, powerfully done despite the minimal use of plot.
Shok (Jamie Donoughue, Kosovo/United Kingdom, 21 minutes)
 Once again we have a film based on a true story, but first I’ll note some background: In 1998 the Kosovo region of Serbia is involved in a bloody, horrendous civil war as Kosovo Albanians (supported by that neighboring country and NATO) attempt to gain independence; thus, tensions are fierce between Serb and Albanian factions.  In the midst of this, 2 Kosovo Albanian boys—long-time-friends—are hassled by Serbian soldiers, even as one of them, Petrit (on the right in this photo), tries to forge an alliance with these troops by selling them tobacco so that he can save up enough to buy a bicycle.  Sadly, any plan for co-existence with his enemy becomes hopeless when he sees how these same troops force his friend Oki to surrender his own bike.  Ultimately the Albanian community in our story is forced to abandon their land completely, as Oki's killed for daring to stand up to the soldiers.  Overall Shok, with its flashback scenes of xenophobic human cruelty remembered from Petrit’s present-day-adulthood, is a heartbreaking experience.
Stutterer (Benjamin Cleary, United Kingdom/Ireland, 12 minutes)
 A young typographer, Greenwood, has such a debilitating stutter that he can barely speak so he leads a very lonely life, living with his father but no other companionship.  However, he does carry on an online relationship with Ellie; she's a very refreshing light in his gloomy world, although we hear through his voiceover narration that he’s quite eloquent except when he has to attempt to talk.  After Greenwood and Ellie have been corresponding for 6 months she surprises him with a visit to London in hopes of meeting him in person.  He’s horribly conflicted as he wants to further his connection with her but can’t imagine how he’ll be able to function if he’s actually in her presence—this trauma becomes aurally-illustrated for us in a cacophony of his own conflicting voices inside his head, making it clear to us how scared and confused he is.  Fortunately, she seems very open to being with him and knows sign language so she has another avenue of “speech,” leaving us with a hopeful sense for their future in a sweet tale of interpersonal triumph. 
 Given that you have to pay for each of these programs as if they were feature films, you may have to choose just 1 of them so I’d recommend in that case that you go with the live action collection but that’s a very close call (as was leaving 45 Years off of my 2015 Top 10 list—a bit more on that below); truly, I think you’d be satisfied with either program or both if time and ticket-price allow.
Short Takes (well, it did start out that way …)
                                                  45 Years (Andrew Haigh)
An aging English couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he suddenly receives news that the body of his former-lover has been found in the Swiss mountains where she fell to her death years ago; as he begins to reveal aspects of that relationship to his wife she feels hurt, distanced, and unclear about the continuance of their union.

What Happens: Somewhere in the English countryside near a city (not London), an elderly couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), are preparing for a lavish celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary (he needed surgery on their 40th so they postponed the party until this less-conventional-year) when he suddenly receives news that the body of his long-ago-lover, Katya, has been found in the Swiss Alps—frozen since 1962 when she accidently fell to her death in a crevasse, so she still looks like she did in her 20s—bringing back melancholy memories to Geoff of a woman he once planned to marry when their hiking vacation was done (they even claimed to be married at the time in order to sleep together while traveling).  All of this is news to Kate (Geoff protests that he must have told her at some point but she denies it).  He becomes increasingly distracted, rummages in the attic for an old photo of Katya, resists attending a long-planned-luncheon at his former manufacturing plant organized by his friend, George (David Sibley), then goes anyway only to come home disgusted with being there again after having retired.  Kate’s increasingly unhappy about this new turn of events as well but she’s in for a greater shock when she goes to the attic, there finds an old suitcase with Geoff’s journal from that Alpine trip along with slides that show Katya was pregnant, so she turns off the projector in dumbfounded-angry-surprise.  Kate’s now overwhelmed with Katya’s presence, feels disturbingly-ambivalent toward Geoff, but agrees to go forward with the rest of their lives including the anniversary party.  There, Geoff makes a heartfelt proclamation—but restrained, as he’s no public-speaker-dynamo—about his deep love for Kate and thankful for what she’s brought to his life.  She seems genuinely touched by his words (including “The choices we make when we’re young are pretty bloody important.”), then moves into the first dance of the evening with him but her face keeps shifting from smile to grimace, leaving us in an unclear state about what level of stability—if any—their future holds.

So What? Even without all of the Katya-drama, this marriage is not one that seems to be beyond functionally-stable (shown effectively by the slow pace and well-crafted-exchange of conversations in the film), as they’re courteous to each other but hardly passionate—even when Geoff tries to put a little spice into things (before Kate finds her horrors in the attic) by getting her to dance in their living room to “Stagger Lee” (from 1911, recorded by many, made most famous in 1958 by Lloyd Price) followed by intended lovemaking but he finds himself unable to perform which saddens him, doesn’t seem that crucial to her, and simply sets them back into the ever-growing-funk brought about by the Katya news (he even goes into the city to check on prices for traveling to Switzerland, which she discovers by a bit of spying on him).  As they ask themselves why they have no photos in their house of themselves or even their beloved dog it’s all too clear to us that their commitment has long before settled into functionality where they appreciate each other but seem to have had little fire to stoke to begin with (we learn nothing about their past lives, why they have no children, etc.), let alone reignite when major difficulties strike (Geoff tries on the morning after Kate says they’ll just go to bed that night, then try to begin again the next day: he brings her tea to bed then scrambles some eggs for her breakfast, but she’s a long way from pushing aside her aching-psychically-screaming-awareness of her previously-unknown-predecessor, preserved forever in the mode of her young-love-pregnancy calling out to Geoff’s awareness of what might have been, was actually intended to be).  This is a simple story that runs as deep as the crevasse that swallowed up Katya, showing us subtly how the past can haunt—even destroy—the present, how lies of omission can be as devastating as lies of commission, how perceived-stability can be shattered when the foundation’s not as solid as it needs to be for true endurance (all their friends think Kate and Geoff are the perfect couple, as evidenced by George’s comments at the party, so maybe that bypass-surgery 5 years ago is finally helping him find the heart he needs to better share himself with Kate).

Bottom Line Final Comments: In my last posting I offered my choices for the Top 10 feature-releases of 2015, based on what I’ve been able to see thus far which didn’t include 45 Years at the time; now that I’ve seen it I find a tough choice of changing my mind to include it, but if so at #10 pushing Sicario (Denis Villeneuve; review in our October 15, 2015 posting) off the list.  I finally decided to keep my Top 10 as previously posted, even though 45 Years is a terrific film which would easily enter an expanded 2015 Top 20 list if I decide sometime in the very near future to construct such.  Certainly the restrained-yet-smoldering-emotions displayed by Rampling (easily justifying her Oscar nomination for Best Actress) have almost enough power in themselves to push 45 Years into the inclusion of my best of the year, but there’s much more to be found in the whole experience as we get equally-pained-but-barely-expressed-intimations from Courtenay (himself worthy of Oscar consideration as Best Actor, where he might replace Matt Damon [The Martian {Ridley Scott; review in our October 8, 2015  posting}], depending on whether the preference is for subtle nuances of unspoken-grief by Courtenay or more-overt-soliloquys [even his video transmissions, meant as much for himself as for his Earthly-colleagues, in that he never knew if they’d be received] about self-preservation in an inhospitable-climate by Damon), along with a constantly-low-key-approach to a topic that’s as devastating to the people involved in what they assumed to be a rock-solid-partnership (although their connection doesn’t run as deep as they both present it to be) as is Dr. Mark Watney’s (Damon) constant awareness of his isolation on Mars, with their emotional lives at stake compared to his physical one (admittedly, even divorce wouldn’t kill them as starvation would Watney, but it’s clear that Kate, if not also Geoff, feels as abandoned in her safe countryside home as good Dr. Mark does on Mars, even if just in a metaphorical sense).

 Regarding metaphors more appropriate to my standard review structure, in that I’m not offering my usual cognitive-overload-level of micro-managed-extensive-analysis this time, I thought I’d be a bit more generous with the use of Musical Metaphors to address what’s going on in 45 Years; however, it’s not due to any use of unusually-extraordinary diligence on my part but rather that these songs are all used within the film at very appropriate times: (1) “Young Girl” (a huge hit in 1968 for Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, on their Young Girl album that year) at briefly comes on Kate’s car radio somewhere toward the middle of the film before she snaps it off, already highly troubled about Geoff’s growing obsession with his long-lost-lover; 
(2) “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (originally written for the 1933 Broadway musical Roberta by Jerome Kern [music] and Otto Harback [lyrics], recorded by many over the years but likely most famous from The Platters' 1958 version, on their Remember When? album that year) at https://www. as the first dance at the anniversary ceremony, in memory of it being played at their long-ago-wedding when such an extended future together seemed to be a natural decision for them both; (3) “Go Now” (sung by an early incarnation of The Moody Blues in 1964, from their The Magnificent Moodies album that year) at played when the story suddenly cuts to black as the end credits roll, just after a final shot of confused Kate displaying the troubling ambivalence that’s now come to haunt her commitment to her marriage, despite attempts to move past her resentment toward Geoff’s long-held-secrets as well as accept his heartfelt-admiration for her in his anniversary party speech (this song comes as a shattering finale to Geoff’s attempted-reconciliation; however, we got a hint of it being used at the celebration [?!] from an earlier scene when Kate’s on the phone with the party planner but her mention of something by the Moody Blues went by so quickly I barely caught it).

 What I envision with these above songs is Kate wishing that Geoff would be singing “Young Girl” to the memory of Katya in order to purge her from his distracted consciousness while Geoff is hoping that “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” will help Kate believe that his intentions of refocusing his energies on her are sincere even though he’s aware that she’s hurt, consciously pulled away from him, despite her outwardly-happy-actions at their big celebration (there may be some subliminal truth in that hope because, when the party planner called, Kate did remember to request this memorable song of theirs).  As to who’s singing “Go Now” to whom, I invite you to have a discussion on this topic if you care to because while the song comes in the film just after that marvelously-ambiguous-shot of Kate looking right into the camera (at us) with lyrics that build from “We’ve already said ‘Goodbye’” this perspective could easily come from Geoff still pleading “Can’t you see I want you to stay?” while Kate could be countering by singing to her bewildered husband “Don’t you even try telling me That you don’t want me to end this way.”  If they really do want to salvage this damaged union maybe they should just harmonize on a suggestion of mine with a relevant question from The Supremes, "Where Did Our Love Go"? (from the album of the same name, 1964), still my favorite sing-along-Motown-tune (although The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling’ Stone” [1972] or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” [1971] are certainly more significant in content from Berry Gordy's hit-parade-empire).  I’m not sure that either Kate or Geoff ever truly had “this burning, burning, yearning feelin’ inside” themselves for each other but clearly any “promises of a love forevermore” must have had some validity at some point in their reserved past so maybe through mutual effort they could work on that critical question of “Don’t you want me no more?” 

 Whoever’s singing what, I actively encourage your attendance at a screening of 45 Years, with the film’s own songs noted above summing up the crucial emotional aspects of what’s being presented so this music may well function as a reasonable substitute for what’s intended by the filmmakers if you can’t get access to a screening.  Whatever your interest in 45 Years, though, count on me to be back soon, with less concern about keeping things short (which I was doing decently well until this last review segment, you must admit; I lose all control when I start riffing on the Musical Metaphors, though, so maybe I should go back to my original high school dreams of being a disc jockey instead of those grad school ones of finding new approaches toward film criticism—although for awhile [1979-80] in Dallas I combined those interests by doing movie reviews on KTXQ-FM adult contemporary radio, a most unique and enjoyable experience if not really a major career move).
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2015’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 28, 2016 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2015 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success that you might want to monitor here, and the actual award-winners)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2015 and the Oscar nominees for 2015 film releases.  For that matter, you might be interested in the Screen Actors Guild 2015 film (and TV) winners because they often predict the Oscar winners given the great overlap between Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and SAG members (although, oddly enough, SAG Best Supporting Actor winner Idris Elba wasn’t even nominated by the Academy, one of the reasons for the OscarsSoWhite protest this year, a controversy that's seemed to have cooled down a bit).

Here’s more information about the Oscar-nominated Short Films in Live Action and Animation for 2015 releases: (trailers for the 5 nominees in each category, along with information about theatrical runs of these films as well as online and VOD options) (100% positive responses; based on only 13 reviews so far, though) (100% positive responses; based on an even-smaller-pool of just 9 reviews so I encourage you to check back later on both of these Rotten Tomatoes ratings)

Here’s more information about 45 Years: (this is one of the most extensive official sites I’ve ever seen for a film, at least one not further connected to a host of sci-fi/fantasy-related-games and other non-filmic-extensions of a big-budget movie’s content) (9:38 interview with actors Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) (94% average score among the current 36 reviews tallied; this high score puts it in a tie for #’s 13-27 on the Metacritic all-time-ranking of 9,060 reviewed films [as of 2/3/2016]—with the only one to get a full 100% being Boyhood [Richard Linklater, 2014; review in our July 31, 2014 posting]) 

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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