Saturday, November 5, 2016

Short Film Spotlight: ELLIS

Ellis is the first major short film endeavor by French artist JR. JR is a mysterious individual whose identity remains unknown. His work exists to challenge preconceived notions and turn the world into a living, breathing art gallery. In 2015, at The New Yorker Film Festival, his 14-minute short film debuted. Check it out below.

Robert De Niro narrates and stars in Ellis, telling a story of immigration, hope, and rejection. He tells the story of a boy who, upon reaching Ellis Island is turned away by the immigration authorities and not allowed into New York. Refusing to give up and return home, the boy hides in a hospital building, dreaming of finding a way into America. There, he meets a girl who is also dedicated until her final breath to escaping to a better life. Neither survives. De Niro's subdued performance embodies the character of a ghost forced to inhabit the walls of a hospital on Ellis Island, forever watching crowds of people live the dreams he never could.

Robert De Niro is phenomenal in this performance. His voice, deep and reflective, lures you into a tale you think will be of hope. He draws you along as the story rises and falls, convincing you with every step that one day, life will get better for the unnamed boy in the Hospital. De Niro paces the halls of the abandoned Ellis Island Hospital as his voiceover narrates, pausing and staring at pictures of people plastered on the crumbling walls. De Niro is a master of dramatic reading and demonstrates it to peak levels in this short film.

The chief strength of Ellis lies in its score. Subtle piano tones layer over the voiceover, providing just enough rhythm and melody to push the story along. It winds and turns as De Niro's voice rises and falls, finally culminating in a subtly symphonic mix of strings and keys. Beautifully bittersweet, the soundtrack to this short film tells a story of its own -- one of happiness mixed with heartbreak.

The cinematography, primarily washed out and reduced to nearly absent color, is as melancholy as the soundtrack at times. You feel the weight of the story in the pale colors on screen and, as De Niro turns his gaze forward and speaks of the immigrants who came after his character's death, color begins to tinge the screen just enough to let you feel the warmth return to your heart.

This short was truly and obviously directed by an artist.

Therein, perhaps, lies the chief flaw of Ellis. Artistically, it succeeds on so many levels. However, pacing-wise, it is very choppy. Slow at the beginning, overly quick toward the middle, and suddenly hopeful at the end, the desired message of JR shines through so thickly that the film qualities of his project fall a bit flat. De Niro sounds like a rambling old man at points, which on an artistic level is a success, but on an engaging film level, is a misstep at moments.

Pacing issues aside, Ellis is a beautiful, quick watch that shines a light on the difficult and beautiful history of immigration in the United States. De Niro's call for open arms to those seeking peace and freedom on American shores rings deeply true in the troubled times of 2016. It is, without a doubt, worth a watch, especially if you enjoy De Niro's dramatic acting.

Ellis is imperfect and, perhaps, overly artistic. It is, however, a very good and important short film.

Jonathan's Score: 8/10

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