Thursday, February 12, 2009

Oscar Shorts 2008: Good things in small packages

Academy Award Shorts (2008)
4.5 stars (out of five). Unrated, with profanity, fleeting nudity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.09

I cherish well-crafted short fiction.

Any halfway talented creative typist can clumsily hack through a narrative in a 749-page novel, but genuine talent is required to enchant readers with a 15-page short story. It's an artform too often overlooked ... particular these days, as the markets for short stories — magazines, anthologies — become ever-more- endangered species.
The young star of director Steph Green's New Boy faces the worst fate that
could befall any child: the first day of school in a new classroom, in mid-session
and miles and miles from the home — and way of life — that he knows.
Fortunately, Irish writer Roddy Doyle, on whose story this film is based,
understands that kids have a way of working out their own problems.

In just the same way, short films separate the truly gifted from Hollywood's inept, overpaid and often laughably arrogant names du jour. Economy of storytelling is of paramount importance in a short: Every scene — indeed, every frame — must advance the narrative. Nothing can be superfluous, if the finished product is to achieve the impact desired by its creator.

Once upon a time, way back in the day, short subjects were as much a part of the movie-going experience as the newsreel and a second, full-length B-feature. Patrons entered the theater in the late afternoon or early evening, and were entertained for four or five hours. All for the price of a single ticket.

Recognizing the short subject's place in all this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences added two Academy Awards categories — live action and animated — in 1931. And, for the next three-plus decades, that made perfect sense.

But as the 1960s yielded to the '70s, and short subjects went the way of double- features, mainstream Oscar-watchers began to wonder why these two categories remained: Where, after all, could one go to see these nominated mini-movies? And if only a select few get to see them, then why bother with the Academy Awards categories?

Typical short-term thinking.

In the first place, today's talented makers of short films are tomorrow's equally talented makers of feature-length masterpieces.

In the second place, a few years ago the Academy quite wisely began to market the 10 nominated shorts in a road-show package aimed at arthouse theaters; Sacramento's Crest Theater got on board, and now we can see what the fuss is about.

Quite a lot this year, as it turns out.

I remembered being mildly disappointed by the 2007 nominees, which I previewed last year at about this time. The live-action entries were all right, but too many of the animated entries were underwhelming: in several cases deadly dull nonstories apparently selected only because the animation style looked "interesting."

Well, that certainly isn't the case this year.

All five animated entries are inventive, poignant and/or uproariously funny; all five live-action nominees are thoughtful, impeccably acted and directed with a heartfelt devotion to the material. A couple of the live-action filmlets also pack a powerful emotional wallop; the same is true of one animated short.

I'd hate to have to choose between them, as an Academy member; fortunately, I don't have that problem. I can safely talk 'em all up, and encourage you to hie thee hence to the Crest as rapidly as possible. You've a genuine treat in store.

Lonely people are at the heart of director Reto Caffi's On the Line (Auf der Strecke), a Swiss/German production that ponders the extent to which we're responsible for our actions ... and our inactions. Janic Halioua stars as a department store security guard who has spied on bookstore clerk Julie Brauning via surveillance camera for (we assume) quite some time; he seems unable to work up the courage to approach her directly.

But they take the same train home, and fate intervenes when our shy protagonist spots the woman in the company of another man ... and then compounds a rash assumption with a failure to intervene during a later crisis.

Caffi has an unerring eye for life's working-class misfits, and Halioua gets a lot of anguish into his expressive and so-homely-he's-adorable features. There's also a mildly tragic interlude involving two young shoplifters: a sequence that reveals much about Halioua's character, but also makes Caffi's 27-minute film feel more like a work in progress. (This is the program's longest piece.)

Given the Academy's often reflexive tendency to honor Holocaust-themed material, Jochen Alexander Freydank's Toyland (Spielzeugland) would seem to have the inside track for an Oscar ... particularly since it was made in Germany.

The story will remind some of last year's feature, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas; this economical 14-minute heart-stopper, set during 1942, focuses on a little German boy who can't understand why he won't be allowed to accompany his young Jewish friend and his parents when they board a train bound for Toyland ... which is how the young protagonist's distraught mother has chosen to "explain" the neighbors' upcoming trip.

Freydank's cleverly developed story (co-written with Johann A. Bunners) builds to a surprising — and quite poignant — climax, and the actress who plays the mother is unforgettable.

Danish director Dorte Hogh's The Pig grapples with the contemporary events that have stoked the flames of intolerance in that part of the world. Henning Moritzen plays Asbjorn, a nervous elderly patient who, terrified that a routine rectal procedure may have blossomed into something much more serious, finds solace in the whimsical painting of a smiling pig that hangs on the wall of his hospital room. He imagines that it has become his good-luck charm.

Asbjorn's therefore quite put out when, upon waking after the procedure, he discovers that the painting has been removed at the insistence of the family of the Muslim patient who now shares the room. The lesson ultimately taught here could turn preachy and heavy-handed, but Hogh keeps his touch light — almost comedic — and the story concludes with a deliciously ironic twist.

French directors Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont try something different with Manon on the Asphalt: a storytelling approach that will be familiar to those who remember how William Holden narrated the events of 1950's Sunset Boulevard. We never really meet the title character; we only hear her thoughts, following a traffic accident, as she meditates on how friends and family members will react to what has just happened to her.

Director Steph Green's New Boy, based on a Roddy Doyle story, is my favorite in the live-action bunch. This 11-minute Irish charmer concerns a 9-year-old African immigrant boy's first day in a new grade school, his dark features a stark (but not unique, I was pleased to see) contrast in a room filled with curious, doubtful, welcoming and hostile white faces.

Aside from being a jolting reminder of how cruel kids can be to each other, the young protagonist's back-story lends even greater impact to an already tense set-up. But then, just as we expect things to turn tragic — although, in one sense, they already have — Green and Doyle remind us that children have a remarkable facility for solving problems on their own.

Turning now to the animated entries...

Those who caught last summer's road-show production of The Animation Show 4 will recognize This Way Up, a deliciously morbid, Tim Burton-esque comedy from UK directors Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes.

Their film is the hilariously macabre saga of two undertakers — one properly grim, the other something of a cut-up — who can't seem to get one particular coffin planted. Even at slightly more than eight minutes, the piece has the split-second timing of a classic Chuck Jones Roadrunner cartoon, and much of the same momentum.

And when you think these two dour gentlemen finally have succeeded, a surprise third act plunges them into the even greater peril of the underworld ... and then things really get lively.
The lonely protagonist of Russian director Konstantin Bronzit's Lavatory
is used to being ignored while working in a public men's room,
taking tips and occasionally mopping the floors. She's therefore astonished
when an unknown somebody leaves her a bouquet of flowers: a startling
jolt of bright red cheer in an otherwise drab, black-and-white universe.

Russian director Konstantin Bronzit's Lavatory Lovestory is the most unpretentious entry in terms of minimalist animation style: old-fashioned, black-and-white line drawings with scant backgrounds, employed to tell a rather unusual love story about a female public lavatory attendant — who works in the men's room, mind you — who is astonished, one day, to discover that somebody has left her a bouquet of flowers.

Bronzit's use of color is a smile: The flowers are bright red and (as the story continues) yellow and blue. The film's conclusion can't help but raise a smile.

French directors Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand's Octapodi is the fastest and funniest 150 seconds I've ever experienced: a madcap romp involving an octopus' attempt to re-unite with its lover, which has been snatched by a restaurant deliveryman who intends to take it to the chopping block of some restaurant in this Greek seaside community setting. You'll wish you could re-wind the film and watch this one again ... two or three times.

The same could be said of American director Doug Sweetland's Presto, which will be familiar to anybody who saw last summer's WALL-E. Pixar, almost alone among film studios these days, retains the traditional habit of packaging its feature-length animated hits with an introductory short; Presto fulfilled that function last summer.

Sweetland's zippily directed comedy involves a preening magician, his hungry rabbit and the genuinely magic hat/bag combination that allows one to reach inside the hat on this side of the stage, and manipulate something wherever the bag has been placed — or held, or thrown — over there. As Bugs Bunny proved years ago, one ignores a rabbit's fondness for carrots at one's own peril.

Pixar has a well-deserved slew of Oscar nominations and awards; Presto easily could deliver another gold statue. But if the Academy voters are moved more by clever storytelling and unusually lush animation, they might instead select Japanese director Kunio Kato's House of Small Cubes. The watercolor-style animation appears to be hand-painted, although it's probably computer-rendered; the impact is no less luxurious.

The story can be viewed either as a cautionary sci-fi parable or a complete metaphor: An old man lives alone in the topmost floor of a structure whose lower floors have been engulfed, Venice-style, by the ever-deepending waters of this (our?) world. He accidentally drops his pipe, which sinks to the lowest levels; when he dons a diving suit and plunges downward to retrieve this beloved personal belonging, he passes through flooded rooms whose trappings evoke memories of the earlier, happier years of his life.

Have the ice caps melted, drowning our entire world? Perhaps, but my constant companion prefers to view this as one elderly man's voyage through a brain flooded with memories too cluttered to retrieve in any linear form, until this unorthodox journey allows him to put things in sequence and perspective.

Either way, though, Kato's gentle story, melancholy tone and painterly approach will produce a lump in the throat that soon becomes overwhelming. As my grandmother was fond of saying, old age ain't for sissies.

The only drawback to this "Oscar Shorts" package is its delivery system: Watching all 10 of these films in one sitting is likely to dilute the impact of anything seen beyond the first three or four. Far better, I think, to savor them in twos or threes — particularly since so many of them are an emotional workout — much the way one could take a week to read the contents of a short story collection.

Not an option in this case, and certainly not crippling. Being able to see these films at all is a treat, and well worth the possibility of emotional overload.

No comments:

Post a Comment