Friday, January 29, 2016

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts: Grim tidings

The 2015 Academy Awards Shorts (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, but akin to a PG-13 for strong war themes and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.29.16

While the rest of the country kvetches about racial disparity in the recently released Academy Award nominations — a “problem” that has everything to do with what is and isn’t put into production by Hollywood studios, and nothing at all to do with Academy voters — those who anguish about such things will find solace in one direction.

The short subjects categories are, and always have been, a richly international affair.

That’s particularly true with the 2015 nominees, which come from Palestine, Germany, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, Austria, Kosovo, Ireland and even Russia.

In terms of quality and storytelling, the live-action nominees are uniformly excellent. They’re also politically heavy and, in three cases, quite grim and emotionally upsetting: as far as could be imagined from the cotton candy often found in Hollywood features.

I’ve always been drawn to short films, for the same reason that I seek out short stories: Bloated, 800-page novels forgive considerable authorial excess, whereas every single word must be perfect in an 12-page story.

Just as every frame must count, in a 12-minute short film.

The jewel in this year’s live action quintet is director Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, which takes an unexpectedly light-hearted look at one of the world’s worst geo-political hot spots. The story opens on the silent routine of five Palestinian nuns who live in a convent in the West Bank wilderness; their worship is interrupted by the arrival of a nervous Israeli settler family, whose car breaks down just outside the convent door.

A potentially tense situation — the elder Israeli woman immediately fears being killed — is stressed further by the Sabbath’s arrival, at which point the nuns are forbidden speech.

It’s difficult to imagine anybody successfully mining a gentle comedy from this premise, but that’s precisely what Khalil has accomplished. (He co-wrote the droll script with Daniel Yáñez Khalil.) The narrative moves in a marvelous direction, in great part due to the unexpectedly resourceful involvement of young Sister Marie (Maria Zriek).

It’s a perfect little package, right up to the final scene. And, let it be said, richly enlightening.

War’s unforgiving horrors are profiled in two tense and unsettling dramas. Jamie Donoughue’s Shok (Friend) gives an intimate view of the 1998-99 Kosovo war, as seen through the eyes of two young Albanian boys: Petri and Oki (Lum Veseli and Andi Bajgora, both quite good). The former is making pocket change by illegally selling goods to “peacekeeping” Serbian soldiers, who — for the most part — are vicious, racist thugs.

The situation makes Oki uneasy, but Petri is his best friend. Donoughue’s story, based on events that actually happened to co-producer Eshref Durmishi, unflinchingly delivers two morals: that little acts can have major consequences, and that, ultimately, a creature always behaves according to its nature.

Military brat-turned-combat paratrooper-turned-filmmaker Henry Hughes’ Day One is a tautly suspenseful depiction of new U.S. Army translator’s first day on the job in an Afghan hot zone, as her unit searches for a local terrorist. Layla Alizada stars as Feda, a newbie well aware that her gender is an issue not only with her compatriot soldiers, but most particularly with the Afghan civilians they encounter.

A hair-trigger situation turns even worse when the very pregnant wife (Alexia Pearl) of their suspect goes into labor, in a village where strict religious barriers prohibit the intervention of a male doctor. The next 10 minutes are both mesmerizing and almost too brutal to endure, with Alizada handling her role quite persuasively. Bill Zasadil also is quite good, as the compassionate Lt. Adams.

The setting of Patrick Vollrath’s Alles Wird Gut (Everything Will Be Okay) may be contemporary and deceptively peaceful, but the unfolding emotional angst is just as unsettling. Divorced father Michael Baumgartner (Simon Schwarz) collects his 8-year-old daughter Lea (Julia Pointner) for their regular every-other-weekend visit, and initially the little girl is spoiled by the usual blend of expensive toys and amusement park rides.

But Michael has a bigger plan in mind: something he obviously has crafted for awhile. Trouble is, Lea is old enough to sense something amiss, and the power of Vollrath’s film comes from the increasingly tense dynamic between father and daughter. Young Pointner is terrific: one of the most convincingly naturalistic kid actors I’ve ever seen. She carries the film, and then some; your heart will ache — and break — as this scenario builds to its climax.

After so much trauma, Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer is a welcome relief. Greenwood (Matthew Needham) is a lonely typographer with a vicious speech impediment; his inner voice is eloquent, sensitive and darkly funny, but he’s barely able to force words between his lips.

His only companion is his kind and forever patient father (Eric Richard). That said, Greenwood also draws solace from a lively online “relationship” with Ellie (Chloe Pirrie), with whom he exchanges messages for hours every evening. This suits his comfort zone, even as he laments the obvious limitations.

The routine is shattered quite suddenly, when Ellie commemorates their six-month “anniversary” by announcing that she has traveled to London to surprise him, by meeting in person for the first time. Greenwood, in a panic, can’t decide what to do.

Cleary’s solution to this “crisis” is clever, warm and incredibly sweet.

We never know how these films will be sequenced, when shown on the big screen (in our area at Sacramento’s Crest Theater, as has become tradition). It would be nice to walk out after this one or Ave Maria, rather than any of the other three. Cross your fingers.

A few of the five animated 2015 nominees continue a disappointing trend that I’ve previously complained about: a tendency to focus more on form than content. Beautiful animation doesn’t mean a thing, if the so-called “story” is off-putting or simply bizarre; by the same token, a clever script is ill-served by unappealing animation.

The latter is the case with American animator Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, which grants a little girl a mind-bending glimpse of her own (quite distant) future. Hertzfeldt has been making animated shorts since 1995, and this is his second Oscar nomination in the same category.

The storyline is laden with intriguing sci-fi concepts, and the young protagonist is cleverly voiced by Hertzfeldt’s then-4-year-old niece, who was recorded while drawing and playing. But the simplistic animation style is unappealing and — frankly — boring.

The opposite is true of Prologue, an anatomically meticulous, hand-drawn work by veteran animator Richard Williams, a longtime filmmaker with three Oscars to his credit: two for 1988’s feature-length Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and one for his 1971 animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Prologue is set during the Spartan-Athenian wars of 2,400 years ago, as a small girl bears witness while four warriors battle to the death. The 6-minute film is lush and beautiful, with faces and bodies morphing into and out of flowers and insects. Williams’ style is gorgeous; the honeybee that emerges from one flower is breathtaking.

But the snippet of story is harsh, unpleasant, quite gory ... and thoroughly unsatisfying: hardly enough on which to hang such luxurious pencil work.

Russian animator Konstantin Bronzit was nominated previously in this category for 2007’s charming Lavatory Lovestory, a delightful little romance that amply demonstrated his droll sense of humor. That witty tone serves him equally well in We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, the saga of two cosmonauts in training — also best friends — who share the goal of being selected for a space mission.

The build-up is light-hearted, as the two men ace all mental and physical tests, becoming the most qualified candidates. Things then turn serious in the third act, which perhaps proves that one should be careful what one wishes for.

But Bronzit’s limited-animation style is the badly dated stuff of 1960s Saturday morning cartoons. Granted, it “fits” the story’s time period, but it’s simply nothing special ... and hardly deserves its nomination. (Then again, neither does World of Tomorrow.)

This brings us to the category’s two stand-outs, the first from the ubiquitous Disney/Pixar empire.

(Back in the 1990s, the Academy briefly created a new category — Best Comedy or Musical Score — in an effort to break the lock that Disney then had on the Best Song and Best Original Score categories. The same needs to be done now, with animated shorts: I mean, really, who can compete with Pixar?)

Director Sanjay Patel’s Sanjay’s Super Team is a loving anecdote drawn from his own childhood; it’s also the one entry folks are likely to have seen already, as it was paired with the late November release of Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur. The story concerns a young, first-gen Indian-American boy whose fascination with Western pop culture conflicts with his father’s Hindu traditions.

The generational divide ultimately plays out in a fantasy realm, at which point the animation style shifts accordingly (but not necessarily for the better). The bookending segments are rich with expressive gestures, emotional detail and impeccable timing: told without dialog, as often is the case with Pixar shorts.

"Bear Story"
That film’s quality notwithstanding, Chilean director Gabriel Osorio’s Bear Story is by far my favorite: a poignant story-within-a-story also depicted in two distinct animation styles. We begin with a fairly conventional CGI presentation of a lonesome bear who glances wistfully about his otherwise empty home, pausing on a telling photograph.

He creates the means to tell his own back-story, by constructing an elaborate, coin-operated “mechanical diorama”; he takes this down to the street and, in the manner of an organ-grinder, activates it for a curious young bear ... and thus we get the real story.

Heartbreaking. Also amazingly, ferociously, cleverly animated. It’s a masterpiece: the only film in this quintet that truly deserves the term.

And a fitting note on which to conclude this annual survey of short films. Aren’t we lucky, these days, that they’ve finally become an annual viewing tradition in mainstream theaters and on tablets, as opposed to no more than titles and fleeting clips during the Academy Awards broadcast?

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