Saturday, February 20, 2010

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2010)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

KAVI (India)

In this dismal drama, a young boy desperately wants to go to school, but instead must work to repay his father's debt by constructing bricks. It's inspiring to see how resourceful and clever this slave child is, but the scenes of abuse his family endures make the film almost too unbearable to appreciate.


A gay couple moves into an apartment that was recently vacated due to the murder of its former tenant. After a somewhat witty rant from one of the occupants, there is a knock at the door, which results in the first of four visitors that take this potentially smart concept past any point of pleasurable comedy. It feels more like a college film project than an Academy Award nominated piece. Plus, the ending is just silly.

MIRACLE FISH (Australia)

A child of modest means goes to school on his birthday only to be teased by his classmates for not getting the latest toys as gifts. He heads to the sick room where he dreams of having the school all to himself, free of the pain. When he wakes up, the hallways are dark and the classrooms are empty, so he begins to enjoy the new-found freedom. It's very satisfying to watch this victim of a bully dive into treats he normally wouldn't get and take pleasure in the solace that comes with eliminating negativity in life. But he soon finds out he's not alone and the film makes a sharp turn. Luckily, the impact of the message remains crystal clear.

THE DOOR (Ireland)

Only those familiar with the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl will fully absorb the tragedy played out here, as a family struggles to navigate their loss and suffering. The first scene, though relevant in its purpose, is vastly out of pace with the rest of the film, which makes it hard to accept the muted rhythm that permeates each additional scene. Nonetheless, a powerful snapshot of a horrible historical event.


The only blatant comedy of the bunch, this silly scenario centers around a 25-year-old man who wants nothing more than to be a professional magician. He tests tricks out on his parents (sometimes unsuccessfully), shocks children at birthday parties and develops a crush on a pretty blond, whom he tries to impress with his hobby. This is a fun, if not pointless, ride to take, and the ending is fabulous.

It's probably not hard to guess that my pick for this year's Live Action Short Film statue goes to Miracle Fish, but I wouldn't be terribly disappointed if The Door prevailed instead.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Shutter Island

This morning I saw Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley.

The year is 1954 and Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) is sent to investigate a disappearance at a mental hospital off the shores of Boston called Shutter Island. He is accompanied by his nonchalant partner Chuck (Mark Ruffalo) who strangely calls him "Boss" though they've only just met.

The backdrop of a messy storm sets the mood for their arrival, as the seasick Daniels accepts aspirin from hospital staff to combat his queasy feelings. Soon he's feeling up to interrogation and requests interviews with all personnel on duty the night of the missing patient's disappearance. He is met with resistance (and even sarcasm) from many as he asks basic questions to solve the mystery.

One of the most passive aggressive road blocks on his journey is Dr. Cawley (Kingsley), a powerful psychiatrist who seems to be hiding something.

When Teddy and Chuck can't get to the answers they're looking for, they decide to leave the island the following morning, but the violent weather stops them, so they continue exploring the institution on their own, against the wishes of the staff.

Throughout their search, Teddy is haunted by visions of his deceased wife Dolores (Michelle Williams) and reveals he has ties to the institution due to her murder. He also seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, having flashbacks from assisting in the liberation of Nazi-occupied Germany.

The entire film is Teddy's journey to find the truth in whatever context the film is referring to during that specific beat. It's at times all over the place and alternately solid and linear.

Scorsese creates a fantastic creepy mood from the opening credits and sustains that quiet unrest right up until the end. The images (especially of Nazi Germany) are sometimes horrific; other times just bloody (though I'll have to admit a scene full of squeaking rats takes the cake for most-likely-to-cause-nightmares).

The characters are all crafted well--each has something unique to hide, yet it's hard to know who to trust.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who is in nearly every frame of the film, plays every emotion with sincerity; from the angry and arrogant Federal Marshall to the fragile, grieving widow. The expression in his face carries us from scene to scene, guiding our reactions and filling us with whatever feelings he's meant to experience.

The ending provides a hot conversation topic for anyone who likes to challenge such resolution, and provides a satisfactory conclusion for those who prefer closure.

Really, Shutter Island is the very definition of a successful psychological thriller. It will keep you guessing hours after you leave the theater...that is, if you want to keep guessing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hell Is Other People

Tonight I screened Hell Is Other People, starring Richard Johnson.

Morty (Johnson) is sad. Not because of something specific that's necessarily happened to him, but more likely because of everything that hasn't. He hasn't found anyone to share his life with (though he does have a very 'present' ex who he obviously cares for), he doesn't have a career, and there isn't any proof of aspiration to do more than he's currently doing. Being broke induces a forced indifference.

Director Jarrod Whaley captures the absurdity of lonely living quite well. After all, what is time when you have nowhere to be?

Morty needs money so he claims a friend owes him for a recent 'favor', or he simply performs odd jobs to fill in the blanks (the oddest: acting as a makeshift shrink for a guy even more troubled than him). Nothing about his actions suggest things will get better, but for some reason, we don't hate him for that.

Chattanooga, Tenn. provides a perfect backdrop for the slow pace and discussions of the characters in this film. The mood feels Southern; polite with a natural tendency to get heated. All of the friends and acquaintances talk to and about one another just as we all do in real life. The women also appear to talk a lot more. Fair enough.

Morty is easily the link between all of these folks, though he's probably the least interesting, and that's what makes this comedy so tragic.

Social graces are a hot commodity in our world of new media. Though we never see Morty updating his Facebook page, we get the sense he'd be more comfortable doing that than striking up a conversation with a stranger. It's not that he wouldn't want the connection—he just doesn't know how to go about creating it (a scene where he asks his doctor's receptionist out is especially painful to watch).

Hell is a solid indie with especially good character development, but perhaps not enough "showing" vs. "telling." I do wish there had been more situations instead of scenes that linger just a tad too long, but I was engaged throughout, nonetheless.

Each step of the way, we're led to silently root for Morty's success, yet he continues to disappoint us. This happens with people in our real world, why shouldn't it happen in cinema?

Hell is Other People premieres at Cinequest 20 on February 27. Visit for details.