Tag Archives: Austria

VIFF 2017 Review: Animals (Tiere)

Animals

Birgit Minichmayr (right) is caught between a troubled marriage and disturbing images in Animals.

The Altered States series at the VIFF provide for a lot of films that cross into the genres and subject of horror, paranormal and the supernatural. Animals is a Swiss film that taps into the supernatural with mysterious results.

The film begins with a suicide outside an apartment building in Austria. A young woman falls to her death. Soon after, a couple by the name of Nick and Anna are to leave on a long trip in the Swiss Alps. Nick rents his suite out during the trip. The taker is a woman named Mischa, who looks very similar to the woman from the floor above.

The two then go on their vacation. Nick is a celebrity chef and Anna is a children’s book author. You can tell the marriage has been going through a lot of difficulties. Some things, like how Nick doesn’t want to have children, are said, but some aren’t. Then all of a sudden, Nick accidentally hits a sheep on the road. The collision kills the sheep and damages the car, but the two aren’t hurt seriously. Later that night, Nick receives the dead sheep wrapped up.

Back at the apartment, a man comes knocking to win back the love of Andrea. He keeps insisting in tears that he wants her back terribly and that his life is nothing without her, but Mischa keeps insisting: “I don’t know you.”

Nick and Anna try to go on with their lives and their marriage after the collision. However Anna is very suspicious of infidelity. Especially after she sees Nick get too friendly with a waitress by the name of Andrea. An attack by a robber on Anna from their car late at night seems to reconfirm Nick’s love to Anna. However Anna had a dream days earlier that Nick was the one who pulled her out, which is why she’s uncomfortable. Nick keeps notes of recipes that he is to use for some of his shows, but Anna is suspicious. Anna gets what she suspects; there is another woman in Nick’s life. When she tells him the news, it appears that Nick hears something completely different. It’s like he’s deaf and in another world.

Back at the apartment, Mischa is in love with another man. Two men are outside her apartment how they were both loved and neglected by her. Days pass and Nick comes across a news article about a ‘horrific sheep collision’ on a country road. The picture of the incident shows Nick looking distraught with a woman being carried away in an ambulance. Nick is shocked. That can’t be since they both survived the incident. They next day, another collision with a sheep happens. This time Anna is taken away in an ambulance. The film ends with a surprise, albeit too rushed.

The film focuses on a wide variety of common themes in a thriller. It focuses on the supernatural, a case of image versus reality, the power of dreams, and even the foretelling of the future. Nick and Anna are living out a slow but intense personal drama in their lives. However things intertwine right after they rent the house to Mischa. There are images of the future, not all pleasant. There is a barrier of communication, or Nick could be in another world of his own. There is a housesitter who either looks like a person who used to live at the apartment or is the same person with a completely different identity. Plus there are the animals that appear to tell something about what will happen in the future. There’s the sheep on the road, the birds that hit the house, and the cat that talks in French. The film can often be seen as including many thriller elements Alfred Hitchcock included in his films. It’s not just the birds reminding one of The Birds. It’s even the feel of the unknown, the mysterious and even the feel of being chased down that adds to the Hitchcock feel in this film.

The problem with this thriller is that it sometimes moves too slowly. The film has a lot of moments that create suspense, but it drags on in a pace that can be too slow for a thriller of such. I can understand why directors would want to slow scenes down for the sake of creating the intensity of the moment, but it appeared to take too long. The film creates intrigue, but it doesn’t keep its feel of the thriller consistent. It also seems like Swiss-born Polish director Greg Zglinski is trying to pack too many elements into the film. It’s impressive that it uses a lot of common thriller elements like the supernatural, the power of dreams, and the future happening in the moment, but it gives a sense that something’s missing. On top of it, Zglinski and co-writer Jorg Kalt appear that they don’t have the story stitched together properly. It’s a film that like a puzzle set that needs to be pieced together, but it doesn’t feel like it’s pieced together well. Even the ending that shows two completely different emotions on Nick gets one wondering.

The film’s actors are the highlight of the film. Birgit Minichmayr does a very good job of playing the wife caught between a fading marriage and this mystery happening before her eyes. Philipp Hochmayr is not given very much range in his role, but he does a good job in what he is given. Mona Petri also does a good job with her multi-personality role as Mischa/Andrea. In addition, the music by Bartosz Chajdecki adds to the drama of the film when it’s there.

Animals is a thriller that shows a lot of potential at first, but comes off as slow, not all together and even incomplete at the end.

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VIFF 2017 Review: Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo is an animated look at the business of prostitution in modern-day Iran.

I started my trip to the Vancouver International Film Festival seeing an animated film called Tehran Taboo. This film is a very telling film in its subject matter and how it plays out in animation.

The story begins with Pari. She’s recently separated from her drug-addicted husband who’s now in prison. To get anywhere in Iran, including getting better things for her 5 year-old mute son Elias, she needs her husband’s signature on documents. She pleads to a judge with religious connections to no avail, but makes her an offer for her to be a ‘madam’ under his system. She refuses at first, but soon changes her mind. She is introduced to the prostitution business and is even given residency for her and her son.

Sara appears to have a happy marriage with her banker husband Mohsen, but it’s not. She finds the marriage discomforting especially since her in-laws are in the way. She finds a way into the system of prostitution. She even ‘works’ with Pari.

Babak is a traditional musician trying to make a name for himself. One night after a lousy show, he has sex with a woman she dances with. The next day, she comes to him saying she needs an operation in her vagina to make her appear like a virgin. She claims she’s getting married in five days. If her fiance finds out, he’ll have her killed. It’s up to Babak to get the money for the operation or find a serum. He even meets up with a hard man she claims to be her fiance.

All three situations criss-cross in the middle of Tehran. All three meet different endings. In the end, the truth about Sara is revealed to Mohsen. It’s right after she makes a phone call for a prostitution request to a man of high government ranking. The man then orders her number traced by the morality police. Sara eventually loses it all. Babak would also lose it all. Just as he is on the verge of coming across the money needed for the operations, he witnesses public hangings. That could be an omen of his own demise. We also learn that the woman was not to be married, but part of a prostitution business where virgins are paid higher money. Despite the difficulties, things work out for Pari. She’s able to make a good income and be able to send Elias to a good school.

This animated film– animated through rotoscope– is an impressive story about three situations all intersecting with the world of prostitution. They all face their own challenges as all have to deal with the laws in Iran: both law-based and religion-based. The influence of religion is seen throughout the film as there’s cases where the husband is required to authorize along with the wife, religious clerics hold high jobs, and the morality police all around ready to arrest even on public signs of affection. Even the fact that there’s such thing as a Morality Police gives an insight of what type of system Iran has been under since the Islamic Revolution of 1978.

Prostitution is very much a hush-hush business almost universally but you can bet it is especially secretive in Iran. We’re talking about a country where adultery is considered grounds for execution. However it’s seen by these three women as a chance to make a higher income. This is especially beneficial since the income for the average Iranian is very low. Pari has a chance to receive a better life for herself and her son thanks to her work, and the red tape of a judge involved. Sara sees prostitution as a chance to escape the strain of her marriage, especially with pushy in-laws. However this ring of prostitution is a detriment for Babak as he finds himself dealing in this business without him knowing. We learn that ‘fiance’ is actually part of the business too much too late for Babak.

This is a story that takes three situations in Tehran and often has them criss-crossing together through each of the characters. Even the protagonists in one of the sub-plots will find themselves involved in the other two plots too. The three stories intersect with both the photo studio where the photographer would take pictures of those involved and Elias the mute son who says nothing, but is a witness to all that goes on. The story plays itself out both as a story with a lot of intrigue and even some comedic moments, like when they have to deal with a gynecologist with poor personal hygiene or the photographer always changing backgrounds.

SPOILER WARNING: In the end, it’s Pari who’s the one that benefits most from this system of prostitution, if not the only one benefiting at all. Babak finds himself stuck in the middle of what would become what many believe to be his tragic fate in the end. Sara loses it all in the end, and it’s obvious her drug-induced jump at the end is a suicide. It’s evident she feels like she has nothing to live for. Pari, on the other hand, had the unfairness in her favor. She struggled with the unfairness of the Iranian legal system demanding her husband’s signature for many things; that’s the law in Iran. How could she when her ex-husband is in prison? But when the Iranian judge offered her an entry into the prostitution business, it opened doors for her and Elias. It even allowed her to achieve things without her husband’s signature. Despite the struggles, it appears Pari is the only one who won.

This is the first feature-length animated film for Ali Soozandeh. Ali was born in Iran but would emigrate to Germany. It’s easy to see why the film’s countries of production are listed as Germany and Austria. There’s no way Iran would allow for a film like this to be released! The film which he directed and co-wrote with Grit Kienzlen is a very good story of intrigue and will raise a lot of eyebrows about what’s going on ‘underground’ in a country like Iran. All the actors did their parts very well, whether it be doing their voices or acting for their rotoscope images. I feel the rotoscope method of animation fits the film very well in terms of telling its story. Rotoscope also helped well with Waltz With Bashir a few years ago.

Tehran Taboo is an excellent animated film about the secrets of Iran few know about. The stories of those involved, and why they do it, are made very clear.

UEFA Euro 2016: Group F Focus

Euro Logos

For my predictions for the previous groups, just click below on the links and you’re there:

Interesting how the next Euro won’t have a single host country. It was decided in 2014 for what will be the 60th anniversary of the Euro to have all the first round matches and knockout games in cities throughout the continent mainly for that celebration. The second reason why was because Europe was, and still is to a certain extent, struggling with an economic crisis. It makes sense as most cities that have agreed to stage part of the tournament will use the stadium already in existence. Only Brussels is planning a new stadium for Euro 2020 and Budapest is planning a new version of their old stadium in time for the tournament. This should prove interesting in how it works out. In the meantime, here are my predictions for Group F:

Portugal FixedPortugal (8): This isn’t simply the time for The Navigators. More like this is the century for them. Back in the 20th century, the team only qualified for two World Cup and two Euros. Now they’ve made every World Cup since 2002. Not to mention every Euro since 1996. The team features legends like Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Alves, Nani and Pepe. The team also shows promise for their youth as they were finalists in the under-21 Euro last year. They team will come to France in hopes of shaking off their embarrassment from the 2014 World Cup of being ousted in the Group Stage. The team brought back Fernando Santos whom coached Greece at the 2014 World Cup. The squad for Euro 2016 features a wealth of talent both old and young. Since Brazil, the team has had a lot of key wins against Argentina, Belgium, Serbia and Italy. They’ve also had some key losses against France, Bulgaria, Russia and England. The players playing their best strengths and the right team chemistry should take them far in Euro 2016, if not win.

IcelandIceland (35): Iceland amazes me. A nation of less than half a million people fielding a football team to be reckoned with. This is their first-ever Euro. They almost qualified for the 2014 World Cup going as far as the knockout stage against eventual qualifiers Croatia and even bringing them to a scoreless draw in the first match. They’ve even reached their highest FIFA ranking of 23rd for three months of last year. The team consist of members that play for a variety of teams throughout Europe across many different countries. Sweden’s Allsvenskan league is the national league with the most members of the national team. In the past two years, the team has had key wins against Turkey, Czech Republic, Greece and the Netherlands twice. However 2016 has shown the team struggle in Friendly play losing four of their seven matches including Norway, Denmark and the United States. France will be the first stage for them to prove themselves on an international level. Don’t count them out.

AustriaAustria (11): Austria is an enigma. The team had their best days in the 1930’s and 1950’s. Since the 1960’s the team’s prowess has declined with only qualifying for four World Cups and giving a dismal showing at Euro 2008 which they co-hosted. Since 2014, the team has shown a remarkable turnaround. In Euro qualifying, they finished top of the group by winning nine of their ten games and only drawing once, even overpowering Russia and Sweden. The current team is coached by Swiss coach Marcel Koller and features players that mostly play for Germany’s Bundesliga. In the past two years, the team has had additional wins against the Czech Republic and Albania. The team has also had losses against Turkey, Switzerland and the Netherlands. I’m sure they hope to show the World what they’re made of in France. Possibly their best team in decades.

HungaryHungary (18): I’m sure Hungary hates being known as a ‘blast from the past’ but it’s easy to dismiss them as that. It’s a long ways since their days of being the ‘Magical Magyars’ back in the 30’s and 50’s which include two World Cup finals appearances and Olympic gold in 1952. Their first signs of their prowess waning came in the 60’s. Despite finishing third in Euro 1964, they only went as far as the quarterfinals at both the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. Since 1966, the team has never made it past the Group Stage at the World Cup with their last appearance in 1986. Their last Euro appearance was in 1972. The demise of Communism led to less focus on Hungarian football talent and an eventual demise in world rankings including a worst-ever FIFA ranking of 86th in 1996. However Hungarian football is making a comeback as there is more funding for football and more development of players happening nationally. They’ve even hired a German, Bernd Storck, as their head coach. Most of the players play for Hungary’s OTP Bank Liga but there are four players that play for teams of Germany’s Bundesliga. They’ve had notable victories in the last two years against Finland, Norway and Albania and some notable draws against Croatia and Greece. They’ve also had some notable losses to Russia and Germany. France could be the stage for them to prove Hungary’s back.

Prediction: Okay, my final prediction for the final group. Predicting Portugal to top it is easy. Predicting the other two is heard because it could be any of the three. I’ll go with Austria second because of their consistency and Hungary third.

And this not only sums up my review of Group F but of all Euro 2016 first round groups. Some of you may wonder why I haven’t predicted the winner of the Euro yet. It’s simple. Because I’ve always had a case on my blog of predicting the groups first and then making predictions for the knockout rounds as the tournament moves on and then then predicting the final just days before it happens. It always was my case. Besides if I went with my group predictions, I’d have a raw idea on who would win the Euro as I mapped them out. I’ve basically mapped out that the winner of the Cup would end up being France. Yeah, that raw. So hang tight right now.

And that wraps it up for all my pre-tournament posting of Euro 2016.24 teams playing, only 16 will still stand after Wednesday the 22nd. It all remains to be decided over the next two weeks. More predictions and write-ups from me coming as the tournament progresses.

2016 Eurovision Song Contest Final Preview

eurovision2016euro

I’ll admit I had no intention of posting a preview blog about the final. I was just content with watching the performers and playing ‘armchair judge’ for my own leisure. Besides I intended for my detailed blog of the ESC to be my only blog about it.

However that all changed last night as I was on Youtube and the ESC channel watching video after video of the night’s semi-final performances. Hey, when the show’s on live at noon your time, that’s your resort. That all changed after I added comment after comment with many of the videos. And that’s what inspired me to do this preview of the final for the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.

For this preview, I’ve decided to post my opinions about the performances in the semi-finals. I will be judging the performances of both the competitors from the semis as well as those from Sweden and the Big 5 whom I will call ‘automatics’ because they automatically have their berths in the Final and their performances in the semis are simply a dress rehearsal for the Finals.

I felt it best that I place my judgements mostly on their semi-final performances. A lot of people have based their judgements from the song’s official music video released on YouTube months before the Contest. The videos are very telling in terms of how well each song will do however I feel the performances in the semis are more telling as it gives a good sense what their live show will be and even how together they are as a performer. Sure the semi won’t tell it all but it will tell it most. I do feel that the song is the key thing to base a judgement on. No matter how big of a show you put on, the song and its content is unavoidable. However I will consider showmanship as a performer will still have to make the song entertaining and eyecatching. Simply put, I will give top kudos to those performances who deliver best.

I will also start with my first section where I give opinions of the performances that have qualified for the final. I will then give my personal picks for who I would give the biggest point to if I were a jury. Note I will not be making predictions like I normally do. I will be giving my preferences and opinions. I’m not familiar with the music tastes of most European countries nor am I familiar with jury tastes. So here goes:

SEMIFINAL 1:

  • Hungary: Freddie  ‘Pioneer’ Very good song with a very dramatic opening. Freddie has very good vocals in singing the song. The song is far from boring. It will catch your ears. A deserving finalist.
  • Croatia: Nina Kraljic ‘Lighthouse‘ – Nina came to Stockholm in hopes of breaking Croatia’s bad-luck spell of missing out in the finals since 2009. She did exactly that. As for her performance, you’ll think her outfit at the beginning is ridiculous but that’s part of adding drama or theatrics to the song. I’m cool with that as long as it’s done right. Her performance was very good and deserving of her final berth.
  • Netherlands: Douwe Bob ‘Slow Down‘ – This is one of my delights of the night. I’m impressed to see how the Dutch know how to do bluesy rock or rockabilly. The Dutch did it before in 2014 with ‘Calm After The Storm‘ and they do it again here. Best song of the evening that delivers as a great alternative after so many techno numbers. Stage show is minimal but it works for the song instead of against it. I ranked it my 3rd place of this semi.
  • Armenia: Iveta Mukuchyan ‘LoveWave‘ – It’s not the best of the night but it’s still good and a deserving finalist. Very good song with good vocals. I felt the stage show was a bit iffy. Otherwise very deserving nonetheless.
  • Russia: Sergei Lazarev ‘You Are The Only One‘ – What can I say? For me that was the show of the first semi and my #1 pick for that night. It didn’t have the same song quality the Netherlands had but still an entertaining song with the most entertaining stage show of the evening. Definitely an eye-catcher and it will not surprise me if this song is a top contender for the win on Saturday.
  • Czech Republic: Gabriela Guncikova ‘I Stand‘ – Not exactly a song that stands out too much. Nevertheless Gabriela did sing it well and perform it well on stage. what it lacks in catchiness, it makes up for in its consistency and professionalism. A very deserving finalist. Especially since this is the first time in five tries a Czech performer qualifies for the final. Great job!
  • Cyprus: Minus One ‘Alter Ego‘ – You’d think with this being Cyprus, it would be ethnopop, right? Actually this is a hard rock song high in energy. I could even feel the energy of the song while watching it. Great song and great performance which was one of my favorites of the night. I feel it should do strong on Saturday.
  • Austria: Zoe ‘Loin d’Ici‘ – This was my surprise of the night. I like it when a song goes beyond my expectations. At first you’d think a number too sweet would come off as saccharine to you. However this is one ‘sweet’ song that actually did everything right and even charmed me. Excellent stage show that tried mimicking what was in her video. However if anyone had doubts about her song while watching her video before the Semi, I think her performance in the semi increased her chances of winning. It was better than the video. I consider this my 2nd place of the semi.
  • Azerbaijan: Samra ‘Miracle‘ – Once again a case of an Azerbaijani singer performing a song written by Swedes. This is one of only two semifinalists whom I did not have on my list of my ten ‘finals picks.’ The song was good but I’ve seen better performances by Azerbaijani acts in past ESCs. I think 2013’s ‘Hold Me‘ is their best ever.  Also the back-up dancers did a real tacky job of dancing. That’s all I can describe about it. Their dancing was tacky. Nevertheless Samra was dressed well and she did sing her song very well despite t not being much of a song. I just feel it didn’t deserve to be in the semis.
  • Malta: Ira Losco ‘Walk On Water‘ – Once again a case of a stageshow that was hard to swallow thanks to backup dancing. Ira did her song very well. However the dancer on stage just plain came off as ridiculous and irritating. It actually turned me off the song. This is the other finalist from the first semi that I felt didn’t deserve it.

SEMIFINAL 2:

  • Latvia: Justs ‘Heartbeat‘ – The biggest thing about the song is its arresting instrumentation. The stage graphics fit the song very well and Justs delivers the song in style and with the right moves you’d expect from a male pop singer. Justs does it solo without backup singers or backup dancers and does it with style. I ranked it the best performance of this semi because it grabs your attention from the very start and won’t let go.
  • Poland: Michal Szpak ‘Color Of Your Life‘ – This is a good ballad delivered very well from Michal. Its style really stands out. Michal delivered it very professionally despite missing a note near the first chorus. The biggest glitch I feel has to be the vintage military jacket he wears on stage. I don’t think it fit the performance that well. Especially since Justs that was on just before him came on stage with a leather jacket. Backup violinists and stage graphics blended well with the performance.
  • Israel: Hovi Star ‘Made Of Stars‘ – This is an excellent ballad delivered very well with excellent singing from Hovi. I almost thought he was doing a cover of an Adele song. The stage graphics added excellently to the song. However the two dancers on the spinning hoop had me questioning whether they were worth it or not? Do they add or subtract? Because Hovi delivers well in a no nonsense performance.
  • Serbia: Sanja Vucic ZAA ‘Goodbye‘ – It’s both a ‘Balkan Ballad’ and a power ballad. Excellent vocals full of emotion and a set up back-up singers that add to the drama and power. Might bring back memories to some of 2007 winner ‘Molitva’ but it holds its own. The male backup dancer didn’t add but he didn’t subtract from the performance either. If there’s one weakness, it’s her stiff black dress. Overall an excellent package and I rank it second-best of this semifinal.
  • Lithuania: Donny Montell ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night‘ – A powerful song with a lot of energy and Donny knows how to deliver it vocally. However I didn’t like how he added Michael Jackson-like dance moves to his performance. I feel it did not fit the song at all. Maybe the front flip near the end helped but the dancing didn’t. This is one of two from this semi that qualified for the final that didn’t make my personal Top 10.
  • Australia: Dami Im ‘Sound Of Silence‘ – A very powerful ballad delivered excellent by Dani. I also have no problem with the dress since it was meant to fit the song. However I’m not too happy about some of the stage choices she was given such as sitting on that platform until after the second chorus. She does walk around after that and deliver the song well but I don’t think she was given enough movement.
  • Bulgaria: Poli Genova ‘If Love Was A Crime‘ – Many people felt Poli was robbed of a finals berth five years ago with ‘Na Inat‘ but she finally gets it here. I’ll admit this is not that much of an attention-grabber of a song. Nor were a few of her dance moves the best. Nevertheless Poli delivered the song well and gave it its energy and made it enjoyable to hear. It’s very good for the most part.
  • Ukraine: Jamala ‘1944‘ – This is the first song at the ESC with Crimean Tatar lyrics. This is probably the most political song at this Contest. She has a song with a message and she delivers it with emotion in the song. The wailing at the end of the song is a big plus and especially shows off her vocal abilities. However political songs are touchy grounds at the ESC. They welcome it as long as it’s subtle. I feel this is deserving of its finals berth.
  • Georgia: Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz ‘Midnight Gold‘ – The number starts with a lot of potential with some exciting rock instrumentation and fitting stage graphics. However it goes downhill when the singer delivers vocals with notes that don’t seem to fit the song. I don’t know if he did it for creative purposes but his choices don’t really fit at all. Can’t complain about the instrumentation as it’s the best part. However this is the second qualifier to the final from this semi that I felt didn’t deserve it. Actually I ranked it second-to-last of this semi.
  • Belgium : Laura Tesoro ‘What’s The Pressure‘ – At last! A song that makes you wanna get down! Laura delivers a funky, feel-good energetic number that delivers all the best qualities of a pop number including vocals, dancing and even trying to get the crowd involved. I ranked this the third-best of this semi.

AUTOMATICS:

  • France: Amir ‘J’ai Cherche‘ – Good song, has a lot of energy, very good singing, but it comes across as rather boring. I don’t know what it is but when I saw Amir perform, I felt like there was something missing. I don’t know how this will fare on Saturday.
  • Spain: Barei ‘Say Yay!‘ – Now this is one number I feel will go far. A very good song that is full of energy and has good potential of being catchy. Also she performs excellently on stage. She dances like she’s in control and delivers the song as she should. I question her dress, especially with the 03 on it. However I feel she will be great on Saturday night.
  • Sweden: Frans ‘If I Were Sorry‘ – Sweden has one of the best success records at Eurovision. This number however is very questionable. Frans delivered a boring performance where the background tries to make the song interesting by flashing key words. He does sing the song well but his accent is too thick to comprehend some of the lyrics. I think he might score well in the popular vote because of his teen idol status but I don’t think he’ll score well with the judges.
  • Germany: Jamie-Lee ‘Ghost‘ – I have to say a good song and Jamie-Lee is a very good singer. However her outfit was too over the top. I’m cool with a weird outfit done for theatrical purposes such as Nina Kraljic’s outfit during the opening of ‘Spotlight’ but that was too ridiculous like Alice In Wonderland went through a flower garden. The backup singers had on sensible clothes and the trees that shot laser beams worked good but that outfit is dumb and works against her performance. However the outfit will make her win the Barbara Dex award.
  • United Kingdom: Joe & Jake ‘You’re Not Alone‘ – I have to say it’s a very good song with a very good performance. The two sing the song very well and add to the young energy of the song. It’s hard to find something to dislike about this number, especially since it’s very low in gimmicks. I think the one cheesy thing was probably the jumping near the end. One thing we have to keep in mind is that ‘no nonsense’ performances like these are great but they face the obstacle of winning attention from both televoters and the juries. Nevertheless I do wish the best for both of them. Especially since the UK used to have quite a Eurovision legacy and the 21st century has been very unkind to them with only two Top 10 finishes.
  • Italy: Francesca Michielin ‘No Degree Of Separation‘ – Italy rarely disappoints. They’ve mostly delivered some top notch performances to the Contest over the years, even in the last few years. And this year’s entry is a delight too. 21 year-old Francesca Michielin is already a seasoned pro. You’ll notice it as she sings the song consistently and with feeling. Adding the feeling to the song is a big plus. A big minus to the song however is all those stage props and stage graphics. I don’t know if they were trying to reflect a theme or emulate the music video but I feel it went too far and they were distracting from the song. This could work against her performance which holds its own without all the added stuff.

So those are my thoughts for the qualifiers. As for the ‘also-rans’:

Semi-Final 1: I know I said Malta and Azerbaijan didn’t deserve to be in the final. In their place should be Iceland and Moldova. They did their performance better. Finland’s Sandhja was good but came off as flat. That’s not good especially when you’re first up. Greece must have forgotten the golden rule of rap acts at Eurovision: rap acts go nowhere, even if it’s mixed with ethnopop. It’s a shame because I usually like the Greek numbers. San Marino’s Serhat had a style but I didn’t see it as enough to qualify for the final. Estonia came off as ridiculous in his stage antics and his voice. Montenegro’s number sounded like a mashed-up song and Bosnia’s on-stage theatrics made me wonder if it was really necessary for the song.

Semi-Final 2: If I were to trade Georgia and Lithuania from the finals, I’d put in Ireland and Macedonia. Ireland was full of energy and delivered well. Macedonia was also excellent, especially in her vocal range. Switzerland had a good song but it all fell apart with all the on-stage props and moves she was given. Belarus had potential but I thought the face stripes were dumb. Slovenia was good but the singer delivered awkward stage poses that worked against her. The Danish vocal trio came across as rather boring. Norway delivered a song that alternate from one tempo and mood of the verses to a different tempo and completely different mood in the chorus. It didn’t really mix well. And Albania had good potential but I feel her chances were marred by lousy backup singers.

Overall I have to say this is a mostly good set of performers for this Contest. There is a bit of the eccentric in some elements but it’s nothing compared to the ‘freak shows’ of five years ago or even ten years ago. I think the freakiest moments will come from Germany and Italy. I guess the country’s are now getting the message that doing something super-eccentric or super-gimmicky doesn’t pay. I didn’t notice too many off-key moments and those that did recovered well.

Like I said, I don’t know enough about European music tastes to make predictions. So instead I’m giving my personal Top 10. Eurovision style, of course:

  • Poland, 1 point.
  • Australia, 2 points.
  • Spain, 3 points.
  • Cyprus, 4 points.
  • Netherlands, 5 points.
  • Belgium, 6 points.
  • Serbia, 7 points.
  • Austria, 8 points.
  • Latvia, 10 points.
  • And my personal 12 points goes to…Russia!

So there’s my summary of the 2016 Eurovision finalists and their semifinal performances. I’m glad I don’t have to be a jury member because it’s a headache ranking them. Mind you anything can change on Saturday. They may go off key or something may malfunction or the energy that was there in the semi may not be there in the final. Even things like performance order can play a factor. How ironic how Belgium who ended the second semifinal will open the final? Ending the final will be Armenia. Whatever the situation, I wish all the performers the best and the winning performer’s country to get ready to host next year!

Oscars 2015 Shorts Review: Best Live-Action Short Film

Cinema

The Oscar-nominated short films were back in theatres again. However this year I only had the chances to see the live-action one day and the animated another. I have no problem writing separate reviews for both. So here’s my take on the live-action shorts:

Ave Maria (Palestine/France/Germany): dirs. Eric Dupont and Basil Khalil – Five nuns pray at a convent in a ‘war-zone’ area of Palestine. Then they hear what sounds like an explosive car crash. One tries to help despite the fact they are under a vow of silence. What happened was a car driven by Jewish residents accidentally crashed into the Virgin Mary statue. They try to help but there are conflicts with the nuns’ vows of silence and the family’s strict adherence to the Sabbath and with kosherisms. Not to mention they don’t want to be noticed by Arab residents in the area.

The film does focus on the religious tensions in Palestine but in a humorous way. All of this takes place in the area of the convent. However it’s funny how something as little as a car crash and people trying to seek out help can lead to such religious conflicts. That may have been the least of problems in Palestine but even then it just shows the humor of the whole situation and of how in the end it’s all about doing the right thing. I feel the film’s mix of humor while conveying a social message is why I predict it Will Win the Oscar.

Shok (Kosovo/UK): dir. Jamie Donoughue – A car driving on a Kosovo road stops at an abandoned child’s bicycle. But why would a grown male from the car leave the car to look at the bicycle? And why would he ride it soon after?

The answer flashes back to the mid-90’s. Two Kosovar Albanian boys Petrit and Oki are the closest of friends. They frequently go to school riding on the bicycle Oki bought after a year of selling almonds. Petrit wants a bike of his own but feels he can get it by selling drugs and rolling papers to Serbian soldiers who’ve taken over the area. He feels it could also prevent them invading their village despite news stories of other areas of Kosovo being invaded. He even tells Oki he’s safe with him.

However Petrit’s promise and ‘business’ is put under heavy question during one of his ‘deals’ as a Serbian soldier wants Oki’s bicycle. It’s not the lost bicycle Oki’s angry about but the fact Petrit is willing to do something dangerous and dishonest for money and it threatens their friendship. They reconcile after Petrit is willing to take an assault from a soldier after Albanian books are found in Oki’s bag and Petrit claims them as his own. Unfortunately the invasion of their village eventually comes and with it the tragic end of the friendship of Oki and Petrit.

Of all five shorts, this is the one that still stayed with me long after I left the theatre. This is a story based on true events. I easily remember the war in the Balkans, especially the bloodshed in Bosnia, back in the 90’s. It dominated the news that decade. The war in Kosovo just years after the war in Bosnia ended was another example of the tyranny and I remember that as well. It does leave you feeling it was unfair of what happened to Oki. He was the smart one. He was the one who kept Petrit’s head on straight. But he was the one killed. Also that end scene where we see a grown-up Petrit still haunted by the war more that fifteen years later reminds you that war still haunts even as time passes and even if Kosovo did get its independence. My cousin once said: “No country’s freedom came without some amount of bloodshed.” True, but the bloodshed still leaves people with a trauma not even independence can solve. That’s why I pick Shok to be my Should Win pick.

Eveything Will Be Okay (Austria/Germany): dir. Patrick Vollrath – The film starts on a simple note. A man named Michael goes to see his daughter Lea for visitation. His ex-wife and new boyfriend don’t have a problem with that at all so we think it will just be a fun day of the two of them without incident. It starts on a fun note as he buys her a big Playmobil toy and promises to taker her to the fair afterwards. However things get a bit suspicious as the two go to a photo booth where he gets Lea to have a photo of her own and takes to a passport office for rush processing. Things get even fishier when Michael sells his car and they take a cab to the airport. Soon we get what’s going on. It’s a miracle the flight to Dubai was cancelled but they have a replacement flight the next morning. Despite Lea wanting to go home, Michael is insistent on taking her and for her to cooperate. It’s by the luck of Lea making a phone call to her mother overnight that they’re able to prevent an abduction from happening. But not without a struggle.

This is a film of a scenario that happens all too often. A broken marriage and children caught in the middle even to the point of them being abducted. This is something that happens all over the world. However the story is not just about the child caught in the middle but the parent who’s hurting and feels that the child is being taken away from him. The film leaves you wondering if Michael suffers from a mental illness or if he’s just a hurting person. It leaves you feeling that way of a lot of parents from failed marriages. Is that why they abduct their children? The film also leaves you relieved that the flight was cancelled and that Lea was able to make that phone call to her mother in the early morning. Not as many children are as lucky.

The best quality of the film is that it helps the audience live the moment. We don’t know what’s really happening at first but we soon get a better understanding of what’s happening as time goes on. Even as they go to the fair and ride the bumper cars, we still can’t take our mind off of what we suspect will happen. And as time moves on, what we suspect is exactly what’s happening. In addition that scene which we think is the end where the police, Lea’s mother and the hotel personnel try to stop the heist ends up being a scene where a new conflict begins. Michael still struggle to hang onto Lea. That’s another quality of the film where right where we think it’s all over, it’s not and a new struggle begins. On top of that the film’s story is shown without any musical score which adds to the intensity of the drama.

This is a film of a story of an incident that happens all too often in our world. The film’s best qualities are the story unfolding quietly as time unfolds and the unexpected twists in the drama.

-Stutterer (UK/Ireland): dirs. Benjamin Cleary and Serena Armitage – Greenwood, a twentysomething London male with a stutter finds life difficult. His stutter is so severe, it causes problems when calling customer service. He has a job as a typographer but his social life is limited to him with his father. Often he fakes himself as death to try and avoid conversation. His thoughts however are perfectly coherent.

Despite his social flaws and his speech problem, he has developed an online relationship with a woman named Ellie. That works excellently and they keep the relationship going for six months despite never meeting face to face. However the day comes when Ellie would like to meet Greenwood for the first time. He’s in a crisis of what to do and abandons her at first but agrees to do so the next day despite being nervous as hell. The ending will surprise you.

This is a charming story. It takes you into the person’s feelings as well as their insecurities. You learn of Greenwood’s stutter and of what he’s really thinking and easily see the barriers he has to face. You learn about Greenwood the person and hope that in the end he does win Ellie. The ending will delight you. Very clever short film.

 –Day One (USA): dir. Henry Hughes – Feda is a young woman just hired by the U.S. Army to act as interpreter. She’s in her 30’s and admits to her colleague who also speaks Arabic that she’s never been married and has no children. Her operation on Day One involves dealing with an enemy bomb maker the army is about to arrest. The operation involves a lot more. It also involves bring his fatherless niece to safety. It also involves dealing with his wife who’s about to give birth.

As if trying to deliver the baby isn’t stressful enough, there’s the fact the baby’s hand is hanging out. The doctor tests for a pulse from the baby and assumes there isn’t one. Feda is given orders to cut the deceased baby’s limbs so that the mother doesn’t bleed to death. Even before Feda attempts the first cut, she notices the hand move. The baby’s alive. There is a sigh of relief but there’s the new stress of making sure the baby’s born right and the mother not bleeding to death. The film ends on a sad but hopeful note.

Just like Everything Will Be Okay, it captures the drama of the moment and allows the audience to capture the intensity as the events are slowly unfolding. The various twists and turns in the story also adds to the continuous drama. The happy ending we all hope for doesn’t happen but it does end with a moment of hope, especially for Feda.

In conclusion, I feel Shok should win the Oscar because of how it’s a story that stays with you long after you leave the theatre. It was creative and it told a story that will touch you deep down inside. I still remember hearing a couple of people in tears after Oki was shot. However I don’t know if the Academy will pick a short that’s all too serious. I think they might want to go for a story leading more to the humorous side. I think Ave Maria with its mix of humor and social awareness will take the Oscar. I think the Academy would prefer a film like that.

And there are my thoughts for this year’s five nominees in the category of Best Live Action Short Film. Winners to be decided on the big night. Also click here for my reviews of the animated shorts.

Oscars 2012 Best Picture Nominee: Amour

Amour

Amour is the first foreign language film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 12 years. This film is also the second film by Austrian director Michael Haneke that won the Palme d’Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Watching it will surprise you how the saying that ‘less is more’ is true here.

The film actually opens with the ending at the very beginning. After the title’s flashed, the film sets up the events leading to its ending. The first event is a crowd of people at a concert hall gathering to watch a classical piano performance. In the crowd is an elderly couple: Anna and Georges. Both Anna and Georges are retired music teachers and the concert they see is of one of their former students. The next day Georges notices Anne catatonic at breakfast. Georges gets her help and she’s found to have had a stroke. She is to have surgery on a blocked carotid artery but the surgery goes wrong leaving her confined to a wheelchair with a paralyzed right side. Anne makes Georges promise her she’ll never go to a hospital or to a nursing home. She doesn’t even want to talk about it in conversation with one of her students.

Both continue life as well as they can but life becomes more difficult for Anne and she loses the desire to live further. A visit from their former student softens the mood but Anne however wants no reminder of her illness in conversation. Anne however suffers another stroke which causes further deterioration to her body. It’s serious to the point her daughter flies in from her home to see her.

Georges keeps his promise to Anne but with great difficulty and a lot of personal strain. He employs two nurses to look after her on separate days only to have one fired for mistreatment. Anne loses the ability to speak coherently to the point she can only shout “Hurt!” repetitively. Georges has to act as the nurse at certain times. There was even one time Georges has to get Anne to drink her water despite her refusal. It’s when Anne is crying in pain and Georges tries to comfort her with a childhood story that leads to the set up for the ending we saw at the beginning.

The film’s biggest asset has to be the truthfulness of the situation. It captures the silent intensities of the moment and the people struggling with it. It tells the story of Anne and her struggle with her illness as it slowly takes everything from her. She hangs onto the one thing the illness can’t take away: her love for her husband. Also this was more than just about Anne dying but the Georges’ relationship to her. His love is being tested too as her illness dehabilitated her and reduced her to a person he can’t recognize. He tries to be the loving husband. He tries to be the force that keeps her wanting to live. He tries to have her wishes followed. His successes don’t come without its difficulties. That has to be the biggest quality of the film. Not just simply telling the story but focusing on the relationship of the two. The relationship is what the story’s all about.

This is another accomplishment by director/writer Michael Haneke. Haneke is one director who has been able to make a big impact in the new century. He started making a name for himself with The Piano Teacher and has since gotten better with each additional film he sends out from Cache (Hidden) to The White Ribbon which won him his first Palme d’Or from Cannes to Amour. As in his previous works, he is successful at capturing the feel of the moment. He captures the tension of the situation and the emotions and relations of those involved. It’s a no-nonsense story-focused picture that Haneke succeeds in bringing out.

Emmanuelle Riva was excellent in her acting. This was a performance that wasn’t just about emotional acting but physical acting too. Her ability to play a stroke victim well was excellent technically. And all this done at the age of 84 makes it all the more admirable. Despite the great performance of Riva, we should not overlook the performance of Jean-Louis Trintignant. His performance as the husband dealing with it all is also excellent and worthy of respect. He too spoke volumes in his performance and also added to the story. The film also makes a great effort in playing out with no musical score in the background. This is common in Haneke’s films not to have a musical score. Having this film without a score adds to the intensity of the situation and adds to the focus of the relationship of the two.

You remember I talked about film eligibility in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards in my review of Rebelle. This adds more question to the discussion. Amour is a film representing Austria: the country of nationality of director Michael Haneke. Yet it is situated in France and completely consisting of French dialogue. The reason why I’m bring these facts up during these two foreign film nominees is that it does have me wondering what the rules are. I myself take Amour for what it is and am not insisting that Haneke should’ve done it in German. However it does have me wondering about what constitutes a country’s official submission to that category. I was told years ago that an entry of such had to consist of the country’s predominant language or languages. I also was told a multitude of years ago that it had to be set in the country of origin. All I know is the rules don’t make a lot of sense. I’m sure that Amour would have the same Oscar nomination success without being a country’s official submission for the foreign film category. Nevertheless it does get me thinking.

As of now, Amour is the one film with the least release of all the Best Picture nominees. Normally it’s common for films that make for the top contestants for the Best Foreign Language Film to wait until after the Academy Awards for a wider release rather than after the nominations. Amour is doing just that with a very limited release despite its nomination for Best Picture. This weekend saw the film playing at 64 screens across North America: 28 more than the previous weekend. The total gross has just surpassed $1.8 million. Could it be possible it too is waiting until after the Oscars for a wider release?

Amour is possibly the most no-nonsense of all the Best Picture nominees. Michael Haneke knows how to tell a story well and not only does he do it again but he delivers one of the best films of the year. Worth seeing if you have the chance.