Thursday, March 28, 2024

2023 Live Action Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews



I like to watch as many of the short film Oscar nominees as possible: animated, documentary and live action. This year, I was able to see only the Live Action Short Film nominees. I now review them in order presented, adding the runtime as well.


(18 minutes)

The After is about Dayo (David Oyelowo), a once-successful businessman who witnesses a random knife attack in which his daughter is stabbed and his wife plunges to her death when attempting to save her daughter's body. Some time later, Dayo is an Uber driver who lives his life vicariously through his fares. It is not until a particularly bickering couple, along with their own daughter, comes along that he finally breaks down. The girl, Emily (Izuka Hoyle) gives him a hug, which causes him to fall to the ground and wail, frightening Emily's parents. With him all cried out, he returns to his vehicle.

I get what The After is going for, so I give some credit to John Julius Schwabach's screenplay for making the effort to tackle grief. I can also commend that the film both opted for a knife attack and did not shy away from showing children killed. However, I think that he and director Misan Harriman could not help themselves in being a bit too heavy-handed with the idea that grief cripples emotionally. At what is meant to be the climatic, cathartic moment of Emily/Laura (Amelie Dobuko) hugging Dayo, I suppressed giggles versus bawling. His collapse was actually funny, and to be fair, the parents' reaction was rational. I found Oyelowo more funny than tragic, and I do not think that is what The After was aiming at. I was not taken in by what I figure was meant as a moving drama on grief and acceptance, though the closing song, Let It All Go, was good.



(24 minutes)

Arkansas waitress Rachel (Brittany Snow) is struggling financially when she sees the results of a pregnancy exam. She has two young children already: a tween girl, Maddy (Juliet Donenfeld), and a boy, Jake (Redding Munsell). Rachel opts for an abortion, with some help from a mysterious benefactress who gives her a very large tip. She will,  however, have to drive from the "slave" state of Arkansas to the "free" state of Missouri for the procedure. Rachel and Maddy bond on this unofficial road trip, but once at the abortion clinic, Rachel is met with indifference until we get the twist: the abortion is not for Rachel, but for Maddy.

Red, White and Blue is produced by Samantha Bee, who is so far on the Left that even the liberals that I know and knew find her over-the-top. The film veers dangerously close to being pro-abortion propaganda. By showcasing the most extreme case for an abortion, I think Red, White and Blue is not so much trying to start a conversation but promote a one-sided view on a very contentious subject. It is unfortunate, because Red, White and Blue came close to showing that abortion is not as clear-cut and simple as either side presents it. When the film leads you to think that it is Rachel who is seeking an abortion, we get quick shots of her looking at her children's pictures. In a particularly moving moment, we see Rachel seeing Maddy on a carousel then shift to Rachel remembering when she was pregnant with Jake, observing Maddy on a carousel, Rachel tenderly touching her growing belly. 

Had the film kept out the twist, we might have had a more introspective film from writer/director Nazrin Choudhury. It would have achieved something so rare in today's fierce abortion debate: nuance, and an acknowledgement that abortion is a complex issue with which people genuinely struggle about. Instead, it went for the shocking twist that did not sit well with me. It somehow suggests that a tween girl getting an abortion due to an assault is the same as an adult getting an abortion due to too many kids. It can be tricky to make that parallel without pushback. Red, White and Blue (whose title alone is suggestive of abortion as almost patriotic) ends with an overtly grand mini-speech by Maddy about how elephants are her favorite animals because female elephants stick together, help anyone in the herd and are strong and brave. I literally rolled my eyes at this point, clearly getting the forced subtext. Choudhury and Bee are laying the symbolism way too hard here. Red, White and Blue is well-crafted and well-acted. It just did not land the ending. 



(24 minutes, in Danish)

Widower Karl Bergstrom (Leif Andree) is seeing his wife's corpse at a Copenhagen morgue, or rather, her casket. He cannot bring himself to have the casket opened, attempting to distract himself by trying to fix the morgue's light and failing to do so. Soon, he is startled to find Torben (Jens Jorn Spottag) in the bathroom stall next to him. Karl does not want to admit he is there to see his late wife, but Torben says that he is there to see his own late wife. Reluctantly accompanying him, Torben begins a lengthy eulogy until they are interrupted by the real woman's family. Karl eventually discovers that Torben was unable to say goodbye to his wife. He spots him on a park bench, and they bond over their mutual spouses' favorite song, Knight of Fortune.

I will grant that perhaps the language barrier blocked my understanding of Knight of Fortune. However, a few years ago, all but one of the Live Action Short Film nominees were not in English and I not only understood everything but thought the only English-language nominee was the worse. Unsurprisingly, the sole English-language nominee, Riz Ahmed's film/music video The Long Goodbye won. Knight of Fortune, written and directed by Lasse Kyskjaer Noer, is I suppose fine. It has an idea in there. I just was not won over by it. The film left me colder than the corpses, as if it was trying to be funny but not succeeding. It may also be due to how Knight of Fortune was dominated by greys, with only the closing scene in any color. Maybe it is not a terrible film, but not one that I thought much of. 



(30 minutes, in French)

Starting in media res, Invincible tells of Marc-Antoine Bernier (Leokim Beaumier-Lepine), a young Quebecer who, despite the pleas of his mother over the phone, plunges a car into the water. We then go back to how we got to this moment. Marc is highly troubled, finding a bit of respite when allowed to go for a weekend with his parents and younger sister. Weekend furlough over, Marc goes back to the youth detention center. He clearly does not want to be there, making life hard for himself and a bit frustrating for friend and foe alike. Frustrated, he makes a desperate run for freedom, one that ends in tragedy.

Invincible is inspired by a true story, we are told in the beginning. Its writer/director, Vincent Rene-Lortie, was moved by the story of his friend to create this fictionalized version of events. Invincible is an excellent short film. Beaumier-Lepine's performance is exceptional. We see Marc as both a weary young man and sweet kid, arrogant but also life-affirming, beaten down but with some hope. In one particularly sharp moment, Marc uses an illegal lighter to set off the sprinklers to refresh himself after the fan in his room goes out. Invincible does not paint Marc as either an innocent or a victim. Rather, he is a complex figure. We see his world, one that has both joys and self-inflicted misery. This young man is a skilled wordsmith, a poem he wrote about his plight deeply moving. There is not a bad performance from the cast, though Beaumier-Lepine is the dominant figure. It is hard not to be moved by Invincible, whose title does seem ironic but which holds the audience in rapt attention. 




(39 minutes)

Adapting a Roald Dahl short story, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is that of the ultimate anonymous benefactor. Narrated by "Roald Dahl" (Ralph Fiennes), we learn of a figure named Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is a gambler looking for the perfect way to win at cards. While staying at an estate, he comes upon a book by Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel). We then get Dr. Chatterjee's account of Imdad Khan (Ben Kingsley), who comes to Dr. Chatterjee for him to verify that he can indeed see without his eyes. Khan, he tells the doctor, has learned this through years-long training with a Yogi (Richard Ayoade), who was reluctant to train him. Now having read Chatterjee's story of Khan's training with the Yogi, Henry Sugar will teach himself how to read what the cards are without seeing the front of them. He does so after years of training and begins to reap a fortune. Finding what to do with it, Henry causes an accidental riot when he flings the money out the window. Reprimanded for this, Henry decides to hit various gambling houses and use the winnings to fund hospitals and orphanages, the former in disguise and the latter anonymously. With Sugar now dead, his story can finally be told.

The Wonderful Story of  Henry Sugar is a Wes Anderson film, meaning that it doubles if not triples down on his twee style. Some people love it, some people hate it. I can go either way. Henry Sugar does not let up in the Andersonian deadpan manner. In fact, we get everything that people either adore or detest about Anderson in miniature, with a new twist. As Henry Sugar is adapted from a Dahl story, we get even the narration delivered by the actors in the same slightly disengaged manner. Every. Single. Word, be it dialogue or not, is spoken. We also get the various figures speaking to us directly at least once during their presentation. I continue to be unimpressed with Benedict Cumberbatch. I have yet to find a great performance from him, only his luxurious baritone. To be fair, this may be the most ethnically diverse cast Anderson has ever worked with: an Indian man (Patel), a black man (Ayoade) and a half-Indian man (Kingsley). I was not won over by The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, which I did not think was so wonderful. It does, however, have Benedict Cumberbatch in drag, so there is that. 



Looking through the five short films nominated for Live Action Short Film, there is a theme running through them, intentional or not. Each film revolves around death. Two of the nominated films (Invincible and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar) have their lead characters die. Two of the nominated films (The After and Knight of Fortune) are about the grief that accompanies death. The last film (Red, White and Blue) involves the taking of life, at least as seen in some circles. From my perspective, I think the moving Invincible is the best of the lot. It hit me emotionally because it was so grounded, a far cry from the overt whimsy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. I was disappointed in Red, White and Blue as I felt it lost the chance to look at abortion beyond the binary debate and bring shades of conflict and contradiction. The twist simply never sat well with me. Red, White and Blue is well-acted and mostly well-written, but dear goodness that "elephants are like women, STRONG AND BRAVE" speech coming from the girl came across as grandstanding and something a tween girl would not say. The After and Knight of Fortune are not terrible per se, but I found them uninteresting. Worse, I found The After slightly comical due to Oyelowo's performance. 



Red, White and Blue

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar *

The After

Knight of Fortune

Even before the Academy Awards ceremony, I figured that The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar would win. The Academy has been searching for a way to give an Oscar to Wes Anderson, who up to now had eight nominations counting this one. Now, Wes Anderson can be an Oscar winner. It is a terrible shame that the popular beat out the good. 

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