Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Live Action

SingEvery one of these five Live Action Oscar nominees was a winner! A diverse group in subject matter and national origin, though all European, this was one of the consistently best live action collections we’ve seen. Here they are:

  • Sing – a Hungarian film (trailer) directed by Kristóf Deák—what happens when a choral teacher bent on winning an important prize tells some of the children “just don’t sing.” Elementary solidarity (photo)! Charming. (25 minutes)
  • Silent Nights – from Denmark (trailer), directed by Aske Bang. A young Danish woman working for the Salvation Army falls for a poor Ghanian man, who neglects to tell her about the wife and kids back home. Wise words from her boss save her. Generous. (30 minutes)
  • Timecode – a 15-minute film (trailer) from Spain, directed by Juanjo Giménez. The day and night shift security staff at a parking garage exchange the barest civilities as they change places, but find an innovative way to communicate. Hilarious! (15 minutes)(watch it here)
  • Ennemis Intérieurs – this French film (trailer), directed by Selim Azzazi, is a chilling display of how a suspicious government can twist even the most innocent statements into accusations. It takes the form of an interview between a determined policeman of Algerian descent and a French-born Algerian man seeking citizenship in the 1990s, during the Algerian civil war, with obvious application to today’s tensions. Powerful. (28 minutes)
  • La Femme et le TGV – in this Swiss film (trailer & “the making of”), directed by Timo von Gunten and shot in one week, an older woman (Jane Birkin) waves at the TGV train morning and evening before heading to the desultory bakery she owns. When the train engineer tosses a note out to her, a correspondence begins. One day, the train does not come, and she must go in search of a less lonely future. Sweet. (30 minutes)

My favorite? Timecode was the most fun, La Femme the most beautiful, and Ennemis Interieurs the most significant, and the winner, Sing, the sentimental fave.

Coverage of the documentary shorts here.

The Witness

apartment-building

photo: La Citta Vita, creative commons license

12/7 Update: The Witness is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary!

On a March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in the vestibule of her Kew Gardens, Queens, apartment building as 38 witnesses did nothing, according to an unforgettable story in the New York Times, which described how she was allegedly stalked and stabbed three times in the span of a half-hour.

While spurring needed improvements in emergency response and community watchdog efforts, the horror of her death became imprinted in the public’s minds and in sociological texts as examples of urban dwellers’ indifference to others.

The Witness, a film released this year and now showing on Netflix, is an exhaustive examination of these events, resulting from a decade-long crusade to learn the truth about Genovese’s death. First-time documentarian James Solomon follows Kitty’s brother Bill as he traces the threads of the story, a story even some family members wish he could put behind him.

As Stephanie Merry wrote in Washington Post review, everyone got the story wrong, and they got Kitty wrong: “People don’t remember the vivacious bar manager, the prankster, the beloved big sister. They remember a victim.” Bill was especially close to his sister and loved her joyful, playful spirit. That is what he wanted to honor and remember in his quest to learn the truth.

“There were a lot of things we discovered,” he said in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon last spring. “During the course of 11 years, there were a lot of stones we overturned. But basically the most fundamental thing was that the 38 eyewitness story and three attacks was not true.”

Many of the so-called witnesses did hear something—desperate screams for help that roused people out of sound sleep—and many did do something. A neighbor who knew Kitty well ran down to the narrow lobby vestibule, now knowing whether the assailant was still in the area, and cradled Kitty as she was dying.

Even the convicted murderer, Winston Moseley (he died in prison while serving a life sentence), had his own version of what happened that night. In a letter to Bill, he claimed that he did not kill Kitty, but was the getaway driver for an underworld figure.

The nature of truth—and what we choose to believe—and the fuzziness of memory are key themes in the film that echo coverage in more recent stories about iconic victims such as Freddie Gray and Trayvon Martin.

The film shows Bill doggedly pursuing leads, reading trial transcripts, checking what people might have seen from their windows, and tracking down surviving witnesses and their families like a latter-day Lieutenant Columbo. He enlists a woman to re-enact the crime using what witnesses said they heard that night. The effect is chilling. And Bill sits weeping.

In a Merry’s review, filmmaker Solomon said, “For whatever reason I am drawn to these iconic stories we think we know.” (Previously, he wrote the screenplay for “The Conspirator,” about Mary Surratt, who aided John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.)

Editor’s note: The mischaracterization of Kitty Genovese’s death was possible, in part, because relatively few Americans have witnessed murder. We think we know how we would respond, but . . .? Today, social media makes many more of us “witnesses” to violence and provides a whole new range of responses (see this riveting WIRED account of social media around last summer’s police-involved shootings). The availability of real-time “evidence” on screens in front of us, even acknowledging that distortions may occur, should mean it won’t take 52 years for the true circumstances of these deaths to be understood.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, author of the entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings, celebrating her 20th year living in the Old Pueblo.

Indie Documentaries Star

Iceland, sheep pen, rettir

Waiting for the Sheep (photo: Hansueli Krapf, creative commons license)

Last night at the Trenton Film Festival 2016, saw three short documentaries under the heading Ageless Friends.  Over a period of five days, the festival shows 55 films from 16 countries—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. Films submitted for consideration are selected by a panel of jurors (who must have been very busy!) and the festival culminates in an awards ceremony for “bests” in various categories, including audience favorite.

First up was a 7-minute film from the U.K., North Coast 500, which follows three cyclists on a tour through the beautiful Scottish Highlands. The scenery is magnificent.

A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

It was the second and third films that competed on my ballot for “audience favorite.” The second, A Thousand Autumns, is a 17-minute U.S. film directed by Bob Krist. It follows the efforts on one of several groups of Icelandic farmers who each fall use ponies and dogs to herd their sheep from remote highland pastures to winter grazing lands closer to their farms and the coast. This is a tradition (called the “réttir”) that has been maintained, as the title implies, for ten centuries.

It’s a massive effort, involving the whole community, and family members who’ve moved to the city return for it. Over the summer, the sheep from various farms become all mixed up together, and the farmers have created a the clever method of separating hundreds of animals into individual herds. A round pen is surrounded by pie-shaped wedges, one for each farmer. The sheep are let into the central pen where people await, ready to sort them and push them into the correct farm’s wedge.

Filmmaker Krist first became committed to documenting this herculean effort in the mid-1980s, when on a photography assignment for National Geographic. He knew the separating pen would be a strong visual, which he calls a “sheep pizza.” In those days, he would have had to film it with an expensive and scary (for the sheep) helicopter; for this film, he used a drone.

A Full Measure of Devotion

The hour-long third film, Ageless Friends (trailer), opening in the U.S. in June, is from Netherlands documentarian Marijn Poels. As a teenager, Maarten Vossen adopted the grave of U.S. soldier Private First Class James E. Wickline, one of 8301 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Wickline participated in Operation Market Garden, an unsuccessful Allied effort to overtake Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. Vossen became determined to learn more about “his” soldier, a young man who died to restore his and his country’s freedom.

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Ultimately, he learns that Wickline was one of some 1200 new recruits brought into the 82d airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Division to replace soldiers lost at Normandy, only 800 of whom survived. Evidence (Wickline’s documented injuries) led the military to conclude his parachute did not open, and he was killed on the first day of the operation, on his first jump into battle.

For Wickline to have died without ever having actually participated in the war dismays Vossen, who traces Wickline’s roots and connections in West Virginia and, working with a county commissioner there, succeeds in having a bridge named for him. That this young Dutchman, 70 years later and living thousands of miles away, cares so much about one of our forgotten fallen is extraordinarily moving, an ultimate expression of unselfish love.

Still Dreaming

Bottom, Misummer Night's Dream

Harold Cherry as Bottom in “Still Dreaming”

In the documentary film Still Dreaming, a dozen residents of an assisted living residence take on a very challenging six-week task—to learn and perform Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most are Broadway stage veterans—actors, dancers and musicians—who reside at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey. Despite frailties such as decreased vision, dementia, and depression, they eagerly take on demanding roles.

Filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller say they “discovered a group of people who have spent their whole lives following their dreams, some wildly successful, and some hardly at all. And here they are, retired, supposedly having given it all up. What we witnessed was an awakening, and it was truly profound and most certainly inspiring.”

Several of the performers are particularly engaging. Charlotte Fairchild, who plays Puck, had leading roles in Damn Yankees and 42nd Street and was the understudy to Angela Lansbury in Mame. She has Alzheimer’s disease and cannot retain much, but she still has a strong, clear soprano voice and finds joy in her portrayal. Dimo Condos, who plays Theseus/Oberon, is an eccentric, solitary man who studied with Uta Hagen, Elia Kazan, and Harold Klurman at the renowned Actors Studio. He is a bully, impatient with cast members who don’t remember their lines or lose their place. But he retains the ability to immerse himself in character and involve the audience.

Joan Stein, the production’s pianist, is literally bent over the piano stool, but adds punch and panache to the show. She was a pianist on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, among other credits. Her playing becomes more vigorous and emphatic as the rehearsals progress. Aideen O’Kelly bows out of the production because she cannot see the script well enough to learn her lines. During her Broadway career, she appeared in Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer (a production your website host Vicki Weisfeld saw in Washington, D.C.). Now she must watch from the sidelines.

In Midsummer, as in real life, “people live in colliding worlds of reality, illusion, and delusion” and they also may “age into some degree of dementia in which memories blur and the present becomes a slippery slope,” suggested Eric Minton in a review of the film on Shakespeareances.com. This turn of mind is why the setting for Still Dreaming, which at first seems so odd, turns out to be so right.

The full-length feature film is currently doing well on the festival circuit, most recently screening at the Sedona Independent Film Festival. The filmmakers hope that this exposure brings opportunity for wider distribution. Learn more at the Still Dreaming website. Reportedly, it will become available on DVD in April.

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings and is gearing up for a new baseball season!

 

Run-up to the Oscars: Documentary Short Films

Ebola workers, Liberia

Ebola Workers in Liberia (photo: WHO in PPE, wikimedia)

Again this year, the Trenton Film Society is presenting the three categories of short films nominated for Academy Awards. Thursday night, I saw the documentary shorts, five films culled from 74 entries. Tomorrow I’ll see the animated shorts and live action (fiction) nominees. Many of the documentary shorts have been well received at film festivals in the United States and worldwide. Here’s a quick rundown (the links include trailers):

  • Body Team 12 – this entry from Liberia, directed by David Darg, shows the work of people whose job was to collect the bodies of Ebola victims at the height of the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. Their work, described by Garmai Sumo, the team’s only female member, was heartbreaking, but essential in attempts to protect the health of family members and the community. (13 minutes)
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines – a joint U.S. and Vietnam production, directed by Courtney Marsh, about a teen growing up in a Vietnamese center that cares for children affected by Agent Orange who wants to become an artist and clothing designer. Marsh follows the profoundly disabled Chau into his 20s, when he receives vocational school certificates, gets a job painting pictures for a design firm and supports himself in his own apartment. Uplifting, but he is undoubtedly an outlier in spirit and success. (34 minutes)
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness – directed by Sharmen Obaid-Chonoy, this film explores the “honor” killings of Pakistani women, which occur at a rate of more than a thousand per year. 18-year-old Saba fell in love and eloped, but her uncle and father found and shot her and threw her body into a river. Miraculously, Saba survived, scarred, and her father and uncle were jailed. Now, if she only “forgives” them, the court will pardon them. Her lawyer and the police don’t want her to do it, but community pressure and the society’s intransigent views about “respect” are powerful. (40 minutes)
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah –this biopic from British filmmaker and journalist Adam Benzine describes French director Lanzmann’s challenges in creating his massive, nine-and-a-half hour 1985 documentary Shoah. This film includes some footage never seen before, as Lanzmann talks about how he went about trying to describe the Holocaust from the inside. That took a toll. (40 minutes)
  • Last Day of Freedom – a remarkable animated documentary from U.S. directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman: the story of a man’s agonizing experience when he reports suspicion that his younger brother—who has serious PTSD and bouts of homelessness—has committed a terrible crime. Since there is no film of Manny, the accused brother, animation lets him be represented, as a soldier, walking down the street, and was an interesting and effective choice. (32 minutes)

Phoenix

Phoenix, Nina HossWhat is identity? Is it who we are or who others think we are? A scenario capable of stripping people of their selfhood greater than the Holocaust is hard to imagine, and German filmmaker Christian Petzold puts his protagonist Nelly, played with great subtlety by Nina Hoss, in that predicament in Phoenix (trailer). A Jewish former cabaret singer, she’s somehow survived the concentration camp and is determined to return to Berlin to find her husband Johnny among the piled-up post-war debris and psychological ruin. Her stalwart friend Lene doesn’t trust Johnny, but Nelly won’t be deterred.

She was horribly disfigured by her concentration camp experience and, aided by Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), undergoes extensive reconstructive surgery, pleading for the Swiss doctor to return her face to exactly the way it looked before, though he warns her that may be impossible. In Berlin, still bearing the bruises of her extensive plastic surgery, she re-encounters Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). His belief that Nelly is dead is so strong, he ignores signs that this woman, who calls herself “Esther” (“There aren’t too many Esthers left,” he says), and his wife are one and the same.

In her job, Lene finds people among the dislocated and helps them get them to Palestine. She plans for them both to go there, a future she believes in whole-heartedly, but which interests Nelly not at all. The endless poring over the lists of the murdered takes its toll, and Lene finally says she feels more kinship “with our dead than with the living.”

Johnny wants Nelly to masquerade as his wife to gain the fortune she’s inherited after the deaths of her entire family. This leaves her with the mind-bending quandary of pretending to be someone pretending to be who she really is. In truth, neither of them can “see” the other.

Based on a somewhat simplified version of the French novel Return from the Ashes, it’s a story about the crumbling of trust and how illusions—Nelly’s and Johnny’s equally—blind us to reality. A powerful film whose conclusion is a shattering confrontation with the truth. Excellent performances by Hoss, Zehrfeld, and Kunzendorf. Kurt Weill’s haunting “Speak Low” is heard throughout in different versions.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating an unequivocal 99%! Viewers 81%.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino, Doug Jones, La Gueule

Doug Jones and Eric Elmosnino in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

This 2010 biopic—directed by comic book artist Joann Sfar, who wrote the script with Isabel Ribis based on Sfar’s graphic novel—came across every bit as messy and undisciplined as its subject (trailer). Serge Gainsbourg (played beautifully by Eric Elmosnino) was a French painter and highly successful musician and songwriter of the 1960s and 1970s, who is considered a leading, if occasionally scandalizing, figure in French pop music.

Sfar gives Gainsbourg an imaginary alter-ego (La Gueule, played in a cartoonish mask by Doug Jones) who at first is his cheerleader, encouraging him to create and perform, but who comes to be a darker force, egging on his bad behavior. (It’s somewhat reminiscent of how Michael Keaton was dogged by his former self in Birdman.) Meanwhile, Gainsbourg bounces from one love affair to another and in and out of marriage, having notable liaisons with Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Gréco, and a ten-year relationship with British actress Jane Birkin. His time is spent at the piano writing songs for his lovers and smoking thousands of cigarettes.

The movie credits are charming and undoubtedly reflected the talents and eye of Sfar, and the early scenes of the movie about Gainsbourg when he was a precocious young boy (before he changed his name from Lucien Ginsburg), defiantly wearing his yellow star, are charming. But, in a rare concession to boredom, I abandoned the movie after an hour and a half, missing the artist’s final downward spiral and his popular reggae period, too. Not to mention the heroic of the film’s title.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 73%; audiences: 68%.

Lore (2013)

Lore, movie, NaziThe eponymous heroine of the movie Lore (trailer) is 14-year-old Hannalore. Her parents have been staunch National Socialists, and at the end of the war both have disappeared, and the only sure thing about their fates is that they are not coming back. Lore, her younger sister, twin brothers, and baby brother are alone in a cabin in the Black Forest with no food. The neighbors know whose children they are and want them out.

To find refuge, they must attempt to traverse the length of a ravaged Germany to their grandmother’s home in the north. Without papers, crossing from the American to the Russian to the British Zone is chancy and requires night travel. And the Russians hate them on sight. Along their laborious way, they encounter many unspeakable results of war, but little food, and Lore gradually depletes the cache of her mother’s jewelry for an egg or a little milk for the baby.

Gradually, Lore sees the consequences of her parents’ politics. In one town, she studies the photos posted of the death camps. Other people attempt to explain away how such pictures could come to be, but Lore sees something they do not—the SS officer managing the disposition of the prisoners is her father.

They meet a young Jewish man who turns out to be a useful guide, protector, and scavenger for food. But Lore cannot overcome the anti-Semitism drilled into her, and her relationship with him is both tense and confused, mixing repulsion and desire. The younger children recognize him for what he is: a friend.

Australian director Cate Shortland cast newcomer Saskia Rosendahl as Lore, and the young actress does a remarkable job, as do all the children (the baby was certainly an enthusiastic crier!). The film builds in power as the revelations of this difficult journey affect Lore, and she too faces moral choices and their consequences. “We know where this is going pretty early on,” says reviewer Steven Boone for Roger Ebert.com, “but that doesn’t prevent Lore from being riveting stuff, start to finish.”

In the Crosswind

In the Crosswind, Martti Heide, Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song

Laura Peterson & Tarmo Song, In the Crosswind

If ever a movie deserved to be called an art film, this 2014 Estonian film is it (trailer). Director Martti Heide’s full-length debut chronicles Stalin’s 1941 sudden overnight deportation of 40,000 citizens of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to forced labor camps in Siberia. Families were separated, people worked in slave-labor conditions, food was minimal, and many starved. No food was provided for children.

The story, based on a real-life diary, follows the experiences of Erna, a young wife and mother (played by Laura Peterson) desperate to reunite with her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song) and return home. While the story is perhaps typical for people in such brutal circumstances, the way of filming it is not. Heide took months sometimes to set up his shots, which are filmed in long, unedited, silent takes (with a soundtrack of gunshots, trains, creaking cartwheels, and so on added later). But the people do not move. Nor is there dialog. Peterson narrates in voice-over the entries from Erna’s diary, as a series of letters to Heldur.

Instead of action, the camera weaves among the actors, as they stand frozen in position. In an early scene, it circles Erna and Heldur embracing among the passengers waiting to be herded aboard a train, then moves on through the crowd. Then it finds Erna again, leaning out of the cattle car door, looking for Heldur, who stands in the distance. Watching this movie is like examining a series of richly detailed still photographs. Remarkable.

The technique symbolically mimics the way life stood still for the refugees. While it results in a slowly unfolding story, for me, the film was very powerful. Only when Erna is at home, in the beginning scenes and in reverie, do people move in a conventional way. To paraphrase what one refugee said, the Soviet Union might have my body, but my heart (what animates me) is still in Estonia.

IMDb reviewers give it a 7.9 out of 10.0 rating. It was a selection of the Trenton International Film Festival.

Seymour: An Introduction

Seymour Bernstein

Seymour Bernstein

This documentary (trailer), filled with beautiful music, is an étude of acclaimed concert pianist Seymour Bernstein and a joy, start to finish. Bernstein retired so he could pour his musical ideas into the vessels of his students. And not just musical ideas; his philosophy is that having access to emotion in music encourages access to emotion and satisfaction in other aspects of life. We see him providing pianists of all ages with just the right amount of subtle guidance to dramatically elevate their performances, encourage them to compose as well as play, and, apparently, achieve harmony in life in general.

Scenes take place in the one-room apartment he’s had for 40 years on the upper East Side of Manhattan, near Central Park, in various venues where former students interviewed him, NYU Master Classes, in the piano testing room of Steinway New York, and finally, its main floor rotunda, where he plays a concert to an audience of former students, colleagues, and fans. The interactions with students, former students, and other musicians are revealing, and none more so than his conversations with the film’s director, actor Ethan Hawke.

Hawke met Bernstein serendipitously at a dinner and discovered in him a person with whom he could discuss the anxieties of performance, and the disconnect between good work and success and Bernstein, with what seems to be characteristic generosity, shared his insights. He certainly did not reach his current eminence without his own challenges. When he was young, his father would say, “I have three daughters and a pianist,” which felt like a rejection of him as a son and pained him mightily.

As a young man, he served in the U.S. Army in Korea and teamed up with a talented violinist and a tenor and, despite their commanding officer’s skepticism, put on a concert for the troops—most of whom had never heard “serious” or classical music before. “They wouldn’t let us off the stage,” Bernstein says with glee, even 60 years later. The concert was so successful a tour of front-line camps was arranged. The memory is also bitter, because Bernstein remembers the war dead, and the pain of seeing those body bags has hardly faded.

Except for these memories, the movie is strongly up-beat, with a man doing what he loves and people (students, audiences, moviegoers) responding to his skill and passion. As Detroit News critic Tom Long says, “The great joy of the film, whether you know piano or not, is watching Bernstein teach.” This is a man you will be glad you got to know. The film ends with a typically modest and inspiring Bernstein statement: “I never thought that, with my two hands, I could touch the sky.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics give it a 100% rating and audiences 89%.