Friday, February 9, 2018

Little films, big topics

2018 Oscar Shorts (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Not rated, with some of the live-action entries probably too intense for children

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.9.18

The live-action Academy Award-nominated short subjects are an ideal bellwether of national and international anxiety, and this year’s crop is no exception.

Hollywood responds slowly to social angst and hot-button political topics; feature films can’t help their lengthy gestation period. Short subjects, on the other hand, can be planned, produced and released quickly enough to tap into current events.

Three of this year’s five nominees make it clear that violence — particularly racial and religious violence — remains a subject of deep concern to filmmakers.

The animated nominees, as also often is the case, offer the relief of gentle humor.

American writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr.’s My Nephew Emmett, the stand-out live-action entry, dramatizes the dreadful incident that took place in Money, Miss., at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 28, 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was hauled out of bed by brutal white racists. The 20-minute film is anchored by L.B. Williams’ dignified starring performance as Mose Wright, the 64-year-old sharecropper and preacher forced to watch, helplessly, as his nephew was driven away.

Wilson relates the story economically, deftly sketching the loving relationship between Mose and his wife Elizabeth (Jasmine Guy), and their delight over hosting Chicago-based Emmett (Joshua Wright) for a visit. Laura Valladao’s cinematography is terrific; Mose’s early evening trek to a water pump is framed beautifully against the setting sun.

The script is subtle, with just enough foreshadowing to alert savvy viewers — even those unfamiliar with history — about what is to come.

The atmosphere of nervous tension morphs rapidly into full-blown terror during a savage climax, after which Wilson cuts to archival footage of the actual Mose Wright, while he begins to recount what happened that night (a clip taken from the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, and readily available online).

Anxiety and terror also are evident in director Katja Benrath’s Watu Wote (All of Us), a German/Kenyan co-production that dramatizes what took place on Dec. 21, 2015, when Al-Shabaab militants attacked a bus traveling from Somalia to Mandera, Kenya. An initial text crawl explains that a decade of such attacks has heightened the mistrust between Muslims and the frequently targeted Christians.

The taut script — by Julia Drache, Alexander Ikawah and Brian Munene — focuses on Jua (Adelyne Wairimu), a young Christian woman making the 31-hour journey in order to visit her sick mother. Wairimu’s performance is largely silent, her wary gaze displaying a tightness that suggests something — suspicion? anger? hostility? — when she must sit next to a Muslim woman and her young daughter.

Jua’s tension increases when forced to converse with Salah Farah (Abdiwali Farrah), a Muslim teacher dismayed — and saddened — when she rebuffs him. What subsequently occurs speaks volumes about the nobility of human kindness, even in the face of mortal danger. Benrath’s approach is as powerful as the events themselves.

The same cannot be said of writer/director Reed Van Dyk’s DeKalb Elementary, which is inspired by an actual 911 call placed during a school shooting episode in Atlanta, Ga. Given the appalling number of such incidents already having taken place in a year that’s only five weeks old, it’s impossible not to flinch when a grade school front office is invaded by a deeply disturbed young man toting a semi-automatic rifle and a backpack stuffed with ammunition.

The film is essentially a two-hander, with Bo Mitchell chilling as the disheveled and overweight gunman, and Tarra Riggs persuasively terrified as the office administrator who becomes the intruder’s telephone liaison with the outer world. The situation screams imminent catastrophe, but — once the crisis kicks off — Van Dyk’s handling is oddly flat, and the outcome rather anticlimactic.

British director Chris Overton’s The Silent Child is this category’s stealth candidate: a poignant, initially charming little piece that builds to a heartbreaking and instructive conclusion.

Cute-as-a-button Maisie Sly plays Libby, a profoundly deaf 4-year-old all but ignored by parents and older siblings too involved with themselves and each other. The dynamic shifts with the arrival of Joanne (Rachel Shenton), a cheerful and perceptive social worker who begins to teach Libby how to communicate via sign language.

Their growing bond doesn’t go unnoticed by the little girl’s condescending mother (Rachel Fielding), which leads to a conclusion — and a final close-up of Libby’s forlorn  face — that is utterly heartbreaking. This deeply touching film would get my vote for the Oscar, but Overton’s gentle touch is bound to be overshadowed by My Nephew Emmett or Watu Wote.

Director Derin Seale’s The Eleven O’Clock, lastly, is a droll bit of Australian whimsy: an increasingly confused encounter between a psychiatrist and his delusional patient, who believes that he’s the psychiatrist ... or is it the other way around? Josh Lawson and Damon Herriman have a lot of fun with the rapid-fire dialogue.

Shifting to the animated medium, Glen Keane’s Dear Basketball is the high-profile contender, with its hand-drawn depiction of Kobe Bryant and the sports dream that inspired him from early childhood. The pencil-sketch animation style is charming, and the deeply moving background score comes from no less than John Williams. The “story” is adapted from the retirement letter that Bryant wrote in late 2015.

But while the presentation is inspirational, the overall tone feels boastful and self-indulgent; one can’t help feeling that Bryant is rather full of himself.

France’s Garden Party is a stunner. This 7-minute mood piece boasts a level of photo-realistic animation that looks like live action: all the more impressive because of its focus on small, fast-moving frogs and insects, a debris-laden pool, and the opulent contents of a lavish but apparently deserted house.

The film is credited to six directors — Florian Babikian, Vincent Bayoux, Victor Caire, Théophile Dufresne, Gabriel Grapperon and Lucas Navarro — and their work is simply amazing. The frog’s-eye-view of the action initially is amusing, then mildly puzzling, and ultimately even mysterious, right up to the unexpected conclusion.

And I can’t help wondering, based on what seems a familiar figure depicted in the eye-blink glimpse of a painting on one wall, if Babikian et al are indulging in a bit of pointed satire.

Pixar often posts an entry in this category, and Dave Mullins’ slickly animated LOU upholds the studio’s tradition of clever, dialogue-less storytelling. The setting is a grade school playground, as a toy-stealing bully ruins recess for all the other children ... until he encounters the mysterious whatzit that inhabits the “lost and found” box resting alongside the classroom door.

As also is Pixar’s custom, Mullins anthropomorphizes a most unusual creature, granting it intelligence, sensitivity, curiosity and a sense of humor ... all conveyed entirely via behavior and action.

Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Negative Space, also from France, is an odd little piece. (This Oscar category always includes one or two entries that make me wonder what the nominating judges were smoking that day.)

The stop-motion animation is competent but not very appealing, and the “story” — actually a visualization of a 2014 poem by Ron Koertge — concerns a 12-year-old boy who connects with his father, who travels frequently, via their shared interest in efficiently arranged luggage.

“My dad taught me to pack,” the poem begins. “Lay out everything. Put back half.” And so it continues. But although this 6-minute animated adaptation builds to the same mordant final line, Koertge did so much more economically, with only 150 words.

At 29 minutes, the UK’s Revolting Rhymes is by far the longest entry, but it certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome. Co-directors Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer have a merry old time adapting Roald Dahl’s 1982 collection of poems: quirky takes on familiar fairy tales — chiefly “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Three Little Pigs” — that conclude in a manner most unfamiliar, thanks to the author’s deliciously wicked sense of humor.

Schuh and Lachauer modeled their computer-animated style on the Quentin Blake illustrations that accompanied Dahl’s poems in the book: a sleek, wooden-doll look that recalls George Pal’s classic Puppetoons shorts from the 1930s and ’40s. The thoroughly delightful result will be adored by those who enjoy their fairy tales fractured or bent; the well-cast voice talent features Dominic West (as the Wolf), Gemma Chan and Rose Leslie, among others.

The intertwined storylines build to a climax pregnant with anticipation, which could be viewed as ironic ... but, in fact, it’s a cliff-hanger: This Oscar-nominated piece is only the first part of a saga that runs half an hour longer. (The second half is readily available on DVD and the usual streaming options.)

If you’re fed up with the junk populating mainstream movie theaters during these doldrums of late winter, give this touring show a try (locally at Sacramento’s Crest Theater). Good things truly do come in small packages.

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