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.
Foxcatcher isn’t just simply an Olympic story with a tragically bizarre ending. It isn’t completely a crime story either. It’s about the people involved.
It’s 1987. Mark Schultz is an Olympic wrestling champion who’s about to do a talk at an elementary school substituting for his brother Dave who was expected to be the talker. The school gives him a small payment for his time. Dave is coach of the wrestling gym married with two small children and trainer of Mark. Although Dave tries to be a good mentor to Mark, you could tell something’s eating at him.
One day unsuspectingly, he’s greeted by John DuPont, heir to the E.I. DuPont family fortune. He offers to have Mark train at the Team Foxcatcher gym in Pennsylvania he created to promote wrestling. Mark agrees but John also wants Dave to coach. Dave turns it down because he has family commitments miles away. Despite that, Mark continues on with John coaching him even living in a DuPont guest house which John sometimes visits. The training pays off as Mark wins the World Championships later that year. John is even seen as a mentor to Mark and all the other wrestlers at Team Foxcatcher.
However something’s not right. John wants the wrestling trophies won by Team Foxcatcher to overtake one shelf of horseracing trophies his family have won over the years. Mark and John develop a friendship to the point John gets Mark to use cocaine. John even mentions his mother paid a boy to be his ‘friend’ when he was younger. His mother Jean who’s part of the DuPont legacy of horseracing is disapproving of his coaching wrestling feeling that it’s a ‘low’ sport. Then one day it happens. While Team Foxcatcher’s wrestlers take a day off to watch a Mixed Martial Arts event, John becomes furious especially when Mark insists Dave won’t join team Foxcatcher. John tells him he will get Dave by any means necessary.
Dave agrees to Team Foxcatcher where he even moves his wife and family over there. Mark however is going through self-esteem issues with the mental abusiveness of John and moves away to train for the 1988 Olympics. Just before the Olympic trials, John has his mother Jean escorted in her wheelchair to see what John has accomplished. She leaves in disgust after seeing John give his back to one of his students.
At the Olympic trials, you can tell something is bothering Mark. He loses his first match and in response cries, wrecks his room and goes on an eating binge. Dave is alarmed at discovering Mark in his condition in his hotel room and works to get him to lose weight in time for the weigh-in. As Mark competes on, he notices Dave prevent John from speaking to him. Mark wins the Olympic trials but both he and Dave notice John is absent. He returned home as his mother died. Mark lets Dave know he can’t stay with John and Team Foxcatcher after the Olympics and asks Dave to leave with him even though John created a promotional video of Team Foxcatcher with Dave asked to do a speech. Mark finishes sixth at the 1988 Olympics where he loses his last match 14-0. As he said, he leaves Team Foxcatcher for home while Dave agrees to remain training Team Foxcatcher in exchange for John giving Mark financial support.
It’s 1996. John watches the promotional video with the part of Mark’s speech about John. This would pave way to the depiction of the eventual murder. However the film ends showing what happened to Mark shortly after.
It’s funny how around Oscar time, it’s common to expect that most movies with big Oscar buzz would have some sort of political message or humanistic message. So it was quite natural for me to think that Foxcatcher might be a film with things to say about Olympic athletes or how they’re treated in the US. I don’t think it was but it did present a unique time in Olympic sport. Many older people remember that until the 80’s, you had to be a complete amateur in an Olympic sport. Even if you made a single penny off your sport, you were ineligible to compete at the Olympics. That all changed in the early 80’s when the IOC changed its constitution from allowing only ‘amateur’ athletes to allowing ‘eligible’ athletes to compete and it would be each sport’s respective federation decide who’s eligible. There were some sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics that were the first to make the transition and the pay and sponsorship money was good albeit not the same level it is today. Wrestling was one of the sports to catch on later. In Mark’s time, wrestlers could not make a living off their sport unless you were also a coach like Dave. In fact I remember a quote from Olympic gymnast Bart Conner: “The big myth is that Olympic gold medalists can get rich off their gold medal. I know a lot of Olympic champions that are flipping burgers.” So it’s no wonder that Mark would find sponsorship from John DuPont and the state-of-the-art Team Foxcatcher wrestling gym a welcome relief.
I don’t even think it’s a statement about rich people in the United States. Sure, John was born into money as the DuPont family have a dynasty going all the way back to the 18th century. Sure, John appears to be spoiled living in the same gigantic mansion in the middle of nowhere as his parents. Sure, John has the money to make his dream of being a great wrestling coach come true. Sure, John had a sheltered childhood where he was the youngest of four and had a ‘paid friend’ during his childhood. And sure, John has a mother with a superficial attitude as made evident in her comment of wrestling being a ‘low sport.’ However I don’t feel it’s about the American rich.
What I do feel the movie is to do about are the people. Yes, it’s a crime story but it’s also about the people. John appears to be a person who may have been belittled all his life and dreamed of being a successful wrestling coach or manager. He has written successful books on birds but wanted to become successful as a wrestling coach. This is especially hard for him since his family has a tradition of horse racing. Throughout the movie, we get a sense that he felt that something was missing in him. Even after hiring Dave as the coach, we see friction between the two as they’re both training and managing Mark. Sure, it’s common for two coaches on the same team to have disputes but the disputes make you wonder. In fact that scene where John is watching the video of himself promoting him and his gym just before the shooting may be sending the message he always felt underrespected. Maybe it was because he felt like the misfit of the family. Maybe it was because his family never knew or honored his achievements. We’ll never know. There’s no question he shows his mental illness, especially at the end, but it’s just a wonder if his inferiority complex is what caused him to shoot Dave.
The film is not just about John. It’s about Mark too. The 1984 Olympics was of him and Dave winning gold but the time since then was a struggle. Dave was able to marry, become a father and continue as an athlete by coaching at the same time. He was well to do. Mark was the one who struggled. He lived single in a shabby home, he worked a measly job, he received spare cash from school appearances, he was always living in the shadow of Dave. Even though Dave was never the type of brother that would try to make Mark feel inferior, You could tell it was bothering him in that training scene at the beginning where he gives Dave a bad hit. It was easy for him to see John’s offer as a breakthrough for him but a struggle as he was trying to create his own identity while Dave and John had coaching disputes over him. It seemed more like a threesome rather than him. Possibly even sensing Dave was becoming the apple of John’s eye rather than him. Even after his win of the World Championship, you could tell the whole thing would take a toll on him especially seeing how he had to purge himself at the Olympic trials and struggled to make the team. Eventually it did take its toll right at the Seoul Olympics with his sixth-place finish and the threesome ended there. You can easily understand why when Mark moved out, he wanted to move without turning back.
The highlight of the film was the performance of Steve Carell. In fact even his biggest fans would be surprised to see Steve looking different and acting completely different from the way they’ve always known Steve to act. He embodied John DuPont well in terms of physicality and his mental illness but he also made us feel John’s feelings of inferiority which definitely added to the film. The film also has Channing Tatum’s best acting ever. He also embodies the character of Mark well in terms of his desire to succeed and in terms of his insecurities. Although the film focuses more on the characters of Mark and John than on Dave, it’s Mark Ruffalo’s performance that gives added dimension to a person who is both a coach and a father and tries to do the right thing but ends up an unsuspecting victim in the end. Even supporting performances from Sienna Miller as Dave’s wife and Vanessa Redgrave as John’s mother were done great despite being less than what they should be.
The directing of Bennett Miller was also impressive as he focused on both the story and insight into the people involved in the story. The script by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman was also good in taking us to the right events even though it did feel slow at times. Even there, I think they were trying to make a murder story that didn’t just simply tell of the events but also give us portrayals of the characters. It’s not to say they haven’t experienced friction about it. There was a story that Mark felt the film made it look like John had a homosexual attraction to him. I didn’t notice it. Besides I later learned John was married for the first and only time at 45 and the divorce occurred just before he met Mark.
Foxcatcher is more than a murder story. It’s also a portrayal of the people involved in both their desires and their insecurities. Often it did feel more like the film was about who than what.