| This is a rare opportunity to see in advance of the Feb. 27 ceremony all five nominees in the categories of documentary, live action and animated short films. These film gems represent the cream of the crop from around the world. They cannot exceed 40 minutes in length. Each category is represented by a full-length program with separate admissions. They all have in common the amazing way that a complete story arc comes to fruition in a brief amount of time. Documentary shorts are being presented for the first time this year.
Live action films
- The more impressive collection resides on the live action side. My pick to win is "Wish 143" from the United Kingdom. It is a touching and emotional comedy about David (Sam Holland), a 15-year-old cancer patient. He has a tumor on his lung that keeps growing. He uses the shapes and sizes of various fruits for comparison purposes. He is a virgin and doesn't have enough time to fall in love. His one wish before dying is to spend an hour with a naked woman. A friendly hospice priest (Jim Carter) puts things in motion. Jodie Whittaker, who played opposite Peter O'Toole in "Venus," makes a last act appearance as Maggie, an understanding prostitute.
- "The Confession" is a dramatic thriller also from the United Kingdom. Nine-year-old Sam (Lewis Howlett) is nervous about making his first confession before a priest. He goes over the list of sins and realizes he has done nothing that merits God's forgiveness. To remedy the situation, Sam and his friend Jacob (Joe Eales) take down a scarecrow guarding a farmer's cornfield and drag it to the middle of a country road. Their seemingly harmless prank turns tragic. An ensuing argument between the two boys takes an unexpected turn as well. This simple story is so powerful that it makes an indelible impression on the viewer.
- Luke Matheny does triple duty as writer, director and star of the comedy fantasy "God of Love." Ray Goodfellow (Matheny) throws darts while performing as a lounge singer. He has prayed for the affections of Kelly (Marian Brock), a drummer in the swing band that plays in the background. Kelly has instead fallen in love with Ray's best friend, a fellow musician in the group. A mysterious gift-wrapped package arrives for Ray that might change his luck in the romance department. It contains love-inducing darts. This clever spoof on Cupid's arrow was shot entirely in black-and-white in New York City. The standout musical score features many familiar romantic tunes.
- The war comedy "Na Wewe" is set in 1994 during the civil war in Burundi near Rwanda. A Belgian tourist's car breaks down in the middle of the road. The white European and his black driver get a ride on a minibus carrying a group of natives. Rebel soldiers with machine guns at a roadblock force all the passengers to get off the bus. A line is drawn. They attempt to separate the group by asking all the Hutus to go the left and the Tutsis to go the right. Due to the passengers' complicated lineage, they end up hunched together on one side. Further interrogation brings only more questions rather than definitive answers as to their cultural heritage. The acting is terrific. The title phrase, which meansh means "you too," comes up in a conversation at the end of this clever film from writer/director Ivan Goldschmidt. The dialogue is in French and Kirundi with English subtitles.
- The final entry in this category is "The Crush" from Ireland. Eight-year-old Dublin schoolboy Ardal Travis (Oran Creagh) becomes infatuated with his second-grade teacher Miss Purdy (Olga Wehrly). After school one day, he says, "It is important for you to know how I feel about you." He gives her a dime store ring. She puts it on her finger. She asks him, "Does this mean we are engaged?" She says it in jest, but Ardal takes the question seriously. He asks his parents at the dinner table how old you have to be to get married. His mom says 16 so he writes an entry in his 10-year planner reminding him to marry Miss Purdy. He sees Miss Purdy on the street while out with his mother a few days later. His mom admires the real engagement ring on the teacher's finger. She introduces them to her fiancé (Rory Keenan). After school the next day, Ardal challenges the boyfriend to a duel to the death with pistols. The surprise ending to this dark comedy puts the boyfriend's love for Miss Purdy to the ultimate test.
The documentary portion of the program is the longest, clocking in at over three hours and 20 minutes. Each of the five nominees is just a few minutes short of the 40-minute limit. You can expect a short intermission between the third and fourth selection.
- The clear-cut favorite is "Strangers No More" about a remarkable public school in Tel Aviv, Israel. Refugee children from 48 countries are welcomed with open arms at Bialik-Rogozin school. A supportive principal and group of caring teachers stress to these youngsters the importance of an education. It is the first exposure to schooling for many of these children. This wonderful film will bring tears to your eyes as it follows a few displaced students over the course of a school year. They all have their own touching personal stories to tell. They develop a sense of belonging and a feeling of safety in the Promised Land after witnessing tragedy and death. The school is akin to the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow after their arduous journeys through deserts, war zones and hostile borders. The dialogue is partially in Hebrew with English subtitles.
- A strong runner-up is the biographical "Poster Girl." Wilson, N.Y. native Robynn Murray was a cheerleader and a National Merit Scholar in high school. She grew up in a military family, and at age 19 in 2003, she enlisted in the Army Reserve. She had no idea she would end up atop a Humvee as a machine gunner in Baghdad. She was featured on the cover of an issue of Army magazine along with two other female soldiers while serving a tour of duty in Iraq. She returned stateside as a combat veteran with hip injuries and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. This film follows her efforts to obtain government disability benefits. It also deals with the positive steps that she has taken in the healing process to overcome depression and suicidal thoughts. Murray shows a lot of emotion in this unforgettable story. In one segment, she points out the whole array of prescription drugs prescribed to relieve her various ailments. She continues to take the pain pills and anti-anxiety medications. PTSD symptoms have been reported by more than 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. This film gives the viewer a better understanding of what vets are going through in an effort to feel whole again and function in society.
- "The Warriors of Qiugang" is dedicated to the villagers in a remote province of central China who took a stand against factories destroying their water and polluting their air. This film follows their story over the course of three years. It is just one example of the environmental problems in China that have triggered petitions, protests and activism. The cinematography, sound and musical score are all excellent and add immensely to the story. A small portion of the film is animated to give a glimpse of how the village was before the fields were polluted. The dialogue is in Chinese with English subtitles.
- "Killing in the Name" is the unprecedented mission of Ashraf Al-Khaled of Amman, Jordan, to speak out against terrorist attacks where the majority of the victims are innocent fellow Muslims. His message is that these glorified martyrs do not represent Islam and the religious principles of the Koran. On Nov. 9, 2005, an al-Qaida suicide bomber walked into the ballroom of an Amman hotel during a reception following Ashraf's wedding ceremony. The resulting explosion killed 27 members of the wedding party including Ashraf's father and his wife's parents. Those interviewed on camera include a cleric recruiter of suicide bombers, the father of a suicide bomber and one of the most wanted jihadists in Jakarta, Indonesia. This fast-paced, fascinating exposition has a great message that the world needs to hear. It talks about a de-radicalization project that led to the formation of the Global Survivors Network. This international organization's slogan is "speaking truth to terror" and they are to be congratulated for attempting to educate the Muslim youth that they have non-violent options and dissuade them from carrying out acts of violence.
- The most drastic effects of climate change are explored in "Sun Come Up." The inhabitants of the Carteret Island near New Guinea in the South Pacific Ocean are forced to relocate 50 miles away to the Bougainville mainland because the sea is rising and swallowing the entire land mass. These easy-going people, whose diet consists of coconuts and fish, will soon die of starvation. They use shell money and pigs as their currency of exchange. Young people from the community are sent on a relocation mission where they visit 15 villages in the Tinputz District of a previously war-torn land. The people in Bougainville are still traumatized by the aftermath of a 10-year civil war. Will they be able to overcome lingering feelings of hatred and welcome these environmental refugees as their neighbors? This real-life adventure gets repetitive after awhile, but it brings up the need for governments to put emergency plans in place to deal with climate change victims seeking land.
The field is much weaker on the animated side this year. This is the shortest program of the bunch with a running time of 85 minutes.
- The clear favorite to win this category is "Day & Night" from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios. This clever six-minute short preceded "Toy Story 3" in theaters. Two hand-drawn hood-shaped creatures with big eyes and prominent noses silhouetted against a black background interact with sound effects and music. The light blue one is always showing daytime CGI scenes on his body while the dark blue caricature reflects after-dark occurrences. They struggle, dance, hug and ultimately become friends. This ground-breaking cartoon is an expression of pure joy.
- My second favorite is the clever and mesmerizing "The Lost Thing" from Australia. Tim Minchin narrates this story of a boy who finds a strange-looking creature abandoned on a beach. He plays catch with the friendly creature, and takes it home and hides it in the back shed. He then considers turning it over to the Federal Department of Odds and Ends, but decides that is not where it belongs. He finally finds a permanent place for it to reside. The animation is colorful and full of imaginative designs.
- The longest entry at nearly 30 minutes is based on a children's book and features the vocal talent of well-known British actors. In "The Gruffalo," a mother squirrel (voice of Helena Bonham Carter) tells her two offspring a fable about a cunning little brown mouse (James Corden). The mouse is strolling through the deep dark wood and comes across a succession of predators. He convinces the fox (Tom Wilkinson), owl (John Hurt) and snake (Rob Brydon) not to eat him by creating the imaginary title creature. Even though he believes there is no such thing as a gruffalo, he ends up encountering one (Robbie Coltrane). He wagers his life by betting the gruffalo that he can prove the three predators are afraid of him. The gruffalo follows him and the wily mouse outsmarts everyone again with his sales pitch. This CGI comedy adventure is told in rhyming verse and is somewhat repetitive.
- "Let's Pollute" is an educational satire narrated by Jim Thornton. Instead of the old adage, "waste not, want not," it encourages people to want it and then waste it. It is a fun and easy guide to how to be better polluters of the environment and support chemical companies and profit-driven corporations.
- The weakest contestant is "Madagascar, a Journey Diary." This fast-moving travelogue is like looking through a vacation scrapbook. There is very little dialogue. The emphasis is on the visual drawings, unusual sounds and eclectic music. It illustrates what travel is really like and how to express the experience as an artist.
This impressive showcase of cinematic treasures awaits you beginning this weekend exclusively at the Tivoli in Westport. As an added bonus, you have the chance to win a $25 Tivoli gift card by casting a ballot predicting either the top vote-getter among Tivoli audiences and/or Oscar winner in each short film category. For show times and more information, go to www.tivolikc.com
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"