Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Short Stuff: The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Every year that I write one of these wrap-ups, I point out that it's an awful shame that this collection of Oscar-nominated short films is the best chance many will get to see this kind of production which isn't expanded to a commercially-viable length and can be tremendously focused as a result. It can be tough to talk oneself into the short programs at a festival, if that's even an option, and traditional means of exhibition don't exactly have room for these subjects, especially now. It's a tremendous boost to them to get this nomination, and if the Oscar Shorts programs are playing near you or are on your cable system's On-Demand menu, these five films are a heck of a package.

That these nominations are a big deal is something the film makes explicit, as four of them include images of the filmmakers, cast, and crew hearing their nominations and being blown away, well-aware that what just happened may be life-changing, and if they actually win… Well, they probably can't imagine that, although given the subject matter of many of these shorts, they'll have a couple minutes further to both get their movie seen and plead the cases of something so important that they would spend a lot of time and likely more money than they can recoup to make a film of it.

Although, it's worth noting, these things are thankfully getting easier to see - even if the package doesn't show near you, think back on this list a few months - I've found that, as I have been fixing some broken links on this blog, a surprising number of short films can be found on Amazon, Vimeo, and other streaming services, including many nominees from past years. They often require even more digging than their feature-length cousins to discover - nobody streaming movies online has come up with something as easily and enjoyably browsable as a video store - but they are available in ways that have not been the case in prior years. Even if you can't catch this year's nominees before the ceremony, why not use the reminder that there are great short films up for awards to catch up with those from years past?

"DeKalb Elementary"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The first of the films nominated this year, "DeKalb Elementary" from filmmaker Reed Van Dyk, is a terrific little real-time thriller predicated almost entirely on the threat of something happening: As the school day begins, a man (Bo Mitchell) comes into the office, asking to make a phone call, but while the people at the front desk aren't paying complete attention, he pulls out a rifle, and soon the situation has shrunk to just him, administrative assistant Cassandra Rice (Tarra Riggs), and the muffled voice on the other end of the 911 call she makes, relaying his confused, aimless instructions.

Basing his film on an actual 911 call, Van Dyk structures his film as a contrast between confusion and capability, with Bo Mitchell giving a sweaty, nervous performance as the gunman while Tarra Riggs projects a fascinating sort of forced calm. There is never an easy interplay between them, but the way that they interact is fascinating. At the most obvious surface level, the audience is struck by the fact that Rice is used to dealing with children, and she approaches this man in the same way, carefully, slowly, aiming for clarity rather than confrontation - and it's clearly the right choice to make. Van Dyk's use of the elementary school as the background is canny, whether in how he chose the story or wrote the script, as it's not a cheap multiplier but an examination of how to best handle this sort of crisis. It's also worth noting that the two main characters are a white man and an African-American woman, and while this isn't something Van Dyk ever has characters remark upon in the film, it seems pointed - everybody that the audience sees at the school is black, and doesn't really question when this guy saunters in and asks to use the phone before he casually takes hostages, with Rice required to empathize with him rather than vice versa. It's an extreme sort of entitlement that is downplayed enough as to be taken for granted.

It may just be a quirk of casting, something not considered beyond trying to be faithful to the real-life participants (which, we should remember, is not something that filmmakers always bother much with), but it's also something that has the ring of truth, as does the increased tension and thoroughly believable reactions in the last few minutes - as good as Riggs has been through the rest of the picture, she's even better at the end. That density of detail is a large part of what makes "DeKalb Elementary" worthy of a nomination; it's a very well-done story in the most basic, functional sense, but shows even more truth as a viewer looks closer.

"The Silent Child"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

By contrast, "The Silent Child" puts things a little more in the foreground in its story of Joanne (writer Rachel Shenton), who has just taken a job as the tutor to Libby (Maisie Sly), a severely hearing-impaired four-year-old whose parents Sue and Paul (Rachel Fielding & Philip York) seem to mean well but are not truly prepared for the disruption tending to her needs can be, both in terms of expectations and a life that is already busy with two teenagers (Sam Rees & Annie Cusselle) and Paul's ailing mother (Anna Barry). The film has a lot of information to deliver on its way to closing title cards about how most deaf children are born into families that aren't truly ready for these unique challenges.comes across as both

This information that they want to communicate lets Shenton and director Chris Overton do a fair job of working the two sides of the story in different ways. They are not shy about being straightforward with the uplifting teacher-student story, and why not? Shenton writes herself a part that is well within her skill set, and she's got a pretty terrific part in young Maisie Sly, who gives Overton and the crew what they need to show how miserable and frustrated Libby can be at an age where a lot of kids might not get more nuanced than "bratty". This material lets the part of the story that is more individual to this family unfold, and while the filmmakers don't shy away from highlighting the pieces that Joanne is going to piece together, they don't spell it out with a fight, either.

It's not necessarily the most interesting narrative; a lot of it seems fueled by Sue being jealous of the pretty younger woman who can get through to her daughter, which is the sort of thing that feels simultaneously true-to-life and regressively cliched. It's good work that the film winds up far less focused on that sort of melodrama than it could, injecting just enough to give color and humanity to an easily-dismissed situation.

"My Nephew Emmett"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

As soon as many see the title of this film and the caption stating it takes place on 28 August 1955 in Money, Mississippi, they'll feel a tension even if they came into this short blind and don't remember the exact date and location of Emmett Till's lynching; it's an event that has grown in infamy in the subsequent decades, enough so that viewers may worry that they're getting a mere recreation of it, which can seem exploitative even if many, living under better circumstances, could probably use the jolt of horror that simply reading the facts cannot deliver.

Writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr. delivers that, using the very fame of this case to let the audience watch dominoes fall from far away, as when a discussion at the local watering hole has Emmett's uncle, preacher Mose Wright (L.B. Williams), knowing that the 14-year-old kid may be getting himself into trouble he can't predict, let alone handle. It's heightened later on when white men come to his house, with early emphasis on how the borders of a black man's home are not respected, from the flashlights shining into bedrooms at 2:30AM to the utter entitlement the invaders feel to cross Mose's threshold. The confrontation is staged like a standoff but still emphasizes the powerlessness Mose feels.

It's what actor L.B. Williams does leading up to that sequence which makes the film truly memorable, though, as Wilson shows Mose at the end of a long day and life in general, the sort of situation where you've got to go down to the river and pump a few buckets of water just to take a relaxing bath. Williams is wiry and makes Mose move without limp or hesitation but without hurrying too much; he's learned how to keep things steady and not make a lifetime of wear obvious. It's the stance of a survivor but one who is not so ideally strong that he can't fold, a dignity that is pushed to shame later on. It's a contrast to Dane Rhodes, who plays the man knocking at his door - just big enough to have had an extra meal while still clearly insecure enough to push his black neighbors down, with a hint that he can be pretty likable among his peer group until the slurs start coming out of his mouth. It's a pair of terrific performances that slot into Williams's singular perspective on a story that is often used as a stand-in for all lynchings exceptionally well.

"The Eleven O'Clock"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

The set-up for "The Eleven O'Clock" is simple enough that the audience can see ninety percent of it sliding into place as it happens and then spot just how useful the other ten is as it's coming into play, and while it's not always great for a thing that plays as a well-oiled machine to give the viewer to have such a clear view of the mechanism in question, it works here as it sets up Terry Phillips (writer Josh Lawson) as a psychiatrist confronted with temp Linda (Jessica Donoghue) instead of the usual receptionist and being informed that his first patient, Nathan Klein (Damon Herriman), has "grandiose delusions"... of being a psychiatrist.

It's a straightforward gag that works in large part because Lawson and Herriman have play the duelling "analysts" so as to both tap into the ego that they need to presume they can solve others' problems (but which patients resent) while coming at it from different directions, one stuffy and one manic. Lawson's script calls for lots of back-and-forth banter that goes from snappy to snippy, especially once word-association begins and Linda being roped in and hung up upon frequently threatens to send things careening in another direction. Director Derin Seale and his crew keep the pacing quick, and do interesting things with space, as a giant lobby makes Linda feel even more trapped in her tiny alcove, while the office seems to rapidly shrink around Terry and Nathan, with the point of view flipping back and forth in a way that is sharp but not jarring.

"The Eleven O'Clock" is the only comedy of the quintet, which always seems to be the way, like the collectie Academy knows that one of the things shorts do best is this precision timing that lasts just as long as the joke, but still can't help but give more recognition to the ones that focus on something important.

"Watu Wote" ("All of Us")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2017 in Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Oscar-Nominated Shorts, DCP)

And sometimes that "more important" can also overlap with "not as well-reported as it should be in the West". That's the case with "Watu Wote" (given an English title of "All of Us"), which opens with text describing the tensions between Christians and Muslims on the border between Kenya and Ethiopia, in particular noting the large number of attacks by terrorist group Al-Shabaab. That's the reason why Jue (Adelyne Wairimu) asks whether the bus from Nairobi to Rhamu will have a police escort in the more dangerous areas; she's also visibly - and sometimes vocally - unnerved by the number of Muslims on the bus. Of course, when the journey reaches that homestretch, the police car overheats and is unable to follow.

The incident that follows seems to have been something of a notable one in that region of Africa, but it's noteworthy that director Katja Benrath and primary screenwriter Julia Drache do not exactly play it up as revolutionary or necessary even unusual. Jua's rosary beads have been exchanged for a head covering almost before the audience realizes what has happened, and teacher Salah Farah (Abdiwali Farrah) pushes back against their attackers without dramatic pauses between his words or a dramatic swell to the score. This pivotal, climactic scene is not necessarily more tense for how the filmmakers play it; it may actually let a bit of the air out. I'm curious as to whether this was a conscious choice on their part to position the actions of Salah and Jua's neighbor as not primarily heroic but what should be expected of people whether they consider themselves brave or not. It's an intriguing realignment of the aspirational true story that emphasizes not just that ordinary people can and should resist violence, but that they must.

It's a message that gets across in large part because of how Benrath has her cast play the scenes leading up to it; both Adelyne Wairimu's Jua and Abdiwali Farrah's Salah often come off as abrasive and prone to suspicion of others' motives, and the actors convey that well; they're also given material that lets them show the characters as having more to them before being thrown in the crucible. The locations shooting is beautiful as well, and never fails to capture the right combination of vibrance and danger.

If I were a betting man, I'd put it on "My Nephew Emmett", and I'd have a hard time arguing against it as the most award-worthy of the bunch. The whole package is well worth checking out, of course, whether before or after the awards.

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