BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
In the past few years, this category has been growing slightly more uneven but these five nominees were unusually off-kilter this year, only one stuck out like a sore thumb as truly bad, though. I purposely didn’t read any synopsis about the films first so I could be surprised by what they were about, just in case the summary spoiled any secrets. Reading the brief descriptions of them while putting this post together, I made sure to edit out anything that might give away too much. Consider the synopsis provided and my review spoiler-free.
Feeling Through (Directed by Doug Roland)
Synopsis: A late-night encounter on a New York City street leads to a profound connection between a teen-in-need and a DeafBlind man.
Review: One of the last trips I made before this pandemic set in was the NYC and it was such a wonderful trip, I keep it and the city as it was then alive in my memory as best as I can. Watching Feeling Through made me remember the out of the way, non-tourist-y places of the city, the neighborhoods that give the city it’s most charming ambiance, and that’s where we meet a young man texting a number of his friends looking for a place to crash. The night is getting late, the friends he’s hanging out with are heading home, and he’s either too proud to tell them about his situation or doesn’t feel he can ask again. Randomly, he sees a man waiting on a curb holding a sign…and that’s where a small wonder of an adventure begins. Director Doug Roland’s film is perhaps a bit of a candy-coated, rose-colored glasses version of what the same situation might be 8 out of 10 other times but the quickly developed interchange between the two men and what both gain from their time together is easy to jump on board with. I always look for which of the live action shorts would lend itself well to a longer format and this one I could totally see expanding to feature length if handled with the same kind of care and compassion.
The Letter Room (Directed by Elvira Lind)
Synopsis: When a corrections officer is transferred to the letter room, he soon finds himself enmeshed in a prisoner’s deeply private life.
Review: Previous years have had familiar names and recognizable faces in the cast of these shorts but finding a star like Oscar Isaac (The Addams Family) turn up in a compact piece such as The Letter Room took some getting used to. Isaac is playing a prison officer guarding inmates of all security levels but friendly with a number of death row convicts. His request to transfer to a desk job with more human resources work leads to him the unexpected assignment of being a one-man band in the titular room. Day after day, he has to open the mail that arrives for prisoners, scan it for the system, skim it for content, and then pass it on if it doesn’t violate any protocols. Of course he eventually blurs the line between his job and the letters he’s reading, eventually crossing a line that changes his perspective on the task he’s been given. Isaac’s character is, let’s just say it, kind of creepy and the film never addresses this as a problem and that bothered me. He does things that are clearly out of line but writer/director Elvira Lind takes giant steps to not judge this man that maybe could use a little judgement. When you find out that Lind and Isaac are married in real life, the whole project begins to make sense…and it made me feel like the short was nominated for all the wrong reasons. It’s a poorly executed “pat myself on the back for being so noble” exercise and it’s without question the weakest of the bunch.
The Present (Directed by Farah Nabulsi)
Synopsis: On his wedding anniversary, Yusef and his young daughter set out in the West Bank to buy his wife a gift. Between soldiers, segregated roads and checkpoints, how easy would it be to go shopping?
Review: One thing I’ve come to learn about these shorts is that you need to be ready to jump in no matter where the director drops you off and be prepared to not ask too many questions about the final destination and that helps a lot with The Present, set in the West Bank near Jordan. The first few minutes of the film feel a bit overwhelming, with Palestinian-British director Farah Nabulsi introducing lead actor Saleh Bakri amongst a throng of Palestinians retuning home in the middle of the night through one of the difficult checkpoints. The next morning, Bakri’s character takes another arduous journey with his angelic daughter in order to buy groceries and pick up a gift he’s secured for his wife as an anniversary present. Nabulsi tracks father and daughter’s tense trek into dangerous territory quite effectively, coaxing out the small details in each performer. It’s a rather simple tale, true, and yet it will likely have you on the edge of your seat when the pair come up to a security stop, first as they go to pick up the present and then again as they return when everyone is tired and feelings are running high.
Two Distant Strangers (Directed by Travon Free & Martin Desmond Roe)
Synopsis: Cartoonist Carter James’ repeated attempts to get home to his dog are thwarted over and over again.
Review: I’ve deliberately edited the synopsis for this short way down because it gave away a key bit of info about the piece that I think would ruin a fairly significant surprise if it hadn’t already been spoiled for you. As I mentioned before, I avoided reading anything about the shorts prior to watching them so was able to experience Two Distant Strangers without that knowledge and I’d advise you to try your hardest to do the same.
I feel as if Two Distant Strangers is going to be the #1 favorite of voters or could end up last on their list, depending on where they are in their process of understanding the impact of this last year and the reckoning our country went through related to police violence. Either way, it’s going to spark an emotion and that will keep it front and center in the memory of many, not to mention that it’s readily available on Netflix and has been talked about since it premiered on the service. I have some questions on the taste level at times in the way the writers and directors weave familiar news stories of police violence into the plot almost as a gimmick for entertainment, and that will likely be something that gets under the skin of its detractors as well. If the acting isn’t as strong as the other entries (some significant performances are merely serviceable), it must be said that it remains a slick film with a frighteningly timely message.
White Eye (Directed by Tomer Shushan)
Synopsis: A man finds his stolen bicycle, which now belongs to a stranger. While attempting to retrieve it, he struggles to remain human.
Review: While a number of the films nominated in this category have pristine production values, White Eye is a bit rough around the edges and more’s the better for it. Shot in one continuous (and impressive) take, director Tomer Shushan’s gripping drama takes viewers through a situation that rapidly escalates out of control, eventually spiraling into something bigger than anyone involved could have imagined. A young man thinks he has found his bicycle that was stolen weeks before chained up on a street corner of a rough neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Determined to get his bike back, the man calls the authorities even as the migrant worker who claims he bought the bike earlier that week protests he is innocent. While many of these “one shot” movies like to make a show out of the gimmick, Shushan makes the plot and the characters the focus, so you wind up not even noticing it’s all being done in an uninterrupted take. Keeping all of the central action going is one thing but if you think of it, watch what’s going on with the background players because there’s a storyline happening there as well. Capped off by a finale that is perplexing and devastating in the same breath, White Eye signals Shushan is a director to watch out for in the future.
Final Thoughts: Considering the year we’ve had and the way our country has responded to the Black Lives Matter movement, I can easily see the votes swaying toward Two Distant Strangers which covers some of these issues (albeit with a questionable taste level) but really drives its message home with a final crawl displaying stark facts about BIPOC deaths involving police. It isn’t the best film of the pack (that’s probably White Eye, technically and narratively) and a win wouldn’t signify anything but Hollywood essentially saying “we hear you”, however the emotional prickle the short leaves with viewers will likely sway the votes. The worst case scenario is if The Letter Room wins…not just because it’s bad (really bad) but because it would clearly be a case of voters going for a familiar face.