Friday, January 31, 2014

Oscar-Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentaries (opens January 31 exclusively at the Capitol Theatre)

[THE OSCAR NOMINATED SHORTS: DOCUMENTARIES opens Friday January 31st exclusively at the Capitol Theatre.] 

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr. (with an assist by Bob Ignizio)

Why care about the short subjects in the Academy Awards category of Best Documentary Short Subject? A few reasons. First is my longstanding contention that documentary film is just about the only form of cinema left that’s of any interest and relevance.

And second, and perhaps more importantly, on Oscar nite itself, I’ve always learned that the winners in this category are always the loosest of loose cannons when it comes to making acceptance speeches. Even the Documentary Feature people who have trouble living up to the mark set by Michael “Shame on you George Bush!” Moore, now tend to behave themselves. The Short Subject people, however, are a little less restrained at watching what comes out of their mouths in front of a microphone.

Whether it’s treacly thank-yous to everyone they’ve ever met, bad jokes, improvised statements on the Meaning of Life, crude grandstanding, dogmatic Marxist-feminist-eco-rants, or sheer inarticulate fugue state, the winners in this category generally strike me as the ones to watch when they’re on TV. For all the wrong reasons, of course.

I guess noblesse oblige we address the movies that may propel them up to the podium and undo everything Toastmasters and Dale Carnegie ever taught.

Karama Has No Walls – Certainly has my vote for best title, though I’m afraid that for Academy voters this one’s vibe is already overshadowed by the Documentary Feature entry THE SQUARE. Both are ground-zero reports of protests in Arab world against the military regimes, obviously shot at great personal peril by the filmmakers. THE SQUARE covered a number of angry years in the rebellion in Cairo, through a representative trio of Egyptian dissenters, Muslim and non-Muslim. Karama Has No Walls, meanwhile, focuses on a lesser-known “Arab Spring” uprising, in the nation of Yemen, hardly covered at all by the media. Filmmaker Sara Ishaq attempts to crystallize the struggle by focuses on a single casualty of one of the 53 civilians killed, a young Muslim shooting victim, interviewing friends, family and witnesses. The all-Islamic POV is seldom seen around these parts. But, as mentioned before, THE SQUARE tends to be more accessible for Academy types.

The Lady in Number 6 - The documentary Oscars, short and feature, have been accused (most notoriously by Spike Lee) of showing lopsided favoritism to Holocaust-tinged subjects. Still, I expect the gold will go to Malcolm Clarke’s Canadian production, just because the unique central figure is a hard act to top. Alice Herz Sommer is an ever-upbeat 109-year-old Czech piano virtuoso, serenading fellow block-dwellers and visitors in London with free recitals. She discusses her long, eventful life, as a Prague youngster who knew Kafka and Mahler, a young wife married in 1937 to a virtuoso violinist and an eternal lover of music. Of course, she was a Jewish eyewitness to Nazi invasion and a survivor of the Final Solution. While her husband and her mother both perished in death chambers, Alice and her son were part of the notorious “model” concentration camp at Terezin, where the piano concerts they performed were enjoyed by German guards as well as fellow prisoners. Even now, after all she endured, Alice professes (just as Anne Frank did in print) to believe that people are basically good, and that music is miraculous – as well it should be, being a main reason why she was allowed to live. Question is, if Alice wins an Oscar, will she be arrested drag-racing in Miami, then have to face further charges in Montreal for her entourage punching out a limo driver? The lady is that cheerful.

Facing Fear – Jason Cohen’s narrative takes a rather conventional approach, from the manipulative music soundtrack to the B-roll footage of the neon-lit LA streets at night. But the storyline really pulls one in when you realize where it’s going. There are dual narrators, one, Tim, a now-reformed West Coast white supremacist who turned over a new leaf and now preaches against his former neo-fascist ways (think Ed Norton in AMERICAN HISTORY X). The other is Matthew, a homosexual once cast out by his family, who was beaten up the selfsame skinhead punk Tim after a concert one Hollywood night in the early 1980s and literally left for dead, to be a ghost nagging at Tim’s increasingly troubled conscience. Once they unexpectedly re-encountered each other, years later, the two onetime natural enemies formed an object lesson in forgiveness and tolerance. You know, if these two men appeared at the Gay Games later this year in Cleveland, I’d go. Aww, no I wouldn’t – they’re both bigger than me, and would probably beat me up together, as a touching display of unity and reconciliation.

Cave Digger – What’s this genre without a shaggy-artist portrait?
Filmmaker Jeffrey Karoff here profiles New Mexico’s Ra Paulette, a freestyle sculptor whose unique gimmick is that he painstakingly, and with rudimentary hand tools, excavates holes in the ground and in hillsides to carve out and finesse smooth-walled, amazingly decorated “transformative” subterranean chambers for private clients (New Mexico is practically a character itself; hard to imagine these sorts of people existing anyplace else). For the slow, methodical pace of his work, Paulette is compared to Michelangelo, and Karoff allegedly spent 13 years following Paulette’s projects and ups and downs in his personal life. I couldn’t help but think from time to time of one of the 2013’s deceased, the great documentarian Les Blank, who also made such filmic portraits of nonconformist artist-eccentrics throughout his career. If this one does win the gold, I do think Mr. Blank would approve.

That’s the long and the short of the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. As I said, I tend to thing THE LADY IN NUMBER 6 has the Oscar sewn up, with the added bonus that filmmaker Clarke, a previous Oscar nominee (yes, for Holocaust material) is a UK-born chap who is probably well spoken in front of a microphone and therefore less prone to a meltdown. Then again, I would have said the same about Jacqueline Bisset, so what do I know? (3 out of 4 stars)

Additional review by Bob Ignizio

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall - When we meet Jack Hall, he is 82 years old and in his 21st year of a life sentence for murder. A decorated World War II veteran who spent time in a German POW camp, Jack says the man he killed was a drug dealer who sold to his son. He says this matter of factly, not as an excuse, but as an explanation. Jack knows what he did was wrong, and there is never any attempt by the film to justify what he has done. In true cinema verite fashion, Prison Terminal merely shows us what occurs without commentary. Specifically, what we see are Jack's final two weeks of life in a prison hospice program, and how that program helps give him some measure of humanity and dignity.

Don't worry, hardliners: your tax dollars aren't paying for this. The program is funded entirely by donations and by inmates themselves, and staffed by inmate volunteers. But without overtly raising the question, the film seems to be asking: would it really be such a bad thing if we did fund programs like this? And perhaps more broadly, what purpose is really being served by keeping someone like Jack behind bars until he dies? 4 out of 4 stars.

* NOTE * If you can't catch Prison Terminal as part of the Oscar Nominated Shorts program at the Capitol, it will premiere on HBO on March 31st.


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