Friday, February 10, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts -- Live Action

Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within)
Ennemis Interieurs is a story that takes place for the most part in one setting: an official's office. But that particular setting resonates in its universality and specificity. Most people, in most places have been in this type of setting. Who has not had to meet a bureaucrat at some government office? But the setting is also specific and immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, will feel the resonance in their own way. 
The basic plot is this: An immigrant who has lived in France most of his life has decided to become a citizen. He is interviewed by an official who seems at first to be more a gatekeeper or police agent than a welcoming immigration office. 
This is one of the most harrowing short-shorts I've seen in a while. Even more harrowing than the many horror shorts I've seen. And the reason it's such a hard watch and such a painful slow burn is not because of the inherent creepiness that occurs when one sees someone being interrogated in a tiny room by a cold meticulous official bent on tripping one up. It's because one finds one's self getting angrier and angrier as the cruelty becomes more pointed and the trap becomes more inescapable.  It's been ages since a film villain has made me so angry. Most villains in movies are cool and we filmgoers generally admire their sang-froid and cold-heartedness. But the citizenship inspector is so reminiscent of that powerful real-world prejudiced villainous official who is hell-bent on destruction.  In this character, we see how pernicious, subtle, and vicious the prejudices of the powerful are. Highly recommended.   
La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

A woman whose life is passing her by is holding on to the past --its elegance, its proprieties, its routine. Part of her daily routine is waving out the window at a passing train -- the TGV. She has not greeted the new things of life -- things such as the internet, or people like the playful young guy who dared to park her car in front of her bakery. But then, one day, a letter arrives and it is from someone on the train. He has seen her waving everyday and he writes to thank her that he values that very human action. She answers that it is a habit she formed with her son in the old days. However, this new interaction with this unseen letter-writer becomes the catalyst which causes her to grow out of her old ways. 

I liked this film a lot. I can't say it is anything super-special, so I'm somewhat surprised that it is nominated as a short. After all, there are countless movies and shorts about people encountering something, event, or action that causes some life-changing momentum to be set in place. Perhaps I'm missing something about the film that makes me unable to see it's greatness. Perhaps it has national or cultural echoes --the death of small-town France, for instance. But I won't hold its simplicity against it. It is a sweet little short with a solid story and good cinematography.
Silent Nights

Every once in a while one comes upon a movie where one has a disconnect with the filmmakers. For me, this was such a movie. The story is about a young woman in Denmark who is working in a homeless shelter for poor legal and undocumented immigrants. She encounters a homeless man from Ghana and falls in love with him.  Because of this encounter, the man leaves Denmark with lots of money and the woman is left alone happily fulfilled with his child. Perhaps the blurb is to blame, which reads as: "The couple builds a life together, but a devastating secret from Kwame's past may undermine their happiness." SPOILER (which is not really a spoiler): The Ghanaian man is married with children.

There are countless reasons why this movie annoyed me. The primary one, however, is that the music cues us to like the Ghanaian. Musical cues rarely work when a story is so facile. The writer in me wants sentiment --especially the sentiment of pity-- to be earned. In the end, the story comes off as a tale about a naïve loveless White girl who is taken advantage of by a Black man. Which is fine. But this is not what the filmmakers intended. The depiction of the immigrant is patronizing, his adultery is glossed over and repaid by monetary gains. The girl comes off as a dupe, and the film as self-congratulatory and simplistic. For me the story should have been more subtle and more morally complicated. For instance, is it possible for a poor man to love a woman who is giving him financial help and who ends up providing him with sex and a place to stay? A story like this --told in times like this-- should leave the viewer feeling troubled and perhaps confused.  
Sing (Mindenki)

This Hungarian short is utterly a-political, yet profoundly political. Unlike the failure Silent Nights and the pointed and devastating Enemies Within, Sing shows in a small setting -- a primary school-- that the political is often quite personal and that communal power (however small) can overcome evil....if only on a small scale. The story concerns a school choir, the choir mistress, and an upcoming contest which the choir mistress desperately wishes to win.  The choir mistress is not below using cruelty to get her way. What I loved primarily about this film was its kindness, its unobtrusive but powerful subtext, and its efficient storytelling. It may not be as devastatingly powerful as Enemies Within but it says a lot about how power could be challenged. I highly recommend this little short.

This short from Spain manages to be primarily about dance. I wouldn't necessarily call it a dance film, however. The dancing is interwoven like beads on a very thin plot string. But it works so well. The main characters are two guards who never speak to each other -- at least their communication is not verbal. They pass each other like ships in the night; dancing ships. The only verbal communication between them are the camera timecodes they exchange, timecodes which give each other clues to when and where their dance communication takes place. A good short, and like any good dance flick, the culmination of the story and the dance work perfectly together.
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