Movies Without Pity
Short Reviews of the 2014 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Documentary

Our coverage of the 2014 Oscar nominated shorts concludes with some true-life tales.

It's tempting to switch off this profile of Ra Paulette -- a New Mexico-based cave digger who transforms sandstone caves into stunning works of art -- after the opening scene, when the guy boasts about ditching school because he preferred to be a student of life. But stick with it, because even though Paulette flatters himself, Jeffrey Karoff's film doesn't. While giving full due to his subject's artistic skill (and he really is skilled; many of the caves we glimpse are breathtakingly beautiful), the director doesn't shy away from showing the impact Paulette's prickly personality has had on his own life and career, including commissioned works left unfinished due to disagreements with his patrons and an obsessive desire with creating his ultimate masterpiece entirely on his own terms, even if it takes him a decade or more. It's a uniquely warts-and-all look at a unique artist and his unique process.
Grade: A-

Facing Fear
Thrown out of the house at 13 after his mother discovered he was gay, Matthew Boger made a living hustling on the mean streets of Hollywood… until a savage beating at the hands of a group of neo-Nazis almost ended his life. More than two decades later, as the General Manager of L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance, Boger came face to face with one of his attackers, Tim Zaal, a reformed white supremacist who hoped to become a volunteer speaker at the institution. Against the odds, the duo became an unlikely double act, touring the country together discussing how they were able to put the past behind them and come to a place of mutual understanding. It's a remarkable story that's not particularly well-served by this nobly-intentioned, but too-cursory documentary, which leaves some key details (like Zaal's rejection of his former racism) unexplored. One imagines that their joint presentation is, hopefully, more thorough.
Grade: C+

Karama Has No Walls
A companion piece of sorts to The Square, one of the Documentary Feature nominees, Karama presents on-the-ground footage of a populist uprising in Yemen in 2011, which occurred in the wake of Egypt's Tahir Square-based revolution earlier that year. Shot by multiple cameramen (some of whom were wounded for their trouble) the film is almost too successful at capturing the chaos of the ensuing battle between the revolutionaries and the government soldiers. The movie lacks a strong throughline or a wider historical scope that might provide some context to the events we're witnessing. As it is, Karama Has No Walls provides a you-are-there account into a conflict the viewer doesn't entirely understand.
Grade: B-

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Not only is London resident Alice Herz Zommer the world's oldest pianist, at 109 years young she's also the oldest living Holocaust survivor. Her skill at tickling the ivories kept her alive during World War II, as she and her young son were housed in a concentration camp reserved for performing artists, who would provide entertainment before dying of natural or Nazi-made causes. Still spry despite her advanced age, Alice shares the broad outline of her life story, which eventually led her Israel before settling in London. As an oral history, it's quite valuable. As a film, it's unremarkable.
Grade: B

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall
Edgar Barens's HBO-backed documentary (which premieres on the network after the Oscars on March 31) begins by pointing out that the elderly and infirm constitute a rapidly growing percentage of America's prison population before going on to zero in on one aging prisoner in particular: 82-year-old Jack Hall. A World War II veteran, Hall was convicted on a first degree murder charge and sentenced to life in prison in 1984; Barens starts filming him six months before he succumbs to heart disease, a condition that gets him transferred to his institution's donation-funded hospice care unit. Though the access Barens has been granted is impressive and the scenes of Hall's eventual death quite moving, the film is caught between being a portrait of one man (whose crimes are mostly glossed over) and a profile of how death is handled within America's prison system. It comes up a little short in both cases.
Grade: B+

Will Win: Prison Terminal
It's the most effective combination of weighty subject matter and moving personal history, a mix that's often essential to victory in this category.
Should Win: CaveDigger
It may be the least "serious" of the nominees in terms of its choice of subject, but it's by far the most compelling and multi-faceted film.

Animated Shorts
Live Action Shorts

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