Monday, March 28, 2022

Short Stuff: The 2021 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts

Still playing a couple shows at the Coolidge this week and one more time at the ICA on Sunday, so this isn't a totally irrelevant post after the ceremony!

Anyway, we've got a really solid group this year, so let's get right to it:

"On My Mind"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

If Martin Strange-Hansen's "On My Mind" has any issues, it's that he seemingly feels some need to inject more tension and conflict than is really necessary. The story has barmaid Louise (Camilla Bendix) happy to serve a drink and fire up the karaoke machine when Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) comes in after closing time, with owner Preben (Ole Boisen) choosing to be fussy about such things. The audience, of course, has already had a glimpse of why Henrik needs something to settle himself down, but they're likely going to go along with Louise and empathize with the man anyway. It's not that Preben is hard to believe - many have encountered folks who easily default to not really being able to see more than an inch beyond their own nose - but he winds up feeling transparently like a means to keep the short running in place more than anything else.

It's a great little piece around that, though; Hammerich and Bendix do really excellent work sketching out who these people are without Strange-Hansen having to feed the audience more information than they really need, and this has at its heart one of film's great karaoke scenes, even if it's unconventional: Even if the activity seems tremendously unappealing (as it does to me), the filmmakers still get across just how important escaping into that sort of performance can be, expressing oneself in part by changing context.

(Though I am kind of amused at how the karaoke machine lists "You Were Always on My Mind" as an Elvis Preseley song, since he's well behind Willie Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys in terms of who I associate the song with. Probably in fourth after Hammerich now!)

"Please Hold"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

This played one of the virtual Fantasia Fests? Huh, I feel like I would have seen it, in that case, but I don't remember it. Odd, because I like it a lot. It's targeted absurdity that recognizes that its audience is not exactly living in a subtle world, so there is no particular need for satire to be subtle. Every point it makes about the American prison-industrial complex feels bang-on, ripped from a story disturbingly hidden on page B18 Law & Order-style. Co-writer/director KD Davila knows his target and homes in on them.

It works, both as a short film and as a story, in large part because lead Erick Lopez makes unjustly-targeted Mateo such an amiable, likable protagonist; he's an easy guy to spend twenty minutes with and is able to rail against his twisted situation in such a way that the audience doesn't find him off-putting, and Davila recognizes how so much of this happens because so many good people want to believe the system is built to be fair and just needs a bit more earnest effort when it isn't. Amid all the very obvious exaggerations of real-world injustices, this unstated idea at the center quietly seeps into everything.

I'm not sure when this was made, but if it's a pandemic-shot production, it's one of the ones that made especially good adaptations. Where so many shorts shot in 2020 or 2021 make the use of screens and empty streets into something that needs to be explained and worked around, this feels like something built around those requirements but not about why they exist in the real world., and as a result has a sense of authenticity even though it doesn't actually redress things outside of its main set that much.

"Sukienka" ("The Dress")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

Tadeusz Lysiak's "The Dress" isn't actually about a dress, but it's a clear and clever way to distill the limbo Julka (Anna Dzieduszycka) often finds herself in - someone of her short stature and proportions can often find casual clothing in the children's section, but something sexy needs to be custom-ordered or tailor-made, making her feel less like a woman and not really sure what to do when one of the truckers (Szymon Piotr Warszawski) who stops at the motel where she lives and works as a maid actually shows some interest.

Dzieduszycka delivers a genuinely impressive show of frustration that has been going on so long that she's just come to treat it as her life's baseline, the thing that makes it hard for her to get along with even the people like co-worker Renata (Dorota Pomykala) who are at the point of taking her height in stride, mixing it up with general working-class frustration. There's an untidy, transitory feel to even the more permanent parts of the setting, underscoring the limbo where Julka keeps herself, maybe right down to how everybody she meets tends to give her a different nickname.

That the search for a dress is not a quest but just a thing that that hovers over this upcoming date makes the short a little shaggier, but that seems fair and honest. Julka has given up on quick fixes or one thing turning her life around, but that doesn't mean solving that sort of problem won't help.

"The Long Goodbye"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

How speculative is "The Long Goodbye" meant to be? Aneil Karia's short feels like the kind of thing that could either be based on a real-life incident or a warning about how things like this aren't far off, and that's perhaps part of the point - dire warnings and horrific events overlap in time, which maybe plays into the ways that this film gets even more peculiar as it keeps going past when most would fade to black.

That's the second big tonal shift; after what looks like a household of Middle-Eastern descent apparently preparing for a wedding suddenly finds themselves pulled out by black-clad men with guns, who may be government or may not be. The wedding prep had been a little tense in the way such things are - a lot to do in a little time, and the TVs in the background broadcasting ominous stories - but this is something else altogether, although it's a pretty nifty job of showing how people just trying to live a life with the constant hum of such things in the background can suddenly find it interrupting into real terror.

And then… Well, the short gets weird. One of the most prominent characters is played by Riz Ahmed (credited as "co-creator"), who stands afterward and does a spoken-word/rap piece, and it's an odd bit, making what had previously been subtext text, not exactly logical given what had previously happened. It's nicely-done, if a thoroughly theatrical thing to cap a short that had previously been naturalistically performed and grounded. It'll throw some, but then, it's not exactly a short looking to make its point subtly.

"Ala Kachuu - Take and Run"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 March 2022 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre GoldScreen (Oscar Shorts, digital)

"Ala Kachuu - Take and Run" is built on hammering things home as well, but then, that's sort of the point: Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) is a bright young woman who dreams of going to University but has to practically run away to do it, only to find herself kidnapped into marriage, and it's not even an arranged one - she was just convenient. Husband Dayrbek (Nurbek Esengazy Uulu) seems decent, as such men go, but Sezim has no intention of becoming one of the women her mother's age who eventually accepts this as the way things are.

Writer/director Maria Brendle does excellent work keeping her eye on a certain line, where the film isn't just showing the cruelty and sexism of the culture in this part of Kyrgyzstan or how Sezim suffers, but isn't lecturing about how, as much as the men who kidnap force themselves upon their "wives", it is the women who eventually accept it that allow this system to be perpetuated. Granted, the audience is going to want Sezim to spell it out - she and friend Aksana (Madina Talipbekova) and kid sister Aygul (Aybike Erkinbekova) are clearly perceptive enough to understand it, but that kind of direct confrontation might keep the viewer from letting how people become complicit to bury their own shame and anger really fester - and, besides, a certain moment works best if someone figures it out herself.

It's also a striking film to watch generally; Brendle and her crew find the beauty in a land that is poor, isolated, and backward in many ways, and do a good job building high-speed escape attempts around someone who is clearly just driving for the first time or two. There's a great moment early on where Sezim and her mother are making bread together, which is apparently a major part or the wedding rituals, and the way that Sezim is just no good at it compared to her - but has still familiar enough to work in a shop later - is a great, quick way to establish her character. Alina Turdumamatova does a nice job of making Sezim feel like an ordinary girl who knows she deserves more rather than someone exceptional enough to break the system.

As I finish writing this, the awards have already been handed out (off-screen, apparently), because I saw them late and have had a busy-ish week. If I'd had a vote, it would have been for "Please Hold", although that was going to be a long shot. I'm not surprised "The Long Goodbye" won - a name as familiar as Riz Ahmed in a short gives it a heck of a boost - and certainly can't gripe about it.

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