Monday, February 19, 2018

The Films of January-February 2018, The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Short Films

Paddington 2

The Insult

The Commuter

Den of Thieves

The Road Movie

Lover for a Day

A Ciambra

Double Lover (L'Amant Double)

A quick catchup on the films of January and February, plus notes on all three categories of Oscar-nominated short films:

All the charm of 2016’s “Paddington” has evaporated in 2018’s plot-heavy, Wes Anderson-esque “Paddington 2,” a boring and overwritten slog that includes some concepts inappropriately intense for young children… Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult” is nowhere near as compelling as his 2013 “The Attack” – it’s less character study and more heavy-handed courtroom (melo)drama – but I appreciated its crash course in Lebanese history… Liam Neeson’s “The Commuter” may not make a lick of sense, and you may feel your brain cells disintegrating, but it’s surprisingly watchable, and reminds us we need more Vera Farmiga… January is usually a cinematic wasteland. Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Best Offer” was the last exception, back in 2014. Christian Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” is another, an exceptionally cleverly conceived crime thriller about a plot to rob L.A.’s Federal Reserve building. Gerard Butler – never a favorite – has packed on a few pounds, and the solidity suits him: he’s got a Russell Crowe quality here that finally makes him understandable as a movie star. O’Shea Jackson Jr., in a pivotal part, continues to emerge as a magnetic screen presence, while Pablo Schreiber announces himself as one to watch. And this movie knows L.A. as well as any in a coon’s age… “The Road Movie” is probably the weirdest movie I’ll see all year, a documentary consisting of nothing but real dashboard-cam footage from Russia as drivers navigate the elements and one another, often without success. In one scene, two mugs haggle with a hooker, telling her they may be back in an hour. As they close the window, one comments, “It’s cheaper in Rostan’.” But the true equanimity of the Russian people shines through in one driver’s comment to his passenger after their car goes over an embankment into a river: “We’ve arrived”… A mild rec for Philippe Garrel’s ephemeral “Lover for a Day,” mostly about the tentative friendship between a young woman who’s recently broken up with her boyfriend and the woman she finds when she moves back to her father’s apartment: his girlfriend, who’s no older than she… Stronger recs for Italian import “A Ciambra,” a vital and well-structured portrait of a Romani teenager struggling to survive on the mean streets; and for “Double Lover” (L’Amant Double), Fran├žois Ozon’s winking, hypersexual psychological thriller about a model-thin museum guard, her shrink, and his unacknowledged twin brother.

Live action is the strongest of the three categories of Oscar-nominated shorts this year. “Watu Wote” (All of Us) chronicles a true incident in Kenya in which Muslim bus riders protected their Christian fellow passengers from harm at the hands of Muslim interceptors. “The Silent Child” gives us a glimpse into the disconnection felt by deaf children who lack access to sign language education and other equalizers. “The Eleven O’Clock” features a brilliant comic premise: a psychiatrist whose patient thinks he’s the psychiatrist, and the hilariously infuriating war of words that follows. Should Win: “DeKalb Elementary,” a harrowing, breath-shortening depiction of an active shooter situation at an elementary school, with a noteworthy performance by Tarra Riggs as the receptionist who ends up alone with the shooter. Will Win: “My Nephew Emmett,” the least meritorious of the lot, a perfunctory portrait of Emmett Till’s last night on Earth before being murdered for the crime of whistling at a married white woman.

Animation is mostly solid. “Revolting Rhymes” is a drastically overlong short featuring the witty rhymes of Roald Dahl in an omnibus story involving characters from a slew of well-known fairy tales. “Negative Space” is a stop-motion work about a father and son and how best to pack a suitcase. It’s slight, but has the single best laugh line at the end. “Garden Party” is a delightful look at the amphibians and other unsavories who take over a deserted mansion and indulge their appetites without restraint. Should Win: Pixar’s “Lou,” about the monster inside a schoolyard lost-and-found box. It has more heart and feeling than the others combined. Will Win: “Dear Basketball,” by far the worst of the lot, a self-aggrandizing piece of personal promotion by Kobe Bryant that will prove the Academy cares only about sucking the right jock and not a whit about what is truly “best.”

The documentary shorts are a mixed bag. Worst is the race-baiting “Traffic Stop,” about the stop and arrest of a black teacher in Austin. The movie is told from her point of view, and outside of this moment, she seems like a wonderful person, the kind the world needs many more of. But in its reductionist haste to impute racist motives to the white peace officer, it lets her off the hook completely for behaviors that contributed hugely – as we witness on the video - to the escalation of the incident. “Edith + Eddie,” about nonagenarian newlyweds kept apart by family dissension, and “Knife Skills,” about a Cleveland restaurant that offers jobs and a path to rehabilitation for released prisoners, are both sweet, but leave key questions unasked and unanswered. Should Win: Netflix’s “Heroin(e),” in which we experience the tragedy of the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, and meet four women – a drug court judge (who may be the most likable judge in America), the trailblazing fire chief, a woman who spends her nights distributing food to those on the streets, and a former prostitute intent on helping those still working – who offer hope. Will Win: “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” my second choice, a superb biodoc of the artist Mindy Alper.

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