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Fire at Sea – Director, Gianfranco Rossi

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Another amazing documentary and makes you wonder why only one film needs to win. Again it is a very long movie at nearly two hours which I feel stretches the patience of audiences and can take from the power of the story. This film is about Lampadusa, the small Italian island between Italy and Tunisia where many of the refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East end up… if they are lucky. Far too many die in the attempt. The movie has no narration but simply shows images of the various characters: the refugees, a young Italian boy who is a resident of the island and a doctor who provides primary care to the islanders and serves as emerg doc and pathologist/coroner and primary care doctor to the refugees. Although the movie is long it is engrossing and as one reviewer said: You really don’t want it to end. It is unresolved and offers no solutions hopeful or not to the crisis of the refugees and work that the Italian authorities provide to serve and help them. As we in Canada see our own small crisis of for now only a few hundred desperate people crossing the border in freezing conditions, we would be well advised to learn more of the struggles current in the Mediterranean. They may well be visited on us at the enormous migration of populations continues in the face of war and climate change. The most powerful scene in the movie in my opinion is a scene in which the doctor shows an image of a young teenage boy covered in chemical burns caused by wearing clothes soaked in sea water and diesel fuel. They may well be fatal he says. He has seen terrible things. Dead children, pregnant women, babies born on the boats dead with their umbilical cords still attached…. He says his colleagues tell him that he must be immune to the horror after seeing so much but he pauses and says: It’s not true, will never be true. A powerful story.

13th: From Slave to Criminal with one Amendment – Director, Ava DuVernay

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This is a very powerful documentary although very long. The latter element may excuse it from winning but that should not discourage you from watching it. It is a Netflix production so easily available. The title refers to the 13th amendment to the US Constitution that outlaws slavery but specifically excludes criminals from this protection. The film argues very convincingly that the current US obsession with punishing crime by imprisonment is simply one step in the process of ensuring people of colour and particularly blacks are kept oppressed and enslaved. The film opens with Obama’s statement that while the US holds 5% of the world’s population it holds 25% of the world’s prison population and the black population makes up a highly disproportional number of those prisoners. Prisoners are kept increasingly in privately run prisons which little oversight of conditions. Prisoners are now a key part of the US labour force hired out to firms from agriculture to Victoria’s Secret, although the latter company stopped the practice when it was revealed and customers objected. Still the US economy is increasingly reliant on this labour source not unlike the American south was reliant on slaves prior to the Civil War. Part of the problem with this film is its attempt to tie together two related stories. The first is the clear effort of the US to keep people of colour oppressed and in many cases enslaved. This goes back the Jim Crow laws following the abolishment of slavery and more recently the use of the criminal justice system to maintain that oppression. The second part is the whole US Criminal justice system and the corporatization of the prison system. Imprisonment is an increasingly capitalist driven process rather than justice driven and it is not just blacks and people of colour that suffer. While this adds complexity and length to the film and I think hurts the narrative it is a hugely important film and a must see for all. It won the BAFTA award and deserves a shot at an Oscar as well.

Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2017

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I downloaded these films from iTunes which assured me there were subtitles but as it turned out this was not the case and all the films are foreign made and except for Silent Nights, no English. Still it was amazing how much I was able to understand about the story with just the images to go by. So take my comments with this in mind. The films were longer than usual except for the Spanish entry and I am not sure I like that. Short films should be short but given Hollywood’s apparent need to make 2-3 hour films these days I suppose 30-40 minutes is the new short. I really liked the Spanish entry – Timecode—but it has had some negative reviews suggesting it is not serious enough. Well… I don’t agree that serious is a necessary quality and entertaining is what should count. See my review of Boogaloo and Graham from the past. Great movie and available on iTunes for only $3 or so. Give a watch and try to track down Timecode as well.

Sing (dir. Kristof Deak \ Hungary 2016 \ 25 minutes, English Subtitles)

Zsofi is struggling to fit in at her new school – singing in the school’s famous choir is her only consolation, but the choir director may not be the inspirational teacher everyone thinks she is. It will take Zsofi and her new friend Liza to uncover the cruel truth.

A lovely film about kids and their bonding against some unjust authority. The revenge the kids take at the conclusion of the film is great and very funny. I would rank this as my favourite of the whole bunch.

Silent Nights (dir. Aske Bang \ Denmark 2016 \ 30 minutes, English & English Subtitles for parts in Danish)

Inger volunteers at a homeless shelter and falls in love with the illegal immigrant Kwame. Both live a hard life. Kwame finds comfort in Inger’s arms, but says nothing about his family and children in Ghana. When his daughter becomes ill, he is forced to steal money from the homeless shelter to pay the hospital bill. Inger believe his lie about the theft, and when Kwame moves in with Inger they are happy for a while… until the day when Kwame’s mobile phone reveals everything about his life in Ghana.

Not bad but not great and this one had some English in it as well.

Timecode (dir. Juanjo Gimenez Pena \ Spain 2016 \ 15 minutes, English Subtitles)

Luna and Diego are the parking lot security guards. Diego does the night shift, and Luna works by day.

The image above is of Luna and Diego. A real treat and lots of fun. Two security guards – build a relationship through dance if you can believe it. Timecode refers to a defined video record on a video surveillance recording. Diego leaves Luna a note with a time code and when she looks at it he is doing an improvised dance during his regular patrol of the building. Luna responds herself and they communicate this way creating more and more complex dance moves. The end is them coming together and doing an amazing gymnastic dance routine witnessed by their boss and an new security guard. The final scene is very funny.

Ennemis Interieurs (dir. Selim Aazzazi \ France 2016 \ 28 minutes, English Subtitles)

An interview at a local police station turns into an inquisition during which a French-Algerian born man sees himself accused of protecting the identities of possible terrorists. This close-up on France’s troubled history with its former colonies has one man controlling the fate of another with the stroke of a pen during a turbulent period in the 1990s.

Very good movie that makes you think of what is currently going on in the US under Trump and his authoritarian attitude to refugees.

La Femme et la TGV (dir. Timo von Gunten \ Switzerland 2016 \ 30 minutes, English Subtitles)

Elise Lafontaine has a secret routine. Every morning and evening for many years, she has been waving at the express train that passes her house. One fateful day, she finds a letter from the train conductor in her garden and her lonely life is turned upside down. She engages in a promising correspondence through poetic and thoughtful letters two anonymous writers sharing their world with each other until the day the train line gets cancelled. The story is inspired by true events and stars César Award nominee Jane Birkin.

Not great. Fast forward through it.

2017 Oscar Nominated Short Animation Films

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I got a chance to see the short animated films nominated for an Oscar this year. Lucky for us TIFF Bell Lightbox plays these for us along with the short live action films. I have still to see the latter. At any rate because some the animated films are so short they enhance the showing with some honourable mentions. The five nominated films are: Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time, Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Pearl, and Piper. Two are done by Pixar and one, Blind Vaysha, by Canada’s National Film Board. The image above comes from the longest and most adult of the five, Pear Cider and Cigarettes. This one is a very dark story of a man in total decline due to addiction, injury and depression. I suspect the latter will be the winning choice but I much preferred Borrowed Time which is also very serious but better animated and a more tightly told story. The animated films are definitely worth seeing if you get the chance. In fact, the short films are often more interesting than the feature length films. Even if you don’t get a chance to see these movies before the awards ceremony make an effort to track them down. They are often available on iTunes after the awards are done. I will not go into a description of each of the films other than to say that they are not necessarily for children and especially not Pear Cider. Brief descriptions of each film are below with my rankings.  I think animation is going to be an increasingly important film medium and it will not be long before they show up in the Best Picture category rather than relegated to their own animated film group. Do not assume that cartoons are only for kids.

Borrowed Time – dirs. Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj, USA, 7 minutes, English

A weathered sheriff returns to the remains of an accident he has spent a lifetime trying to forget. With each step forward, the memories come flooding back. Faced with his mistake once again, he must find the strength to carry on. My favourite.

Pearl – dir. Patrick Osborne, USA, 6 minutes, English

Pearl follows a girl and her dad as they crisscross the country chasing their dreams. It’s a story about the gifts we hand down and their power to carry love, and finding grace in the unlikeliest of places. Boring

Piper – dir. Alan Barillaro, USA, 6 minutes, No Dialogue

Directed by Alan Barillaro and produced by Marc Sondheimer, Piper tells the story of a hungry sandpiper hatchling who ventures from her nest for the first time to dig for food by the shoreline. The only problem is the food is buried beneath the sand where scary waves roll up onto the shore. Very cute and very funny. Kids would love it.

Blind Vaysha – dir. Theodore Ushev, Canada, 8 minutes, English

With one eye that can only see the past and one that can only see the future, a girl is tormented by two irreconcilable realities. Blind Vaysha is a vivid and gorgeously crafted 3D fable about living in the present. Interesting philosophical look at the nature of life.

Pear Brandy and Cigarettes – dir. Robert Valley, Canada and UK, 35 minutes, English

Drink and smoke – that’s what Techno Stypes liked to do. Drink, smoke… and fight. Except he was in no condition to fight. He was sick. Really sick. His disease had whittled him down to a shadow of his former self. Yeah, he was broken alright, what the hell was he fighting for anyway, and what was he still doing in China? His father had given me two clear instructions: get Techno to stop drinking long enough to receive his liver transplant, and get him back home to Vancouver. This was not going to be easy. This is maybe the favourite for an award but it is in my opinion too impressed with itself as a tough look at a tragic figure. I was not impressed and felt it was really pretty empty. The animation is interesting however.

Lion – Director, Garth Davis

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Lion is an interesting movie and actually quite enjoyable. Briefly it tells the story of a very young Indian child (Saroo) from a poor family in a poorer village who gets lost in the chaos of life in that country. He is rescued from a several potentially horrible fates but no one can find his family and he is too young to help them. He is adopted by a family in Australia where he is raised to adulthood. Haunted by his childhood memories of his mother and brother he finally decides to track them down. The movie is a great ad for Google Earth which is the tool he uses to search for the village he was born in. He is finally reunited with his mother and the film ends happily. This is no spoiler as the film is richer than the outcome of the search and there is much about the finding that I have not shared. The film is in two parts. The first hour follows the young boy as he is lost, escapes several potentially awful fates and ends up in Australia. We then jump ahead 20 years to him as a young adult and follow his efforts to seek out his roots. Dev Patel plays the older Saroo and has won a BAFTA for his performance but I actually liked Sunny Pawar who played Saroo as a child. I am unable to find out his age but did learn that he is very young, beat out 2000 other children to win the part and was unable to attend the US premiere of the film because he was denied a visa. Really??? The US is pretty messed up even before Trump. I am guessing the movie will not win Best Picture but it might very well win Best screenplay. It is adapted from an autobiographical story and is based on a true story. The latter fact is interesting because the story is an amazing adventure and helps prove the adage that truth is stranger than fiction or at least as strange.

Moonlight – Director, Barry Jenkins

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This movie is nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and has had some over the top positive reviews including absolute raves from Cameron Bailey. The movie is running non-stop at the TIFF Bell Lightbox instead a number of other excellent films that audiences might like to see. I think I was influenced by all the buzz and was expecting to be blown away but…. Not so much. It’s a good movie but really not in a class with some of the other films that have been nominated. So far I the major awards ceremonies it has won only one for best actor. It was completely shut out at the BAFTA awards. So while I see the attraction I just don’t think Cameron got it right on this one. The movie is interesting in the attempt to trace the coming of age and maturing of a gay black man. Three actors portray the young man from childhood to teenager to young adult. It is a challenging theme and the film does an admirable job but in this year of very high quality nominees it just doesn’t cut it.

Hidden Figures – Director, Ted Melfi

Great movie! I really enjoyed this film. You can just sit back and enjoy a remarkable story about three black women who, in the early 1960’s, did the mathematics that let John Glenn orbit the earth. Math? I hear your cry. A movie about math? Well yes and a true story too. The film is set in Virginia at the NASA space center in the middle of the racist US south. It tells the story of a team of black women mathematicians who solved the problems of launching a manned space vehicle into orbit and brought it back to earth safely. John Glenn’s historic flight was totally dependent on the work of these women who were locked away in a segregated work room and posed the mathematical problems that needed solving before there were computers to do the work. They were called the computers and checked the work of the all male scientists working in another area of the centre. The breaking points came when the mission planning team needed someone who knew analytic geometry, that elevated one of the women to work with the male team (humiliating the men) and then the installation of a new IBM computer (which would take the jobs of the team of female computers) stalled. Again, it was the women who stepped up, learned the programming language and saved the installation and their jobs at the same time. One of the remarkable aspects of the film was the accepted segregation policies at the work place including washrooms, drinking fountains and coffee urns. It is an aspect of life at the time that we now find unbelievable but was common place at the time and is confronted during telling the story. The cast is great: Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer play the lead roles and are supported by the likes of Jim Parsons (Sheldon Cooper) and Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst among many others. The cast won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Interestingly the film to win the SAG Ensemble Cast award has also won the Oscar’s Best Picture nearly 50 percent of the time. So….if you were looking for a dark horse candidate to beat out Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight this might be it.