Saturday, February 11, 2017

The 2016 Oscar Shorts: Little treasures (for the most part)

The 2016 Oscar Shorts (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Unrated, although the live-action entries include profanity, nudity and dramatic intensity

By Derrick Bang

Voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have an almost xenophobic tendency — for the most part — to limit feature film nominees to American productions. The entire wealth of overseas entries are forced to duke it out in the single Best Foreign Film category.

Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) and Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) embark on an unlikely
relationship, in Silent Nights.
Granted, exceptions exist; Back in 2000, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pulled a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, winning four. But that’s rare; an average year generally fields only one or two token foreign nominees. That’s certainly the case with the 2016 contenders: Isabelle Huppert is a Best Actress nominee for France’s Elle, and Sweden’s A Man Called Ove pulled a nod for Best Makeup. And that’s it.

As Garfield has been known to observe, Big, fat, hairy deal.

How refreshing, then, that the two short film categories usually are a gloriously international affair.

An impressive 137 live-action short films qualified for the 89th annual Academy Awards, of which 10 were short-listed back in late November. Those subsequently were winnowed to the final five contenders, which — as has become an annual tradition — currently are touring the country as part of an Oscar Shorts package. They’re showing locally at Sacramento’s Crest Theater, between now and the end of the month.

Voters apparently favored European sensibilities this year, with the five finalists — every one of them thoughtful, provocative and/or delightful — hailing from France, Switzerland, Denmark, Hungary and Spain.

I only wish the voters in the animated short film category had displayed similar taste, judgment and imagination. Ten titles were short-listed, again in late November, from an initial 69 submissions; they subsequently were narrowed down to the five remaining nominees. To my surprise and disappointment, they’re all English-language: three from the States, and the remaining two from Canada.

And at the risk of offending our Northern neighbor, both of the Canadian entries leave much to be desired.

I simply cannot believe that none of the other 64 contenders, no doubt from all sorts of different countries, weren’t better than those two nominees. The mind doth boggle.

To cases:

The live-action candidates often focus on tempestuous current events, given that filmmakers always are eager to explore hot-button topics. That’s definitely the case with Danish director Aske Bang’s Silent Nights, which concerns the unlikely relationship that develops between Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen), a young woman who volunteers at a homeless shelter, and Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah), an illegal immigrant from Ghana.

His life is hard; he sleeps on the streets, often ducking racist taunts from young Arab immigrants (and boy, that’s sure ironic). Her life is unpleasant, as she deals with a nasty, alcoholic mother whose health is failing rapidly. No surprise, then, that Inger and Kwame — both lonely — are drawn together. Olsen and Appiah deliver quietly sensitive performances.

The story, co-written by Bang and Ib Kastrup, builds to a poignant conclusion that speaks well of the importance of kindness.

French writer/director Sélim Aazzazi’s Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within) is a grimmer affair, set during the country’s turbulent 1990s. A French-Algerian man (Hassam Ghancy), a longtime resident seeking to become a French citizen, sits for what he believes will be a friendly interview, laced with some routine civics questions, from the interviewer (Najib Oudghiri) on the other side of the desk.

But the latter’s apparently pleasant manner turns sharply critical, and the applicant finds himself fielding increasingly antagonistic questions, the interview rapidly escalating into a McCarthy-esque interrogation. With whom has the applicant been consorting, and why? What are their names? The tone becomes Orwellian, even cruel, the inquisitor controlling his visitor’s fate with the stroke of a pen.

The tension is palpable, and Ghancy’s performance is heartbreaking; at the same time, it’s too simplistic to view Oudghiri’s case officer as heartless. As the exchange continues, traces of ambiguity make it harder to choose sides; Aazzazi clearly intended it that way. And while the story focuses on the difficult aftermath of the French/Algerian war, the reason for the uneasy dynamic between these two men is equally relevant today. It’s an intriguing thought-piece.

Spanish filmmaker Juanjo Giménez Peña’s Timecode is a frivolous but thoroughly enjoyable bit of fluff. Luna (Lali Ayguadé) and Diego (Nicolas Ricchini) work as security guards at a multi-story parking lot; she has the day shift, and he handles nights. It’s a boring job, confined to keeping an eye on the numerous security camera monitor screens.

One day, while calling up a particular camera view in response to a car owner’s query, Luna discovers that Diego has an unexpected secret. How she responds to this, and where things go from there, proves quite droll.

Swiss writer/director Timo von Gunten’s La Femme et le TGV stars Jane Birkin as Elise Lafontaine, a small-town woman whose home abuts a high-speed rail line. Every morning and evening, for decades, she has waved a colorful flag as the train zips past her at 190 mph. She lives alone; clearly this ritual is important to her.

In town, she operates a high-end candy and pastry shop that has fallen on hard times; the locals are less willing to purchase her premium delicacies — made with the very best chocolate — because of newer and cheaper alternatives. This distresses Elise, who as a result has become somewhat cantankerous; her son, inconvenienced by having to travel so far to visit, wishes to put her in a retirement community.

Then, one morning, Elise discovers a letter in her garden: a note from the train conductor, expressing the enthusiasm with which he has anticipated passing her house each day, and seeing her cheerful wave. She tracks down his postal address, and so begins a series of thoughtful and poetic letters between two anonymous writers.

Birkin’s performance is richly nuanced, deftly telling us everything we need to know about Elise through body language and emotion-laden expressions. It’s an impressively complex characterization, for such a short film, and we’re heavily invested in Elise’s fate by the time we get to von Gunten’s charming conclusion.

The imperious Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) doesn't tolerate dissent, in Sing.
Poetic justice is the moral of Hungarian filmmaker Kristof Deák’s Mindenki (Sing), set in 1990s post-socialist Budapest. When Zsofi’s (Dóra Gáspárvalvi) family moves to a new town, the girl is delighted to begin classes in the school where celebrated music director Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi) has brought its choir to many championships.

Alas, Zsofi quickly discovers that Miss Erika is neither kind nor inspirational, and that the choir’s success has relied on a cruel secret. And it might have remained that way, were it not for the pluck of Zsofi’s new friend Liza (Dorka Hais), one of the other choir members.

Both young actresses are terrific, with Gáspárvalvi positively heartbreaking when Zsofi tries to hide her disappointment. But the story’s most satisfying element — Deák sharing writing credit with Bex Harvey and Christian Azzola — concerns the way these children look out for each other, and their shared determination to right a mean-spirited wrong. Don’t be surprised if you want to stand up and cheer, when this tale concludes.

It’s intriguing to note that both Mindenki and La Femme et le TGV are based on actual events.

Moving to the animated medium, I’m once again disappointed to note that the nominating committee too frequently favors unusual technique, while (apparently) failing to remember that the result should be appealing, and that style must support story. This short-sighted focus on form is the only explanation for both Canadian entries, starting with filmmaker Theodore Ushev’s Blind Vaysha, a thoroughly ugly parable about a girl who sees only the past out of her left eye, and the future out of her right eye.

Ushev animated the film with linocut-style images created on a graphics tablet, with results that look somewhat like woodblock prints. But the visuals are sloppy and harsh, often obscured by too much black “ink,” and the “animation” is minimalist and quite clumsy. More to the point, this technique is a poor choice with which to tell Georgi Gospodinov’s story, which itself doesn’t conclude, but merely stops in order to deliver an insufferable lecture to us viewers.

These shortcomings aside, at 8 minutes Blind Vaysha at least has the advantage of brevity. That’s not the case with Canada’s other entry: Robert Valley’s thoroughly boring Pear Cider and Cigarettes, which runs an interminable 35 minutes. Valley also narrates the film: a true story that details his tragic 25-year relationship with a self-destructive friend named Techno.

That’s likely the problem: Valley is much too close to an experience that obviously affected him deeply, and he lacks the objectivity necessary to have made a better, tighter film.

As with Blind Vaysha, Valley’s approach barely qualifies as animation; negligible movement is created by simply sliding still images back and forth (with Photoshop, he admits). The images themselves are panels from two earlier graphic novels he wrote and illustrated. The result looks like comic book panels placed onto the screen, with considerable repetition; that also enhances the film’s tedium.

At first blush, the vibrantly colored panels are quite striking, Valley’s introductory narration suggesting an homage to 1940s-era private eye novels. But the images quickly become monotonous, and — sadly — Techno’s saga isn’t nearly as captivating as Valley seems to believe.

Moving on, to vastly superior endeavors...

Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj met and became friends while film students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; they’ve been colleagues at Pixar since 2010. You’d think that would keep them sufficiently occupied, but apparently they found enough spare time, during the past five years, to collaborate on their own project: a beautifully animated and emotionally shattering little film called On Borrowed Time.

The story opens on a weathered sheriff, as he returns to the cliff-top scene of a long-ago incident that scarred him for life. His emotions laid bare wordlessly, solely via the expressive animation, we realize that he finally may succumb to despair.

The film already has become (in)famous for its deeply moving impact, and that reputation is well earned.

Pearl finds a familiar vehicle, in the film for which she is named.
Patrick Osborne’s Pearl also has a poignant undertone, but on a more cheerful level. It’s an ode to the power of shared pastimes, and particularly of music, and its ability to bridge generations: the gifts we pass from parent to child, which then — if we’re lucky — get passed back from child to parent.

The story is a music-laden road trip, beginning as a young girl and her father criss-cross the country, while he chases his dream of folk stardom. Responsibility eventually sets in, as it must; he gets a “mainstream” job in order to support them. The girl, blossoming into a rebellious teen, pursues her own unique — but touchingly similar — musical path.

Osborne’s colorful animation has the giddy effervescence of the film’s buoyant soundtrack, and the story’s message — that the things we pass down are their own statement of love — comes full circle in the final scene. Pearl is quite the charmer, and it’ll be adored by anybody ever tempted to follow the chimera of musical fame.

A young sandpiper discovers that obtaining food has its perils, in Piper.
Speaking of charmers, director Alan Barillaro’s Piper is a marvel. This Pixar production is the one short that many people already have seen, since it played in front of last autumn’s Finding Dory. As with most Pixar shorts, the narrative is wordless, making it universally embraceable; the scenario concerns a sandpiper hatchling who has become old enough to seek her own food.

Trouble is, the delectables are buried beneath the sand, right where huge and scary waves come crashing onto the shore.

The photo-realistic animation is amazing; indeed, at times it’s hard to remember that this is animation. The only giveaway, really, is the hatchling’s expressive personality. Everything else — the ocean waves, the sand, the adult sandpipers — looks persuasively real. It’s a stunning achievement, with a charming story to boot, and well deserves to win the Oscar.

The competition may seem unfair, given Pixar’s breathtaking superiority and attention to detail, but we should remember that while John Lasseter’s company tends to place a nominee in this category most years, it hasn’t won since 2001’s For the Birds. I’d say another triumph is long overdue.

And winning a gold statue for another avian endeavor would be a smile.

No comments:

Post a Comment