Thursday, February 24, 2022

Time for the Oscar-nominated short films

     It's always dangerous to draw broad generalizations from a limited universe of films, but it's tempting -- and not all temptations should be resisted. If one were to generalize -- and I'm about to do just that -- this year's crop of Oscar nominated short films paints a fairly bleak portrait of worlds full of crushed ambitions, dashed hopes, oppressive societies, and lost opportunities.
    Having said all that, it may seem odd to say that there's also uplifting amounts of creativity and dedication in this year's crop of short films -- and, as always, I recommend that you see them, although I'm not going to provide individual reviews of each effort. 
   Count me among those who are peeved that the Academy decided not to include awards for short films in its live telecast. I understand that the show tends to drone, but the Oscar platform provides a much-needed opportunity for the Academy to honor individual expression and true independence. 
    Evidently, the winners will be recognized during the broadcast, but it's not the same as being part of the live proceedings.
   A final note: Many of the live action shorts (small dramatic features) seem to have abandoned the once-prevalent punch-line approach to short filmmaking. I'm talking about films that ended with a memorable kicker, something to burn the film into memory.
   I'd call that a good thing.
  So what about this years crop of films? We begin with the animated shorts.
Affairs of the Art. Beryl, a Welsh woman tells stories about the obsessions of family members while lamenting her failure to develop as an artist. Hand-drawn animation produces often grotesque images that include one character's preoccupation with taxidermy and a portly woman's wrestling match with a push-up bra. Directed by Joanna Quinn and written by Les Mills. 

 Director Hugo Covarrubias takes a chilling look at Ingrid Olderock, a real-life character who was dubbed "The Woman with the Dogs." Olderock helped "disappear" people during the Pinochet era in Chile. Her idea of how to employ her German Shepherds doesn’t exactly qualify as pet friendly. Presented as a stout, expressionless doll, Olderock provides the centerpiece of a disturbing film.
Boxballet. Set in 1993, this Russian entry focuses on a relationship between a rail-thin ballerina and a tank of a boxer who's seen better days. Director Anton Dyakov and co-writer Andrey Vasilyev create a beauty-and-the-beast fable that proves touching.
Robin Robin. More geared toward typical expectations than its fellow nominees, Robin Robin was directed by Daniel Ojari and Michael Please and produced by Aardman Animations, best known for Wallace and Gromit films. Raised by a group of mice, a robin finds her identity and learns how to be a productive member of the group that nurtured her. That sounds didactic but Ojari and Please work with a light touch that makes room for peppy musical numbers. Their goal is to entertain, not instruct.
The Windshield Wiper. Spanish director Alberto Meigo tries to answer an age-old question: What is love? He tells the story by focusing on a man sitting alone in a cafe and musing on the question. Composed of memories, emotions, and quietly poignant episode, the  resultant film offers a mix of personal and slightly abstracted  observations.

Live Action
The Dress. This 30-minute Polish entry introduces us to Julka, a woman who works as a maid in a hotel and happens to be what we now call "a person of short stature." Julka's size figures into a story that refuses to dismiss her desires for sexual and emotional intimacy. Director Tadeusz Lysiak builds toward a disturbing encounter with a purportedly empathetic truck driver has shattering impact. Anna Dzieduszycka's performance as Julka proves memorable.
The Long Goodbye. Riz Ahmed, who shares a writing credit with director Aneil Karia, stars in a British film that begins by immersing us in the bustle of a family preparing for a wedding. Joy vanishes when a group of white nationalists terrorizes the Pakistani family as the police stand idly by. Hand-held and jittery in ways that I found off-putting but must have been intended to emphasize the transition from chaotic anticipation to racist violence. 

Ala Kachuu
. Sezim, a woman living in Kyrgyzstan, tries to convince her mother to allow her to attend university. Denied the chance, she leaves her rural village and heads to the city. While waiting for university admission, Sezim works in a bakery where she becomes a target for a young man who wants to kidnap a woman to become his bride. To westerners, Semi's story may seem unbelievable -- but Swedish director Maria Brendle exposes what's said to be a fairly common practice in a culture in which female roles are oppressively defined.
Please Hold. KD Davila offers a disturbing but clever look at a future in which artificial intelligence and computerized responses dominate everything -- including the unjust jailing of an innocent man who finds himself stuck in a Kafkaesque nightmare that very much resembles experiences we've all had with automated phone calls.
On My Mind. Martin Strange-Hansen's film finds a man sitting at a bar looking massively depressed. When he learns that the bar has a karaoke machine, he implores a sympathetic bartender and the place's greedy owner to allow him to sing one song, "Always on My Mind." Sounds corny but Strange-Hansen keeps emotions under control as the movie slowly reveals the reasons for this tormented man's song and why he wants to sing it. 

Lead Me Home. Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk tackle homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. The directors contrast the high-gloss beauty of these cities with the teeming impoverishment of people who have wound up living on the street. A little slick and perhaps too diffuse to have as much impact as may have been intended, but still effective.

The Queen of Basketball
. Luisa Harris, a six-foot, three-inch center,  won high school and college championships, an Olympic silver medal, and even was drafted by the then New Orleans Jazz of the NBA. Harris declined a tryout, thinking that she couldn't dominate the way she had in women's basketball. Harris, who played during the 1970s, preceded the WNBA and never got a chance to take her talent to a logical next stage. Director Ben Proudfoot's film introduces her to a wider audience.
Three Songs for Benazir. Set in Afghanistan, the movie chronicles the life of a young husband who wants to join the military to fight the Taliban. His family prefers that he keep his head down. Instead, Shasta winds up working in the opium fields and developing an addiction he must overcome. Feelings of helplessness -- being observed by US drones and subjected to Taliban cruelty --  pervade a story that must have been extremely difficult to film by co-directors Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzael but which could have benefited from fleshing out.
When We Were Bullies. Director Jay Rosenblatt's documentary examines a bullying incident in which the director participated when he was a kid in a Brooklyn elementary school. Rosenblatt contacted fellow classmates, most of whom remember a playground incident that has troubled Rosenblatt ever since it occurred some 50 years earlier.
Audible. A look at a young man who plays football for the Maryland School of the Deaf, a team that compiled a 42-game winning streak. often defeating hearing teams. Director Matthew Ogens focuses on Amaree, a kid who excels at football but must deal with some difficult emotional issues, including the suicide of a friend. Ogens brings us into the non-hearing world and makes us care about the kids who live in it.

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