Monday, February 15, 2016

Oscar Stuff: Live Action Short Nominees

I got a chance to see the five nominees for the live-action short films. The Oscar website here has synopses and some previews. Here's what I thought:

The nattering Jewish trio who are trying to get back home in
time for Shabbat. Their attempts to work with silent nuns
provide some nice, light comedy in a tense part of the world.
Ave Maria

Directors: Basil Kalil and Eric Dupont

This 17-minute film is solid, pure comedy, and I thought it the third best of the group.

Taking place in the West Bank of the Israel/Palestine region, it tells the tale of a Jewish family - a son, his wife, and the son's mother - who run their car into a statue of Mary in front of a convent housing five nuns who have taken vows of silence. The gags all stem from the eight people trying to dance around their various religious beliefs, practices, and vows in order to get the Jewish trio back to their house before Shabbat begins. It's an amusing affair, well-acted and shot, and it makes for some welcome humor set in a place best known for its violence and intolerance. 

Shok (Friend)

Director: Jamie Donoughue

Harrowing story set in 1990s Kosovo, where two Albanian boys confront the horrors of violent ethnic discrimination. The movie is not without some small doses of humor, but much of what is depicted is injustice, fear, and sorrow. The framing device is thoughtful and moving, and the acting and cinematography are outstanding. Well worth seeing once, but probably too grim to see again. The second best of the bunch, in my view. 

Alles wild gut (Everything Will Be OK)

Director: Patrick Vollrath

Set in modern Germany, this short is the story of a father who is attempting to flee the country with his young daughter. The crescendo of tension and emotion is paced extremely well, and the acting is excellent. This is especially true of the young girl. However, the story ultimately fails to satisfy, as we are never given enough of the father's story to decide whether his desperation and sorrow are well-founded or not. The final scenes drag on rather brutally, and I came away with little to feel over it other than vague discomfort. My fourth favorite of the five.

With subtlety and humor, this shy, stuttering fellow evokes
the kind of empathy and engagement that some of the other
nominated films failed to capture. 
Stutterer

Director: Benjamin Clearly and Serena Armitage

Clocking at 12 minutes, this is the shortest of the group, and also my favorite. Told from the perspective of a young Londoner with a crippling stutter, we get a great sense of just how frustrating such a condition can be. It is a charming, rather light story, with the protagonist trying to work up the courage to meet the woman whom he's been chatting with online for 6 months. There are several smart and thoughtful additions to this romantic angle, which prevent things from becoming sappy, and the technical merits are top-notch. Certainly not the most hard-hitting of the group, but the one which I felt showed the most all-around cinematic skill. 

Day One

Director: Henry Hughes

Leave it to an American director and production company (AFI, surprisingly) to offer us a film using immensely high production values to tell a ham-fisted tale that borders on insulting. Day One is the story of a female Arabic-English interpreter on her first day on the job in Afghanistan. In probably the most insanely unrealistic combination of dramatic instances ever to take place in a few-hours span, she is nearly blown up, is almost forced to cut a dead newborn out of a terrified local mother, actually deliver the newborn when it is found to be living, then look over the newborn and its older cousin after the mother dies and the father is taken into custody by U.S. armed forces. This short felt so emotionally manipulative and heavy-handed with its commentary on maternity that I was actually angry about it. Despite the skilled cinematography and acting, this was easily my least favorite of the group.

Overall Thoughts

This is actually the first year that I've managed to see the short film nominees. It was a mixed bag, to be sure, though all films showed strong technical merits. Though I obviously liked Stutterer the best, my guess is that Shok is likely to win, given its much harder-hitting nature.