Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Once again, Pixar, kids in peril and refugees populate the Oscar-nominated Short Film landscape. And once again, Shorts TV will be bringing you the opportunity to view all fifteen films before the big show on February 24 (either streaming or in theaters).
This year’s batch feels mighty familiar with many of the usual kinds of selections, but there are some shorts within each category that nicely compliment one another. The documentary “Black Sheep” and the narrative “Skin” would work well together on the same thematic bill, as would the animated “Late Afternoon” and the live-action “Marguerite.” Nobody on the programming end plans that, of course. But many of the films here are worth being plucked from obscurity and discovered by a curious audience.
“Detainment” - On one hand, under normal circumstances, I’d be surprised if this didn’t win the prize (simple, English-speaking films tend to), with its harrowing true story and irresistible thriller elements. On the other hand, why drudge up such an unpleasant event if there is nothing to say about it other than pointing out the age of the two boys who committed an unthinkable crime? "Detainment" has courted quite a bit of controversy from the real-life parents who were never consulted for the film, along with many other Britons who feel the film has no business existing in the first place. Nevertheless, “Detainment” is hard to shrug off, especially given the two strong performances by the young leads, Ely Solan and Leon Hughes, as two boys being questioned in the disappearance of a toddler.
“Fauve” - Every year, it seems this category has to have at least one film with kids in peril. This year, we have four. The film follows two boys playing an innocent game in a salt mine until tragedy strikes. Unlike the watchable, but ham-fisted “Detainment,” “Fauve” has a subtler, more poetic approach to how tragedies occur between minors who have yet to grasp what nature can do and how unforgiving it can be. The performances here are equally strong and Jeremy Comte’s assured direction gives the viewer a true unsettling feeling at the end that might linger for some time.
“Marguerite” - Another French-Canadian entry (like “Fauve”), this film tells a gentle tale of an aging woman’s relationship with her nurse and how it brings back pangs of regret. While it may not be a big attention-grabber from the start, Marianne Farley’s “Marguerite” unfolds beautifully while giving the viewer a true feeling of how time slowly passes for this woman and just how long she’ll have to live with the choices she made in life (or the choices made for her). The ending is undeniably moving, achieving an arc that works perfectly for the short film format.
“Madre” - This is technically another kids in peril film, but we never see the kid and the peril is left to our imaginations. A mother (Marta Mieto) receives a phone call from her six-year-old son who has been spending the weekend with his father in France--his father has disappeared and the boy is left with nothing but a cell phone with low battery life. This one-take wonder will keep viewers riveted and the believable interplay between Mieto and her mother (Blanca Apilánez), who is with her the whole time, adds to the tension. "Madre" is a mostly terrific little thriller that ends on a silly note with its unnecessarily flashy and distracting closing credits.
“Skin” - The kids in peril in Guy Nattiv’s film are the sons whose parents have different ways of teaching their kids a lesson, after a scuffle between a gun-toting neo-Nazi (Jonathan Tucker) and an innocent black man (Ashley Thomas) brings about a revenge that most can only dream of. Nattiv does a magnificent job of playing up the fact that the future of gun-toting Nazis will carry on into the unforeseeable future as long as small-minded lessons keep getting passed down to their kids. Will the child take away the right lesson from this tragedy? Hope comes in the form of his more mild-tempered mother (Danielle Macdonald from “Patti Cake$”), but even then we can’t be sure. This is my favorite of the five nominees, with “Marguerite” being a close second.
“Animal Behaviour” - Alison Snowden and David Fine’s short about an animal-based group therapy session has cute moments, but is hardly worth being put in the Top 5 Best Animated Short Films of the Year list, as this category would indicate. Some films just get lucky, I guess. It’s harmless and the animation gets the job done, which is not much to say. The movie loses its potential for a young audience once the animals start talking about their sex lives, which could cost it a win, since the award always goes to the most kid-friendly film.
“Bao” - Pixar’s entry [pictured at the top top], which played before "Incredibles 2," has grown on me with repeat viewings. Domee Shi’s film no doubt left many viewers thinking, “Well, that was nice, but ... huh?” “Bao” is better left unexplained. Enjoy it for what it is, a journey through the ups and downs of parenthood, no matter what the child turns out to be, culminating in an emotional climax that bears the Pixar trademark, one that is rarely duplicated.
“Late Afternoon” - Louise Bagnall’s lovely journey through a woman’s past snuck up on me. The seemingly unremarkable animation gives way to big, colorful, dreamlike sequences through childhood and adulthood memories experienced by Emily, now elderly and about to make another change in her life. This would have been nice to see on a big screen instead of the screener I had.
“One Small Step” - Now here’s a film that does belong on the list of nominees, and is my personal favorite. There is a recurring theme this year of animated shorts that sum up a life’s worth of experiences in 10 minutes or less, but this one follows a woman who dreams of being an astronaut and her father who is always there for her. Maybe it takes a few easy routes to get there, but the emotional climax landed in a big way for me. I loved it.
“Weekends” - With the exception of “Animal Behaviour,” this year’s animated crop is rich with visual storytelling, and Trevor Jimenez’s film is a prime example of the art form’s true capabilities. A boy goes back and forth from his mother’s simple, penny-pinching household to his father’s bachelor pad where he has all the latest video games and gadgets. The fun eventually gives way to emptiness, but not with Jimenez’s film, which gets richer as it progresses. Along with having a moving and confounding conclusion, the film makes the best use of Dire Straits' hit song, “Money For Nothing.”
“Lifeboat” - Much like last year’s short-doc winner “The White Helmets,” Sky Fitzgerald’s beautifully constructed documentary focuses on a non-profit organization that aids in providing a rescue for refugees. Here, the rescue takes place at sea as the German-based group Sea-Watch provides aid to Libyan citizens fleeing war, famine and torture in hopes of a better life. The central figure in the rescue, a good-hearted Englishman named Jon Castle, laments that not all will turn out well for these people once they reach the shore, but rescuing them is necessary for all humanity, for one day, they could be us and that all citizens “are our fellows.” Fitzgerald’s film is not so much about the urgency of the rescue, so much as it is a reminder of the different faces and expressions of the people being rescued and how each of these faces tell a different story. We have seen images of hundreds of refugees crammed onto a raft before. “Lifeboat” makes a point of humanizing each and every one of them. (Click here to watch "Lifeboat")
“Black Sheep” - Some may scoff at just how much of this film is just reenactment, but they would be foolish to let such technicalities spoil the richness of the story being told here. Subject Cornelius Walker tells the viewer a tale of how he survived moving to an English town where racism ran rampant and how he became the victim of it, how he survived it and how he came to terms with the violent streak that ran in him as much as the people he feared. Director Ed Perkins shoots the reenactments with a shaky-cam aesthetic that feels like puzzle pieces of a memory that has a hard time coming together, which fits with a moment in which Perkins asks Walker if he has regrets, a question that causes Walker to go speechless for the first time during the story. This is a complex and beautiful film about how to see an enemy in a different light by having the survival instinct to step into their shoes and come to terms with your own demons. (Click here to watch "Black Sheep")
“A Night At the Garden” - Filmmaker Marshall Curry seems to have broken precedent by making an Oscar-nominated doc-short that only runs just under eight minutes. It consists of found footage of a pro-white America rally that took place at Madison Square Garden in 1939. There, a speaker got up and drew rounds of applause as he deemed to media and the Jewish people as the enemy. A protester was violently dealt with and ushered out of the place, to the delight of all who attended. Sound familiar? That is basically the conceit of this piece, though Curry is smart not to draw direct parallels by spelling anything out. Its release in 2018 says enough. (Click here to watch "A Night at the Garden")
“End Game” - It’s hard not to be deeply affected by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s documentary about cancer patients and their families facing hard choices about how and where to spend a loved-one’s final days. The medical practitioners’ sole focus is to help the patients deal with the human element of dying, how to cope with the inevitable and make peace with it. “Hospice” is a dirty word for many and the film depicts one family determined to have their matriarch die in their home and not in a hospital. The lifeforce (so to speak) is a woman who has ovarian cancer, but has a deeply optimistic outlook on the hand she has been dealt. Epstein and Friedman’s film proves that a great film about death can also be a great film about life and “End Game” is that film. (Available on Netflix)
“Period. End of Sentence.” - This documentary examines the lack of education men and women receive (especially women) in a small town in India where the mention of menstruation draws blank stares from many citizens who have no concept of what it means. One woman wants to become a police officer “to avoid marriage,” so she teams up with a machinist who manufactures a superior maxi pad and then enlists the help of many women in her village to go door-to-door to try and sell them. Rayka Zehtabchi’s film is energetic, sometimes funny and very necessary in its cause to bring more education and awareness to parts of the world that still look at women’s biology with a medieval eye. This will be a likely favorite with voters, and for good reason. (Available on Netflix)
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