Saturday, February 4, 2017

THE 2017 OSCAR NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORTS ILLUMINATE WITH THEIR DARK THEMES

Hassam Ghancy and Najib Oudghiri in  ENNEMIS INTERIEURS.
Will the Oscars hold any suspense this year? Unlikely. After all, who doesn’t expect LA LA LAND to sweep? And victories for Emma Stone, Mahershala Ali and Viola Davis seem like all but foregone conclusions. Maybe there is a genuine contest for Best Actor after Denzel Washington bested Casey Affleck at the SAG Awards last weekend, but overall, this year’s Academy Awards ballot is going to be easy to predict, albeit with one exception. Best Live Action Short is a real toss-up. Why? The five nominees are all incredibly impressive works of art, and they're topical too. Thus, any of them could easily take the statue.  

As often is the case, the short films nominated delve into dark, adult themes, and the themes this year seem eerily prescient. Take director/writer Salim Azzazi’s entry ENNEMIS INTERIEURS. The heralded sound editor makes his directorial debut here with a story about immigration and discrimination against Muslims. No, it’s not about recent events in America, but rather France, in the 1990's when it was obsessed with nationalism after the events of the Algerian civil war. 

The story presents a proud French-Algerian man seeking French naturalization in the aftermath of the war. Unfortunately, he finds himself being coldly questioned about his loyalty by a suspicious police interrogator. With Oscar voting currently taking place, in the midst of all the fall-out from the Trump administration’s botched Muslim ban, this short film should resonate resoundingly. 

Hassam Ghancy in ENNEMIS INTERIEURS.
Don’t forget, too, that the actors’ branch is the biggest branch of the Academy, and it helps that this is a two-hander, a true actor’s piece. Shot simply in a stark interrogation room, it's a cat and mouse conversation between the detainer (Najib Oudghiri) and the detainee (Hassam Ghancy). Both are Arabic and they have more in common than not, but the overreach of the interrogator on behalf of the French government drives a wedge between the two. And as he strives to contain a possible terrorist threat he creates a new one, turning a good man into a bad one. It's quietly devastating. 

The other short that is truly of the moment is SILENT NIGHTS. Like ENNEMIS INTERIEURS, this one is also a story about immigration and prejudice. Director/writer Aske Bang and producer Kim Magnusson center their story around an earnest young Danish woman who befriends a struggling Ghanaian immigrant. They quickly become involved and yet unbeknownst to her,  he has a wife and three children back home in Africa. 

Prince Yaw Appiah and Malene Beltoft Olsen in SILENT NIGHTS.
Magnusson has the magic touch in this category. This is his sixth Oscar nomination, and he won the category twice already with BROTHERS in 1999 and HELIUM in 2013. (You may recall that I correctly predicted that HELIUM would win back then here.) What makes SILENT NIGHTS so effective is its complex emotions at play between the two leads. Danin Inger (Malene Beltoft Olsen) volunteers at a homeless shelter and meets the surly Kwame (Prince Yaw Appiah) when he curses her for not having room to house extra homeless shivering in the cold. They soon meet again, this time under warmer circumstances, and they take a shine to each other. As they become involved, their relationship is challenged by her mother's prejudice towards the African, as well as Kwame's struggles to find work. As one of his children takes ill, and Kwame is desperate to get funds home to his wife, he steals money from the shelter. But Inger is more than understanding, until she finds out about his double life.

Like so many love stories, Bang’s story doesn’t end with the lovers together, but it's a hopeful one nonetheless. It could almost be adapted into a full-length feature, that's how good it is. Magnusson has made plenty of those too, so we shall see what this accomplished producer comes up with next.

Jane Birkin in LE FEMME ET LE TGV.
LE FEMME ET LE TGV (translated as The Railroad Lady) is also a short about human connection. The Swiss-French drama directed by Timo von Gunten concerns a lonely but stubborn senior woman named Elise (Jane Birkin) who develops a bond with an  TGV conductor whose high speed train roars past her house twice a day.

And at each of those times, Elise ritually stakes out her position in her second story window and waves her Swiss flag to greet the passengers. Then one day, she finds a note in her yard, one thrown from the train by its conductor. His affectionate lines inform her how much he's touched by her friendly waving. They then become pen pals and start exchanging affectionate gifts with each other. He gives her cheese while she delivers sweet confections from her bakery.  

This is a very French love story, one tinged with loneliness and regret, and it’s marvelous to see acclaimed veteran actress Birkin cast in such a rich role. She’s played everything from Michelangelo Antonioni to Agatha Christie in her six-decade career, and she’s as luminous as ever. Equally bright is the whimsical score by Diego, Nora and Lionel Baldenweg. It's quite the confection altogether, yet the short's deeper message about the easy disposability of the elderly and tradition is touchingly profound. It could render this a sleeper with the Academy voters, particularly the older members. 

Lali Ayguade and Nicholas Riccini in TIMECODE.
TIMECODE already has accumulated a shelf full of international trophies, most notably the short film prize from the Cannes Film Festival jury this past year. Director Juanjo Gimenez’s mini-movie has plenty to say too about the modern world, criticizing the coldness of the technology we've all come to rely on. At the center of the story's critique are two parking lot security guards, Luna and Diego, who suffer through the loneliness of their dull, uneventful vocations. 

Diego works the night shift, while Luna covers days. They go through their mundane tasks each time and seem to sleep walk through it all. When they do meet, exchanging shifts in the office, they are barely two ships passing in the night. Then one day Luna discovers something unusual while checking a videotape for a reported accident. She discovers Diego dancing with abandon and it changes her perception of him forever. 

She soon decides to follow suit and ends up leaving him Post-It notes conveying just where on the time-coded tapes he can find her dancing in the parking lot. They start exchanging more and more dances for each other, but never utter a word about it when passing each other in the office.

It's droll fun, yet jubilant as well. And it's expertly choreographed too as the two leads are played by world-famous dancers. Nicholas Riccini, a dancer and choreographer who’s worked with the Akram Kha Company, plays Diego and Luna is played by the exquisite dancer/choreographer Lali Ayguade. You can see samples of her beautiful work here.

The message of TIMECODE is a ringing endorsement of creativity and the need for it no matter what your station is in life. Like the best song in LA LA LAND, it salutes "the dreamers who dream." And what Academy member isn't going to feel buoyed by that? 

Dorottya Hais and Dorka Gasparfalvi in SING (MINDENKI).
Finally, SING (MINDENKI), directed by Hungarian director Kristof Deak, is a charming little story with a strong and political ending that packs one dramatic wallop. It is perhaps the best ending of any of the shorts. The story concerns two junior high school girls who sing in their school’s award-winning choir, and how they fight the stifling conformity demanded by their choirmaster.  

This short, based on a true story, takes place in 1991 Budapest where Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi), a Swedish girl, is the new kid in town. She wants to fit in and the best way to do so is by joining the middle school's award-winning choir. She makes a fast new friend in Liza (Dorottya Hais), but Zsofi also makes an enemy of sorts in her dictatorial choir instructor (Zsofia Szamosi). The teacher determines that Zsofi isn’t good enough to sing with the others and instructs Zsofi to merely mime singing during rehearsals and their upcoming contest. She literally takes away the girl's voice. 

Zsofia Szamosi in SING (MINDENKI).
What Academy member wouldn't find resonance in a theme like that, particularly after Meryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globes, as well as all the protests these past two weeks? Again, the exquisite timing of this short is truly astounding as it coincides with women's refusal to bend towards prejudicial will.


Thus, with five such prescient shorts, it will be interesting to see which way the Academy goes. Honestly, it's anyone's game and I don't remember a years as strong as this one in either the Live Action Short or the Animated Short categories. You owe it to yourself to see these wonderful works when they open nationally on Friday, February 10. 

Tune into the Oscars Sunday night, February 26, and be assured that there will be some suspense. Denzel vs. Casey, yep, as well as Best Live Action Short. It's just a shame that all five of these superlative mini-movies cannot take home the gold. They're that great. 

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