I’m lucky to be living in Vancouver. It’s one of the few cities one can be able to see the nominated shorts in a big-screen theatre. Gives me a chance to review them myself and even make a should-win pick for myself. This year is quite an array of nominees in both animation and live-action. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on the nominated shorts:
-Blind Vaysha (Canada/France): dir. Theodore Ushev- This is a unique 2D animation story of a Bulgarian folk-tale. A story of a girl with one eye that can see the past and one eye that can see the future and cannot live in the present. The story also shows the attempts of others to fix Vaysha’s blindness. The linocut-style animation, however, was unique and had a lot of style and flare to it.
The story doesn’t really end. Instead the film ends asking the audience their perspective. It has a unique narrative point and I get why it’s done that way, but I often wonder if the film ended on the right note.
-Borrowed Time (USA): dirs. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj – At first you’ll think this is a family-friendly story at the beginning but soon learn it’s not such as you move on. It’s a dark Western story of a man returning to the spot of a family tragedy from his childhood. The hurt comes back from it and he decides to do something drastic but something happens.
I have to admire Pixar animators Coats and Hamou-Lhadj for making a brief departure from their traditional family fare and doing something more mature under Quorum Films. No, it’s not R-rated like Pear Cider And Cigarettes but it’s dark enough to be adult. I think this short is most likely to upset my pick for the winner.
-Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Canada): dirs. Robert Valley and Cara Speller- Now this is a refreshing R-rated alternative. It sometimes reminds you of a Grand Theft Auto video game or the film Waltz With Bashir. However it is a personal story from director Valley. It’s a story that makes you wonder how far would you go for a friend? Especially if that friend is selfish, conniving, irresponsible and manipulative?
It’s a story that entertains and charms and even gets you to hate Techno too. Sometimes I wonder why was he friends with that jerk? I don’t know if it’s because it was set in Vancouver or because it was an R-rated alternative but it won me over and I make it my Should Win pick.
-Pearl (USA): dir. Patrick Osborne- This is the first VR short to be nominated for an Academy Award. A musician and his daughter travel in a hatchback with a song as a bond between the two. We see the two age, the daughter mature into a musician of her own and have her own version of the song. The viewer gets a 360 degree view of the whole 5-minute story.
Looks like something Richard Linklater would do. Actually it might remind you of Waking Life. An excellent short that’s entertaining and will touch you too. Might even make you go to iTunes and download No Wrong Way Home.
-Piper (USA): dirs. Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer- This is the short shown before Finding Dory. A baby bird looking for food on the beach with her mother looking on and guiding her. Pixar does it again by delivering a clever, charming, and entertaining short with the dialogue absent and the animation as detailed to a tee as it gets. It’s excellent, but it’s something we’ve come to expect from Pixar even with their shorts. Nevertheless this is my Will Win prediction.
And those are my thoughts for the Animated Shorts up for the Oscar. A lot of styles of animation between Canadian and American companies. All five were very entertaining. We’ll see who wins.
LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILMS
This year there are no films with English as the language of the majority. All five are from European countries. Here’s the rundown:
-Ennemis interieurs (France): dir. Selim Azzazi – A man from Algeria seeks to be a French citizen but the interrogator at immigration has big questions for him about meeting with a group of Algerian men back some years ago which led to him being arrested and imprisoned for two years. The interrogator keeps insisting he answers but he’s very reluctant to do so. Even to the point of neglecting his chances of French Citizenship. Why? What will make the man give his answers?
It’s a story that appears boring at first but grows with intrigue with each minute and with each new detail. The interest builds over time. It even makes you wonder why is he withholding the names of the other men? Feelings of brotherhood? Fear of retaliation from them? Also this may be about an incident in the past but it’s very relevant, especially with the Paris bombings happening in November 2015. This is my Will Win pick.
-La Femme et le TGV (Switzerland): dirs. Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff – Elise is a woman who wave her Swiss flag at the passing TGV train to Zurich every time it passes her house at 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening . After that she bicycles to her job at the town patisserie. It’s her daily routine for 30 years; a routine she doesn’t want to change. One day, she comes across a letter that was thrown to her by a man who goes on that daily TGV. He’s a man from France looking for work. The two develop a friendship only by mail and packages. Over time she hopes to meet this man. Then one day the train stops coming. It’s changed route? How will she deal with the change? Will she ever see the man?
It’s a charming comedy that has you engaged with the character (based on a person who has existed and did wave her Swiss flag at passing TGV trains). Gets you thinking about the woman. Is she an eccentric? Is she naive? Lonely? Unpredictable ending but a happy one.
-Silent Nights (Denmark): dirs. Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson – Inger is a young Danish woman who helps at the Salvation Army during the day and looks after her ailing mother at night. Kwame is a Ghanian immigrant who came to Denmark for a better future and to support his wife and children at home. However he’s been left homeless and makes money from recycling.
They both meet as Kwame agrees to help. The two develop a mutual friendship and even progress into something more. However it’s put to the test when Kwame steals money from the charity to pay for his daughter’s malaria treatments. Even though Kwame is banned for life, Inger forgives him and still loves him. Then Inger’s mother dies and she learns about Kwame’s family in Ghana just as she learns she is pregnant. It’s over between the two. However Inger sees Kwame one last time where she gives him advice, and something else.
It’s obvious that this story is about the immigrant situation in Denmark and the difficultly of the times for all. It presents both Inger’s side and Kwame’s side. However it’s more. It’s about a love that’s true. Inger loves Kwame so much, she’s willing to forgive him for all the terrible things he did. It makes the choice she makes for her and her baby look like the right thing. This is my Should Win pick.
-Sing (Hungary) dirs. Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy – Zsofi is the new girl at a school. She most looks forward to singing in the choir. However on her first rehearsal, the instructor talks of a choir competition where the prize is a performance in Sweden. She also tells Zsofi her voice is not ready for the choir and tells her to lip sync. Along the way, Zsofi finds a friend in star singer Liza. The two become good friends. However Liza notices Zsofi not singing but others. When she brings this up with the instructor, she not only admits it but tries to convince the children it’s the right thing for the competition. All of which leads to a surprise ending and the ending you think is right.
Often I question what the point of this film is. Is it about competitiveness to the point the ‘lesser’ singers are not allowed to sing for the sake of the big prize? Or is it a reminder of Hungary’s past communist regime; of how those that fit in are allowed to and those that don’t aren’t, but make like everything’s okay? Even the choir director could remind you of a communist dictator on retrospect. Whatever the point, the story was entertaining and sweet. Reminds you of the joys of childhood and the right thing paying off in the end.
-Timecode (Spain) dir. Juanjo Gimenez – It starts as a check for a woman on a security job during the day. One day she learns of a broken car light. Upon viewing the video of what happened, she sees the worker before her dancing before hitting the car. She decides to give him a dancing video of her own. Video after video follows. Then on their last day, magic happens.
At first you think the man is something eccentric but this story builds into something that ends on a bizarre note. A very good film.
And there are my thoughts on this year’s nominated shorts. Now remember both categories are the hardest to predict the winner. For example, last year the consensus of critics ranked Stutterer the least likely to win Best Live Action Short and it won. Even Annie wins for Piper and Pear Cider and Cigarettes are not a guarantee that either will win.
With my shorts predictions out of the way, I just have my main predictions for all the categories to deliver. But not before my last Best Picture summary. Coming up tomorrow morning.
One of my Christmas treats was seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I’m glad I had my chance because it was an excellent movie.
Now just a reminder to you all, this is not part of the nine-episode Star Wars saga we all know. This is part of the Anthology Films of the Star Wars franchise. Actually this is the very first Anthology film to be released. The film is a triumph for writers of ‘fan fiction’ or ‘fanfic’ as it’s commonly called on the internet. However bringing fanfic like this to wide release on the big screen was no easy task. We all know how Star Wars has become a cinematic phenomenon like no other. George Lucas knows about it. Lucas himself is comfortable with ‘standalone’ films based on the Star Wars stories but wanted to make very clear that any standalone stories could not carry characters between the Saga films.
Here we have a story that is to take place between Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith and the very verse Star Wars film that’s now referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope. It’s a pretty lengthy amount of time between when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker seeks to become a Jedi. Nevertheless it does make for ample time for any Star Wars fan to create a story of what happens in between. Storywriters John Knoll and Gary Whitta aren’t just any Star Wars fans. Knoll has done camera operations and visual effects supervision for many science-fiction films including four Star Trek films and the three Star Wars prequels. Whitta is a scriptwriter for The Book Of Eli and After Earth.
The adaptation of the story to screenplay had to fall into the right hands as well. Scriptwriter Tony Gilroy may have had his biggest renown with 2007 Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (for which he himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) but his he’s also made his biggest impact in writing the scripts for all four Jason Bourne movies. Chris Weitz has an eclectic resume of writing and directing from Antz to American Pie to About A Boy to The Golden Compass to one of the Twilight films. Then there’s the film being directed properly. Gareth Edwards may have not had the most experience in directing but he has developed his reputation in recent years upon films like 2010’s Monsters and 2014’s Godzilla.
Then there’s the story itself. There are possibly loads of Star Wars-inspired stories. The story would have to be true to the Star Wars saga without it being a rip-off. There’s lots of that and even professional writers can make something that’s a Star Wars rip-off. Most Star Wars fans will not go for something insulting. True, there are a lot of people that are Star Wars-crazy but most will not go for something if they sense it’s a rip-off. Don’t forget many felt insulted by the prequels so that’s a reminder.
They succeeded. They provided a very good story about the completion of the Death Star and the family behind it and the rebellion attempting to steal the plans leading to the hope in the end. The story had to be well-researched in order for it to make the right connection between Episode III and IV. Any new characters like the Ursos, Cassian Andor and K-2SO had to fit with the story as well as include original Star Wars characters like C3P0 and Darth Vader properly. On top of that, it had to have the right action scenes and the right battles done. Basically the whole movie had to have it all to work. The story could not be compromised despite the action sequences. The acting also had to be top notch from Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn and Forest Whitaker. Even the theme of the story of heroism has to be present. It’s there, but in a way like no other Star Wars saga film does it. For the first time, self-sacrifice is needed for heroism.
The story worked very well. The critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave a total percentage of 85% approval. Many praised it for its depth in the Star Wars mythology and for breaking new narrative and aesthetic ground while paving way to a potential future for other blockbusters. The film scored well with crowds too as it would become the 20th movie to gross over $1 billion worldwide.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not just an excellent movie. It’s an accomplishment. It’s proof that Star Wars standalone movies can not only be a hit but be excellent in their own right.
Bridge Of Spies is a Spielberg drama I missed out on seeing during its original theatrical release. I only saw it once it was a choice on a flight I took heading home. It was a good choice.
The film begins in 1957 with Rudolf Abel arrested by CIA agents as he’s trying to read a secret message. He is taken away but is able to keep the message. As Abel awaits trial, American lawyer James Donovan is assigned to defend him. The US government believes him to be a KGB spy but Donovan wants to have a fair trial because an unfair trial may be used as propaganda in the USSR. Donovan meets Abel whom is very welcoming to Donovan but will not cooperate with the US Government for any revelations in the intelligence world.
Donovan knows he has a heavy task in defending Abel. He’s serious about it but no one, not even his closest family, expects him to make a strong defense for Abel. Nevertheless Donovan is persistent and continues to seek acquittal for Abel despite an angry American public, persistent hate mail and threats on the lives of him and his family. Abel is found guilty on all charges. Before sentencing, Donovan asks the judge that Abel receive a prison sentence of 30 years instead of the death penalty because he feels Abel may become a bargaining chip with the Soviet Union. Further difficulties continue as Donovan is unable to win a Supreme Court case where evidence against Abel was tainted by an invalid search warrant.
Meanwhile two innocent Americans find themselves in the hands of Communists. One is US air force pilot Francis Powers whose plane is just shot down between the USSR-Turkish border. He’s able to escape his doomed plane and tries to steer his parachute into Turkey but fails and becomes captive. The other is Frederic Pryor, an American economics student studying in Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being built. He studies in West Berlin but has a girlfriend in East Berlin. He tried to bring her with him to the West but is arrested as a spy.
News gets to Donovan of the two men arrests. He’s even offered a deal from the USSR of the exchange of Abel for Powers. Donovan is insisting in a 2-for-1 deal of exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. However he has the challenge of dealing with Soviet agents and a CIA that’s interested in only getting Powers back. The whole deal puts the governments of three nations– East Germany, the USA and the USSR– in a heated debate with Donovan make the outcome work out right. The end result is historic.
This is yet another film about war Steven Spielberg does focus on. There have been many films of the theme of war he’s done in his career. The wars he have depicted on screen have spanned time from World War II in Empire Of The Sun and Saving Private Ryan to World War I in The War Horse to the Civil War in Lincoln to even revenge missions in Munich.
Here he tackles a war that’s less about brutality but more about ideology and had victims of their own: the Cold War. Although there wasn’t as much blood shed, the Cold War did put a sense of paralyzing fear in the world, especially in the United States, with a possibility of nuclear war and armageddon. Thus the ‘duck and cover’ scene. Ask anyone over the age of 60 about doing all those ‘duck and cover’ practices at school. People were constantly being suspected as spies on both sides and there were reactions of hysteria to those accused of spying or treason. The construction of the Berlin Wall at a time when Germany was divided between the capitalist West and the Communist East is an example of the war.
The story takes us back to the 1950’s at a time when Cold War hysteria was at its highest. Neither side could be trusted if one from the other country came in to visit. That explains why even innocent visitors could be seen with suspicion. People arrested as spies for the other side were huge headline news. Most of the public wanted them dead with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg still fresh in their minds. It’s easy to see why someone like James Donovan would be so easily vilified by the American public and even face a possible shooting. The film shows why James’ efforts in the prisoner trade were necessary in the Cold War. It was something that was able to ease some tension on both sides.
Spielberg does a very good job of showing what the Cold War was like. Instead of showing fighting that’s common in the wars, he focuses on the more tense moments of the Cold War and captures its tense feel most people of that time felt. The screenwriting by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers was very good in providing insight to the moments in history and keeping the key elements of the situation. It didn’t focus too much on Jim’s personal life but it did focus on his efforts and even on the prisoners themselves. It may lack some historical accuracy but it does provide knowledge and keep the audience intrigued. Its one glitch is that it had too sweet of an ending. I don’t think it ended on the right note.
Tom Hanks was very good as Jim Donovan but it’s not at the same level as his most stellar roles. The biggest scene-stealer of the film was Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. He not only matched Abel physically but also gave him character with his love for art and his ability to say persuasive things. Other good supporting performances came from Amy Ryan as Jim’s wife and Alan Alda as Thomas Watters. Janusz Kaminski did a very good job of cinematography, the production designers did a very good job of recreating the 1950’s and 1960’s with their sets and Thomas Newman delivered a very good score to the film.
Bridge Of Spies is very much a story about a lawyer and his pursuits but also the times he had to deal with. Reminds you of some of the political tensions and paranoia that’s currently happening now. Spielberg does a good job of capturing the feel of the intensity as well as the political climate of the story.
“Am I a machine? Am I a war hero? Am I a criminal?”
The Imitation Game is a film that presents us a story of legendary scientist Alan Turing. It shows who he is and his life but also sheds light on many things we didn’t know.
The film opens in 1951 with Alan being investigated by detectives Nock and Staehl. This takes the film back to moments of the past starting in 1939. World War II has started and Turing applies to become part of the cryptography team at Bletchley Park. His ability to decode things and his knowledge that the Nazis use a code called Enigma impressed Commander Alasdair Dennison so much, he brings him on with the team of Hugh Alexander, John Cairncross, Peter Hilton, Keith Furman and Charles Richards.
Turing is difficult to work with as he distances himself from his colleagues. He has an idea for a machine to decipher Enigma but Commander Dennison doesn’t approve. Turing writes to Winston Churchill asking for assistance. Churchill is so impressed with Turing’s idea, he declares him the leader upon which he fires Furman and Richards. He uses a crossword puzzle to find his replacement. Upon which he hires a woman, Cambridge graduate Joan Clarke. Joan however has to deal with her overbearing parents as they don’t want her to work with men and marry immediately. However Turing is convinced enough she’s the right person for the job to the point he provides her a room to stay and work with female clerks while he shares his plans with her.
Difficulties continue as the code of Enigma needs to be reached. First the Germans change the code daily so that the enemies don’t succeed in breaking it. Secondly, Dennison is infuriated with the machine which Turing names Christopher and wants it destroyed and Turing fired. It’s only after the team threaten to leave if Turing is fired that he’s able to continue. Joan is pressured by her parents to either marry or leave her job, to which Turing proposes to her. On top of it, Turing’s team know of his homosexuality but promise to keep it secret.
Even after results happen and Christopher is able to successfully decipher Enigma, the solutions don’t start there. They can’t make it obvious to the Germans that they know Enigma so they have to carefully plan their strategies of attack even if it means considerable time later. Turing learns Cairncross is a spy for the Soviets but is told to keep it a secret or else Cairncross will expose his homosexuality. The place becomes too dangerous for Joan to stay and Turing tells her to leave, outing himself to her and even saying he was only interested in her as a co-worker. Joan leaves angrily. World War II was won and the cryptographers plans are burned.
The film progresses to the 1950’s when Turing was arrested first pursued for hiding confidential information only for them to uncover his homosexuality. His homosexuality was as much of a challenge as his eccentric way of thinking even as far back as his school days when he would be bullied. Fortunately a boy named Christopher befriended him and encouraged him with his coding and shared feelings with him. Unfortunately Christopher died before Alan had a chance to tell him he loved him. At the end, he’s shown with his final struggle with his homosexuality just before his eventual suicide as he’s sentenced to chemical castration: a sentence he chose over two years prison time. In his home where he secludes himself with his own concocted version of the machine Christopher, it’s Joan who comes to him in the end offering moral support and reminding him how significant he was because he was ‘not normal.’
Some would first come to the movie thinking it’s about him and his lifestyle. Some would first think this is autobiographical. It’s more. It presents the story of Alan and his eccentrically intelligent and creative thinking. It presents Alan’s side of the story from beginning to end focusing on the three biggest events in his life: in 1928 as a teenager when he’s first given support of his eccentric imaginative thinking and first learns of his homosexuality; during World War II and the story of the moment and invention that defined him; and in 1951 with Scotland Yard’s trying to link him of a crime only to discover his secret that would lead to his tragic fate. The focus of the story is especially clear at the beginning when Alan asks us: “Are you paying attention?” The film also presents why it was so important for this machine to crack Enigma had to be created as Alan would remind us it wasn’t simply against the War but against time. Especially for the UK which was suffering terribly. It also presents their strategy for helping to win the war as soon as they could.
It’s also very much about Alan the person as it is about Alan and the team working to crack the code. It presents Alan’s intelligence as creative in which he can decipher things through his work on crossword puzzles. It presents Alan as one who also has a very unlikable side including a ruthlessness his coworkers found hard to deal with though they stick with him because they feel he’s the only one who can succeed at cracking the code. They can’t stand him but they believe in him. It especially presents Alan’s homosexuality as for why he was about to go on trial. As he is about to be tried, he looks back on his life for when he was part of the mission to his schoolboy days and his encouragement from Christopher: the one person who truly understood him. It ends with Joan, the one colleague who knew him best and deserves to desert him after what he said to her but comes in the end to remind him of his significance to this world.
It’s obvious that Alan was able to solve Enigma in time but appeared unable to solve himself and even doubt his self-worth just after his sentencing of ‘chemical castration.’ A common thing as we see all too often in history how some of history’s biggest heroes would eventually become rejected by the people and even die lonely. Nevertheless we’re reminded that he still had people willing to stand by him even as he felt worthless. Especially Joan as she reminds him after he becomes a recluse after his defamation: “Do you know, this morning I was on a train that went through a city that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. I bought a ticket from a man who would likely be dead if it wasn’t for you. I read up, on my work, a whole field of scientific inquiry that only exists because of you.”
The movie tries to show more of what Alan Turing did as an effort to combat the war rather than focus on his lifestyle. Actually the movie does show about the struggle with his homosexuality throughout his life. His first difficulty came in high school as he fell in love with his friend Christopher and had to pass notes in his special code to him. We should remember that Alan was not beaten up in high school because he was gay but because of his intellectual eccentricities where it first showed its presence. He had continued difficulty during his work as even though his colleagues were supportive of him, they did remind him he could lose his job and be imprisoned because of it. Joan appeared to be the one who dealt with it best as she was not afraid to be in a sham marriage with him especially since it would help get her parents off her case. Then we see at the end as Alan has to deal with his ‘chemical castration’ which would eventually lead to his suicide at 41. We should remember those were the times. It’s because of the criminalization of homosexuality in the past that we had the pride movements that spawned out of the 70’s and are what they are today.
Benedict Cumberbatch did an excellent job in his portrayal of Turing. His performance was full of dimension for a person who was hard to like and had quite an imagination but quite smart and even troubled in the end. It’s a role where he not only acts off of his actors but us the audience too filling us in on all the details and making us think too. You can tell when Alan as narrator tells us to pay attention. Of the supporting players, it’s Keira Knightly as Joan who shines the best as the one who not only helps decipher Enigma but is the one person who can decipher Alan as a person in the end. The actors making up the cryptography team–Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode and Allen Leech– did great both as a team unit and in their own individual moments. Other standout supporting performances came from Rory Kinnear as detective Nick and young Alex Lawther who did a remarkable job playing the young Alan Turing.
Also deserving of acclaim is director Morten Tyldum. Very experienced in his home-country of Norway, this is actually his first direction of a English language feature and it’s an excellent first-effort. Also excellent is the script from Graham Moore. He did an excellent job in creating the story off of Andrew Hodges’ biography setting the three periods of Alan’s life that defined him most and piecing it all together. It succeeds in keeping us interested. Technical aspects were also excellent such as the set design, costuming, cinematography and the composed score by Alexandre Desplat.
The Imitation Game is a unique story about a scientist who went from a hero to a criminal of his time. It tells the story through his eyes and leaves us both interested and getting us to think as well. That’s the movie’s best quality.