Monday, February 15, 2016

88th Academy Awards: The Live Action Shorts

This year's crop of live action short films are a grim bunch, a collection of harrowing tales that would make Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu put extra butter on his popcorn. I'm sure seeing them individually, the exquisite filmmaking and performances in all these films can be appreciated in a proper context, but seen in a single package adds a heft to the audience that might make some give under the weight. But each film does have its own virtues, and something to be taken away from it that's more than human misery - though there's that too. Here's a small round-up of the five films:

Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be Okay) (dir. Patrick Vollrath)
This film comes from Germany, and its the longest of the five films, clocking in at 30 minutes. Michael Bumgartner (Simon Schwarz) picks up his young daughter Lea (Julia Pointer) from the home of his estranged ex-wife. It's his day. He takes her to the toy store, to a photo booth, to the fair. It's a classic visitation day, but as the day moves forward, they make some surprise, unmentioned stops and it quickly dawns on Lea that this may not be the usual day with her disgruntled father, and that something more sinister may be afoot. Director Patrick Vollrath shoots the film in a direct, handheld style giving this intense tale the kind of Dogme-inspired gravitas that it's asking for. The disintegration of Michael runs concurrently with Lea's sober realization of the improper mental state of her father, and the two arcs evolving together really makes this tragic tale of parental misconduct a truly heartbreaking experience. The work from Schwarz and Pointer is very good here, both the afflicted and the afflicter showing with pinpoint accuracy just how the mechanisms of divorce can take its toll on a family. The most emotionally relentless film of the bunch.

Ave Maria (dir. Basil Kahlil)
This humorous film tackles complicated concepts within two strict religions, as a group of five nuns living under a vow of silence are given a rather unorthodox disruption. Stationed in a sparse convent in the middle of the West Bank wilderness, their routine is brought to a halt when a small family of Jews crash their car right into the Virgin Mary statue outside their building. Added to the complications is the beginning of the Sabbath which forbids Moshe (Shady Srour), the head of the Jewish family, from operating any machinery - like working a phone to call a tow truck. Stranded in hostile Arab territory with a wife and elderly mother who constantly bicker, Moshe must work with the nuns, whose own hesitations about breaking their silence doesn't help. Many barriers, of both communication and religious tolerance, are broken in an attempt to help fellow man, and both Moshe's family and the nuns learn that not all rules must be followed when they run in the face of doing the logical thing. Basil Khalil's film is light on its feet, and its story is perfectly suited for the short film format (which you can't exactly say about all of the nominees). Its message is admirable, and its performances are good in a functional kind of way. The ideas it presents are more hostile than the film would lead you to believe, but Ave Maria is not trying to end the Israel-Palestine conflict on its own, it's just trying to charm you.

Day One (dir. Henry Hughes)
The only American film in the bunch and it takes place in Afghanistan, where a translator named Feda (Layla Alizada) has her first day at work with the American troops. Nerves get the better of her at the beginning, and she learns quickly that this job is going to be a whole lot more than changing Dari to English. When they come to the home of a suspected weapons dealer, Feda and the troops end up participating in a domestic drama that nobody could have foreseen. Of all the films, Day One felt the most needlessly maudlin. It's situation felt too familiar, too manufactured, too based on the concept of chance to really have a legitimate effect as a narrative. The performance from Alizada, as well as from Alain Washnevsky as Jalal, are excellent. Both actors are asked to explore a plethora of complex emotions throughout this 25 minute film, as the storyline zigs and zags between ferocious suspense and intimate emotion. Both prove up to the challenge. Day One left me the most wanting of the five, as if it were a severely intense scene within a larger drama as opposed to its own standalone movie, and its surprising shift at the very end deals with some problematic gender politics.

Shok (Friend) (dir. Jamie Donoughue)
This boyhood drama is the most traditional narrative of the bunch, as we learn of the friendship between Petrit (Lum Veseli) and Oki (Andi Bajgora), living in Kosovo during the taught conflict of the late 90's. The boys are Albanian, living in a country occupied by an increasingly hostile Serbian military that wants Kosovo rid of Albanians. Petrit thinks he is spared from the Kosovo War's uglier aspects because of his "business" relationship with a Serbian soldier, but Oki warns his friend about the danger of trusting them, with their reputation for needless slaughter. As Petrit's relationship with the soldier begins to shift, the friendship between Petrit and Oki is tested unlike before. Shok is a sentimental film, and like Day One, this is a narrative (childhood friends tested by outer political conflict) that we have seen ad nauseum. Director Jamie Donoughue directs the film like Oscar bait and takes what is probably supposed to be a fierce example of a little-profiled conflict, and turns it into Tom Hooper-esque awards fodder. A horrifically tragic ending can be telegraphed the whole way, and I haven't even mentioned that Shok breaks a cardinal sin of short filmmaking: it's a 20-minute movie with a framing device!

Stutterer (dir. Benjamin Cleary)
Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer is the only film of the five that can claim to be unique, both as a narrative and as a piece of filmmaking. Cleary directs the film like Wes Anderson by way of Francois Truffaut, and it follows a young man named Greenwood (Matthew Needham) who is so crippled by a stutter that he's rendered totally mute in public situations. The only person he speaks to is his father (Eric Richard), though he does have an extensive online chatting relationship with a woman named Ellie (Chloe Pirrie). When Ellie messages him saying that she'll be in town and would love to meet, Greenwood must think of a strategy to overcome his anxiety and see if he can actually have a relationship with anybody outside his father. Stutterer's premise seems tired from the outside but Cleary along with lead actor Matthew Needham add some real feeling to this tale of overcoming great fear. The stakes of Greenwood's case aren't as dire as, say, King George's in The King's Speech, but Stutterer understands the limitations of both its own narrative as well as the format of short filmmaking. Unlike some of the other nominees, it isn't trying to stuff a feature's worth of plot into a short film - it knows its character and his plight can stay compact, and Cleary capitalizes by making Greenwood's achingly sweet pursuit a sharp, poignant tale that is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.

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